Article 8 — Of the Three Creeds
Posted by Simon Vibert, 8 Mar 2017
Simon Vibert looks at what our confession says about the creeds.
VIII — Of THE THREE CREEDS
The Three creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.
Some of the 39 Articles were particularly contentious and reflective of the controversies of the 16th Century Reformation in England and the Continent. Not so Article 8.
Article 8 is a central statement around which Christians have agreed, namely advocating assent to the three central creeds as touchstones of authentic Christian faith. This is hardly to suggest that there are no contentious issues or causes of debate in the early centuries of the Church (briefly touched on below). However, it was universally agreed across the Eastern and Western Church that these creeds summarise the core belief of the universal Church. Hence, as the article commends, they “ought thoroughly to be received and believed”, not least because their content may be found in Scripture.
However, despite widespread assent to these three creeds in the 16th and 17th Century, the same is not true today. In 21st Century England there is contention over the function — and sometimes the theology — of the three creeds. Why? For three reasons, in ascending seriousness:
First, the creeds are largely not consistently recited in Anglican public worship. Maybe some believe them to be too formulaic, or jarring with an age which sees little pedagogical value in rote repetition.
Secondly, as a consequence of the previous point perhaps, the creeds — particularly, but not exclusively, the Athanasian Creed — are unknown to today’s Anglicans. Hence, far from being a touchstone of orthodoxy, they do not provide the true test of authentic faith as they were intended to.
Thirdly, also as a consequence of the above, the creeds often are ignored when matters of public discourse and debate surface. The Church of England is in danger of forgetting the lessons learnt by previous generations which led to the formation of the creeds. Equally disappearing from view are the 39 Articles themselves, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Canons of the Church.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF CONTENT OF THE THREE CREEDS
The Apostles’ Creed succinctly summarises the core belief in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, which is necessary for salvation:
God the Father is creator of all in heaven and earth. God the Son is conceived by the Holy Spirit, incarnated in human flesh, crucified, died, rose and ascended into heaven with the Father, and will come again as judge. God the Holy Spirit, through whom we are made members of the universal church, helps us know the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
The Nicene Creed contains the same Trinitarian formula of belief in one God, who is Father and creator of all; the only, and eternally begotten Son, of the same substance with the Father; and the life-giving Holy Spirit. This creed expands the core beliefs, to speak of the entirety of the creation as of the Father, the very essence and being of the Son as being the same as the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s “procession”, or “double procession” from the Father and the Son (the Filioque clause). In addition, following on from the historic Council of Nicaea, here is a confident affirmation of the holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic Church, for which baptism is essential for forgiveness and true membership.
The Athanasian Creed begins very differently: “whosoever wishes to be saved…must hold the catholic faith….(which is) this…”
The three triads “such as the Father is, such as the Son is, such as the Holy Spirit is…” emphasise the equality and divinity of all three persons of the Trinity. Moreover, whilst we are to confess faith in each person of the Trinity, we are in no way to infer that there are three Gods. Nor should we assume that by so emphasising the co-equal divinity of all three persons that we thereby deny the incarnation and humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
RELEVANCE OF ARTICLE 8 FOR THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND TODAY
The Apostles’ Creed is meant to be recited at Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Nicene Creed is part of the service of Holy Communion. Athanasius’ Creed is proscribed instead of the Apostles Creed on fourteen occasions during the liturgical year (including Christmas Day, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday). Common Worship contains a shortened, responsive version of the Athanasian Creed for those who cannot quite make it through the strong meat of the full edition.
It seems to me that ensuring the three creeds are used in our corporate worship is highly desirable! Here are four Anglican reasons why I believe this to be the case:
1. Our faith is public
Neither in the Scriptures nor in our liturgy, is faith thought of as merely a private, personal affair. “Let the word of God dwell among you (plural)”, it says in Colossians 3:16. Yes, it must be private and personal, but it must also be public and corporate. Along with the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Anglican liturgy assumes that our worship is a public declaration.
2. Our faith requires active assent
We are called to believe with our heart and confess with our lips in order to be saved (see Romans 10:9-10.). The act of consenting to the biblical beliefs of the Church is necessary for salvation. This is more than recitation of the creeds, but surely not less?
3. Our faith is corporate and communal
In an individualistic age we want to affirm that corporate worship, somehow and in God’s providence, is more than the sum of the individuals’ present. Whatever we believe about prophecy in this context, the same principle should work with our public declarations: “…if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all… exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
4. Our faith is liturgical
It may well be that early forms of the creeds lie behind 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Philippians 2:5-11, and 2 Timothy 2:8-13. If this is the case then we have the earliest commendation of a form of set liturgy, to be recited in public worship. The BCP gives us a pattern of worship which has stood the test of time, and when replaced by less formal (or no) liturgies is invariably weaker.
So, in the light of Article 8, let us publicly, believingly, actively, corporately, communally, and liturgically affirm our belief in the triune God!
Simon Vibert is the Vice Principal and Director of the School of Preaching at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
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