The Church 3: Saying the Creed as the Beginning of Missionary Proclamation
Here is a simple request of the contemporary Church: Let us say what we believe. Let us confess our faith with and to one another. Let us clearly state the truth that we believe to a world that neither knows the truth nor, as often in our day in the West, believes that there is truth. To do this, let us regularly say one of the universal Creeds—the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. In the face of denominational decline and the increase of independent churches, the tendency has been to whittle away at anything perceived to be too ‘churchy’—or ritualistic. The result is that churches have reduced Christian worship to a few songs and a sermon. Gone are pastoral prayers, weekly Eucharists, confession of sins—and the public confession of faith using one of the Creeds. Yet saying a universal creed in worship is the beginning of Christian missionary proclamation.
Why Should We Say the Creed?
1. Affirming Orthodoxy. Saying one of the universal creeds is a way of affirming orthodox faith. In the context of considerable heterodoxy and heresy, we need to state what we believe. If Jesus could say in his day, ‘Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Mt. 7.21), this is also true today. Thus, not everyone claiming to be a Christian will enter the kingdom of heaven (and note that, in what Jesus says here, this has to do with ethics—in our day, we appear to need an ethical creed as well). I once heard of a minister who would only say the Apostles’ Creed up to the statement that Jesus is dead and buried: he would not say that Jesus rose from the dead. The creeds offer a way of determining, at the most basic level, what is Christian; those who cannot affirm them are not orthodox Christians. These fourth century creeds are based on earlier formulations that are based on Scriptural teaching. To be sure, the creeds are not exhaustive. They should not be seen as replacements for what Scripture teaches (something that Anabaptists rightly warned us against) but as important encapsulations of essential teaching. There are some differences in the forms we have, such as whether to say that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ or whether we should say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son. Such differences might occupy some of our attention (the latter was involved with the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 1054!), but they do not alter the essentials of what is affirmed in the creeds. Mission cannot proceed if we do not know what we believe or if we cannot identify heresy.
2. Vowing to Uphold Unity Around Essentials. Saying one of the universal creeds is a way of vowing to uphold unity in the Church around its essential teachings. To say the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed is to affirm our connection to a Church larger than ourselves. Too many churches have little awareness of the historical Christian faith and too little concern to be related to the universal Church of Jesus Christ. In the midst of diverse Christian traditions, the Church needs certain essentials that define where unity exists. The creeds are insufficient as theologies, and they are not codes of ethics, but they do affirm certain essentials. Unity is not tolerance or inclusiveness: it exists around non-negotiable truths. Denial of such truths is not an occasion to demonstrate how inclusive a community might be; denial of essential truths destroys Christian unity. By saying a creed in unison the unity of the faith is not only affirmed but also demonstrated. Mission is not about creating disunity by focusing on non-essentials of the faith; it entails declaring what essential teachings of the faith produce unity among believers.
The only unity of any worth is that founded on the orthodox Christian faith: what all believers have everywhere taught at all times (as St. Vincent of Lérins defined orthodoxy). By stating what we believe through the words of such creeds, we show our solidarity with orthodox Christianity.
3. Educating Others in and Reminding Ourselves of the Faith. Saying one of the universal creeds teaches some and reminds others of what it is that we believe. The educational role of the creeds in worship is important. It is a way of helping children grow up into the faith. It is a way of reflecting on the truths of our faith. Mission is educational; it entails teaching what we believe.
Stating what we believe is necessary because we need to articulate what we believe clearly. We ourselves need this—muddled thinking leads to muddled everything else. Heresy is seldom the opposite of truth; it is usually a twisted truth. We live at a remarkable time when all too many mainline churches in the West have abandoned and are abandoning the truth. Their ministers have become servants of culture, like the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day who were ‘nothing but wind, for the word is not in them’ (Jer. 5.13). ‘The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets predict’ (Jer. 5.31). Such a context, whether in Jeremiah’s day or ours, calls for the clear voice of truth. We need to be able to say, ‘We do not believe that; this is what we believe….’ Some people miss the truth because they are persuaded by evil, but most persons in error are persuaded by the lure of confused thinking and misplaced desires. To say what it is that we believe is to speak with clarity that we, as a people, might not descend into a quagmire of confusion but know what we believe. Thus it is that we need with regularity to stand and say, ‘We believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth….’
The world also wants to know what we believe, what hope we have within us (1 Pt. 3.15). Some want to know what we believe because they find our faith attractive, while others want to know what we believe so that they might oppose us. All too often in our day, though, the pressure is on us to say what we believe in such a way that we sound innocuous and fairly similar to the dominant assertions of our culture and context. The pressure on the Church is to deny its central truths, to accept alternative beliefs and lifestyles, and to become an advocate of the culture rather than a prophet to it. Thus the world needs to know what we believe so that they might understand our witness to it or persecute us with understanding.
4. Proclaiming the Faith. Saying one of the universal creeds is also to proclaim essential truths of the faith. Those who wonder what makes Christians Christian can begin by listening to what they proclaim, and declaring the creeds is the beginning of missionary proclamation. To speak what we believe is to witness our faith. It is an opportunity for all believers to engage in basic mission, the proclamation of the faith. Our worship should be, among other things, the beginning of missionary proclamation that we then take out into the world.
Reciting the universal creeds of the Church—the Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian Creeds—is missional in four important ways. To do so is to (1) affirm orthodoxy; (2) vow to uphold the unity of the Church around essentials; (3) educate others and remind ourselves of the faith; and (4) proclaim the faith. Without any of these four speech-acts, mission will falter (as we have seen in the Church’s history all too often).
 For the Apostles’ Creed, see: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/apostles.creed.html. For the Nicene Creed, see: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/nicene.creed.html. For the Athanasian Creed, see: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html. Of these, the Apostles’ Creed is easiest to understand without knowledge of the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of, particularly, the fourth century. It is shorter than the Nicene Creed, with its careful statement of orthodox teaching about Jesus’ nature. The Presbyterian Church (USA) did not include the Athanasian Creed, as Anglicans have done. It is a creed clarifying Trinitarian and Christological teaching in light of 4th century challenges to orthodoxy.
 Irenaeus and Tertullian offer us an understanding of the second century Church’s ‘Rule of Faith’—the essential teaching that became the basis for the early Church creeds (as in the perhaps 3rd century Old Roman Symbol and the 4th century Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian Creeds. Irenaeus wrote in the second half of the second century, and Tertullian near the end of the second century and in the early third century.
Irenaeus, Book III.IV.2 (Ante-Nicene Fathers):
… carefully preserving the ancient tradition,(3) believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.
Tertullian, Prescriptions Against Heretics, XIII.1-6 (Ante-Nicene Fathers):
Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen "in diverse manners" by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.