An icon of the Council of Nicaea in 325
The ecumenical creeds as we understand them within the Anglican tradition are three in number: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. In addition, a corpus of common texts has arisen in recent years as part of the liturgical revisions, giving us a collection of interlocutory creedal formulas used at baptism and in Services of the Word, and often with ecumenical application.
In recent years, there have been other creedal statements that have had ecumenical contributions and impact. These include, for example, the Barmen Declaration, drawn up by Confessing Christians in Germany in opposition to the claims of the Nazis in the early 1930s, and the Kairos Document, published in South Africa at the height of resistance to apartheid.
As we look at the Ecumenical Creeds, we can ask ourselves how relevant these Creeds are for today? What we would put in or keep out if we were asked to join the first committees set the tasks of writing the Creeds? In addition, we should also be aware of some of the reasons for people objecting to the creeds. And we may take a look at some modern expressions of our faith in parallel creeds.
The three ‘ecumenical’ Creeds
1, The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed is used by Anglicans traditionally in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and for most Anglicans this is the Creed first memorised, as part of the preparation for Confirmation. Although we call it one of the “ecumenical” creeds, it is only used in the Western Church and is not found in the Eastern or Orthodox Churches.
It is first referred to by its name in a letter of Saint Ambrose ca 390. By that time there was a legend that it was written by the 12 Apostles, each writing a separate clause or phrase. It was first used as a baptismal creed in the West, and was introduced into the daily offices some time between the eighth and ninth century.
2, The Nicene Creed
Although we know the creed used at the Holy Communion or Eucharist as the Nicene Creed, this is not what it actually is.
The Creed approved at the Council of Nicaea in 325 was drawn up to defend the orthodox faith against Arianism, and includes the term homoousion (consubstantial, of one substance with) to express the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Godhead. Four anti-Arian anathemas were appended to the original Nicene Creed and came to be regarded as an integral part of the text.
But what we know and use as the Nicene Creed is a longer formula, used in the Eucharist in both the East and West. This is more accurately known as the “Niceno-Contstantinopolitan Creed.” It is said to hyave been adapted at the Council of Constantinople in the year 381, although it may have been endorsed rather than drafted at that council, using the baptismal creed then in use in the Byzantine capital.
From the time of the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, this Creed has been the defining creed of the church.
3, The Athanasian Creed
The third of the ecumenical creeds, the so-called Athanasian Creed or Quicunque Vult, is still included in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland, 2004 (see pp 771-773).
This creedal statement was traditionally ascribed to Athanasius (ca 296-373) of Alexandria. But it is a Western document, written probably around the year 428, and is used only in Western Christianity.
It sets out the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, adding a list of the most important events in Christ’s life. It also includes anathemas against those who do not subscribe to its creedal statements and definitions.
How do we know it was not written by Athanasius? It contains a number of doctrinal expressions that arose as a consequence long after the time of Athansius of Alexandria, who died in 373. And its statements on the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son could not be accepted in any Orthodox tradition.
The Book of Common Prayer includes the Athanasian Creed but there are now rubrics about when and how it should be used. Can you imagine situations or occasions on which you would use it? Can you ever remember it being used?
And so, although we call three creeds “ecumenical,” in reality there is only one ecumenical creed.
Some foundational assumptions
First of all, let look at some of the presumptions we can bring to this evening’s discussion:
1, The Creeds are formative:
The Creeds help us to approach the essential importance of what we believe, as Christians, and why. They have served this purpose for most of us throughout our experience of worship, perhaps since early childhood. They are an expression of the faith of the Church, not of the individual Christian.
2, The Creeds are for use in worship
The Vatican wants to return to using the words “I believe …” at the opening of the Creeds. The Nicene Creed as used in Morning Prayer I and Evening Prayer I and in Holy Communion I in the Book of Common Prayer 2004 opens: “I believe …” (Book of Common Prayer, pp 95 and182). The Apostles’ Creed in Morning Prayer II and Evening Prayer II is also expressed as an individual statement of faith: “I believe … “ (p. 112). But in the modern versions, the Nicene Creeds opens with the words: “We believe … “ (p. 205).
The English language version is based on the Latin which opens in the singular, Credo in unum Deum … But the original Greek version opens with that statement in the first person plural, Πιστεύω εἰς ἕνα Θεόν …
In New Patterns for Worship there are four imaginative ways in which the Creeds can be used disastrously, creatively, in a matter-of-fact mundane sort of way in worship, or to give life and meaning to worship and the liturgy in parish settings.
The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are best spoken in communion with other Christians, and are only best understood within the context of an act of worship. At first glance they do not appear to be prayers. Who are they addressed to?
If we think of them as canticles, like the Gloria or Magnificat, we can find ourselves using them in worship in new and surprising ways.
3, We can meditate on the Creeds
Despite their primary place in worship, the Creeds are a mystical statement of our faith, and of course we can meditate on them, in the same way as we can meditate on a piece of spiritual writing, prayers from our favourite prayer books, psalms, canticles or readings from Scripture.
By meditating on them, phrase-by-phrase, we can bridge the historical and the contemporary, the popular and the ecclesial, the objective and the subjective.
In an exercise like that, we can bring together our catholic heritage (objective creed) with an evangelical response (its personal and communal meaning).
How relevant are the creeds today?
We all know how church reports are produced. If you were asked to join a committee drafting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, what phrases or sayings would you keep in? What would you say is importance to a relevant and contemporary expression of the Christian faith today that has been omitted from the two Creeds most used in the Church of Ireland today?
This exercise is best done in small groups where we can look at the two Creeds, and compare and contrast them.
In small groups, draw up:
● three things you would delete;
● three things you would want to expand on;
● three things you would want to include that are not there now.
Difficulties with the Creeds
Can you imagine the different kinds of experience many have with the creeds? Some are suspicious of authority, and want to come to truth-claims in individualistic ways. Others are not yet prepared to make professions of faith, and have intellectual questions about issues arising from the creeds. Some individuals and congregations find the creeds to be irrelevant to daily life, and see little need for them in worship. I’m sure some of us are aware of a handful of parishes that can go Sunday-after-Sunday without using the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed.
How do we help people discover the connections between a profession of faith during Sunday worship in the parish, their intellectual struggle with issues that are in the Creeds or not in the Creeds, and their daily lives, the decisions, dilemmas and action they face each day?
Difficulties and possibilities in working through the phraseology
Some of the difficulties people can have with the Creeds and phrases in them would never have arisen at the time they were drafted.
God as “Father” prompts questions about sexism.
God as “maker of heaven and earth” leads to reflections on faith and science. How does this relate to the Dawkins debate?
That Jesus “suffered” surely relates to the sufferings of his followers too. How do we understand the suffering of Christ and the problems surrounding suffering in the world today? Why does God allow suffering? This is the problem we know in theology as theodicy.
His descent into hell forces questions about the impossibility of a godless world. There is a debate at the moment between Roman Catholic theologians about the descent into hell. Are their reaches in the depths of hell that Christ cannot descend to? If so, are there parts of me, or some people, that are beyond redemption? If so, then how can Christ be God incarnate if all things are not possible for him? If not, then what doe we mean about salvation and redemption? Are there dangers of slipping into universalism? And why do e see them as dangers.
To believe in the Holy Spirit is to acknowledge the necessity of change in the individual and new creation in the community. Where does the Holy Spirit dwell today?
That the creed is completed with an affirmation of hope — “the life everlasting” —is surely a cause for gratitude and praise.
Our ancestors in the faith stood to say these words, they reflected on them, and they put them into practice. To claim this life, summarised in the Creeds, is to say yes to the riches of a glorious heritage from the past and also to the present life that is given to us, as well as to the future. Have you thought of life everlasting from that perspective?
Some other objections to the Creeds
Some of the other objections to the creeds that we might discuss include:
1, The filioque: this phrase was introduced into the Nicene Creed in the early Middle Ages in a series of unilateral decisions in the Western Church.
The words “and from the Son,” are a Western addition to the Creed as it was originally agreed on by a Council representing the whole Church, East and West.
They correspond to the Latin word filioque (fili = Son, -o = from, -que = and), and the controversy about them is accordingly known as the Filioque controversy.
If we are looking for a statement that can be taken as common ground by all Christians, East and West alike, it clearly cannot include the filioque. On the other hand, Western Christians will be unwilling to have it supposed that they are repudiating the statement that the Spirit proceeds jointly from Father and Son. Some would suggest that we print the Creed with the filioque either in brackets or omitted altogether, but with the understanding that, while assenting to the resulting statement does not commit anyone to belief in the Dual Procession of the Spirit, neither does it commit anyone to disbelief in the Dual Procession.
2, Sola Scriptura: those who hold to this principle, argue that the Bible is the only rule of faith, and nothing else should be imposed on believers. But in response, it could also be said that Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, would also agreed with this principle. How do we protect and ring-fence what we regard as essential doctrines or beliefs found in Scripture?
3, Some fear that any required confession of faith might usurp “a tyrannical power over the conscience.” But once again, what are the limits to the Christian faith beyond which a group or church loses its place within the mainstream Church? Are Nonsubscribing Presbyterians part of the Christian Church? What about Quakers? What about claims by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons to be Christians? Who decides, and what tools or aids help us to decide within an ecumenical context.
4, There are those who argue that “Creedalism” leads to nominal Christianity. They would say that a mental assent to the doctrines of the Creed has often served as a substitute for true conversion and has led to dead orthodoxy. But to even use a term like “dead orthodoxy” demands some definition of orthodoxy.
5, Some argue that the use of confessions or creeds could give a false confidence that the truth in Scripture is exhausted by that confession or creed and thus true growth in the knowledge of the Scriptures becomes difficult. They say there is a danger that someone could feel that knowledge of the confession is enough and will consequently isolate himself from the dynamic of the living Word of God.
6, Still others might say a creed can be used to repress genuine searching, to give artificial answers to questions, and to threaten those who are in a stage of inquiry and so tyrannise the tender consciences of believers.
Some modern Creeds
1, The Barmen Declaration
The Barmen Declaration (1934) is a statement of the Confessing Church opposing the Nazi-supported “German-Christian” movement. The “German Christians” were hostile to the Confessing Church and combined extreme nationalism with anti-Semitism.
The Barmen Declaration specifically rejects the subordination of the Church to the State. Rather, the Declaration states that the church “is solely Christ’s property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.”
The Declaration was mostly written by the Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), but was also crafted in part by other Confessing Church leaders, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).
2, The Kairos Document
The Kairos Document was a provocative theological statement issued by a group of black South African theologians mostly based in the black townships of Soweto, in 1985.
It challenged the churches’ response to what the authors saw as the vicious policies of the apartheid state under the State of Emergence declared that year. The Kairos Document evoked strong reactions and furious debates not only in South Africa, but world-wide.
The Kairos Document is a prime example of contextual theology and liberation theology in South Africa and went on to become an example for attempts to develop similarly critical writing at decisive moments in several other countries and contexts (Latin America, Europe, Zimbabwe, India, etc.).
It is widely thought though that Frank Chikane, a black Pentecostalist pastor and theologian, and Albert Nolan, a white Dominican theologian, were key figures in drafting the Kairos Document.
When this fairly short document of about 11,000 words was first published in September 1985, it already contained over 150 signatures; it was subsequently signed by many more church leaders and theologians in South Africa, although the amended list was never published. A substantially revised, second edition appeared in 1986.
The Kairos Document is structured in five short chapters (the second edition comes to less than 40 pages):
1, The Moment of Truth;
2, Critique of “State Theology”;
3, Critique of “Church Theology”;
4, Towards a Prophetic Theology;
5, Challenge to Action;
and a short conclusion.
Within the churches in South Africa, and worldwide, the Kairos Document led to intense and often heated debates.
The influence and effect of the Kairos Document was such that attempts were made in a number of contexts to create similarly documents to challenge the churches’ attitude to particular issues. None of these was remotely as successful as the Kairos Document. Several years later, some theologians in Europe tried to address global economics as “the new Kairos.”
Perhaps the most successful attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Kairos Document was the “Latin American Kairos Document,” called The Road to Damascus, written by Central American theologians and published in 1988.
If you were to draw up a Barmen Declaration or Kairos Document for Ireland or Europe today, what would you include? Who would you want to involve in drafting and signing it? Who would you want to read it? Who would you want to be changed or transformed by?
The Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Ireland, 2004.
Alison, C.F., The Cruelty of Heresy (London: SPCK, 1994).
Bettenson, H., and Maunder, C. (eds), Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, OUP, 3rd ed, 1999).
Challenge to the Church: The Kairos Document (London: Catholic Institute for International Affairs and British Council of Churches, 1985).
Geitz, E.R., Gender and the Nicene Creed (New York: Church Publishing, 1995).
New Patterns for Worship (London: Church House Publishing, 2002).
The Road to Damascus: Kairos and Conversion (London: Catholic Institute for International Affairs and British Council of Churches, 1989).
Stevenson, J., and Frend, W.H.C., Creeds, Council and Controversies (London: SPCK, revised ed., 1989).
Young, Frances, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM Press, 1991, 2002).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture and workshop with Year II students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry Course on 17 October 2008.