The Apostles’ Creed: Its place and function in the Church

Recently, I was asked to conduct a seminar on worship for church leaders, including worship leaders. This church observes a certain order of service on Sunday which includes recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. I began by bemoaning the fact that many modern Christians could not appreciate the richness of a traditional liturgy, because they do not know why they do what they do. To prove my point, I asked: “Why do you recite the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday?” Not unexpectedly, no one could give me an answer.

The Apostles’ Creed was originally a baptismal creed. It was taught to new converts preparing for baptism. The first Christians were Jews who knew their Scriptures; they understood that the Christ (Messiah) whom they worshipped was the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But as the Church moved from its epicenter in Jerusalem to the far reaches of the Roman Empire and beyond, it encountered a pagan world far removed from the world of Jewish Christianity. In pagan territory, it encountered a world where sexual immorality, homosexuality, pederasty, drunken orgies, and mystery religions of all stripes were rife.

The answer of the Church was to put new pagan converts through an intensive process of catechism. Initially, it consisted of instructions concerning the Scriptures, especially on important themes like the history of salvation, and Christian morals based on the Sermon on the Mount. But over the years, three subjects came to feature regularly in catechetical instruction: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. These three cover three basic areas of Christianity, namely, Christian belief, ethics, and spirituality. They are utterly essential to becoming a fully-formed Christian. The catechetical instructions would last up to three years depending on the situation.

This is the context in which to understand the Apostles’ Creed. The practice of instilling the essential Christian beliefs continued into the Reformation in the 16th century. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) of the Reformed churches asks in Question 22: “What is it, then, for a Christian to believe?” And it gives this answer: “All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum.” The articles of faith are summed up in the Apostles’ Creed which the Catechism explains point by point in Questions 23–58.  Before a convert is baptised he needs to know the faith of the Church. Without being deeply immersed in the faith, he comes out of the waters of baptism a wet pagan, still!

There is, in fact, no better way for an adult preparing for baptism to be inducted into the faith of Church, than using the Apostles’ Creed.

But there is another function of the Creed when it is recited every Sunday at some point in worship. In some churches it is done at the beginning of the worship service, while in most other churches, such as the traditional Lutheran and Reformed churches, it is recited or sung after the reading of the Gospel. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is recited or sung after the preaching.

Its different locations in the liturgy perform different but related functions. When it is recited at the beginning of the service, the Creed functions very much like what singing the national anthem does for a nation. School children in Singapore sing the national anthem every morning. It is a way to inculcate a sense of who they are and to forge a national identity: We are Singaporeans who belong to the nation of Singapore! Similarly, the regular recitation or singing of the Apostles’ Creed at the beginning of worship is a way of instilling in Christians a sense of who they are: We are a Christian people who belong to a community called the Church.

But when the Creed comes after the Gospel reading or the homily, it serves as a response to the Word. It is a way of saying: “We have heard the Word from God; this preached Word is summed up in the Creed that we now profess.” In an implicit way, the Creed also serves as a solemn reminder to the preacher to preach what is consonant with the faith of the Church. It is this faith that makes us who we really are. It is what defines our most basic identity: We are an ecclesial community worshipping God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The preacher must always focus on the Gospel; he is not free to preach his pet subject.

We live in an age where people are bound by loose associations based on common interests: virtual friends in social media, drinking buddies, or strong associations with powerful lobby groups that seek to sway people to their cause. Some of these are highly dubious; others may be quite legitimate even if sometimes taken to extremes, especially in the West.

Christians do share some of these legitimate concerns, but these concerns do not command Christians’ absolute allegiance. The Apostles’ Creed reminds us of what our most basic identity is: as Christians. In reciting the Creed, we are making a claim, bearing testimony to who we really are. Our basic identity is based on the fact that we are a people who were baptised into Christ; we belong to a community which confesses God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Apostles’ Creed is a clear and unambiguous affirmation of Christian identity. In an age where identities are shaped by loose associations or no associations at all, the modern Church needs to sing again the Apostles’ Creed. It is the time-tested way of regaining our Christian identity.

The Rev Dr Simon Chan –
is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College, and was formerly the Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology there. This is the first of a two-part series on our Christian creeds.

Picture by Joerf3/