March 17, 2014

Line Breaks in the BCP’s Rendering of the Nicene Creed

Chanting the psalms at St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, has made me sensitive to when it is appropriate or inappropriate to pause. (Everyone in the choir needs to be doing the same thing, though we don’t clue the congregation in on what we do, even though, at least in principle, they are singing with us.) This, in turn, has caused me to pay close attention to how the congregation reads parts of the liturgy.

Consider, for example, the Nicene Creed. In the Book of Common Prayer, it is formatted as follows on pages 358 and 359:
We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made man.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.
I don’t know how this is read in your church, but, at St. Paul’s, the congregation pauses at the end of each line. Does this, I asked myself, make sense? As it happens, this is not an easy question to answer.

An obvious place to begin analysis is to try to understand the indentation of the creed. Three lines begin at the left margin. This clearly is intended to show that the creed consists of three paragraphs (about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), each of which is indicated by a hanging indent.

So far, so good, but some lines are indented further. In general, such indentation seems not to be indicating subordination, and the preceding line breaks are not intended merely to give the congregation an opportunity to take a collective breath. That this is true becomes clear when we see that most lines fully express a single concept. We see this in the lines about God the Father:
We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.
On the other hand, the line
    For us and for our salvation
is clearly not a complete thought. Although worshipers at St. Paul’s—and, probably, at most Episcopal churches—pause at the end of this line, the thought is only completed in the next line. That line is further indented, as one might see in a poem in which a single line cannot fit within the available margins. In other words, we should read the two lines as though they were written as
    For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
A bit of an aside is necessary here. The above line would actually not extend to the right margin of page 358. (The first line on page 359 is a bit longer.) I suspect that the line was split so as to not put the lines
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.
on facing pages, which would also have increased the already generous white space at the bottom of page 359.

Arguably, the next three lines represent a single idea. Conceptionaly, they should be shown on a single line, but such a line would be too long to fit between the margins. They more or less have to occupy at least two lines, and they are not unreasonable rendered as three.

The next six lines are curious:
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
These lines contain two semicolons, which appear nowhere else in the creed. One can probably justify the semicolons, but periods would be more easily defended and would be more consistent with punctuation elsewhere in the creed. Likewise, the colon after “he came down from heaven” four lines earlier could reasonably be replaced by a semicolon or (preferably) a period. The editors of the prayer book seem to have been too clever by half.

Returning to the six lines referred to above, I find it impossible to understand the indentation. Are the second through sixth lines intended to be a continuation of the first? The indentation of the fourth and sixth lines clearly are intended as extensions of the third and fifth lines, but why have those lines been indented relative to the first? The formatting simply makes no sense.

The remainder of the creed is consistent with the pattern noted earlier, however: indentation identifies one of the three major paragraphs, and further indentation indicates continuation of a thought.

So how might we better read the creed? Clearly, the congregation should pause at the end of lines, except where one line is continued on the next. As for the six problematic lines discussed above, the second through sixth lines should be treated as though they were rendered with one fewer level of indentation. The lines
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.
will necessarily require a bit of a pause between them, though perhaps less than is customary. The result would sound something like the following:


Finally, as readers might have inferred above, I think the creed is unhelpfully punctuated. Indentation aside, there are commas missing in some places and extraneous commas in others. (I am a big fan of commas, particularly if text is to be read aloud.) For consistency, I would put commas after introductory phrases and eliminate commas serving no obvious purpose. (Compound predicates need no  separating commas; compound sentences do.) I would replace colons and semicolons with periods, and I would make a few additional changes. Without undue concern for prayer book pagination, the result would be something like this:
We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him, all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.
    By the power of the Holy Spirit,
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.
    For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
    He suffered death and was buried.
    On the third day, he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures.
    He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son, he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Permit me to close with a theological question that occurred to me as I was writing this essay. What is one to make of  “he rose again”? When did the Son of God rise the first time? Presumably, the phrase means something like “became a living being again,” but the phrase is peculiar.

2 comments:

  1. The Greek is "anistemi," the Latin, the Latin, "resurrexit." Past perfect. A parallel might be, "he fell and got up again." The theological idea is that Jesus in the resurrection "returns" --he is the same Jesus they had known before, glorified, and not a "new Jesus."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Bruce. That’s helpful, but the English of the BCP isn’t.

    ReplyDelete

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