Of a troublesome comma in the Creed

The morning office I presently use to structure the first part of my prayers invites me to recite the Apostles’ Creed each day. Famously, the Christological clauses of that Creed begin:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,

he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…

The comma at the end of the second line has become rather notorious; it is apparently sufficient to summarise the entire earthy ministry of Jesus, and that is regularly held up as an indication of  the weakness of the Creed as a summary of the Christian faith (focused as it is on Jesus); sometimes it is held up as an indication that the traditional formulations of Christian faith, which centred on the Creed, are lacking in a crucial area.

I first heard this sort of argument, and began to be suspicious of this troublesome comma, something like twenty years ago from anabaptist friends. These days I hear it more from people interested in what gets called ‘Kingdom theology’: the true Biblical gospel is the claim that Jesus is God’s final culmination of the story of Israel. The creed offers us nothing of Israel, and nothing of the life of Jesus; it is seriously deficient as an expression of the gospel. An an innocent comma is the symbol of that.

Twenty years ago I was not in the custom of using an office to structure my prayers, and when I started I used Celtic Daily Prayer, the office of the Northumbria Community, or Celebrating Common Prayer from the Society of St Francis. Neither of these includes a daily recitation of the Creed. It was when, a couple of years back, I switched to wanting an office on my phone (I use ‘The Daily Office’ from Mission St Clare; the iPhone app is free, here) that I began to trip over that comma each day. I began to wonder about the criticisms more seriously, and whether I really wanted to recite these words as part of my daily devotion… (I’m a Baptist. Creeds are optional!)

I have come to the conclusion that the Office itself is the justification for the shape of the Creed. Morning Prayer begins with confession and some psalmody, and then proceeds as follows:

Old Testament Lesson

Canticle (generally from Old Testament) followed by the Gloria Patri

New Testament Lesson

Canticle (sometimes from New Testament; sometimes from church history)

Gospel reading

Apostles’ Creed

The Lord’s Prayer, petition, intercession, and closing sentences follow.

The Creed here is located in the context of participation in Israel’s worship (psalmody and the OT canticle); a hearing of an excerpt from Israel’s story (the OT lesson); and a hearing of events from the life of Jesus (the Gospel reading) – and also of a hearing of the Church’s story and participation in the Church’s worship (NT lesson & canticle); it offers a framing narrative for these stories and for this worship. Its recitation can be understood to be the liturgical claim/explanation ‘You have joined in the worship of Israel and the Church, and heard of their stories; now be reminded that the God to whom Israel and the Church offer worship is properly named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the stories you have heard are brief chapters in a larger story that runs from creation to “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”; You have heard a brief tale of the winsome wonder of Jesus; know that this tale is part of a larger story that runs from birth of a Virgin by the Spirit’s power, through cross, grave, resurrection, and ascension, to a return to judge the living and the dead.’

Of course, if the Creed is abstracted from its proper liturgical context, then it does not serve this framing function, and the criticisms that are made are fair – but it should not be. (Particularly not the Apostles’ Creed, which is not the polemical product of a Council, but – as far as we can tell – a concretisation of the creed used in the liturgy of the Roman church from at least as early as the second century.)

So, I continue recite the Creed, in its proper liturgical context, morning by morning with some cheerfulness, and without stumbling over a troublesome comma.


  1. Mark Jennings, Pershore
    Sep 28, 2012

    Your thoughtful and insightful reflection on that troublesome coma has given me welcome reason to pause for thought. Thanks Steve, much appreciated.

  2. noblethemes
    Sep 28, 2012

    Very thoughtful reflection… I especially appreciate your emphasis upon retaining the Creed within its proper liturgical context.

  3. David Kerrigan
    Sep 28, 2012

    Steve, I only came across this curious comma a couple of years ago – here was my take on it. http://karnaphuli.typepad.com/thinking-mission/2010/12/the-cosmic-comma.html

    I understand the point you make but I do still wonder whether the driver for its particular structure wasn’t primarily to clarify and affirm key doctrines. And in the early church the key doctrines centred around the birth of Jesus and the meaning of his death. But your comments add a new insight – so thanks for that.

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