The Athanasian Creed

(from Pastor Preus) I had an experience a couple of weeks ago which made me believe that the church and possibly even the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is getting stronger and more vibrant. After Divine Services on Trinity Sunday a couple of people commented on how nice it was to say the Athanasian Creed. One person whimsically queried as to the liturgical propriety of saying this, the longest of the Ecumenical Creeds, on Sundays other than Trinity Sunday. She modestly averred that she made it a point not to miss church on the Sunday when the Athanasian Creed was spoken since she loved confessing it so much.

 

I have to confess that I was a bit unsure about whether this strongly Trinitarian creed could be used, say, on Easter, Christmas or the 21st Sunday after Trinity. Who ever heard of confessing the Athanasian Creed on just any old Sunday? But, before such musings got the best of me I did observe to myself how wonderful such a request was. Why?

 

First, it showed just how effective the patient teaching on liturgical customs can be. I remember the first time I used the Athanasian Creed in Church on Trinity Sunday. My people, who were tragically and inexcusable unaware of such a tradition, murmured and grumbled, “Pastor, it’s so long.” The testing of parishioner patience is risky business even only once a year, I thought. I can remember my feeble attempts to apologize and say something clever like, “It’s only once a year.” What a wimpy response. Such an answer accomplishes little except to reaffirm the silly and sinful thought that we ought actually to determine the length of the service based on our time pieces. God doesn’t look at His watch when you are talking to Him in prayer, so when He is talking to you during the Divine Service don’t you dare look at your watch. I learned later to say, “Yes, it’s long and beautiful and full of grace and the Spirit (swoon, sigh, look wistfully to heaven). It speaks the theology of the church. When we speak it we follow the tradition of the church.” Since I started responding more assertively (and with patient consistent resolve) I really cannot recall anyone complaining about its length. And now people are starting to want the Athanasian Creed more. That’s a positive sign for the church.

 

Second, the request to speak the creed more often shows that Lutherans really do love doctrine and sophisticated theology. The Creed tends to repeat itself with apparent disregard not only for the pressing time schedules of 21st century Americans but for their theological categories as well. Perhaps that’s because it was produced in the fifth century. It speaks to resolve theological issues which were quite current in the 3rd through 5th Centuries; Issues regarding precisely who God is, who He is not and how we must think of him. It speaks of the great Three in One whom we worship neither “confusing the persons nor dividing the substance” But how is this 1500 year-old creed relevant today? HMMM? Let me think. How long ago was it that we were discussing in our circles whether someone who prayed to “Allah,” the false nonexistent god of the Islamic world, is really praying to God? When was the last time you were in some church which claimed the name Lutheran and you did not hear the Trinitarian invocation or anything else particularly Trinitarian? I receive bulletins from my members who visit other churches which sometimes indicate the absence of any reference to the Holy Trinity during the worship hours of these churches. I can honestly say that I get a couple of questions each year indicating a desire to learn to talk about the unique persons of the Trinity properly. So I show them the Athanasian Creed. I don’t think I am wrong to believe that those who crave the Athanasian Creed are eager to assert the truth of precisely those issues which confront us today. And that is also a positive sign for the church.

 

In a day when so much is wrong with the organized church and even our church body, it’s nice to get fleeting but certain proof that the consistent teaching and use of liturgical customs is a worthy endeavor. But I still don’t know if it there is liturgical precedent for speaking the Athanasian Creed more than once a year.              

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