You may have noticed that we often read historical creeds and confessions when we worship together. Have you ever wondered why? To some they may seem dry and formulaic. Others may think of them as archaic. Still others find the creeds and confessions to be wonderful aids to worship. Regardless of how these documents “grab” you, there are very good reasons for reciting these statements of faith together. What follows are just two reasons that I hope will help you appreciate them as instructive, inspiring and life-giving articulations of our faith:
1. Historical creeds and confessions remind us that we are part of something bigger.
Just recently we studied 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 where Paul instructs the church about the nature of Christian grieving and the second coming of Jesus. But in order to address these things, Paul needs to teach those believers (and us) a very important lesson about the nature of the Church itself. The lesson is this: death does not ultimately divide the church of Jesus Christ. We are one body – not just with other Christians in our local congregation; not just with all other Christians in our city/region; not even just with all believers in the world. We are one with all those who have trusted in Christ throughout history. This is what Paul is getting at in v. 17 when he mentions “the trumpet call of God.” It is an allusion to Numbers 10. There we find these instructions given by God through Moses to the people of Israel:
Make two trumpets of hammered silver, and use them for calling the community together and for having the camps set out. When both are sounded, the whole community is to assemble before you at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 10:2-3)
So the trumpets were used to gather all of Israel together. So too Paul wants the Thessalonians to be assured that those Christians who are living are not the whole Church. When Christ comes to gather his own, they will have to wait for those who have gone before them to be assembled as well. They are an integral part of the Church of Jesus Christ.
When we recite statements of faith written by those who have preceded us, we are given an opportunity to think about our unity with saints of old.
2. Historical creeds and confessions help keep us on track.
In Hebrews 12:1 we find a tremendous word picture for the Christian life:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
What is this “great cloud of witnesses”? I used to envision it as a crowd at the finish line of life cheering me on. But that is not what the metaphor is about. The cloud is not a vague reference to something that surrounds us, but a specific reference to something that goes before and guides us. Again, the history of Israel provides the context.
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. (Exodus 13:21)
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. (Exodus 40:36-37)
In the same way that the cloud guided the wanderers in the desert, so too those who have gone before us serve as a guide for us during our wandering through life. They show us “the race marked out for us.” They show us what it means to live lives of faith. (Notice Hebrews 11 is all about faith.) Reading the statements of faith of those who have preceded us in death is a way to allow them to play this important, God-ordained role in our lives.
C.S. Lewis advises that we read old books to counteract our cultural and historical blind spots.
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
For the same reason, we read old creeds and confessions. Their perspective helps keep us centered and on track.
Those who have gone before us have bequeathed us great gifts! Praise God for reliable summaries of the Christian faith such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed! These were formulated by wise and godly people who cared enough to fight (sometimes at a high price!) for biblical truth. Thank the Lord for aids to learning and understanding such as the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms which were crafted by those with a zeal for spreading the knowledge of the gospel of the glory of God! May these wonderful tools help us grow in loving God with our minds and hearts.