The Devotional Benefit of (Regularly) Reading Creeds
Thanks to Crossway’s recent publication of Jonathan Gibson’s excellent resource, Be Thou My Vision: A Liturgy for Daily Worship, I have, since the beginning of this year, been immersed in the creeds on a daily basis. Each morning, as a part of the daily liturgy in this resource, readers privately confess their belief in the Christian God by reading either the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasius Creed. Engaging in this practice was a refreshing novelty for the first couple of weeks—when unfamiliarity was still a feature and certain words or phrases struck me as surprising—but doing so daily for seven months, this practice has turned into something much deeper and richer. Now, I am beginning to notice not so much certain elements about the creed, but rather, I notice certain elements of myself—ways that I have been shaped by the habit of confessing the creeds daily.
The Creeds and the Formation of Theological Imagination
First, reading the creeds daily has impacted the way I think about, and pray to, God. Increasingly, when I think of what it means to worship God, I think of worshipping the “one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confounding their Person nor dividing their essence.” When I pray to my Father in heaven, I am aware of the fact that I am praying to the “Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible,” of whom the “only begotten Son of God” is “begotten… before all the worlds,” and from whom (with the Son) the Holy Spirit—“the Lord and Giver of Life”—proceeds. When I think of Christ, I am amazed by the one who is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Consequently, it is unthinkable that I should ever imagine any kind of hierarchy in this simple, single, godhead, since “none in this Trinity is before or after, none-is greater or smaller; in their entirety, the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.”Reading the creeds daily has impacted the way I think about, and pray to, God. Click To Tweet
This has done wonders for my life of worship. To contemplate this almighty, transcendent, eternal, omnipotent God is to comprehend and worship “the unity in Trinity and the Trinity in unity.” I find myself positively delighting in the Spirit’s designation of “Giver of Life,” and find no difficulty at all with worshipping and glorifying him together with the Father and the Son. I find myself awestruck by the Trinity’s being “immeasurable” and “uncreated” and “one” and “eternal” and “almighty,” with my heart resounding in agreement and full desire to “confess each person individually as both God and Lord,” and embracing with full appreciation that “catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords.” Indeed, I feel as if I am getting a better grasp at what Dante describes in his final canto of Paradiso when he writes,
Within the depthless deep and clear existence
of that abyss of light three circles shone—
three in color, one in circumference:
the second from the first, rainbow from rainbow;
the third, an exhalation of pure fire
equally breathed forth by the other two.
The God of the creeds is the God Dante beautifully describes here. He is, paradoxically, a “depthless deep” and “clear existence.” His incomprehensible nature is an “abyss,” but it is not an abyss of nothingness—empty and void of life. His is an “abyss of light.” Within the inner life of this God—the “one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity,” the “three in color, one in circumference”—the Son is from the Father (“the second from the first”) and is Light from Light. Is it not fitting to describe this eternal generation as “rainbow from rainbow?” Is it not appropriate to describe the Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father and Son as “an exhalation of pure fire?” Daily confession of the creeds has acquainted me with the God whom Dante poetically praises; what would have come off as strange and befuddling language before now rings as gloriously right!The creeds are training me in “partitive exegesis” without necessarily trying, and thus enable me to see the text with a clarity that would otherwise be obscured by my modern and non-creedal prejudices. Click To Tweet
But it is not only my prayer life that has been shaped by the creeds; I find that there are new “natural” tendencies when I approach the Scriptures to read them. The God I pray to is the God I anticipate meeting when reading his inspired and revealed word. So, when I read texts like John 14:28 (“…I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I”), I experience no tension or dread or threat to my understanding of orthodox trinitarian doctrine. I am not tempted by any kind of subordinationism (be it functional or not) because I have a natural and fitting category in place already. I know that Jesus Christ is “God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is man from the essence of his mother, born in time… equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity.” Of course, I don’t mean to say that I am taking problematic texts and squeezing them into the mold of a creed to make complicated matters simple. This is no imposition. No, I am rather reading the text with a clarity that has been granted by confessing and worshipping the true God of the Bible with his people throughout the centuries. Rather than being bogged down with a skeptical hermeneutic that tempts me to see contradictions where there are none, the creeds are training me in “partitive exegesis” without necessarily trying, and thus enable me to see the text with a clarity that would otherwise be obscured by my modern and non-creedal prejudices. This means that those texts bring me no discomfort, but rather doxological gratitude!
The Creeds and Catholicity
Additionally, and relatedly, reading the creeds daily is making me more “Catholic.” No, I am not saying that the regular confession of the creeds is making me more Roman Catholic. I am more settled in my Protestantism now than at any other time in my life. My daily worship is not a time to stretch and limber up before diving into the Tiber to cross it. Rather, my daily and habitual practice of reading these creeds has oriented my self-conception of “Christianity” to be far more universal—global, and historic. Maybe an illustration from my history can clarify.
When I first came to grips with my faith, I did so within a context that we could describe as embodying a kind of “crude biblicism.” Now, I don’t mean to disparage my background too harshly. My church taught me to trust the Bible. Being a “Berean” and constantly weighing claims against the Scriptures to “see if these things were so” was, in my environment, the highest intellectual virtue (cf., Acts 17:10-12). I am grateful for this habit of mind and have no intention of breaking it. But when I describe my church as embodying a “crude biblicism” I mean to indicate a kind of unhealthy detachment from history. Read most charitably, this intentional detachment comes from a desire to safeguard the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, and a refusal to let tradition encroach on a territory to which it lays no claim. Far be it for us to be included in Yahweh’s denunciation of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Isaiah 29:13, cf., Matthew 15:7-9). Nevertheless, this kind of historical detachment, at its worst, constituted a serious problem of pride and an irresponsible practice of poor stewardship. Other churches were looked down upon by default.My daily and habitual practice of reading these creeds has oriented my self-conception of “Christianity” to be far more universal—global, and historic. Click To Tweet
The discovery of Church History was a convicting, exhilarating, and frustrating experience. It was convicting because I was confronted with my own elitism. I had to deal with the fact that the narrow and minimalistic expression of Christianity I was raised in (i.e., dispensational, charismatic, Baptist-leaning, ecclesial-lite, Jesus-People-Movement Christianity) was a very young, very novel expression of a big family whose lineage goes much further back than the beaches of Southern California. Which means that the baby-baptizing Presbyterian church down the street was not, by default, a compromised, Bible-forsaking church whose members barely counted as real Christians (to be fair, none of these assumptions were formally drilled into me—they were worked out as a result of the general ethos I imbibed there, which may very well say more about me than my pastors, I grant). But I also described this experience as exhilarating and frustrating, and these two emotions went hand-in-glove. Discovering my “family heritage” was exhilarating because I was made aware of enriching treasures that were mine by (new-)birthright! By virtue of being in Christ, I was given a breath-taking inheritance of wisdom: the fruit of holy contemplation produced by countless godly siblings throughout the ages. All that was mine to enjoy.
And yet (and this is where my frustration came in), I felt as if this inheritance had been kept from me for years. Imagine you grow up in a very poor neighborhood, lacking not only the privilege of material possessions and entertainment, but also adequate food and shelter. Your winters are freezing, your summers are unbearably hot, you go to bed regularly hungry, and you survive off of bland and tasteless food. Now, imagine just several blocks away, you have an entire neighborhood populated by a branch of your own family, of whom you had never heard. They have an open-door policy: anyone and everyone in the family is free to come into their houses and rummage through their refrigerators. They have backyard swimming pools and pool parties on the regular. They have rich and lavish meals every night, with delicious food you’ve never heard of, with the standing invitation for anyone in your family to partake. And you discover, as an adult, that your whole life you were kept from these benefits because your immediate family viewed this rich branch of the family with unfounded suspicion. Of course, this analogy does not apply wholesale; I simply paint this picture to give you some idea of what it felt like to discover the Great Tradition of Christianity. I felt like I had been unnecessarily impoverished of unbelievable benefits. While I enjoyed my newfound ecclesial family, I lamented the former days passed by in ignorance.The daily confession of historic creeds has made me feel much more at home in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Click To Tweet
And yet, years after discovering this heritage of mine, I am still learning how deeply my Biblicist roots have impacted me. The daily confession of these historic creeds has brought this home in surprising ways. I may have understood myself as a true citizen of “the Great Tradition” for several years now, but the Church Fathers, for example, have still made me feel like a foreigner from time to time. The daily confession of historic creeds has made me feel much more at home in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” No longer do I read the creeds and think about “how they praise and contemplate God,” but rather “how we praise and contemplate God.” I’ve moved into the family neighborhood, so to speak. It no longer requires mental effort for me to think of myself in a global and historic communion; this is now increasingly the default, and it impacts the way I read history and think about the Church today.
As important as my own local church is, I recognize that is a single expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, whose members populate every continent on the planet. In this way, my kinship with believers in other traditions and other languages and cultures and tribes is more deeply felt. This does not tempt me in the slightest to minimize real convictional differences, but it gives me the instinct to think of other Christians first and foremost as family members—which simultaneously makes our common confessions more delightful and our serious disagreements more painful. So long as I can keep believers outside of my narrow tribe and at arm’s length, I can write them off as “not counting for anything” because of our differences. But if I recognize in them our oneness in Christ and our common hope for “the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come,” it’s not so easy to mentally erase our disagreements (or agreements).
For these reasons and more, I am grateful for this new habit of daily theological and creedal remembrance. I commend the practice not only for the formation of your minds but for the satisfaction of your soul. Your love for the saints and the word of God will almost certainly be nourished by this practice.
 Athanasius Creed
 Nicene-Constantinople Creed
 Nicene-Constantinople Creed
 Athanasius Creed
 Athanasius Creed
 Nicene-Constantinople Creed
 Athanasius Creed.
 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXII.115-120.
 Athanasius Creed