Christian Essentials / Anglican Distinctives
Session 3: Creeds
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.
O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God,
Have mercy upon us.
Now, let’s affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
I spent the first four decades of my life in a non-creedal church. The Creeds were foreign to our faith and practice. It is not only that we did not say the Creeds; we were opposed to Creeds of any kind. We did not know them or use them or even think about them. Our statement about Creeds was simple: No Creed but Christ. It is not that we disagreed with any of the statements in the Apostles Creed, for example; taken one by one, we would have affirmed each. Our refusal to use the Creeds in corporate worship was not a doctrinal issue. It is more that we felt the Creeds were superfluous and possibly divisive. We have Christ. We have the Bible. Why do we need man-made statements of faith not found in Scripture?
How would you answer those objections to the Creeds? Why are the Creeds important?
In a previous session, we spoke of the confession of the Creeds by the ACNA and of the role they play in our commitment to the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church. The Fundamental Declarations state this:
We confess as proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture the historic faith of the undivided church as declared in the three Catholic Creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian.
By way of review, let me emphasize three points from this declaration.
First, the Creeds accord fully with Scripture; they seek only to express succinctly the fundamental truths of Scripture — and particularly of the Gospel — and to defend those truths against persistent heresies that plagued the early Church, heresies which are still around today.
Second, the faith expressed in the Creeds is the common “possession” of the undivided Church. In that way, the creedal content serves as a continuing force for unity amidst our current sad divisions and as a touchstone of historical orthodoxy. If a church rejects the contents of the Creeds, then it renounces its claim to be part of the historic church. It is in this sense that the Nicene Creed is also called the Symbol (σύμβολον) of the Faith. As “symbol” is used in that context, it means something like a ticket for admission or a claim check or perhaps better still a token of belonging. You’ve seen heart necklaces where the heart is broken in two top to bottom in a zigzag pattern so that the two pieces fit together? Each person receives one half of the heart as a token of being a member of the special relationship the heart implies. Each piece is a symbol, a token/proof of that belonging, of that membership. The Nicene Creed functions that way in the Church. Those who have it (the Creed) — and by “have it” I mean believe it — belong to the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church; the Creed is their symbol/token of belonging.
Third, there are three Creeds which function as symbols and deposits of the historic faith: the Apostles’ Creed (which Anglicans use as the baptismal and catechetical creed and in daily Morning and Evening Prayer), the Nicene Creed (which Anglicans use as the Eucharistic creed), and the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans rarely use liturgically, but which functions as the best expression of our understanding of the Trinity). While we consider these three creeds as expressing the faith of the undivided Church, only one of them, The Nicene Creed, is used in both the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman and Anglican) churches. That is why it is called the Symbol of the Faith.
Since the Apostles’ Creed is most frequently used for catechetical instruction in the Western Church, it will be our primary focus, though we will compare it to and contrast it with the Nicene Creed, as well. I will leave the Athanasian Creed for your reading and reflection. Remember that all confirmands are expected to know the Apostles’ Creed: to be able to recite it and to discuss its meaning.
The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed may be found in the BCP on pages 26 and 40 and in the ACNA Catechism on pages 31-32. This Creed is found only in the Western Church: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and various Protestant Churches.
Simply looking at the format/structure of the Creed, what do you notice?
First, there are three Articles, one dedicated to each Person of the Trinity. This creed, in both its format and content, is trinitarian — perhaps not as explicitly so as the Nicene Creed and certainly not in the level of detail as the Athanasian Creed, but fully and overtly trinitarian nonetheless.
Second, each Article begins with an individual statement of faith: Credo in the original Latin of the Creed and I believe in English. Contrast this with the opening of the three stanzas of the Nicene Creed — a corporate statement of faith: Πιστεύομεν in the original Greek and We believe in English. What might explain the difference between the individual and corporate emphases in the Creeds? Think of how the Creeds are used liturgically: baptism (Apostles’ Creed) versus Eucharist (Nicene Creed). In baptism, one expresses an individual/personal commitment to the corporate faith of the Church. In the Eucharist, the whole Church — on earth and in heaven — proclaims the common faith that brings us together around the table. This is, I believe, a valid theological emphasis. But, to be thorough, I should note that some churches — even the Episcopal Church up through the BCP 1928 — opens the Nicene Creed with I believe, a change to the original text. Personally, I am glad that the ACNA returned to the original corporate language, though some individual still prefer the singular, personal language.
I believe in God…
We start the Creed by saying, “I believe.” What do we mean when we say that? Certainly we mean that we acknowledge the truth of the statements that follow; to believe is to assent intellectually. But, that is not nearly enough as St. James makes clear:
James 2:19–26 (ESV): 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
So, belief has to be more than mere assent to truth, or we are no better than the demons! Belief is a commitment to a life based on and reflecting the truth to which we assent. The Creed, in this sense, functions as a vow; I will live my life in accordance with this faith I express through the Creed. The Creed shouldn’t be said lightly; it is more akin to saying “I do” in marriage than “I love you” while dating.
What do we claim to believe in first? God — a word always requiring clarification. There were many gods when the Creed was written and there are many gods now. To which of these gods do we give our allegiance? To the triune God: the Father, whom no man has seen or can see; the Son who is the perfect image of the Father and who makes the Father known; and the Holy Spirit who is the presence of God within us and within the Church. That understanding of God is what the Creed unpacks for us.
This first Article in the Creed addresses the first Person of the Trinity, God the Father almighty. In what most basic sense is God the Father? He is the creator of heaven and earth. The Nicene Creed expands on that to say that the Father is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible” (BCP 2019, p. 109). Even the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (ibid). The Athanasian Creed goes to great lengths to clarify this:
The Father is made of none,
neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone,
not made, nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son,
neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding (BCP 2019, p. 770).
So, while the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial (of one essence) with the Father, they, in some sense, come from the Father: the Son by being begotten, the Holy Spirit by procession. Here, the Creed simply uses Biblical language without trying to define the difference between begotten and proceeding. In fact, one of the great theologians of the Orthodox Church, St. John of Damascus wrote:
We have learned that there is a difference between begetting and procession, but the nature of the difference we in no wise understand” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 8-9).
What we can say with certainty, is that the Father is Father by virtue of being the creator of all that was created and by begetting the Son.
But, perhaps more personally and pastorally important, Jesus teaches us to call God the Father “our Father who art in heaven.” We have all had earthly fathers: some good though flawed, some bad, some present, some absent. And we all, despite our differing experiences with fatherhood, have some notion of what a good father should be. Whatever good there may be in human fatherhood is an image-bearing reflection of God the Father almighty. The essence of that might be summarized in the most fundamental characteristic of God: love — willing and in God’s case acting for the good of the other. This Article assures us implicitly that God loves us and that he is always acting for our good and for our salvation. Imagine the opening article of the Creed without the appositive “the Father almighty.” What if it simply said, “I believe in God, creator of heaven and earth”? Then we could only relate to God as creature to Creator, which is vastly different than relating as son or daughter to Father.
I believe in Jesus Christ…
This Article is the most detailed of the three, surely because it is fundamental to the Gospel. It declares Jesus to be both divine, the only Son of God the Father and conceived by God the Holy Spirit, and to be human, born of the Virgin Mary and enduring all the sufferings of human life including death. This Article also roots Jesus and the Gospel in a historical context: not “once upon a time” but during the administration of Pontius Pilate. The Gospel is more than, but not less than, history — events that actually occurred, events which people saw and to which they testified.
The ACNA Catechism has a good discussion of this Article, and I’d like to work through that with you (TBAC, pp. 38-46). For those reading the lesson online, you may find a PDF of the Catechism at the following link:
I believe in the Holy Spirit…
This Article can initially seem like a catch-all statement; everything important that wasn’t mentioned before gets “dumped” in here. But there is theological rhyme and reason to it. Perhaps I can liken it to prayer and the Persons of the Trinity. The fullest theological understanding of prayer is that we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. That is, it is the Person of the Holy Spirit who draws us up into the life of the Trinity, who is our most immediate, Personal point of contact with the divine; the Holy Spirit is God in us, God animating us and giving us life, individually, yes, but corporately, as well, in the Body of Christ. All of that is part and parcel of this third Article of the Creed.
The Apostles’ Creed does not explicitly define the divinity of the Holy Spirit as do the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed; that is, in no small part, why these other creeds are needed. But, the very structure of the Apostles’ Creed implies that the Holy Spirit is one of three divine Persons: one Article for the Father, one for the Son, one for the Holy Spirit.
Let’s turn to the ACNA Catechism, pages 4-55, to review its explanation of this Article.
The Creeds serve several important purposes.
1. They summarize the most essential, non-negotiable doctrines of the faith. They also provide a convenient outline for evangelization.
2. They clarify some of the doctrines of the faith and refute historical (and ever present) heresies related to those doctrines.
3. They provide a symbol of the common faith that transcends place and time. Essentially, they codify the Vincentian Canon: that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.