Creeds, liturgy

Frank Answers About the Use of Creeds in the Liturgy

Question: Pastor Senn, why do we use the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostles’ Creed at the Divine Service?  May other creeds be used in the Divine Service?

Answer: Actually, both creeds are used in Lutheran liturgies. Historically, the Nicene Creed was used when Holy Communion was celebrated; the Apostles’ Creed was used when Ante-Communion (the Service of the Word or the liturgy of the catechumens) was used without Communion.

The Nicene Creed is the conciliar creed. That is, it was promulgated by the consensus of ecumenical councils (Nicea 325, Constantinople 381, Chalcedon 450). It began to be inserted into the Divine Liturgy as a bulwark against Arianism, first in the Byzantine East by Patriarch Timothy of Constantinople (511-17), where it was placed after the Great Entrance with the gifts and before the anaphora (where it still is today); then in Spain in 589 by order of the Council of Toledo when the Visigoths under King Recared converted to Catholicism, where it was placed before the Lord’s Prayer, that is, before Communion; then by order of Charlemagne for use throughout the Frankish Empire, who also had it placed before Communion; and finally in Rome in the 11th century under pressure from German Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, where it was placed after the Gospel or sermon in the Mass. In the Byzantine, Visigothic, and Frankish uses the Creed has a disciplinary purpose; it fences the table.  Hence it is placed before the Eucharistic Prayer or Communion.  In the Roman usage the placement of the Creed suggests a catechetical purpose; hence it is placed after the readings.  Since Rome claimed it had never been in theological error, the compromise was that it would be recited in the Roman Mass only on Sundays and festivals, not on weekdays or days of devotion. That has remained the Roman Catholic practice.  It would be an appropriate use also in Lutheran practice (for example, not used in non-festival weekday Eucharists or on devotional days like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. 

The Apostles Creed is the baptismal creed. Forms of it were used as confessions of faith in the administration of Baptism (for example, in The Apostolic Tradition and other ancient church orders). This creed was favored by the Protestant reformers because it had often been included in the late medieval pulpit office along with other catechetical texts (Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, Ave Maria). In Lutheran practice the Apostles’ Creed came to be used in Services without Communion (the liturgy of the catechumens) and the Nicene Creed was used at Services with Holy Communion (the liturgy of the faithful).

With the increased frequency of celebrating Holy Communion (every Sunday) the use of these two ecumenical creeds has been determined by seasons of the church year (Apostles’ Creed on “green” numerated Sundays, Nicene Creed on other Sundays). I would say we should use the Nicene Creed at all Services of Holy Communion on Sundays and festivals but use the Apostles’ Creed for Services with Holy Baptism.

The Western Church has a third “ecumenical” creed: Quicunque vult salus esse  (Whoever wishes to be saved), the so-called Athanasian Creed. This text emerged in southern Gaul in the fifth century to clarify catholic teaching over against Arianism. It was not written Athanasius of Alexandria, the great champion of Nicene orthodoxy. It actually reflects Augustine of Hippo’s teaching on the Trinity. It is a teaching creed and was recited in the monastic office of Prime on Trinity Sunday.  This Creed was retained in Lutheran and Anglican use and was recited in Matins/Morning Prayer on Trinity Sunday. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England actually had 13 days during the church year on which this creed was used.  As the Service of Holy Communion became the Sunday liturgy rather than Matins, many Lutherans began to recite this creed in the Eucharist on Trinity Sunday. Hence, it was included in Lutheran Book of Worship. That practice has waned because of discomfort with its bold assertions (and length) and it is not included  in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006).

A practice has emerged of singing the creed in hymn or song form. It’s hard for Lutherans to argue against this because Martin Luther himself set the Creed to verse and tune (Wir glauben all an einen Gott – We all believe in one true God) in his German Mass (1526).  However, I think this should not be a regular practice. Our people need to recite the texts of the creeds often enough that they sink into memory.

Finally, a few decades ago congregations were subjected to pastors using other creeds or even writing their own. Hopefully this practice is waning. It should not be done. Neither the liturgy nor the faith of the church belongs to the pastor. Especially confessions of faith ought to reflect the consensus of the whole church (the church catholic) achieved through ecumenical councils or in crisis situations that called for confessing by whole groups of Christians. A former professor of mine once said, “I’m not professing anything in public that no one has bled over.”

Pastor Frank Senn


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