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Professing the Faith of the Church

Q

Our church rarely uses the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. I miss them. Why can’t we use them more?

Q

Our new pastor is insisting that we use the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds more often. I’m skeptical that this will go over well in our church. How can we (re)introduce these in a good way?

A

What a remarkable pair of questions these are for Reformed worship, a Christian tradition whose DNA is built around common confessions. For centuries, the Apostles’ Creed has been a staple of catechisms and baptism liturgies and Sunday evening services, and the Nicene Creed has been central in services of Word and sacrament. Reformed and Presbyterian churches have traditionally joined with Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and other denominations in being creedal churches—not just referring to creeds to define their theology, but actively reciting them in worship as expressions of praise, assent, dedication, and identity.

Yet the regular use of these 1,600-year-old texts has fallen on hard times. In a 2018 survey of Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America congregations—places where we would expect to see much more regular use of the creeds in worship than in nondenominational churches—only 25 percent of congregations reported usually or always using the Apostles’ Creed in worship, while only 5 percent reported usually or always using the Nicene Creed. More than 20 percent reported never or seldom using either creed in worship, leaving a large middle group of about 50 percent who reported using these texts merely sometimes.

There are likely multiple reasons for this relatively tepid use:

  • In many churches, the creed was once recited weekly during the Sunday evening service. When that service was dropped, very few churches paused to establish new disciplines for use of the creed on Sunday mornings.
  • In an individualistic culture, there is resistance to the idea of a collective faith.
  • Many Protestant traditions are mildly allergic to reciting any text, and in many congregations this resistance to recitation has gained strength in recent decades even while there is new appreciation for reciting classic texts in other contexts.
  • Some churches see the creed as too technical for seekers, perhaps not realizing that the Apostles’ Creed was originally designed as a catechetical tool for fourth-century “seekers” as they began to explore the Christian faith.
  • In profession of faith services, renewed focus on the personal expressions of those professing their faith has sometimes (unnecessarily) displaced the use of a common creed.

Bringing back these essential practices will require care. Simply insisting with a punitive tone of voice that creeds are necessary is not promising. That strategy will only elicit a grudging and temporary return of the practice rather than sustain this spiritual discipline over time.

A more promising route is to refresh the pastoral imagination of those leading congregations so that we reintroduce the creed as a generative, life-giving practice using the rhetoric of testimony.

First, pause to ponder the simple fact that the Christian faith consists of themes, insights, convictions, habits, and emotions that are bequeathed to us. We don’t generate them. We receive them. There is such a thing as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). What a gift it is that our personal faith attaches to something bigger than ourselves, something we apprentice ourselves to. Reciting a creed that we don’t make up is perfectly suited to embrace this vision.

God invited the entire people of Israel into a single, corporate covenant: “I am your God; you are my people.” Likewise, the new covenant written on our hearts, while profoundly personal, is made between God and the people of God.

Several years ago in an interview with Krista Tippett, eminent scholar of Christian creeds Jaroslav Pelikan testified: “My faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked on a Sunday morning, ‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’ And then you sit down with a three-by-five index card saying, ‘Now let’s see. What do I believe today?’ No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, ‘Are you a member of a community which now, for a millennium and a half, has said, we believe in one God?’” My undergraduate students, most formed in churches that insist on innovation more than tradition, deeply resonate with Dr. Pelikan’s vision.

Second, ponder again how the covenant into which we are baptized is communal, not individualistic. God didn’t make thousands of individual covenants with individuals in Israel. God invited the entire people of Israel into a single, corporate covenant: “I am your God; you are my people.” Likewise, the new covenant written on our hearts, while profoundly personal, is made between God and the people of God. Reciting the same corporate creed in Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, and many other churches is a splendid way to embrace this common identity, to confess that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Third, ponder how the historic Christian creeds are cast in the language of love, belonging, and praise. In the Nicene Creed, the affirmations that Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made” and that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life” are all doxological affirmations. These crisp, evocative affirmations pop off the page of ancient manuscripts a bit like the some of the rhythms of modern hip-hop. To be sure, they are deeply theological, resisting the heresies of Gnosticism and Arianism. But their form is doxological poetry. Try reciting these creeds in a small group in your church with a tone of gratitude and warmth, actively seeking to displace vestiges of a lukewarm, monotonic cadence that erodes this doxological warmth.

Fourth, I encourage you to try something bold: Commit to the spiritual discipline of placing the creed after the sermon. Learn to see the creed as the congregation’s “Yes!” to the preacher’s announcement of the gospel—a vow of dedication. Experience the move from the sermon to the creed as the move from a “zoom lens” sermon on a given Bible text to a “wide-angle lens” of the creed’s vast, trinitarian scope. There is still room here for plenty of creativity: deciding whether to speak or sing the creed, for example, or pairing the creed with sermon-related songs of prayer, praise, and dedication. This discipline, lovingly tended over time, can bear rich fruits in forming God’s people to receive “the faith once entrusted to the saints.”