Why do we recite the historic creeds of the church in our worship services? There are a few ways to answer this question. First, we believe these creeds are really just recitations of the content of Scripture. All we are doing is reading a summary of what the Bible says. Second, we believe recitation leads to memorization. It is very important that we understand the basics of Christianity, and there are just some things that we ought to have memorized. And third, when we recite the creeds, we are affirming that what we believe about the teaching of Scripture is the same as what the Church has believed throughout history.
In October our church will begin reciting the Nicene Creed. The council of Nicaea was the first of what we know as the ecumenical councils of the church, meaning that it was attended by representatives of the global church at that time. The purpose of the council was to deal with one of the greatest threats to the Gospel that had existed up until that point: The heretical teachings of Arius. Arius taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Jesus was not God, but rather a created being. Alexander, a bishop in Alexandria, first took up the challenge of debating Arius, a responsibility that was eventually carried on by Athanasius.
In order to keep the church unified, the Emperor Constantine held the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The result of this council was, of course, known as the Creed of Nicaea, or The Nicene Creed (and also an agreement on when the church should celebrate Easter).
That's all fine, but why should we recite the Nicene Creed today? After all, this creed sounds pretty academic. Doesn't it make it seem as though the Christian faith is just a series of doctrinal affirmations? Isn't Christianity more about a relationship and experience with God?
It's important to remember--as the Nicene Creed shows us--that orthodoxy and doxology were not always seen as at odds with one another. There was a time when Christians saw the truths we profess as being a source of worship and a reason to rejoice! When we recite and share together in the creeds of the church in a corporate way, we don't just affirm our unity with the universal church that came before; we're also saying aloud that these truths are a cause for worship, and should give rise to joyful songs!
There is another reason we should share in these creeds corporately, and it is a very practical reason: It helps us remember. I believe and hope that we have recited the Apostles' Creed for so long that many of us could recite it in our sleep. Now, if you were to memorize the Nicene Creed, you would be better prepared to help others understand the faith, or to face serious error the next time the Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door.
Perhaps you might ask, "Why would we recite the Nicene Creed when we already have the Apostles' Creed?" The Apostles' Creed has much to commend it. It is shorter, simpler, and easier to remember than some later creeds (the Athanasian Creed, for example). It is also truthful and accurate to Scripture.
But the Apostles' Creed is really the bare minimum of Christian teaching. It doesn't get very specific about the deity of Christ. It doesn't speak to the nature of God beyond the fact that he is the creator. It doesn't speak of the deity of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Apostles' Creed is so general that even a Mormon could affirm it. That doesn't mean the Apostles' Creed is a bad creed, but it does mean that more development was needed that made clearer what the Bible teaches.
I'd like to higlight just a few ways that the Nicene Creed more clearly presents the Bible's teaching. First, the Nicene Creed has a doctrine of the Holy Spirit! The Apostles' Creed simply says, "I believe in the Holy Spirit." The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, has more to say:
"[I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets."
Nicaea makes us aware that the Holy Spirit really is a person of the Godhead, not merely a tacked on formality or affirmation. All three persons are co-eternal and co-equal as God; it is proper that the Spirit receive a greater place of prominence than the Apostles' Creed ascribes to Him. In Nicaea we see the centrality of the Spirit to creation, to Christian worship, and to special revelation.
Second, perhaps the most important passage in the Nicene Creed is this statement that the Son was of the "same substance" with the Father:
"[We believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."
At first glance this might sound like abstract theological jockeying, but it was actually profoundly important for the Christian faith. How is the Son related to the Father? The answer changes how you see all of the universe, how you understand salvation, and how you think about your own relationship to God when you trust in Jesus. When Jesus died was he able to bear the full penalty of sin against the Holy God? If we are united to Christ by faith are we fully united to God? Is it appropriate to worship Jesus just like we do the Father? If you get these questions wrong, you get the Christian faith wrong.
Yet as Carl Trueman reminds us, this creed does not only help us to remember, affirm, and speak propositional truths; it unites us as well:
"In reciting the creeds, the purpose is not simply to declare a set of propositional truths. Rather, the action is somewhat richer than that: to state the obvious, in reciting the words of the creeds together, each member of the congregation publicly identifies with every other member in expressing a corporate unity of belief in a common gospel. They are also expressing their common belief with every other Christian throughout history who has used these words to witness to Christ. Further, they are reminding themselves and each other of who God is and what he has done. In other words, the creeds, in liturgical context, become a means of fulfilling the public declaration that Romans 10 demands of believers: the confession (a document) becomes a confession (an act of pointing toward Christ before the church and the world)" [The Creedal Imperative, p. 144].
Adam Parker is the pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA), a regular contributor to Reformation 21, an adjunct professor at Belhaven University, and most importantly husband to Arryn and father of four.
Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw
Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain
Athanasius (Christian Biographies For Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr