Classical Anglicanism 5: The Three Creeds

Classical Anglicanism 5: The Three Creeds

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Welcome back to our long running series on classical Anglicanism, in which we are exploring what it means to be "Bible Catholics" in the Anglican tradition. Previously, we introduced the concept of classical Anglicanism, we discussed the essentiality of the Scriptures in two posts, and we discussed the importance of the classical Books of Common Prayer to our tradition and to our formation in the faith.

Today we discuss the importance of the Creeds to classical Anglicanism. The great Creeds of the Church tie us to historic catholicity and put us within the Great Tradition. In the West, we have generally considered three of the historic Creeds to be the most important, to the point that we often refer to them as the "Ecumenical" Creeds. These are the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. All three Creeds are trinitarian in their design, and discuss how the Persons of the Trinity relate to each other and to Creation in the grand story of Redemption. They were developed in the life of the Church between the Second and Eighth Centuries as a tool for catechesis, as a means to battle heresy, and as liturgical aids. At the time of the Reformation, one of the ways the English Church countered the accusation of reviving old heresies was to affirm the ancient Creeds.

Scriptural Teachings

More importantly, the Creeds sum up essential Scriptural teachings. Article VIII of the 39 Articles of Religion, one of the classical Anglican formularies, states that these Creeds "ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Scripture." That is, the main reason the Creeds are important to Anglicans is not their connection to the Early Church and the Fathers, as vital as that connection is. Rather, the main importance of the Creeds is that they are Scriptural. As we have seen in previous posts, Scripture is the supreme authority for Anglicans, and everything we believe must be tested by God's Word.

Three Ecumenical Creeds

The Apostles' Creed is both the oldest and youngest of the three Creeds. It is called the Apostles' Creed because it is a summary of the Apostolic teaching. As early as the Second Century, Church Fathers such as Irenaeus indicate the use of statements of belief that would eventually become the Apostles' Creed. However, it doesn't reach its current form until the Eighth Century. Evidence indicates that in its earliest use, the Apostles' Creed, especially in its earlier forms, was used primarily as a baptismal formula for new converts in Rome. That is, the Creed was used to teach catechumens, and was to be affirmed in the baptismal rite. Eventually, it spread to the rest of the Western Church and is still used in baptisms today. Other than its use in baptism, the Apostles' Creed has traditionally been used in the Daily Offices and other non-Eucharistic services. It serves to constantly remind us of our baptism and the basics of what we believe.

The Nicene Creed has its roots in the first Ecumenical Council, which was held in the city of Nicaea in year 325. It was later slightly altered and amended at the Council of Constantinople in 381. These Councils were called to deal with the widespread controversy surrounding the heresy of Arianism, which denied the full divinity of Jesus. The purpose of the Creed is to set forth the basics of Trinitarian belief in the face of such heresies. In the West, we traditionally use the Nicene Creed in Eucharistic services. It is the only Creed universally recited in the East. The Nicene Creed is longer and more detailed than the Apostles' Creed, but less detailed than the Athanasian Creed.

The Athanasian Creed is unique to the Western Church, and has its root as a private confession of faith. It was once considered to be the work of St. Athanasius himself, but this is generally not believed anymore, as the Creed did not appear in writings until centuries after Athanasius, and bears all the marks of being originally written in Latin rather than Greek. Nevertheless, it expresses a strong and precise Trinitarian orthodoxy, and Athanasius was the champion of such teachings during the Arian crisis. In fact, it seemed at one point that it was Athanasius contra mundum: "Athanasius against the [whole] world." By the Middle Ages, many monastic communities were singing the Athanasian Creed as a canticle daily in their Offices. This canticle is usually called by its Latin name, Quicunque Vult.  In the first versions of the Book of Common Prayer, it was used as an occasional canticle in Morning Prayer. By the 1662 version of the Prayer Book, it was used in lieu of the Apostles' Creed at Morning Prayer thirteen times a year on certain holy days. Unfortunately the American Church dropped it completely from our classical editions of the Book of Common Prayer, likely due to the condemnation clauses at the end. In fact, the American version of Article VIII only names the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed. In modern Anglican liturgies, the Athanasian Creed is often used on Trinity Sunday, but rarely at other times.

A Bishop's Wisdom

Lancelot Andrewes, one of the bishops who helped oversee the translation of the King James Bible, famously described Anglican faith as "One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period - the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith." After the Scriptures themselves, the Creeds are the most important connection we Anglicans have to historic Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, they provide a good summary of the basics of the Christian faith as described in Scripture. Since they sum up Scriptural truth and are marks of historic catholicity, the Creeds form one of the most important elements of classical Anglicans living up to our calling as "Bible Catholics."

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