Lutheran Liturgical Signaling: The Athanasian Creed

“Quit reciting my creed (that I didn’t write) at Mass.” – St. Athanasius of Alexandria

I intend no snark The Old Man intends snark, but the New Man just wants to share some interesting information about LCMS liturgical customs on Trinity Sunday.

You may have thought that you were being an über-traditionalist because your church substituted the Athanasian Creed for the Nicene Creed during the Divine Service on Trinity Sunday. But you weren’t. You were participating in a mid-twentieth-century innovation without prior warrant in Lutheran liturgical use, i.e., you were participating in “contemporary worship” (cum + tempore)— contemporary not in the sense of “newness” necessarily, but in the sense of being “with the times” and all of their changeableness, and not with the tradition delivered to us by our fathers in the faith. Before you cry “foul” or “muh adiaphora,” hear me out.

(A quick disclaimer: I know that this practice is the “confessional” norm. My church does it. So do most of the churches where I’ve been a member. I participate along with everyone else. I don’t think I’m better than you. This [*makes a big arm-sweep*] is just a blog, and this post is just information presented in my annoyingly jocular style, a style which might anger you, might amuse you, might offend you, might make you want to tell on me, etc. Just remember, no one is forcing you to read this blog, and your worst construction is your own.)

The General Rubrics have something to say about what our practice should be w/r/t the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday. The General Rubrics? Yes, the General Rubrics. Just like the Sunday Propers, these liturgical commonplaces are nowhere to be found in the LSB, because… well, who cares why? There’s not a good reason. TLH certainly isn’t perfect, but, crimminy, at least it has the Sunday Propers and the General Rubrics (it can be used quite expeditiously as a prayerbook; the LSB really can’t be). I have further opinions on this, but since I’ve already said enough to distance you, I’ll simply note for now that the General Rubrics are found on page 4 of TLH. First, admire:

Buy new TLHs at CPH here. It often goes on sale at the Spring and Fall Warehouse Sales for $8.00-8.75. Side-note: ribbons are a must; you have to buy them elsewhere, though.

The General Rubrics


The word “shall” in the Rubrics makes the part of the Service so designated obligatory, while the word “may” leaves it optional.


If the Confessional Service immediately precedes the Communion Service, the latter shall begin with the Trinitarian Invocation, followed by the Introit.


Good usage permits speaking the Preparatory Service.


The sign of the cross may be made at the Trinitarian Invocation and at the words of the Nicene Creed “and the life of the world to come.”


℣ stands for Versicle, said by the Minister; ℟ designates the Response by the Congregation.


Instead of the Introit a Psalm may be used. The Introit consists of Antiphon, Psalm, and Gloria Patri. When also the Gloria Patri is sung by the choir, the Antiphon is repeated.


Other Collects may be used with the Collect for the Day; the Congregation shall say or chant “Amen” after each Collect.


In the Service other Scripture lessons may be read before the Epistle. The Epistle and the Gospel shall always be read.


The Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel for the Transfiguration of our Lord shall be used on the last Sunday after the Epiphany in each year, except when there is only one Sunday after the Epiphany.


Choir selections may be sung immediately after the Gradual or after the Hallelujah.


On Trinity Sunday, at Matins, the Athanasian Creed may be used instead of the Psalmody.


Silent prayer should be offered upon entering the church and after the Benediction.


All necessary announcements which are not part of the Special Intercessions and Thanksgivings should be made after the close of the Service.


Matins and Vespers end with the Benedicamus if the Minister is not conducting the Service. If the Minister is the Officiant, he shall pronounce the Benediction, and the Benedicamus may be omitted.


Congregations are urged to let the basic structure of the Service remain intact. The wide choice permitted in the Rubrics makes it possible to have the Service as simple or as elaborate as the circumstances of each congregation may indicate.


The Hymnal is intended for use not only in the church service and in the school, but it may serve profitably also for family and private devotions. The prayers and the tables for Bible reading will be an aid for these uses.

Here, let me paint you a picture:

Why would you not want these in your hymnal?

There is much that could be said about the salutariness of the General Rubrics, but this post is not about them. Nevertheless, there they are.

Well, I won’t say much, but I would be remiss not to say at least a little:

In his preface to the 2003 edition of A. C. Piepkorn’s Conduct of the Service, Pr. David H. Petersen reminds readers that the General Rubrics “have never been replaced by the LCMS.” He goes on:

Unless they are explicitly contradicted, replaced, or restated in new Rites provided by the Commission on Worship, they are still the guide for the conduct of the Services in our churches.

Indeed, what Pr. Petersen wrote in 2003 comports with the wisdom of our Lutheran Confessions, to wit: that “without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience” (Apol. XV, 51ff). For the record, the General Rubrics still haven’t been replaced.1 No; they have simply been memory-holed, and in place of them we have a vast sea of unwritten idiosyncrasy promulgated by academicians, synod-wonks, and clerical bloggers, all of whom are continuously bickering on the internet— that is, when they’re not printing new “liturgical materials” like so much fiat money. And now I will bite my tongue.

The General Rubrics are actually more extensive than what is printed in TLH; in The Lutheran Liturgy (the missal/altar-book for The Lutheran Hymnal, not Luther D. Reed’s fine study) they can be found in their entirety. The abovementioned work, Arthur Carl Piepkorn’s The Conduct of the Service, is in fact a commentary on and explanation of the rite and rubrics of “The Order of the Holy Communion” (which you may know better, albeit in a slightly mutilated, mixed-idiom form, as “Divine Service Setting III” in the LSB). The similarly titled Conduct of the Services is an update and expansion of Piepkorn’s work written by one of his most devoted students, Charles L. McClean (“Father Charles” to me and mine) which includes, among other things, commentary on and explanation of the rite and rubrics of Matins and Vespers. (Nota Bene: these three services together, The Order of the Holy Communion, Matins, and Vespers, comprise The Common Service, although the term “The Common Service” is often used as a synecdoche for the Order of the Holy Communion by itself.) These books are short, elegantly written, informative… I’m understating things: they are essential reading for Lutherans. Yes, their telos is most fully achieved when they are read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by pastors, but they should be similarly taken in by laymen, as well. Emmanuel Press publishes Piepkorn and McClean’s books bound in a single handsome volume. The General Rubrics are printed in the text, as well. Buy it. Read it. “Relaxed dignitarians” need not apply.

Hopefully the foregoing sufficiently establishes the venerable authority of the General Rubrics.

Here, let me save you the trouble.

So the “old custom”— which, according to the portion from the Apology cited above, we ought to be maintaining— is in fact, to intone the Athanasian Creed in the manner of psalmody on Trinity Sunday. So if you’re tut-tutting on your Facebag in a high dudgeon about precisely the opposite being the case, you might want to stop, because you’re wrong. Yet the truth is that reciting the Athanasian Creed during the Divine Service at all is actually an innovation. The old custom is to intone the Athanasian Creed in the manner of psalmody at Matins on Trinity Sunday. At Matins. Most churches don’t pray Matins corporately— on Sunday or at all— so we have taken to replacing the Nicene Creed on Trinity Sunday with the Athanasian Creed… and immediately taking to Facebook afterwards to post memes and selfies which establish confessional™ and liturgical™ bonafides. (“OMG luv saying the #AthanasianCreed on #TrinitySunday!!!! <emoji> #liturgy.” Seriously?) Some skip the wait and take videos on their phones of the recitation of the Athanasian Creed— I kid you not, I have seen it happen, and not just on Trinity Sunday (incidentally, also not at my church). Even if you don’t do that at all (and I know that most people don’t) but simply enjoy saying the Athanasian Creed during the Divine Service on Trinity Sunday (which is understandable), it’s beside the point, which I would state in a twofold manner:

First, there is no rubrical authority whatsoever for replacing the Nicene Creed at mass with the Athanasian Creed. Maybe you don’t care about such things as “rubrical authority,” in which case this post will be here for you to read when you start caring; in the meantime, those of you who do already care about such things should realize and/or admit that this is an innovation, not an ancient and venerable custom.2 As such, it certainly does not of itself establish that a church (or an individual pastor or layman) is “confessional” or “liturgical.” Yes, it can function as a sort of “tell,” inasmuch as many churches which have this practice are trying to revive the old and venerable customs and are— in the course of finding their way to the genuine Lutheran tradition (which is indeed a thing)— more likely than others to happen upon the General Rubrics and start conforming their practice to them. (Another plug for Redeemer Press— buy The Conduct of the Service; no, I do not get a cut.)

There is, in fact, no rubrical authority for saying any creed during the mass other than the Nicene. This will probably increase the size of the pie-slice labeled “people who are no longer on board with this article,” but it is true, nevertheless. The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal creed. You say it as part of your personal and/or household devotions, or perhaps during one of the offices.3 Using the Morning and Evening Suffrages (TLH pp. 115-116) as office prayers is a good way to regularize this practice if you so desire. This leads me to my second point, which is sort of the pool into which this rant was always already draining:

There is a difference between liturgical practice which “meets people where they are” and liturgical practice which simply capitulates to the enervated status quo. I’m not sure what that difference is, but for the sake of a best construction I’m going to assume that it exists. Whatever the case may be, replacing the Nicene Creed with the Athanasian Creed at mass on Trinity Sunday isn’t a sin. For confessional, liturgical, and aesthetic reasons, I don’t think it should be done, but it isn’t a sin per se. Moreover, there are understandable reasons why us laymen might not know that it is an innovation, especially if we’ve grown up in the LW/LSB era of LCMS practice (— and let’s not forget just how abysmal it was in the 90s and for the first decade of the 2000s). But when pastors take to Facebook to toot their horns about what could only be called “the correct way to omit the Nicene Creed on Trinity Sunday,” which is a species of “the right way to do the wrong thing,” it is, or at least should be, embarrassing. (So, too, when laymen do it; more so when it’s pastors, though.)

And yet you are the same people who get on your horn to let the whole world know that YOUR CHURCH CELEBRATED ASCENSION ON THE DAY OF, WE DIDN’T TRANSFER TO SUNDAY!!!

Good. Why did you do that?

Oh, we don’t want to succumb to the worldliness which catches at our heels, which urges us to B-list church for literally anything else, which is put off by the notion of having more church during the week than the obligatory hour-and-change on Sunday (and is increasingly put off even by this).

Any other reasons?

Oh, yes! See, we’re liturgical. We want to do the liturgy right and not have any truck with contemporary worship funny business.

Any other reasons?

Actually, yeah. See, we just believe that without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites should be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs should be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience. For love’s sake we do not refuse to observe adiaphora with others, even though they should have some disadvantage; but we have judged that such public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages.

Wow. You’re really eloquent! Thank you.

You’re welcome.

Great. Those are all good reasons.

Here’s a way that you can act in a way that is consistent with them next time Trinity Sunday rolls around:

Next Trinity Sunday, do Matins (or, if you are a layman, ask your pastor to lead Matins) either in lieu of or in addition to your Bible class (if it meets before the divine service) or just sometime before the divine service. In addition to the day’s appointed psalms (67, 8, 148, etc.), chant the Quicumque Vult, i.e., the Athanasian Creed, in the manner of psalmody or a canticle. Either my liturgically-musically-minded friends will come up with an example of how this might be pointed for chant, or I will find some extant versions. It’ll be ready here on this website in PDF form by Rogate Sunday next year, so that we can all practice. It may be that we’ll all think to ourselves, and/or say to our pastors, “Wow. Sunday Matins before Divine Service is great. Why don’t we do this every Sunday? Also, can we all come back for Vespers on Sunday evening?” Perhaps that in turn will lead to a deepening of practice in other areas. Perhaps you will begin praying Matins and Vespers at home with your family, even if your church isn’t gathering to do so. Perhaps… I should probably stop before these fantasies get really wild.

Things are looking up liturgically in the LCMS… in some ways. But because the General Rubrics have been memory-holed— as well as much knowledge that would help us better to understand our liturgical heritage in general— reference to them bears an ineluctable tinge of revanchism. This bodes ill for the long run, in my opinion. In the current room-temperature Lutheran social-media environs, signaling on social media about the general importance of “liturgy” will get you lots of blue thumbs and gormless happy emojis; on the other hand, suggesting that we are liturgically rudderless without the General Rubrics and the vital tradition to which they give voice, and are thus cruising for a proverbial bruising— this will probably just make people think you’re stuck-up or autistic. (No, this is not autobiographical; I do not speak from experience here, but from hearsay and lookscreenshot.) I hear that there is no better way of getting the Confessional™ crowd mad at you than to suggest that without a greater arc of knowledge, a more studious traditionalism, etc., we are going to plateau at “liturgical LARPing, and looking really silly while at it” and soon settle right back into some form of stultified mediocrity which we will puzzle over in long-form studies three generations from now (wash, rinse, repeat).

I hope that doesn’t happen. Do your part to not be part of the problem. Educate yourself. Get in the habit of praying Matins and Vespers daily, together with the Psalter. Buy The Conduct of the Service— it is an invaluable guide to making full use of Matins and Vespers (see also). Be duly wary of any book that has cheesy relief clip-art on its cover. Only the beautiful endures. I don’t know. These are just ideas.




  1. But just how general can your rubrics be when you have four different rites? Calling the LSB‘s communion services “settings” is just plain inaccurate: I & II are two different settings of one rite; III is another rite; IV is another; V is another.
  2. I don’t know whether, like so much of the crap in the LSB, this practice comes from the giddy ecumenists gamboling in the Vatican II milieu miasma (read: Episcopalians), or whether it’s just our weird in-house sectarianism— perhaps someone can educate me here— but neither is a good option.
  3. Luther’s instructions are to say the Apostles’ Creed (and the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments) when you get out of bed in the morning and when you go to bed at night. This suggests a standalone devotional act, but it also elides nicely in the standard Lutheran practice of the daily office, i.e., praying Matins and Vespers. Most laymen do not have the time to pray like a monk. This is OK, as our ordinary vocations are good, right, and worthwhile. This was, of course, Luther’s entire point in simply commending two offices— one in the morning, and one in the evening— to the laity’s regular use.