Font to Table: Need for the Creeds - Why Do We Recite Them?
After visiting our church for the first time, a woman commented, “I really liked that poem written by the apostles.” When this story was conveyed to me, it took me a minute to figure out what she meant, and then it dawned on me. She was referring to the Apostles’ Creed. This woman was raised in a nearby evangelical mega-church and had never heard of, let alone confessed, the Apostles’ Creed. So what is the Apostles’ Creed and why is it important? In the late fourth century, a little known figure in church history, St. Vincent of Lerins, is famous for a single sentence: "Hold fast that faith which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." This succinct phrase gives the Church solid, reliable guidance in interpreting and confessing the truths of the Bible. Enter the creeds.
The Latin term credo means, "I believe,” and it is from this word that we have inherited the word creed. Over time, the Church of Christ has written and adopted a few ecumenical creeds that summarize the main tenets of the Christian faith: The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Sometimes you will encounter a well-meaning believer that says something like, “You don’t need man-made creeds if you have the Bible.” In this case, it is thought that the creeds trump the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth! The creeds affirm the faith that has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. They do not replace or supplant the Bible in authority but give us an orthodox summary of the faith drawn from the Holy Scriptures for us to publicly confess.
We live in a time where people are skeptical of tradition; where the individual takes precedence over the many, but this has not always been so. Christians are a part of a larger community of faith. When we are baptized into the Holy Trinity we are adopted into the body of Christ who becomes our brothers and sisters (like it or not). There are no lone-ranger Christians isolated from the many. When we confess the faith of the Apostles’ Creed we unite ourselves to Christians in the past, present, and future. Faith is personal, but it is not private. As Luther Reed says, the creeds witness to the “perpetuity, unity, and universality of the Christian faith; it binds Christians to one another and to the faithful of all centuries” (The Lutheran Liturgy, 302).
To confess the creeds is to take a counter-cultural stand. We are not just expressing our own views or our personal priorities, but as Ben Myers notes:
We are joining our voices to a great communal voice that calls out across the centuries from every tribe and tongue. We locate ourselves as part of that community that transcends time and place. That gives us a critical distance from our own time and place. If our voices are still echoes, they are now echoing something from beyond our own cultural movement… the truest and most important things we can ever say are not individual words but communal words (Apostles’ Creed, 10—11).
While the creeds have served many purposes, let me mention three of the most important:
First, the creeds provide a brief summary of the Christian faith. No one baptized into the life of the Church makes up their own personal beliefs. It is something that has “once been delivered” (Jude 3). You do not become a Christian by reciting a creed, but the creed does provide the substance of what you should believe about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The creeds answer the question, “What do Christians believe?” The creeds provide a concise narrative framework of the Bible’s story from creation to consummation that is both meaningful and memorable.
Second, the creeds help us avoid inadequate or incomplete versions of the Christian faith. In other words, they safeguard the truth. They are like a fence around a shepherd’s property that allows his sheep to roam and graze, but not stray into danger. We will never outgrow our need for the basics the creeds provide. To borrow a phrase of my father-in-law, they keep the main thing the main thing. The creeds, especially the Nicene Creed, were written to combat heresies that had arisen in the early church. By adopting and confessing the creeds, we are rejecting the same errors and holding fast to the truth.
Third, the creeds unite the church in a common confession by their use in worship. Far from being a device of the ivory tower, writes Michael Horton, creeds were the way ordinary tradespeople and farmers could learn about and pledge their lives to the God of the Bible (“Creed and Confessions,” ModRef, 26/3, 28). A central act of our life of faith is confessing it before others. As Jesus promised: “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:32). The creeds provide a means of unified confession that is biblically sound, transcending denominational lines of demarcation, and are free of many of the cultural trends that tend to sweep aside the fundamentals of the faith. Again, they help us hold fast the faith, as St. Vincent exhorted, which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.