In recovering the Bible as the sole and ultimate authority in the Church, the Reformers did not abandon lesser authorities, such as the historic creeds—rather, they reaffirmed them. In practice, this meant that they maintained the element of “confessing the Faith” within public worship. For them, the creeds were a succinct way of reaffirming the main tenets of the Christian Faith. Working with predominantly illiterate congregations, the Reformers saw the benefit of reciting the content of the Christian Faith on regular occasions. But more than that, they wanted to demonstrate that the Reformation Church was not some aberration; she was part of the true Church, standing in the Faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). For the Reformers, saying the creeds aligned the Reformation Church with the true Christian Church, and reminded God’s people of the Lord’s providential care of His Church throughout the ages. The creeds were forged in the wars against heterodoxy, and the Church was to remember the past.

In recent times, it has become common for ministers to believe that the modern Church can remain faithful with a simple “Bible-only” stance. After all, God’s Word is sufficient, as well as authoritative, so why do we need the (extra-biblical) creeds in our public worship? To argue as such, however, is to fail to grasp a basic inescapable reality, one which is fundamental to who we are as God’s creatures. Just as God made man to be homo liturgicus, so He made man to be homo confessionalis. And just as in the Fall we did not cease to be liturgical creatures—worshiping someone or something other than God—so also in the Fall we did not cease to be creedal creatures—confessing someone or something other than God. Creeds, as with worship, are one of the basic foundational realities of human life, and they are integral to worship (and idolatry).

So, it is not whether we will confess our beliefs or not, it is who or what we will confess. For even those who confess to have “no creed but the Bible” have just stated their Credo. Moreover, as a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), the Church has always been a confessing Church. We confess our sins, and we also confess our Savior: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

A church that does not say the historic creeds on a regular basis is like a nation that does not remember her “War of Independence” or her “Fight for Freedom”. She has forgotten where she has come from. She has forgotten who she is. She has despised her mother (Proverbs 15:20). For the great historic creeds are the wisdom of her mother, passed down through the centuries and across the millennia. We may be excused for ignorance, but ignorance should not be confused with ingratitude. Our Mother Kirk (Church) has left us with a rich inheritance, and we would do well to guard the good deposit, with thanksgiving.

One of the ways that we can express our thanksgiving to God is by saying a creed each Lord’s Day. Every week—and almost to a man—the Reformers did so. The main creed employed was the Apostles’ Creed, but Luther, Schwarz, and Cranmer also used the Nicene Creed. Cranmer was alone in using the Athanasian Creed on occasions in his service of Morning Prayer. The content of each is simple yet profound.

In the Apostles’ Creed, God the Father is affirmed as omnificent, the Maker of heaven and earth. His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, is affirmed as the only begotten Son, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and who, from womb to tomb to throne, won salvation for us. He is seated now and reigning; and He will soon be returning to judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit is affirmed as the One who brought into existence the one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and by whom we enjoy communion with all the saints. The Spirit also serves as the guarantee of our future in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

The Nicene Creed reaffirms the same beliefs, expanding on the deity of the Son and the Spirit. The Son is: begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. The Spirit is: the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.

In the Athanasian Creed we have the fullest defense of the Trinity. Here the Confession is antithetical in nature, affirming truths and denying falsehoods about the Godhead. Each person of the Trinity is affirmed as being uncreated, immeasurable, eternal, Almighty, God, and Lord. There are also denials of tritheism interspersed throughout: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not three eternals, or three uncreated beings, or three immeasureables, or three Almighties, or three Gods, or three Lords—they are one God in three persons and three persons in one God.

The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being. So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one Almighty Being. Thus, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God. Thus, the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord. Yet there are not three lords; there is but one Lord.

This is the Catholic Faith: “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.” Such beliefs comprised the Catholic Faith, “which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

For the Reformers, as with the original authors of the creeds, what was at stake in saying the creeds was a matter of life and death. In his book, Form of Ecclesiastical Prayers, Calvin wrote that, in saying (or singing) the Creed, God’s people testify that they “all wish to live and die in the Christian doctrine and religion.” Thus, when we are summoned by the minister on the Lord’s Day to stand and raise our voices as one, and to say what it is that we believe as Christians, we ought to do so with heads lifted high and with hearts burning with conviction. For in that moment, we are stating fundamental truths upon which our lives depend—truths, which in the past shook heaven and hell, and which in the future will do so again.

 

Editors Note:

This is an adapted excerpt from Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, ed. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 61–65. Used with permission.

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