Is it really unhelpful to recite the creeds?

On Steve Kneale’s blog is an article arguing against reciting the Creed in Church.  You can see his arguments here.  In this article, I’m going to offer a response. To be clear up front, I’m from a non-conformist background and am most comfortable in “non-liturgical” churches. However, I am not anti-liturgy. I think it can have its place providing it is done thoughtfully and doesn’t become mere routine ritual. In fact, I use a set liturgy as part of my personal devotions and we have used this as part of our online daily provision during lockdown.  We also will use a creed and the Lord’s Prayer from time to time as part of our Sunday worship but not every week.

One of the reasons why I am relaxed about liturgy in general is that having spent much of the last 46 years in non-liturgical churches, I have heard people pray in church, share testimonies, introduce songs and respond to talks. And, guess what? Over that time I’ve heard a lot of liturgy.  It isn’t liturgy written in a book somewhere but I can tell you exactly what Ethel will say in her prayer, I could even beat out the rhythm. I also know exactly how Fred will introduce the next song and what Alan will say when closing the service after my talk.[1] It is liturgy, often passed on from previous generations, it is just passed on orally not in writing.

When it comes to Steve’s arguments, I think his first problem is the assumption that it is only Anglicans who use Creeds when in fact there has been a long tradition of using them across the spectrum of non-conformity.  You see, they have been recognised as properly ecumenical – in the sense that they are not owned by one church tradition. Steve’s false dichotomy is seen in his assumption that Charismatics would not want to say the creeds. This rather forgets that the modern charismatic movement actually started within the Anglican tradition (think David Watson and Dennis Bennett) and continues to have a significant influence in the Church of England through the HTB strand of Anglicanism.  Being charismatic is first of all a theology position on the gifts of the Spirit and that may or may not lead to a preference for certain styles of worship but does not exclude a love of liturgy or the creeds.

Secondly, he argues that creeds are unhelpful because they require explanation.  That implies that the usefulness of something is dependent on it lacking the need for explanation.  The first purpose of a creed is to affirm common beliefs together.  That we might want to go further in explanation isn’t a detraction from usefulness, just a reminder that summaries usually need unpacking. Arguably, affirming things like the Trinity publicly is a reminder to us to give attention to that doctrine in our teaching.  I wonder, how many churches would actually mention the Trinity and the three persons at all in church without some form of creedal/liturgical formula.  Steve uses the examples of “Descended into Hell” and “Holy catholic Church” from the Apostle’s creed but that is to miss the point that the problem isn’t to do with reciting a creed but with some specific words and phrases in a specific creed and that is really to do with the evolution of language and translation challenges. 

So, if you recognise that “descended into hell” is problematic then say “he descended into the grave.” If people might think that “catholic” means Roman Catholic, say “Holy and worldwide church” You could also pick a creed that doesn’t have those lines, or you could skip them I guess.

Secondly Steve argues that there is a problem with authority. A Muslim will ask whether or not the Creeds are authoritative. He then goes on to distinguish the Creeds from preaching. Preaching, he argues is authoritative because it is a close exposition of Scripture. This begs the question – what does he think a creed is? The Creeds were produced carefully after much deliberation as an agreement about what the Church believed Scripture taught. The question then is “in what sense do you mean ‘Is this authoritative’ If you mean “Is this inspired and infallible?” then no it’s not, no more than the songs or my preaching.[2] However, what we are saying is that the creed is a summary of what Bible teachers, pastors, elders and indeed all church members down through the ages have agreed that the Bible teaches. So, in that sense it has a form of authority, just as there is an authority to my preaching but my preaching is not the infallible Word of God. 

Can I just add here, that Steve makes the mistake of universalising a specific contextual problem he finds himself in.  Just because Steve does not find reciting the creeds in church helpful in his particular context does not mean that they will be unhelpful elsewhere. 

Steve also argues from history. He says that Baptists as dissenters don’t use the creeds and that he hasn’t experienced them in churches he has attended. I understand that some “non conformists” or “dissenters” tend to take a very dim view on any pattern of words being used (including the Lord’s Prayer) and indeed the Brethren tradition would have tended towards this. However across non-conformist and baptistic traditions, there generally hasn’t been an issue with such things. I think that this arises out of a realisation that whilst very radical dissenters see the whiff of Rome in about everything, we can distinguish Roman Catholic traditions from those things that go back prior to the development of Catholicism into something unhealthy.

Finally, Steve seems to have a problem with us saying words collectively and not from the Bible because that is alien.  Yet, that is exactly what we do when we sing hymns.  Furthermore, we also  say things together in secular contexts. Here is one of my favourites. Join in if you know it.

Call: The football league

Response:  Is Upside Down

Together: The Football League is Upside down

I know a few more examples of corporate spoken verse but in generosity of spirit to Leeds United fans.   I’m choosing not to use them.

In the end this is a matter of local contextual wisdom and preference.  If one church prefers not to use the creeds as part of corporate worship, then that is for them to decide. There is no law on this matter.  However, this is quite different from saying that reciting the creeds is unhelpful and that others should not use them either.

[1] Names all made up to protect identities.

[2] I suspect there is a wider conversation here about how people from Muslim backgrounds understand concepts like authority and inspiration.

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