Though most of the conversation around here lately has been focused on the topics of the body and modernity, I want to return briefly to discuss the nature of the creed. While I offered a kind of apologetic for the creed below, it is important to discuss why I think the traditional Anabaptist and Pietist critique is too narrowly conceived. I argue here that the liturgical practice of the Church holds together the narrative frame of the creed and the particular scriptural examples of God’s actions.
Among Mennonites and Brethren it is often stated that the creeds do very well talking about Jesus’ birth and death but not so well talking about his life and teaching. The Nicene formula is most often marshaled out as the prime example. In that creed, it is often said, we skip right from Jesus being “incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and made man” to his crucifixion “for us under Pontius Pilate.” I have heard it said several times that a whole lot happens in the comma between incarnation and crucifixion.
Though I do not disagree, it is important to set the creed within it’s liturgical context before jumping to conclusions, conclusions of narrowness and convictions about doctrinal certainty.
First, the creed itself was not written as a systematic theology. Though it was constructed as a canon of orthodoxy, the creed was first and foremost a liturgical text. It was a statement to be made as a profession of faith within the wider context of the Church’s worship. More specifically, the recitation of the creed was first made by a newly baptized Christian in the font and was repeated each liturgy after.
Second, as a liturgical text the creed was never intended to stand on its own apart from the other elements of worship, including the readings of scripture. As an ordinary, or fixed portion of the liturgy, the creed would remain fixed within the communities order of service while at each gathering the readings of scripture would change. In fact, whole gospels would be read over the course of months while each time the creed would set those life stories of Jesus within the trajectory of redemption. In a way, the scriptures and the creed mutually informed each other over time- the creed framing the reading of the gospel within the entire Christ event and the scripture filling in gap of the creed with the particulars of Jesus’ life and teachings.
So, for example in our modern practice of the Revised Common Lectionary we work through one gospel following Pentacost all the way to Christ the King, or the last Sunday before Advent. In those many weeks we observe as Jesus calls, heals, and teaches. Over that course of time it would be easy to lose sight of why we read these stories: Are they just good moral narratives? Are they read in order to entertain? What’s the point? Once we read these stories and hear the sermon the recitation of the creed reminds us just why we should even care- For it was this same Jesus we witness in the reading whom we confess as the Incarnation of God and whose death and resurrection redeems the fallen world. The particularities of Jesus fill in the universality of redemption.
Those of us within the Christian tradition who have left the creeds out of our times of worship are at a severe disadvantage. Though we have set aside these texts for noble reasons, namely their gate keeping and oppressive use in the last half of Christian story, we are tempted to lose sight of the larger plot structure of God’s narrative. By not rehearsing the frame we are tempted to lift the particulars out of their appropriate setting within the Christian narrative, that is to say not out of their historical but rather soteriological context. For those of more accustomed to the professions of creeds, the reading of scriptures keeps the Christian narrative from become so abstract that the details of Jesus’ ministry barely make a difference. The creed and the scriptures are two poles within the formative practice of Christian worship.
All of this is simply to say that when juxtaposed with scripture the creed should never be seen as limited. What is more, the practice of Christian worship serves as the proper context for both the reciting of the creed and the reading of scripture. These two texts form the worshiping community in the particular and universal nature of salvation.
Though this may not read like an exploration of a Christian practice, it does match the request to articulate how practices, as opposed to intellectual assertions, shape the Christian disciple. For it is in the the frame of Christian worship that the doxological act places us within the Christian narrative, through the reading of the particulars within scripture and through the recalling of the narrative trajectory of God’s salvation.