Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

Should churches stop using the historic Creeds in weekly worship? Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so and attempts to make the case with an essay that summarizes a longer sermon preached by Dr. Raymond E. Balcomb, a former pastor of First Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. The post is a follow-up to another creed-critical post from about a year ago that came in response a tweet in which I quoted Tom Noble on the importance of the Creeds for the people called Methodist. You can read my response to Jeremy’s earlier post here. This is an important discussion, and I’m grateful to Jeremy for facilitating continued reflection on the topic. In the end, I’m unpersuaded by Balcomb’s rationale for leaving the Creeds out of Sunday worship. Here are a few reasons why. 
Not intended for public worship?

Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb’s assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church’s liturgy. 

Too many questions?

Balcomb is also worried that the “Creed raises far more questions than it answers.” Rather than being a problem, this struck me as a good reason to say the Creeds. If they cause us to ask important questions about and wrestle with the historic articulations and meaning of our common faith, that seems to me quite healthy and favorable. I’m reminded of the chapter entitled “If you don’t get it, you’ve got it,” in Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells (chap. 5). Balcomb suggests that the creedal mixing of history and faith is confusing. Galli argues alternatively that the mystery of liturgical language is a reminder that the God we worship is, at some level, incomprehensible. The language of resurrection, ascension, of Christ’s coming again requires us to reckon with a God that we cannot control. Galli also suggests that our natural desire for worship that is completely understandable reflects a desire for a god that we can control. If we leave worship with no sense of mystery instead thinking we have all the answers, then we have not really worshiped the transcendent God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The great Creeds of the Church contribute well to that sense of mystery and create opportunity for pastors to engage the Church in discussion about the meaning of their ancient formulations. Balcomb criticizes the inadequacy of the Creed as a summary of faith. Perhaps we should see the Creed as a starting point that when taken seriously facilitates our ongoing wrestling with a God that is far beyond our understanding but who, nevertheless, makes himself known. 

Creed or Scripture?

Balcomb’s worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law,” in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, “One of the wonderful features of the Apostles’ Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures” (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church’s liturgy has historically used “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law” alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.

Behavior over Belief?

The last element of Balcomb’s essay that I want to interact with is the false dichotomy he creates between belief and behavior by repeatedly insisting that behavior is more important that belief. He is critiquing the view that right belief leads to right behavior. I agree with Balcomb’s critique if he means that professing the apostolic faith does not ensure right behavior, but his claim that behavior is more important than belief is unhelpful for two reasons.
First, he misconstrues the language of faith. For example, he says, “It is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to emulate him.” Well, if by “believe” you mean something akin to mental assent, then sure. But it would be more accurate to put it like this: It’s easier to say you believe Jesus than it is to emulate him. The biblical language of faith involves the idea of transformation. Authentic faith comes together with faithful living. 
Second, Balcomb’s insistence that behavior is more important that belief doesn’t really capture the complexity of the relationship between belief and behavior. It is true that belief affects behavior, but it is also true that behavior affects belief. This is one of the reasons that the Creed is important, not because it is a belief this is supposed to result in a certain kind of behavior, but because it is a behavior that should result in a certain kind of belief. James K. A. Smith has recognized and argued that liturgies have formative power. They shape us. They make us into certain kinds of people. The repetitive nature of liturgical practice actually deepens and transforms our faith. Professing the faith of the Creed is not merely a mental exercise; it is a bodily practice in which our mouths, tongues, lungs, vocal cords, and other muscles learn to run in particular grooves. This habit forming practice shapes the way we believe in God. So, it’s no reason to be rid of the Creed because we think it is merely a matter of faith that lacks the power to produce right practice. The Creed is a practice that has the potential to produce and instill the right kind of faith – faith in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 
Do we need the Creed?
Is the Creed really unhelpful in the end? Or does it provide a formative opportunity to grow in grace, faith, and as disciples of Jesus. Balcomb’s argument contains far too many flaws to serve as an adequate basis for overturning centuries of practice by removing creedal professions from public worship. The Creeds have long brought the apostolic faith to life in the experience of believers in powerfully formative ways. Let’s not rob our people of the opportunity to be confessionally united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages. 

13 thoughts on “Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

  1. Matt,

    Let me suggest the best way to learn to sing the liturgy is with a congregation that already does this. Episcopalians, Anglicans and Lutherans are the most likely Protestant candidates in the US.If Sundays are impossible for you (and I know as a pastor they may be), some have weekday or evening services as well. There are also United Methodist congregations here and there that sing or chant the Psalms and sing the communion responses.

    Call around, see who does this anywhere near you (either in Alabama, or when you're teaching at Asbury or Wesley) and at which service(s), then show up for a few weeks to get the hang of it.

    And ask your music folks– some of them may have this experience and be able to help lead your congregation to sing more of the liturgy in a way that works for your setting.


  2. –continued–

    3. The “Summary of the Law” material was a later Protestant (Presbyterian/Reformed) “replacement” for the decalogue used in the Sunday Service (and the BCP) as part of the opening penitential rite for the Eucharist. It, itself, has less historical pedigree in Methodist liturgy than the decalogue it could optionally replace. It shows up for the first time in Methodist ritual in the 1932/35/39 hymnal and in only one of the two forms of the ritual for Holy Communion approved for use in the 1944 Book of Worship. It is never in any “order of worship” (typical for Sunday morning use) but only in the Communion ritual– a ritual at that time typically celebrated quarterly, and only listed an an option. It is not in the 1966 or 1992 Book of Worship.

    So it's a latecomer, it adds to or replaces something that had no roots in the West or East prior to Calvin, and it is ONLY in the Communion rite, and there as an optional add-on, and only for a couple of decades.

    Meanwhile, all of the orders of worship for Sundays in these and previous hymnals include an affirmation of faith, which, when it is spelled out, is the Apostles Creed. While WHICH of the orders to use was up to the pastor, the instruction given was to pick one of the provided orders and use it consistently. And for the communion rite, the language was to use it exactly, except where options (such as the Summary of the Law) might be specified.

    So– given all of that– which has the greater pedigree to be included in weekly worship? Using the Apostles Creed (or, later, an optional other affirmation of faith) included in every form of the Sunday orders of service throughout the 19th and mid-20th century (up to Balcomb's time), or the Summary of the Law, introduced only in the 1932 communion ritual as an optional replacement for or addition to the decalogue and/or beatitudes as part of an opening petitential rite, and then reprinted in the 1944 Book of Worship, but not the 1964 hymnal or 1966 or 1992 Book of Worship, and never as a “constitutive thing in itself?”

    The Summary of the Law piece has been more constitutive in Reformed worship since the early 20th century– hence James K A Smith's reference to it in his description of the formative power of the Ordo in chapter five of Desiring the Kingdom. But it has never been constitutive for Methodists, nor was it ever anything other than an option given for a rite used quarterly or monthly at most, and an option provided officially only for a few decades (1932-1963)– I am presuming in part as a result of influence from Presbyterians in the Federal Council of Churches (as it was called at the time).

    Balcomb specifically complained about the antiquarian language of the form of the creed in the 1964/66 hymnal. That was a fair complaint at the time. It isn't now.

    4. The whole issue of “mixed types” in the creed– Keep in mind HOW the creed was in fact typically performed in worship throughout its long history– it was sung or chanted as part of the Ordinary of the Mass. Every mass setting you will find includes a setting for the Credo.

    So the problem he raises about mixed types vanishes if the Creed is offered as it has the longest (and ongoing) history of being offered.

    It was Reformed Protestants– not Anglicans (Wesley's tribe)– who insisted it be said rather than sung or acclaimed. They were the ones trying to turn it into a fundamentally declaratory statement of “faith-facts.” It's past time we got over our association of singing the creed with “Catholicism” and got back to singing or acclaiming the Creed more as a hymn text or psalm– which is what it is– than as primarily a form of didactic “messaging” or a doctrinal checklist.

    So while I can respect that Balcomb thought as he did, and I can respect him for saying that so clearly, I don't find any of his stated reasons for doing so compelling on historical, theological or liturgical grounds.


  3. Jeremy–

    1. The creed or other affirmation of faith remained in constant use in Methodist orders of worship through the 19th and into the early 20th century. The baptismal ritual changed with some regularity, including whether or how the Creed would be used (including whether the line “he descended into Hell”– included by Wesley in 1784) would be included. The Apostles Creed itself was not generally considered optional in the ritual prior to the Civil War. Afterwards, you start seeing other options also being made available.

    2. It is fair to expect any pastor to know the construction “pisteuo eis.” This is simply fundamental Greek exegetical work that is critical to understanding the New Testament itself. And if a pastor is going to comment on the creeds, which we have in translation from Greek and Latin, it seems fair to me to expect the pastor to have a working knowledge of the original or at least one of those languages– or to have consulted resources that do. My hunch is he didn't know the construction, and perhaps was more influenced in his rejection of them by post-Enlightenment/liberal misreadings of the creeds which did precisely make the kinds of accusations of them (that they were all about giving intellectual assent)– but again, accusations that are linguistically unsustainable on the face of it.
    — to be continued–


  4. My question is “If not in Sunday worship services, then when?”

    Sure as a seminary-educated person I was reading the Apostolic Fathers over breakfast this morning…but I bet nobody else in my church was.

    My point is that if not presented in the liturgy of the church I am not sure when in the life of the average lay person they would get much exposure to the creed so as to really embrace/wrestle with/and truly affirm it.

    My suspicion when I hear stories like this is that the idea is precisely to get away from affirming it, though that is probably an unfair presumption on my part (as I confessed – through song – in the Ash Wednesday service last night, I am indeed often too quick to judge the motives of others).

    As to the question of Weekly recitation…we do not use the Apostles Creed every week of the year…during Advent and parts of Eastertide we use the Nicene Creed 🙂
    We certainly do include an affirmation of our faith each Sunday – as a reminder to believers and also because we may have those in our midst who do not believe in Christ at all, and the Creed does indeed raise good questions for them.

    Arguing that the creed should be used in worship but not on a weekly basis seems a bit odd to me (because of my own experiences it feels rather like arguing the same thing for the Lord's Prayer), especially in light of the centuries of experience of the universal church that has found saying the creed weekly (and not only weekly, but even daily in the Offices) to be a spiritually helpful thing.

    Of course, though I think the historically-rooted ways of arranging worship are actually the best, there certainly are other ways of doing things (I've attended many a Baptist church that did not use the Creed but, so far as I can tell, did in fact believe the content thereof…but then again I stopped attending those churches in part because of the lack of historical rootedness).


  5. ==First, comments to Matt: ==

    1. Balcomb concludes the first section with saying the Creed “may or may not prove useful from time to time in public worship.” He would agree with you that its use in baptismal rites would be wholly appropriate. I believe you are both in the same opinion regarding its appropriateness in baptismal liturgy–I chalk this misunderstanding up to this being a sermon rather than an academic paper (though he would be unable to verify my belief at this point).

    2. Balcomb's assertion isn't to remove it because of poetry or symbolic language. Quite the contrary, the assertion is that because it can be viewed as a mixture of many types of language that it is confusing. When we read from the Psalms, we give context that it clearly is evocative language/symbolism/imagery. If the Creed were to be neatly categorized as merely a historical document, then that would be fine. But it isn't that easily categorized and thus its language bears constant re-framing and (like Balcomb) I'd rather spend my preaching time talking about a lived faith than rehashing what “born of the Virgin Mary” meant.

    Conclusion: I can accept your argument that both the Summary and the Creed serve different purposes. Perhaps then there needs to be more intentionality in how we use the Creed: either as a method of instruction or as a faith statement or something clearer. A perpetual framework would be helpful.

    For example, in my church growing up, we sang the Apostle's Creed every Sunday. By singing it, we perhaps gave more symbolic/evocative language to its claims rather than as historical fact or faith statement. By just saying “recite the creed here” we fall into Balcomb's trouble with the mixture of different types of language in one document (which I still find to be a valid concern).

    ==Second, comments to TWBE.==

    1. I have an 1896 edition of the 1876 Hymnal and in its “order of public worship” it states that the Apostle's Creed is optional. As well, the Baptismal Rite for Infants doesn't include the Apostle's Creed but asks if the person upholds it (the Rite for adults does include the Creed). Odd that the same ritual isn't using the Creed consistently. At what point in our history did the Creed become optional?

    2. This is a 1966 sermon. To hold Balcomb responsible for not having the updated language in the Creeds since 1966 or the “put whole trust in his grace” that has become more commonplace isn't very fair.

    3. The “Summary of the Law” is not the same as the Decalogue, so I'm unsure why the comparison between the two. Or is “Decalog” referring to something else that I'm missing? If not, reciting the 10 Commandments is not comparable to reciting Jesus' Greatest Commandment, 2nd Greatest, and the Golden Rule (essentially). He is clear about this in the sermon.

    Thanks for your all's responses. This is an interesting conversation!


  6. So let me weigh in a bit from a “history of the liturgy” perspective.

    First, Wesley did include the Apostles Creed in the Sunday Service sent over for use by Methodists, and there is no question he intended it (and the entirety of the service) be used every Sunday morning, because he included it not in the Eucharist (there he dropped the Nicene Creed) but Morning Prayer– which was to be prayed prior to the Eucharist and which was to be the guide for worship when Eucharist was not celebrated (which was most Sundays for early American Methodist Episcopalians–like, 11 out of 12).

    Second, while Wesley, following the 1662 BCP, included the decalog in the Communion Service as an extended opening penitential rite, this rite was NOT included in Morning Prayer– which, again, became the template for what most Methodists were doing on most Sundays.

    Third, Rev. Balcomb apparently did not know or chose to overlook the meaning of the grammatical construction in both Greek (pisteuo eis Deum) and Latin (credo in Deum)– where the verb of believing is followed by a preposition for “in” that takes the accusative case. When that happens in Greek or Latin, the meaning is not “what follows is a set of propositions we assent to” but rather “what follows we stake our lives on.” This is why in our baptismal covenant we do not simply ask whether candidates “confess Jesus Christ as Savior” but continue with “put your whole trust in his grace.” “Put your whole trust in” is a more accurate translation of the Greek and Latin behind these “I believe” statements in both the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds.

    4. Rev. Balcomb also apparently did not know how the decalog/law piece ended up in the BCP, and thus in Methodist ritual (at least for a time) in the first place. It was not part of the historic Western or Eastern liturgies, but rather was introduced into English ritual from the continent via the Reformed wing of English Christian leaders who were trained primarily in Frankfurt and the Netherlands. Call it a liturgical concession, if you will. But until that time, “the law” was simply not any sort of regular part of weekly worship EXCEPT among some continental Protestants. We could go a far trail discussing how this both plays out in and sharpens some Reformed atonement theologies that were also previously alien (at least in their more extreme Reformed forms) to English, Western or Eastern liturgical or soteriological theologies.

    So on those grounds, if I were sensing any need to CHOOSE between the two on the basis of historical meaning, use and development, I'd pick the creeds over the Law every time.

    On this matter, I'm with Matt. The Law, if we include it at all, is intended to do something different, both liturgically and theologically, than the Creed. I would argue we really do not have a compelling reason to be faced with the Law every Sunday– but we do have a compelling reason as part of a global and centuries long community of faith to confess what we stake our lives on. And that the creeds actually do help us do really well– especially since we have newer translations that get over the antiquated ones in use in 1966.

    Creeds surely aren't the only way to do that– but they're an awfully good one that have stood the test of centuries of use across the whole of the church.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards


  7. Hi Jeremy, thanks for taking time to interact on this issue. It is certainly important. A few thoughts in reply:

    1. I don't think I've misconstrued the argument. He says specifically that, “it should be noted that the Apostles‘ Creed was not developed for use in public worship.” Well, inasmuch as they were part of the baptismal liturgy, they were developed for us in public worship. Granted, their use in worship has developed over the centuries. But my suggestion is that the development is natural and useful.

    2. I resisted digging more deeply into the questions related to mixing history, symbol, and faith because I didn't want an already too long post to go too far off the trail. I will simply say that the categories Balcomb sets forth are highly debatable and their usefulness is highly suspect. As G.B. Caird once said, “Christianity appeals to history and to history it must go.” The Christian faith is an historical faith. It is faith that grows out of historical events. It is faith in historical events. It is faith in an historical person and an historical resurrection. I hear what Balcomb is saying when he talks about symbolic language. God does not have a right hand. But Jesus does, and that right hand carries the marks of the cross and holds authority over all things, which is what that line of the creed means. Also, the profession that Jesus is seated on his heavenly throne reminds us that the one who reigns over heaven and earth is an embodied human being. Wouldn't want to call that symbolic. So, I think the better course of action, rather than discarding the Creed, is embracing it and taking the time to talk about what it means. Worship would be rather flat if we took all the variety of poetry out of the liturgy.

    3. I'm not surprised that we agree here. And I'm thankful for it!

    4. It is peculiar at best to say something is important for worship and then set forth an argument for why it is not useful in worship. It is not clear that he says (as you say he says) that the Creed is important “in worship”. He seems to assert the importance of the Creed in general, but reject it for use in worship.

    My goal throughout was highlight the flaw of Balcomb's either-or approach to the issue. Rather than assert the Lord's summary of the Law is better than the Creed, let's just use both. They seem to function in different ways anyway. The Creed may be brief summary of the faith, but it's not a summary of the Law. So, it's a false either-or to set them against one another.

    We need to remember, as you indicate, the Creed is only one element in the overall liturgy. It is not intended to carry all the weight of instruction. It may not address every aspect of the faith adequately, but what does. No single verse of scripture captures every teaching of scripture. No single hymn adequately captures the fullness of Christian faith (though 'And Can it Be' comes close!). The Creed is one plank in the liturgical platform. Let's allow it to do what it is able to do and not expect it to do more. There are sermons and songs and Psalters for that.


  8. Matt, thanks for the engagement. Here's the points where I don't believe you've engaged the post well:

    1. You've misconstrued Balcomb's argument: He did not say that the Creeds were not to be used in public worship–that's obviously their origins as use in rites of baptism and initiation. His argument is directed at their use in weekly worship. Where you wrote “admittedly the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church” IS his argument–which you conceded! Everything else in that paragraph is responding to something that Balcomb did not claim.

    2. A critical piece of Balcomb's argument is that the Apostle's Creed is a mixture of historical fact, faith statement, and symbolism. When we sing a hymn, we know we are singing symbolism. When we recite a faith statement, we know we are saying a faith statement. When we read from Scripture, we can delineate in the moment whether this is poetry, prose, history, or teachings. Short of a color-coded Apostle's Creed that delineates which line is which (if we could even agree), there's no way to properly summarize the Creed's varied language. That's his claim that is unaddressed thus far.

    3. I agree with your section on belief v. practice…fifty years of psychology and ritual studies since 1966 have found more value in repetition and relationship between thought and action. I happily concede that point as not standing the test of time–though his claim that “it is easier to” think than to act something I believe we can both agree on, though the relationship is not that dichotomous (is that a word?).

    4. To your closing, Balcomb does not claim to “remove the Creedal confession from public worship.” You cherry-picked and didn't address his opening paragraph where he points out its importance in public worship. Rather, Balcomb uses historical and pedagogical reasons as to why the Creed is not as useful in public weekly worship as the Summary of the Law. Those still remain unaddressed by this post.

    In short, Balcomb takes a pedagogical stance with relation to the Creed: what does it teach new Christians, what does it remind Christians, and what does it do to spur both to live out our faith. Hymns, Sermon, Scripture, Table, Liturgy, the Liturgical Year all address all three areas–why not the Creed? And if the Creed doesn't address these areas adequately, then is it useful in weekly worship? He thus promotes the Summary of the Law as more original to Jesus and more useful to spur us unto action. If those are his values and his congregations values, I think its a commendable engagement with the question.

    While I appreciate your own engagement, it's more helpful when you engage what a blog explicitly is arguing, not a few lines of a few paragraphs here and there. However, since it was originally a sermon, remembering and engaging a few lines is sometimes the best a preacher can hope for!



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