Taking the Creed Personally
Recently Steve Hutchens and I jumped into an e-mail discussion of whether the Creed recited in the eucharistic liturgy should begin with “I believe” or “We believe.” The first is the traditional wording, used since the Nicene Creed was first recited in the Mass, the second the wording of the modern rites of the Roman and Anglican Churches.
Some people think this sort of discussion at best an interesting diversion, but Steven and I took it quite seriously, giving us (at least among some of the people on this e-mail list) a reputation for arguing about trifles. This may be true, but still, great truths may be lost even by trifling changes—because morally, spiritually, and intellectually, compared to the Christian tradition, we are ourselves trifles.
The argument for the new wording is that the Nicene Creed is the Faith of the Church and therefore more appropriately begun with the corporate and communal “we” than the (supposedly) individualistic “I.” The general style of the argument for the new wording is represented by the priest who wrote in the e-mail discussion: “I joyfully agree with those who place the ‘I’ as appropriate in the baptismal and Apostles’ creeds and the ‘we’ but during corporate worship the ‘I’ must give ground to the ‘we.’ He has made us a ‘nation’ of ‘kings and priests unto our God’.”
The argument for change extended to the wording of the rest of the Creed. Some people in the discussion assumed that though the doctrines of the Creed were eternal and unchangeable, the form in which they have been delivered to us is temporary and changeable. The words of the Creed were merely the paper in which the gift of doctrine was wrapped, and one may use different paper if it would better please the one to whom it is being given.
The main argument for the traditional wording is that the Church has always used it, and that we presume the Church does so for good reasons, even if we don’t see them. I think there are at least three other reasons, one prudential, one dramatic, one spiritual.
The prudential reason is the least important, but not to be neglected. The change from “I” to “we” was made by people whom we rightly distrust, and may very well carry an ideological meaning, even if we are too similar to the innovators to see it ourselves. It is now a standard line among Protestant liberals that they can say the Creed even though they do not believe it, because its beginning with “we” means that it relays the Faith of the Church, from parts of which they are allowed to dissent.
Modern people assume that a communal identity is given but not binding; for example, that being a member of a particular church means that you go there regularly, not that you feel responsible to believe and do all that it requires. In our religious lives, most of us are like teenagers who want to be fed, housed, given money, and allowed to use the car, but do not want to come home when mom and dad say. Using the “I” therefore becomes all the more important, to clarify and enforce the requirement that one believe the Creed, every word of it, for oneself.
The dramatic reason for using “I” is that in the liturgy one says “I” at the exact same time and in the exact same words as all one’s brothers and sisters in the Faith, which unity in personal affirmation is tremendously dramatic and moving. It is like the citizenship oath, administered to a roomful of new Americans, all together pledging their personal loyalty to the new country. “I” dramatizes the fact that this is a faith taken on for oneself but in the fellowship of other believers making the same bold claim.
The spiritual reason is that in saying the Creed one is making a personal, and radical, commitment to the truths it proclaims, in which case only an explicit “I” is appropriate. It is a vow as much as a declaration of fact or an affirmation of communal identity. It is like the marriage vow. We would feel something wrong if the couple together answered the priest’s questions with “we.” Such life-binding decisions must be made, not alone, certainly, but personally and individually.
Choices for Good or Ill
Such choices as beginning the Creed with “I” or “we” may have small results for good or ill in the life of the Church. I think the loss of “I” would be a real loss, because the person who grows up saying “we” may very well lose a sense of the importance of the doctrine and the need for his unqualified belief in every word of the Christian Creed. I could be wrong about this—Steve thinks the practical case equally strong for both uses—but what matters much more is the grounds on which the choice is made.
In favor of “I” we have the great weight of a universal practice of the Church, East and West, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. In favor of “we” we have the testimony of experts and theorists, some of whom are ideologues and some of whom are quite orthodox, but even the latter are only individual men of limited learning and wisdom, living in parochial, decadent societies, most trained and serving in Churches not noted for their theological depth. In favor of “I” we have the choice of men of great holiness and wisdom, a choice constantly reaffirmed by other men of holiness and wisdom and the judgment of millions of worshipping people.
Neither Steve nor I oppose all change, nor want to foreclose all discussion. For one thing, we know how easily personal preferences or local practices become identified with the unchangeable Tradition of the Church, so that some critical attention is need to distinguish and separate the two. But we believe—Steve as strongly as I—that even on so seemingly small a question as the wording of the opening of the Creed we ought not to place our own opinions and theories above the consistent practice of the Church.
As Chesterton said, a Catholic is someone who knows that something is smarter than he is. A Protestant, in this sense, is a Catholic who wants to restore the Tradition and eliminate the theories (as he believes them) of the post-apostolic Church. But such a Protestant can do so with any chance of success only if he begins in humble submission to the Tradition, because otherwise he will not be able to distinguish the tradition from the theory.
It was the other participants’ unconscious feeling of superiority to the Tradition that so worried both Steve and me. “I joyfully agree” demands the response, “Well, just who are you?” That priest would never think of speaking in such a way about physics to Einstein, yet he feels so comfortable speaking so presumptuously to the Tradition of the Church.
The problem is not so much with his arguments, which may be good or bad, as with his failure, sincere as it may be, to submit himself to something greater than his own theories. Such submission is wise even in small matters, because we are much too small to know small from great.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Taking the Creed Personally” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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