The creeds in public worship: a call to populist evangelicalism

I have posted comments on the conference in Wheaton I attended last week, and I would like to post one last time specifically on the public use of creeds in noncreedal, evangelical churches. This was a common refrain throughout the conference, and Scot McKnight’s paper made a specific proposal we might consider.

In McKnight’s paper he referred to noncreedal, evangelical churches as “populist evangelicalism,” and most, if not all, evangelical, nondenominational churches would fall within the same category (this is my opinion, not McKnight”s).

He summarized the theological, ecclesiastic function of the earliest Christian creeds as articulations of the gospel (what it is and does) that served to connect newly baptized and mature Christians alike to the gospel and to the church; the creeds were ways of providing “clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory.” For the forms of evangelicalism McKnight has in mind, the absence of any public reading of the creeds “deprives” them of the very same clarity, heritage, depth, width, and memory and leads to a “theological superficiality” few of us familiar with populist evangelicalism would deny (I grew up in a noncreedal church and served on the pastoral staffs of several nondenominational churches).

So consider McKnight’s proposal, and let me know whether you think it hits the mark. I will put my cards on the table upfront: I think it does.

I propose that we who believe in the value of creeds become active in getting our churches, especially if we are part of a church tradition that does not recite The Creed publicly, to begin a course of instruction for the elders, deacons and teachers on the history of the creeds. And I don’t mean read a book about them; I mean read them and study them together. In this proposal, then, I am also suggesting that one doesn’t have to stop with Nicea or The Chalcedonian Definition. I would urge churches to have a monthly rotation in public: begin with The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed or The Apostles’ Creed, bring in some Reformation creedal form […] and then add to that one’s denominational or local church confessions.

The absence of theological robustness might be regained in some small measure simply by the routine recitation of the faith we have always believed and do believe. These creeds and confessions will raise questions, it will lead good evangelicals back to their Bibles, and perhaps raise the level of theological sophistication.

The public reading of the Creeds would go a long way toward raising a sense of historical continuity among the members of a great many nondenominational and noncreedal evangelical churches in North America. Do I believe it would require teaching? Yes. Would it require time away from singing worship songs? Yes. Would it require pastors and elders to devote themselves to some educational growth and development in the Creedal history of the church and its use? Yes.

And would all of this – the public reading of The Creeds – lead necessarily toward a greater sense of historical continuity among church members, an increased awareness of community with believers past as well as present, and a deepening understanding of the Gospel and of the central tenets of the catholic, Christian faith? It would at least be a very promising step in that direction.


13 thoughts on “The creeds in public worship: a call to populist evangelicalism

  1. Hi Kent,

    Thanks for these posts. I have a question about cultivating a “greater sense of historical continuity among church members.” No doubt there are some congregations where that would be considered threatening, or a dangerous distraction from the serious business of biblical gospel proclamation. But I’d like to pick up the conversation a little bit further along than that (as you have).

    Among folks who consider it a Very Good Thing to cultivate this sense of historical continuity, do we think of it as (a) an optional device, one which is not necessary but is strategically helpful toward the end of being faithful, biblical Christians; (b) a necessity, that is, a requirement that a faithful community should somehow signal to itself and others that its faith was not invented recently by people who just happened to start reading the New Testament; or (c) constitutive, that is, a church would be considered ecclesially defective unless it has core practices that express its continuity with the tradition.

    Helpful, necessary, or constitutive? I realize this is a wider question than your recommendation for populist evangelical churches to make use of historic creeds in worship. But I know you’ve thought through the wider questions as well, and wondered where you’d put yourself on this continuum. Which I just invented. To help myself think it through.


      • I think of creeds in worship as one among many of the “devices to symbolize the living tradition” (a phrase from Jaroslav Pelikan). They’re just about my favorite such devices, because I love doctrine so much.

        I too think of such techniques as helpful, and am definitely set against considering them constitutive. But I keep glancing over at necessary, looking for a way to describe a greater sense of continuity. Maybe something like “If your worship services consistently give the impression that you invented all of this, you are failing to give the right impression.” That seems like a step beyond “helpful” because it suggests that it matters that we make use of this help.

  2. Studying creeds can be quite useful. With a few caveats. And a few ironic twists.

    Karl Barth’s “Dogmatics in Outline,” in my memory, is about a creed; either the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed. In any case, in this short book, he apparently meant by the term “Dogmatics,” to distinguish dogma, as what churches say; possibly as opposed to what the Bible itself or God himself said.

    So Barth for example doesn’t really advocate Creeds, simply, as simple and defintive. In fact, on the way to examining the Creed, Barth attacks the possibility of any really firm, definitive understanding of Dogmas, Creeds, or any systematic theology at all:

    “‘Systematic Theology’ … is based on a tradition which is quite recent and highly problematic. Is not the term ‘Systematic Theology’ as paradoxical as a ‘wooden iron’?” (Forward to the Torchbook Ed. of Dogmatics in Outline, p. 5, pub. 1959, Harper).

    “Dogmatics in Outline,”while it looks at the Creed, is not entirely reverent, some would say, toward this human product, a creed; his aim in looking at a creed, was in part was to examine “the history of the Christian Church, whether or not she was always true to her mandate” (p. 5). While at times Barth seems to suggest that churches might have missed the mark.

    In fact, deeper inside, Barth seems to rather deconstruct the Creed; so that it seems to open up to a rather self-desonstructing, self-critical, questioning document. Rather the opposite to how it is often presented in church.

    But to be sure, examining such Creeds in theology class, can be useful. Looking at them, can be a useful way to address whether given churches and theologians, are following the Bible. Or to see how they adopt the Bible, God, to their own purposes.

  3. Entirely right James. helpful corrective.

    Just for the sake of argument, though, lets assume for a moment that no expression of the Christian faith is perfect this side of the consummation, neither Anglican, Free-church evangelical, confessional Presbeterian, etc. So wouldn’t any church tradition, warts and all, seek to reform its worship and church life and to do so in such a way that addresses its chief deficiencies? And wouldn’t McKnight’s remarks here represent a legitamate instance of one particular church tradition (populist evangelicalism) seeking to do just that through the incorporation of creeds in its public worship.

    I don’t entirely disagree with your estimation of evangelicalism, and I think you’re on the mark regarding evangelicalism’s focus on education, but it seems unnecessarily uncharitable to the intention behind the proposal.

  4. Creeds and standard prayers, which are partially made by men and only roughly based on the Bible, have a certain usefulness. On the other hand, since they order the Bible in problematic ways? And since they have often been taken all too seriously?

    Many heads have been lopped off, many wars fought, over just one or two changes, just a few words, in creeds like the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicean, etc.

    Do you believe in “One holy apolostolic, Catholic church” for example? Differences over just such a single line, caused roughly 400 years of war between Protestants and Catholics.

    So that creeds often become extremely divisive.

  5. No doubt, many evangelical parties are attempting to re-assert loyalty oaths at academic conferences and seminaries; to prevent intellectuals from diverging from what fundamentalists have declared to be “the truth.” But exaggerated attempts to impose unity around a few simple principles, a central Church, remember, opposed the Protestant Reformation.

    Once individual, intellectual experiment and freedom – and progress – was outlawed by loyalty oaths, religious progress either halted; or had to take up arms, to continue to progress into new and better theology.

  6. If I might speak for a moment from the other side of the issue, I would like to put forward that the creeds are constitutive. Speaking from the Anglican tradition, which sits as much on the Catholic-Orthodox spectrum as on the Protestant one (those are common terms in the world of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox theology in North America, I’ve never seen them used here, but I think they are fairly obvious in meaning if not as common in Evangelical circles), and which recognises the “first” seven ecumenical councils as doctrinally authoritative, I would argue that the creeds are constitutive of the church. For the purpose of clarity, I speak here mainly of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, and to a lesser extent the Athanasian and Apostles’ creeds; when I refer to the ecumenical councils, I mean Nicaea I Constantinople I, Ephesus (I), Chalcedon, Constantinople II & III, and Nicaea II.

    The reason for the elucidation of the creeds, like most doctrinal development, is the protection of what the worshiping communities understands to be the truth. The profession of faith of the First Council of Nicaea (the nexus of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed) was written to define the faith in opposition to the Nestorian heresy. The doctrinal definition of the Council of Chalcedon was written to define the nature of the hypostatic union, settling an on-going debate between rival Christological schools and addressing the heresies of Eutychianism and Apollinarianism. When what the community has experienced as truth is challenged that truth is elucidated so that it can be protected from error and proclaimed to future generations. The creeds exist to protect the truths contained therein not for God’s benefit, but for the church’s, so that the church can continue to properly worship God.

    The recitation of the creeds is not the point, it is the affirmation of the truths contained therein. Certainly there innumerable benefits to the use of the creeds in worship: the corporate confession of faith strengthens the believers, the recitation of the creed is doctrinally instructive, the creeds provide a tangible link to the faith and practice of the Fathers and past generations of Christians in general, the list goes on. But a church that doesn’t recite the creeds in worship isn’t somehow defective. The creeds remind us of the truths that are constitutive of the church. If a worshiping community can bear witness to that truth without reciting the creeds, and that works for them, good on them. The problem with losing sight of the creeds is that we can also lose sight of their teachings, and therein lies the ultimate reason for reciting them in worship. We are reminded as a worshiping community of the truths in which we have faith and for which we stand as the church.

    So the creeds are sort of indirectly constitutive of the church, but they are more than just helpful or “necessary” (as it has been outline here).

  7. Matt:

    Thanks for expressing the traditional view.

    Still, what about:

    1) The many councils that were ignored or changed?

    The 2) many points of view that were eliminated … that might not be right after all?

    The 3) probably millions of individuals eventually killed, in the name of the “right” credo? (As in the 30 Years War?).

    The 4) many modern revisions of even the “right” councils, the right credo?

    Which might not have been right, after all? Consider after all 5) the many Non-Anglicans out there. Who would hold to some – but not all – of the principles you have outlined.

    What should we do with THEM?

    Then too, 6) modern Anglicanism is notoriously liberal; is even this church really following these creeds?

    Though to be sure, 7) surely any church that was founded by Henry VIII must be good!

  8. I would address your first two points (and perhaps your fourth) first. Anglicanism doesn’t “ignore” any of the church councils. We accept 7 as Ecumenical, we accept many others as expressions of the faith of the church and theologically sound, and others we reject. I would refer you to the mass of literature regarding the ecumenicity of the 7 Ecumenical Councils from Anglican and Eastern Orthodox theologians for a far more satisfying discussion of the topic than I could hope to provide here. But in brief, for a number of reasons we see sound theology and the guidance of the Holy Spirit especially in those 7, and we regard them as the very foundations of the church.

    When it comes to rejecting Councils I would take the example of the “Robber Council” of Ephesus II (which happens to be part of a paper on which I am currently working). Why do we reject this council? A number of reasons, but in brief: it endorsed Eutychianism, it was rejected by the later (and Ecumenical) Council of Chalcedon, and it was convened not to address doctrine but to do away with enemies who were as much political as theological (it wasn’t wholly unique on that one, just especially bad). Obviously the first point is the most important, that it endorsed the heresiarch Eutyches (and this relates to your second point). Can anyone say objectively that Eutyches was wrong? No, we cannot, we simply believe it. Why do we believe it? Because we believe that through wisdom, good theology, and discernment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church found him to be wrong. Ultimately any of the figures whom we remember as heresiarchs may have been right, but on the grounds that anyone with a unique idea *may* have been right we ought to affirm anything at all, because those with whom we disagree *may* be right, and then we get into the problem of “what is the point exactly?” Ultimately it is a matter of faith in the traditions of the church and independent theological inquiry. I have investigates Ephesus II, I believe it to have been in error for the above reasons and more, I have sided with the church. Though most Christians are not so fortunate, I can honestly say that I am an Anglican because I am aware of and consciously accept the teachings of Anglicanism (though it was also the church in which I raised, which brings up other issues if one wants to go there, but “there” is well outside the scope of the present discussion).

    I can speak to your third point very quickly. Those deaths are what we call “the devices of men.” I think I speak for all when I say that violence over doctrinal difference is one of the saddest parts of the church’s history, and they neither represent the will of God for humanity nor further the search for truth.

    You made a point about different denominations, but I dare say that this is moot. Adherence to a particular number of Church Councils is no more of less a determinant of which denominations are more or less correct than any other. We all hold different beliefs about what is true doctrine and what does and does not constitute the church. That my traditions bases some of these beliefs on the creeds is no argument for or against the creeds themselves. I’m not making absolute judgments about which denominations are correct or incorrect, i’m merely proffering a fairly standard Anglican perspective on the question of the role and import of the creeds.

    brettongarcia’s points aside, I would offer another thought on the original question.

    I think that as a crucial element of our common Christian patrimony the study of the creeds and their historical use and interpretations across denominational lines would be wonderful tool for ecumenical dialogue and bridge-building.

  9. Matt:

    Well, caution: human beings, enflamed by precisely the different ideas here, eventually caused the first doctrinal split between the Eastern/Oriental Church and Rome. This was the first doctrine to divide Christianity in half. The first council (Chalcedon?) rejected by the East.

    But if you’re interested, you might like to check out a debate that is about to start, on the Pen&Parchment (or Parchment & Pen?) blog, on the Trinity.

    Much of the support – and much of the resistance – for the idea of a “Trinity,” comes from the exploration of the nature of Christ; whether he was of one or “mono” physical unity with God; or whether he was somehow two natures. (Or if two, then how closely related?).

    In the Pen& Parchment debate, many will be looking at pronouncements by Jesus, to see what kind of relationship with God they assume; the relationship of co-equals? Or not? A full knowledge – or not? A separation between Jesus and God? But of what kind? And how is this or that relationship logically possible?

    If you’re interested, the debate will be starting soon I think; in April sometime. It’s framed as a debate on Trinitarianism vs. Non-Trinitarian Christians.

  10. Matt SG

    I would say that creeds are unfortunately, all-too constitutive; that churches and people like to feel a heightened sense of individuality and superiority, by outlining a creed that defines, differentiates them from all others (by way of an agonistic Derrida-ian “difference.”) But I’d suggest, people choose creeds, churchs, out of much lower motives than you might think; they choose them, like choosing to go to a Central high football game, and be a “Central lion,” vs. Metropolitan High, and being a “Metropolitan bobcat.” It’s a kind of tribal, high school totemism. Creeds and the denominations they define, are exclusivistic. And the buzz that one gets from them, is the buzz of feeling different – and maybe superior. Which leads to wars, even within Christiandom.

    In this case, of the Nicean (/aean) Creed, and/or Chalcedon? These councils and the creeds they generated, attemped to distinguish themselves from all others, by setting up an early Christology; to define the exact nature of Jesus; as God or not; as a member of the “trinity.” But earlier we noted philosophical problems with these attempts.

    I suggested elsewhere (in the discussion on penal substitution here on this blog, among other places) that the very concept of Jesus as a member of a trinity, and as a being with “two natures” – fully human and fully God; an idea from the era of Nicea and Chalcedon – was simply not right. Was a logical self-contradiction.

    But in any case, I now add here, the issue of which doctrine to support, and which creed to follow, was divisive enough, was problematic enough, that Christianity began to split on this issue, and on the creeds related to it: Rome liked the outcome here… but Eastern orthodox Christianity was NOT agreeing to Chalcedon, and its particular characterization of Christology, and the Trinity. And so here the Orthodox church began to split off. Because of differences on this highly problematic idea, after all: the exact nature of christ, and of the trinity. And which creed to therefore, follow.

    Creeds were 1) always intellectually, philosophically problematic. And 2) as a practical matter , intellectual battles over creeds lead to practical conflicts, and even wars. Among others, differences over issues articulated at Nicea and Chalcedon with regard to Christology and the Trinity – and associated creeds – lead to the beginnings of the division between Roman Catholic Christiandom, and Eastern Orthodox. So that the Roman Cruaders didn’t mind invading Christian but Orthodox Constantiople (‘Stanbul), as their first target.

    A difference over problematic Creeds (relating in turn to highly problematic ideas of the Trinity) often split Christianity in half.

    For these and other reasons, I can’t really support creeds or many dogmas at all very strongly. Though they are interesting to study – as examples of historic mistakes.

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