On 24 April 2014 broadcaster Krista Tippett interviewed the eminent now deceased Christian historian Jaroslav Pelikan about why he believed the Christian church needs to continue the practice of reciting in public worship the ancient Creeds of the early centuries of the Christian church.

In his arguments Pelikan presents, it seems to me, a powerful case for why we in the church might want to question the continued use of Creeds in public worship. This is not a question of whether the content of the Creeds should continue to be normative for Christian faith, but whether their proper place is in contemporary Christian worship.

Tippett began by observing:

There’s a question Jesus asks again and again in the New Testament: “Who do you say that I am?” That question is asked again and again in every different culture. That’s an important question.

Pelikan replies:

At some point you have to be what and who you are in the only culture you are ever going to live in, in the only century in which you are ever going to live and die. And, in that century, you have to answer with whatever linguistic and philosophical equipment you have, you have to answer the question “Who do you say that I am?”

The church is in grave danger when it fails to listen sensitively, carefully and attentively to the context in which we are called to live and embody Christian faith. It is a legitimate question at least to ask whether fourth century Creeds are the best way to enshrine in liturgy the communal expression of Christian faith for people of the 21st. century.

Pelikan goes on to comment on the origin of the ancient Creeds saying:

My father used to say that the difference between a dialect and a language is that a language has an army and a dialect is just spoken by people. And so what we call the Nicene Creed was adopted by a Council called and directed by the not-yet-baptized Emperor who said to the bishops, “All you are bishops and I too am a bishop. I am a bishop for things outside the church and you are bishops for things inside the church.” But by the time he was done the Emperor was running things… This was what scholars came to call Caesaropapism – the the Emperor is in fact the Pope.

So, at one level the reason for the universal authority of the Nicene Creed is the political and military authority it carried. Each conquest by the Roman Empire, also brought the Creed. 

Constantine’s mother St. Helen came to Jerusalem and it was she who found the sepulchre of Christ and found the true cross. And in the true cross were nails which she sent to Constantine. He had them melted down into a bit for his warhorse. “Onward Christian Soldiers Marching as to War.” And, as he marched and conquered, the Creed came right along with it. 

So centuries later in the great modern expansion of Christianity, during the 18th and especially the 19th century which is the great century of colonialism. So, the religion of the white man which brought sanitation and the money economy and all the advantages and disadvantages of being modern also brought with it the Creeds.

Whether we like it or not, reciting the Creeds connects us to the armies of Constantine and the colonialism of the 19th century missionary movement. Do we want to speak in the “language of the army” or the “dialect spoken by the people”?

Pelikan concludes his comments discussing the possibility of communication between worlds:

My late friend Stephen J. Gould who insisted with dogmatic fervour that he wasn’t a believer, was a member of the Handel and Hayden Society in Boston. So he sang all this music. And, in an interview several years ago we were both involved in, he was asked about communication with other planets and other worlds and how should we try to reach people who don’t know our language or anything else. And he said we should play the Bach B Minor Mass. And say, in as many words and in as many languages, “This is the best we have ever done.”

One wonders how the people of ancient Aztec culture, or continental India  might feel about the Bach B Minor Mass being broadcast throughout the universe as “the best we have ever done.” It is this kind of cultural imperialism that may be the strongest reason to call into question the use of ancient Creeds in contemporary Christian public worship. Is a 4th century creedal formulation really “the best we have ever done” at embodying for 21st century communal expression the salient points of Christian belief?

Pelikan’s comments seem to indicate that it may be worthwhile in the church of the 21st century at least to be willing to have a thoughtful conversation about whether the cause of the Gospel is best served by the repetition of these ancient dogmatic formularies.