Every Sunday, my church recites the Nicene Creed during the worship service. Sometimes, I wonder why. True, the ancient words summon a succession of images in the mind, often powerful, treasured pictures. But am I aware of what this act means as I participate in the recitation? I am afraid the answer is usually no.
Of course, one aspect of its meaning is that the Nicene Creed serves as a definition of Christian orthodoxy—the guardrails of Christian doctrine. As an ancient baptismal pledge, it serves today to renew our allegiance to the covenant. But that exposes the real problem that reciting the Nicene Creed addresses: our tendency to forget or confound the fundamental doctrines we should hold to as Christians.
Our beliefs, that is, our actual beliefs
—the ones we carry around and ruminate upon in the course of the day—are not static. When we follow the lead of our minds, our imaginations take us to places of belief far afield, as we encounter the world in our work and play. It is easy to forget—or even contradict—important doctrines. Saying the Nicene Creed brings us back to the worldview of historic Christianity and properly grounds our thoughts and loyalties.
I think that is why the Creed is fashioned to be personal. It begins with “I believe…” or in Latin Credo. It might simply have stated the important doctrines without preamble, but it comes to us in the form of an oath: in taking that oath, we identify our persons and substance with the truth of the statements to follow. Indeed, given the formality and public nature of the occasion, to say the Creed without belief would feel like perjury, like a violation of the ninth commandment.
In taking that oath, we do well to ponder the meaning of the Nicene Creed, to consider what the Creed, understood as an oath, binds us to. Do we in fact believe each assertion of the Creed? Do we appreciate the practical consequences of holding each assertion to be true? In our lives and conduct, is there evidence of belief (or, God forbid, denial) of each assertion? In taking the oath implicit in the Nicene Creed, we are examined.
By suggesting that we appraise our own understanding
of the doctrines set forth in the Nicene Creed and our belief in each, I do not mean that we must have a comprehensive appreciation of each doctrinal concept. We may find we have a somewhat vague understanding of some points, which this exercise might well prompt us to improve, though not necessarily master. Nor am I suggesting that assent to the propositions of the Creed is all that Christianity is; far from it. But Christianity is at least this, and the Christian life comprehends the doctrines expressed in the Creed.
Clearly, to know God is far more significant than to know about God. But those who know God will always want to know more about God, and the Nicene Creed distills the common understanding of centuries of Christians’ Biblical knowledge of God against all rivals. Moreover, in trying to understand the accumulated knowledge of God in the Creed, we have help: God Himself wants to reveal to us the truth in Christ of His being, His character, His mighty acts in history, and His word in Scripture.
How then can we hang onto what we only partly know? We hold on to it as Jesus teaches us to—by faith.
Robert McAnally Adams is a retired mathematician and curator of The Christian Quotation of the Day. See cqod.com