The Wide Open Creed

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.


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10 responses to “The Wide Open Creed

  1. Josh,
    This is an interesting question. Personally I find the creeds to provide potential benefits in worship. However, my primary concern is that creeds have a tendency to become hermeneutical lenses through which scripture is read. Creeds are interpretative belief statements that have been (historically) widely agreed upon in the Christian faith. When they become the lens through which the worshiping community reads scripture their essential role in worship changes to one of “gate-keeper.” One distinctive of the Anabaptist/Pietist communities is that it is the practice of symbols (baptism, feetwashing, etc.) that have served as significant contributors to the community’s interpretive lens. Brethren are very much a narrative community that worships with limited liturgy (for good or bad). I would argue that creeds could play a complimentary role in worship with the practices of the symbols. Well Josh this may not be helpful but it’s just a few of my thoughts on this subject. Thanks for an intriguing subject.
    Andy Hamilton

    • Joshua Brockway

      I think you’ve named the limiting aspect of the creeds well. Unfortunately for me, I am pushing back against some 1700 years worth of misuse. In some academic settings I have tried to argue that the Rule of Faith (think Ireneaus and Augustine here) is really not a creed at all, but the liturgical practice of the Church. Thus, as you say, the enacted symbols are the hermeneutical lens which shapes our interpretation of the scriptures.

      Part of this post emerged out of conversations about the Narrative Arc of the Bible. As we talked about narrative, I asked what the plot line was. After some quick statements we all agreed that the arc is from creation to eschatalogical fulfillment through the person and event of Jesus Christ. To me that sounded a lot like the creeds. What if the creed was not a framing lens, but a narrative trajectory?


  2. Chris Jones

    Who gets to decide the Christian narrative that the creeds and scripture reading are meant to place us in? The Christian narrative say, Rob Bell is telling is quite different than the Christian narrative John Piper and the young, reformers are telling. I would say that IS the battle between the groups Bell and Piper represent. They are arguing about the narrative trajectory of God’s salvation.

    • Joshua Brockway

      I’ve been thinking about this Chris. I wonder if the like of Bell and Piper are not arguing about the narrative but the details. In their case, I think they are both saying that the redemptive act of Christ but locking horns around the role of hell within that redemption. I think what the creed as a narrative statement shows us is that the prime mover of the narrative action is God, not some of the elements such as hell.


  3. Amy

    As one for who words are important, I have to say I love the creeds. I love the poetic movement of them. I love the ancient sensibility they intone. When I read them in worship or in private devotion, they come alive. But, I would say that they come alive because I do not use them, or more specifically…I do not use the same one….each and every time I worship. So, I bring a deep appreciation for those who care for the liturgy with deep listening and craft, so that the readers/hearers/speakers (the congregation) are invited into a dynamic use of faith language. I’ve been reading Gail Ramshaw, who is a Lutheran (ELCA) by tradition, and she has informed me greatly of how the 3 year cycle of the lectionary is to inform the church about being a baptized community. Her perspective is that it was never intended to cover the whole bible. Personal practices and bible study were to fill out what was not included in the formal cycles. I think that we, the worshipers, can lean toward liturgical laziness when offered the same words each and every Sunday. At the same time, there is a deepening that happens when we repeat liturgy in a meaningful way.

    It is so important how one leads the congregation in worship. If the leader is bland and has their face in their bulletin, bible or book of service, then the creeds and the scriptures will be bland and unobservant. The words that we read and recite are in an exciting dance with the liturgist and the people of God.


    • Joshua Brockway


      I love the alliteration- Liturgical Laziness. I also really appreciate the reminder that “Creed” is actually a constellation term for a number of actual creeds. Not to long ago in fact I read the “Athanasian Creed”- so we are talking a wide range of concepts. It touches in on what some have said off the comment thread that even the narrative arc of the tradition is varied and different. So to say Creeds and mean just what you say about the many voices of belief in the Christian narrative could help us hold together the many narrative visions.

      I also appreciate the reminder of Gail Ramshaw’s vision of the lectionary- though I assume she was referencing the modern practice of the RCL. It seems to me to assume the ability of the laity to have an accessible copy of the scriptures for use and study outside of the liturgical assembly. It is interesting to look, however, at just how methodical the earliest examples of lectionary cycles were (especially without the handy guides of chapter and verse). The early sacramentaries (or guides for the mass composed around the 6th-9th centuries) just said start reading in the book of X from this sentence to this phrase. I would need to go back and look at those schedules, but my impression was that they assumed a kind of flexible lectio continua based on the liturgical season.


  4. I heard Diana Butler Bass speak today, and she started in on this discussion about Creeds – apparently she’s reading them devotionally through the Lenten season. She mentioned the Maasai Creed, written in 1960 in East Africa and touted by Jaroslav Pelikan as a great example of ancient claims in contextual imagery (the creed in its entirety is on the wikipedia page: It is beautiful and contextual, even referencing Jesus being on a safari.

    I also love the careful language and the benefits of consistent liturgy that the creeds offer, but I think embracing them is going against the grain of a Christian culture currently intrigued by the stories that fill the gaps in those ancient creeds. I hear voices calling the Church to remember the whole story of Jesus – what he did between being born and being crucified – and my sense is that we Brethren and others have some experience with that to share. If we wanted to recite a creed consistently in Brethren worship, we’d have to do a lot of internal discussion and education beforehand and a lot of external confession that we really do still hold the entirety of Jesus’ life to be our guiding narrative.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Yeah, Dana I really don’t have any illusions that Brethren will start to recite a creed let a lone many creeds in their gatherings for worship.

      Yet I did find self in the writers worst place after reading your comment- I found myself asking What’s my point! In a slight move of humble expectations I simply want to start thinking about the constructive nature of belief, In other words asking if we can say anything about what we believe. I think the work of Scott and others on Just Peace finally gets us to a constructive view of Non-violence and Pacifism, but I have this sense that even our “No Creed but the New Testament” is a reaction against rather than a constructive theology. Like our way of believing (following Dale Brown there) is actually an apophatic theology.


  5. Josh, I appreciate the reminder that creeds were formed at particular times for particular purposes (liturgical) and should warn us against making a category mistake of thinking they’re systematic theology (a non-liturgical literary genre). Also, I love Dana’s referencing the Masai Creed and its saying that Jesus is “on safari.” This brings to mind Vincent Donovan’s marvelous book, Christianity Rediscovered, where he goes on safari among various Masai tribes to do context-sensitive mission.

    There’s an unformed question I have in this conversation around liturgy as it relates to The Naked Anabaptist and how its goal of distilling “core values” of Anabaptism might be unhelpful or even potentially damaging to those inside the (European-derived) Anabaptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas has criticized Mennonite worship as being “rationalistic and aesthetically thin.” If there is some merit in this charge (and I think there is to a degree), then Murray’s work could be a temptation to some Anabaptists who may be in dire need of a liturgical revolution in their worship. (I’ve thankfully been involved in an experimental Mennonite congregation that has done just that, so it is happening in some circles.)

    I gave the “European-derived” qualifier above because Anabaptism in the rest of the non-Western world (and in immigrant communities within the U.S.) is certainly not rationalistic and aesthetically thin, as it’s been profoundly influenced by pentecostal movements. The merits and virtues of that experience will be completely different for that rapidly-growing segment of the global Anabaptist family.

    Sorry, I hope I did’t take this too far afield…

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Brian,
      Regarding Naked Anabaptist, this is essentially my critique of the book (part of the review that should appear in Brethren Life and Thought in either of the next two issues). What I state there is similar to your cultural question. In my words I ask if one can truly be an Anabaptist Anglican, or a Anabaptist Methodist. The reality, which I asked Murray about, was that as a religion there are practices and ideas embedded within each denomination- thus making them cultures. So to some how pull out a particular element- either practice or idea- seems to make the tradition what it is not. Here we have to acknowledge that Anabaptism is already an Ideal Type (in the Weberian sense) and to assume that from Anabaptism we can further distill (or strip) out the cultural elements seems non-sensical. So when we try to add the cultural clothing of say Anglicanism to the Naked Anabaptism- what do we really end up with?

      Murray-Williams unwittingly highlighted this when he presented at Elizabethtown. He was relating how a particular NT scholar (and former Anglican Bishop) can sound extraordinarily Anabaptist in his exegesis and Christology- yet still grasp strongly onto a Christendom Ecclesiology. Apart from this scholar’s role in the Anglican hierarchy I didn’t find this reality surprising. Here we have a human being holding onto what appears to be notional elements of a Post-Christendom tradition, yet formed deeply by the rhythms and imageries of a Constantinian Liturgy- a liturgy that contains significant echoes of the Imperial court and its processions. Of course he would want to keep a Christendom ecclesiology, his practices are essentially Constantinian.

      As for Hauerwas, it sounds like his typical rant. To some extent he is right, but we can push back on the values of simplicity contained in both traditions. Theologically this can turn into a kind of iconoclastic approach to worship, but I think that can be said for a wide swath of the evangelical Protestant traditions in America (not Evangelical, but those traditions which emerge from the Radical Reformation).


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