In our last article on the order of worship we discussed the question of the reading of the law in the worship service. Usually, within our Protestant Reformed Churches, the law is read in the morning worship service and the Apostles’ Creed is read in the afternoon or evening service. In this article we shall discuss the reading of the Apostles’ Creed.
There are several aspects to this question which need to be discussed, all of which are worth some thought and consideration. We shall treat these different aspects separately.
While, as we have noticed before, there are several parts of our order of worship which are expressly commanded in Scripture, this is not true of the reading of the Apostles’ Creed—or of any other creed for that matter. Quite obviously, this would hardly be expected. At the time in which Scripture was written there were as yet no creeds to be used in the worship services; the creeds were formulations of the truth of Scripture which arose in the church through the work of the Spirit of Truth Whom Christ had promised on the eve of His suffering and death on the cross. Reading of the creed in the worship service, therefore, belongs to the area of Christian liberty. It is not a violation of Scripture to omit it.
Nevertheless, the idea itself is wholly Biblical. This is clear when we understand, in the first place that the unity of the church of Christ is a unity of faith: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. . .” (Eph. 4:3-5). And in the second place, this is evident when we consider that this faith which unites the church must come to verbal expression: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Rom. 10:10). When the church comes together in worship—when in a worship service we have an earthly manifestation of the body of Christ—then nothing could be more in keeping with this characteristic of the church than that she together confesses her faith.
Apparently, the church of Jesus Christ has felt this very deeply. It is possible that there are to be found in Scripture early creedal formulations of the truth which were used by the church already at the time of the apostles. We have one instance of this in I Timothy 3:16: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” Many scholars take the position that Paul speaks here of a confession which was used in the early church to give verbal testimony to the faith which the church believed. It is quite possible that this is indeed the case.
However that may be, it is clear that the Apostles’ Creed was used by the church already as early as the ninth century; it was used extensively in the church from that time on; and this practice was taken over by the Reformers, although in some instances it was used along with the Nicene Creed. It has been used ever since in many churches of the Reformation.
The Apostles’ Creed is ideal for liturgical use in the worship services. It is sufficiently brief—it is difficult to imagine how any of the creeds of the Reformation, as long as they are, could be used for confession of faith within the worship service. It is a creed which contains all the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. So much, in fact, is this true that the Heidelberg Catechism bases a large part of its instruction in the truth on this Apostles’ Creed and expounds it as a way of expounding the truth of Scripture.
It is in this connection that it might be well to discuss briefly the use of other creeds for liturgical purposes. In some of our churches it is becoming increasingly common to read, in the place of the Apostles’ Creed, either the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, or the Chalcedonian Creed. While there cannot be anything wrong with this practice as such, it ought to be obvious that each of these creeds is very limited in its doctrinal contents. The Nicene Creed deals chiefly with the doctrine of the trinity and the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ; the Chalcedonian creed deals almost exclusively with the relation between the human and the divine natures of Christ in the one Person of the Son of God; and the Athanasian Creed is a broader expression of the two doctrines contained in the Nicene Creed and in the Chalcedonian Creed. The Apostles’ Creed has none of the limitations, but includes all the basic doctrines of the Christian doctrines of the Christian faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is also a truly ecumenical creed. There is a good ecumenicity and there is a bad ecumenicity. The latter is that practiced in our day which seeks to unite the church world on the basis of the lowest doctrinal common denominator. The former is the true union of the one, holy, Catholic Church of Jesus Christ. It is sometimes forgotten by us that we are a church which stands in true union with all the church of Christ in the past—the church which has now gone to glory to join the company of just men made perfect; and we are one with the church of Christ which is found, even at the present time, throughout the world, gathered from every nation and tribe and tongue. The Apostles’ Creed, because of its early origin, is the possession of the whole church of Christ throughout the world. It was formulated at about the time that the church began her great mission enterprise, and it is a creed which the church has carried with her throughout the entire world. So it has become the possession of the whole church. Wherever the church of Christ gathers, this creed is confessed. It is in this way that the creed is a bond which unites God’s people everywhere in the one unity of the faith. It would be well if we were more conscious of this in our Sabbath worship services when we confess these truths together.
All of this is not to say, of course, that there are not many in the world who confess this creed as well as we, but who do not belong to the church of Christ. This stands to reason. Just as there are many who outwardly claim to stand on the basis of our Three Forms of Unity, but who in fact deny the truths set forth in them, so also it is true that this happens with the Apostles’ Creed. But this ought not to deter us from its use. They may confess with their mouth what is said in this creed while they deny these truths with their heart. Sometimes even talk is made of giving the words of the creed a meaning other than the historical meaning which the church has always given to it. Sometimes people speak of reciting the creed “with tongue in cheek.” But in this way they bring the judgment of God upon them. The creed still belongs to the church of Christ and it will remain her possession as long as the world continues.
What place ought the confession of the Apostles’ Creed to occupy in the liturgy? There have been various opinions on this. For example, Lasco put the speaking of the creed in the liturgy after confession of sin and absolution as an expression of praise to God for His grace in the forgiveness of sins. It ought to be apparent from this that no firm rule can be made concerning this matter. Generally speaking, it seems appropriate that the speaking of the creed ought to come as near to the beginning of the service as possible. It seems appropriate that very near the beginning of her worship, the church confess together her unity of faith—her unity in her own fellowship; her unity with the denomination of which she is a part; her unity with the church throughout the world, and her unity with the church of Christ throughout the ages. But I say again, no firm rules can be made about this. (It is a point worth talking about sometime, that the whole of the liturgy ought to have unity, harmony, progression, and beauty to it. Perhaps this can be discussed in some future article.)
Finally, the question has sometimes been raised whether the creed ought to be recited in unison by the whole congregation, or whether it ought to be read by the minister, while the congregation speaks these words of the confession in her heart. If the latter practice is followed, the minister usually introduces the creed with the words: “Let us make confession of our faith, each one saying in his heart. . . .” There is, however, some good ground for favoring the speaking of the creed by the whole congregation. Earlier in the article, I referred to Romans 10:10 where explicit mention is made of the fact that those who are saved both believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths. While, of course, the text has wider application than the speaking of the Apostles’ Creed in the worship service, it nevertheless makes a point of emphasizing that confession with the mouth is important and necessary to salvation. Further, our Communion Forms includes the creed in the prayer which is made after the didactic part of the creed is read and before the Lord’s Supper itself is celebrated. Apparently the authors of the form wanted this part of the prayer to be spoken aloud by all, for they introduce this section of the prayer with the words: “Strengthen us also by this Holy Supper in the catholic undoubted Christian faith, whereof we make confession with our mouths and hearts, saying. . . .” And then follow the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
Once again, while we become so accustomed to the reading or speaking of the creed that we hardly know what we are doing, we ought nevertheless understand its importance in the liturgy of the worship service and truly make this a part of our worship of Jehovah our God.