How many of us can recite the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed from memory? I would dare say that in today’s post-Christian world, many of us cannot. We are living in a time when biblical illiteracy is at it’s highest, while in regards to existential and entertainment fulfillment we are soaring. There is a danger of being so subsumed in worship that we fail to see what history and doctrines exist that give substance to our worship. We also run the risk, amidst the sea of literature (both terrible and brilliant) of losing sight of the core elements of the Faith. How do we deal with those concerns? We memorize creeds.
From the earliest sources (the Gospels and Epistles) we see creedal formulations circling around the church as a testament to what it is that the early Jewish and Gentile Christians believed about Jesus. I will list them referentially here, and I encourage you to go to your Bible, read them, and see that they are creedal expressions of the basics of the faith. Some of these would be 1 Corinthians 15:3-6, 1 Corinthians 8:6, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Philippians 2:5-11, etc. What you see in all these situations is an early confession of the deity of Christ, life, death, burial, resurrection and the blessed hope we have in him. These are the earliest confessions of the church.
Now, while I definitely recommend searching your Bibles for this collection of creeds from within scripture, what are we to do with creeds expressed from within early Christendom? Traditionally when we consider these creeds we really have three in mind. We have the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. We are going to briefly evaluate them one by one before going on to why we should bother to learn them.
The Apostles Creed is by far the simplest of the 3 Creeds listed above, and for good reason. It has a similar riff, like 1 Corinthians 15, of simply listing the basic facts. This creed is a confessing preference of mine for two reasons. The first is the complete lack of doctrinal controversy within it and the simple flow of thought. We move from the Father, to the person of Jesus, and finally to the Holy Spirit and His application of these Christians truths to both the church corporately and the believer individually.
The Nicene Creed comes on the heals of having to defend the deity of Jesus, and a more full explication of what Scripture teaches. We see a Trinitarian reflection of who God is and within each of those persons of the Trinity we see the “person and work” of each. What we see also is a very clear expression that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine, which, from a historical perspective, was what the need for this creed was all about. It was combating a heretical doctrine that Jesus was not divine, and by extension, that the Holy Spirit was not divine either.
The Athanasian Creed is continuing in explication of Scripture, but in this case, it is specifically in relation to God’s triune nature. It affirms the distinctiveness of each member of the Trinity, but also maintains, quite beautifully, the unity. The phrase, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity” comes precisely from this creed, and is a succinct truth that should be memorized.
The question that comes up now is why should I memorize any creeds at all? Let us lay out two reasons why we should memorize creeds as a natural and necessary element of our Christian life. The first reason to memorize the Creeds is confession and the second is protection.
First, what do I mean by confession? I mean the ability to instill the basic confession of the Christian faith in a way that is easily committed to memory and nearly impossibly to forget. The fundamentals of the faith of God’s nature, Jesus the Messiah, His death and resurrection, and coming eschatological resurrection are all vitally important truths of the Gospel. The ability to confess these things is important both to instilling what we believe, but in also being able to proclaim it.
One of the more interesting things about this reason is that it is powerful when you actually take the time to open up and explain each verse of, let’s say, the Nicene Creed. It’s not as though this becomes some rote repetition that is meaningless, but it becomes a framework by which further study is made manifest. Much like we can meditate on a beautiful song, or try to explain what the author of the song meant, we can also, once we have committed a creed to memory, unpack it in all it’s glory and beauty.
Second, what do I mean by protection? One of the most dangerous, and it seems prevalent, things in the modern church is error and ignorance on fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. We live in a culture that knows so little about what it actually believes, and then by extension, because it knows so little it also affirms much error. One of the benefits of reciting, memorizing, and unpacking these creeds bit by bit is that you get a solid take on the central truth claims of Christianity, and protection from gross and misleading error.
Now another element of this idea of protection to consider is when, if ever, there comes a time where we are without our Bibles. As a Western nation we are an embarrassment of riches regarding Biblical resources. What if we were in a nation that subjugated Christians violently, as in the early church, or divested us of our Bibles? What would we have? If we have Creeds memorized (as well as the Lord’s Prayer and verses) we have a way to confess our hope in Jesus, and protect ourselves from spiritual starvation. It becomes our reminder and foundation in a time of trial that has both breadth and depth.
Now, will any of these creeds give you a full picture of the Biblical story of redemption, fully explain everything you will undoubtedly come across, or protect you from every single possible error? No, absolutely not. That however is not a reason to regard them as anything less than immensely valuable. The creeds fundamentally boil down to that which Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:11:
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus the Messiah.”