In Whom Do You Trust?

An Explanation of and Apology for the Use of

the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds in Worship

 

Pastor Jeffrey J. Meyers

 

 

With the rest of the country I anxiously watched the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, but there is one image that I will always remember.  It is not the firefight with the ATF agents or even the apocalyptic fire that ended the assault on the compound.  It was a short news clip of a woman cult member being escorted into a jail house with a swarm of reporters firing questions.  She appealed to the camera, "How can they do this to us? We believe the Bible.  Is it a crime to believe the Bible?" 

Well, that depends on what you believe the Bible teaches.  Everything hinges on how you understand the Bible and on what you profess as biblical truth.  Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Moslems, and even Branch Davidians all profess to believe the Bible.  The real question is: what do they believe the Bible teaches?  You see, the slogan "No creed but the Bible" is practically useless.  Such a motto fails to provide an adequate means of distinguishing between cultic or heretical groups and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I understand the motivation for such slogans. There is a real fear that the authority and sufficiency of the Bible itself will be suffocated by mere human creeds and confessions.  That danger is very real.  Nevertheless, the fact that creeds and confessions may be abused is not a strong enough argument to banish them from the worship and life of the church altogether.  They perform a necessary and beneficial service in the life of the church.[1]  The crucial service of the creeds in the life and worship of the church is the subject of this essay.

For the sake of clarity, I should note that this little booklet will focus on the two ecumenical creeds that we use in our worship service—the Apostles' and Nicene creeds.  Some of my comments, especially those on the nature and necessity of creeds, might also be applied to other creedal documents (like the Westminster Confession of Faith), but my intent is to explain the church's use of these two liturgical creeds. 

The Apostles' Creed was not really written by the Apostles themselves (as legend has it), but was composed very early in the life of the post-Apostolic church.  It has been used by the Western Church in one form or another at least since 150 A.D. and very possibly from the time of the Apostles.  It is "ecumenical" in that both the Roman Catholic and Reformation churches utilize it as a statement of faith.[2]

The Nicene Creed was composed for the ecumenical (or universal) councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381), both of which were convened to clarify the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the Trinity.  The Nicene Creed is in many ways little more than the Apostles' Creed enlarged to clarify the deity of the Son of God and of the Holy Spirit.  With the exception of one clause, both the Eastern and Western Churches have adhered to the Nicene Creed as a preeminent summary of the Christian faith.[3] These two ecumenical creeds have been used in the corporate worship of the church for many centuries.  Should we continue this practice?  What value is there in continuing to recite these ancient creeds?  What are we doing when we recite these creeds in worship?  These are the questions that I hope to answer.

 

The Necessity and Usefulness of Creeds

It might seem overly dramatic to some, but it is nevertheless true—if we are going to be faithful to the Bible itself, we must use "human" creeds.  It is not just that creeds are permissible and biblical, but the Bible demands that we publicly express our faith in concise, accurate, and intelligible language—which is precisely what creeds attempt to do.  This is an important point.  When someone asks you, "What do you believe as a Christian?" you must respond with a summary of what you believe the Word of God teaches.  You might say something like this: "That's a good question.  If you have a few minutes I can summarize it for you.  I believe the Bible teaches . . ."  The words "I believe" (Latin = credo) come quite spontaneously to your lips.  I am not suggesting that you simply quote the Apostles' Creed to the inquirer—though that is, of course, one acceptable way of summarizing the biblical faith—but my point is that composing creeds is inescapable.  Everyone has a creed because everyone has a way of summarizing and expressing what one believes.[4]

The Bible itself demands that we make personal, public confession of our faith (Matt. 10:32-33; 16:13-17; John 6:66-69; Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:13). Genuine faith always seeks public expression in confession and proclamation (Acts 19:18; 2 Cor. 4:13).  Genuine faith that is truly a matter of the heart can never remain a secret of the heart.  Our Lord said, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).  The heart must speak and make public its deepest commitments.  The important question is: Will your personal creed be an accurate and faithful summary of the Christian faith?

How can you insure that your personal creed is an accurate reflection of the objective truth taught in the Bible?  Keep that question in mind as we turn to the venerable Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney (d. 1898) for wisdom.  He makes a very telling point when he reminds us that the Bible commands pastors not just to read the Bible, but to explain what it means in their own words. Consider Dabney's comments on 2 Timothy 4:2 as he marshals a telling argument for the legitimacy of creeds:

 

"He, as an apostle of Christ, not only permits, but commands, each uninspired pastor to give his human and uninspired expositions of what he believes to be divine truth, that is to say, his creed.  If such human creeds when composed by a single teacher and delivered orally, extempore, are proper means of instruction for the church, by the stronger reason must those creeds be proper and scriptural which are the careful, mature, and joint productions of learned and godly pastors, delivered with all the accuracy of written documents.  He who would consistently banish creeds must silence all preaching and reduce the teaching of the church to the recital of the exact words of Holy Scripture without note or comment."[5]

 

Every time a pastor mounts the pulpit to preach, he is explaining to the congregation what he believes the Scriptures teach.  He makes statements like, "I believe (credo) that this passage means. . ." or "We can summarize this portion of Scripture by . . ."  Should the congregation reject his extra-biblical explanations and summaries with the slogan "no creed but Christ, no confession but the Bible"?  No, of course not.  We know the difference between the secondary authority of the pastor's words of explanation (his credo) and the primary authority of the Word of God.  Similarly, but even more powerfully, the historic creeds provide us with not just one pastor's credo of what the Bible teaches, but the credo of the ancient, Medieval, and Reformation church!  How much more authority than a single pastor's sermon does the Apostles' Creed have as a summary of the apostolic faith!

 

The Authority of the Ecumenical Creeds

It follows, then, that the Apostles' Creed is invested with all of the authority of almost two millennia of church history.  This authority is secondary and derived to be sure. The Bible alone has primary  and absolute authority.  Nevertheless, secondary, derived authority is real authority.  If a child informed his mother, "Mom, I don't have to obey you because I know that Dad's word is the primary authority in this house," we would not tolerate such a dismissive posture toward the mother's authority.  The Father may indeed be the head of the household, and as such the principal authority, but that does not imply that the mother has absolutely no authority at all!  You can be sure when the father returns in the evening that he will use his principal authority to bolster the derived authority of his wife.  The same holds true in any ordered society like the family.  A private may not flout the authority of his sergeant with the claim that the captain is the one who is ultimately in charge.  Middle-management may not demand exemption from the directives of a vice president simply because he is not the president of the company.  Similarly, the authority of an ecumenical creed which has been passed on to us by our forefathers in the faith, constituting as it does the universal tradition of the church, is like the authority of a mother, a sergeant, or a vice-president.  It does not have the same authority as the Bible, but that does not mean it has no authority whatsoever.

Moreover, the Nicene and Apostles' Creed have been thoroughly examined and approved by centuries of Christian reflection.  The basic elements of the Apostles' Creed may even have come into existence at the same time as the apostolic Scriptures (compare the Apostles' Creed with 1 Peter 3:18-22; Col. 2:9-15; and 1 Cor. 15:1ff.).  Note how closely the Apostles' Creed follows Paul's inspired summary of the Gospel:

        

         Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the Gospel

                which I preached to you, which also you received

                and in which you stand, by which also you are saved,

                      if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—

                      unless you believed in vain.

                For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received:

                       that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

                      and that he was buried,

                      and that he rose again the third day

                      according to the Scriptures. . .                (1 Cor. 15:1-4)

 

The apostolic Scriptures manifest on every page a common body of Christian teaching (doctrine), definite in outline and regarded by all the apostles as the possession of no individual but of the church as a whole (1 Cor. 15:1ff.; Eph. 4:5; Phil. 1:27; Titus 1:4; 2 Peter. 1:1; Jude 3).  This outline bears a remarkable resemblance to the early creedal summaries of the faith.  The substance of the Apostles' Creed is already found in the earliest known extra-biblical works, such as the Didache (c. 65-100 A.D.) and in the writings of the first generation of post-Apostolic Fathers (for example, Justin Martyr, d. 165 A.D.).  Whether or not we can establish the precise dating of the origin of the Apostles' Creed, it still remains true that virtually every word and phrase of the creed is directly based on the Bible. 

Even during the time of the New Testament, this body of Apostolic teaching was beginning to crystallize into a set pattern and arrangement that would later form the basis for the Trinitarian baptismal creeds.  The Old and New Testaments contain examples of "mini-creeds" (Ex. 20:1-3; Deut. 6:4; Matt. 16:13-18; Romans 10:8ff.; Acts 22-26; Phil. 2:11; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Tim. 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Heb. 13:15; 1 John 4:15).  Short summaries of the content of Christianity, like "Jesus is Lord" or "Jesus has come in the flesh"  have their origin in the inspired word of God.  They are the forerunners of the early church creeds that we now use.  The ecumenical creeds build upon all of this biblical material and also various creedal formulations that originated just one or two generations after the Apostles. 

The point is that these creeds have been confessed by the universal church (East and West), with only minor variations, for thousands of years.  The lesson for us is powerful: if the Holy Spirit has consistently led the Church to make and affirm these creedal summaries of the faith, then we need to think long and hard before we reject the substance of these creeds (Jn. 16:13).  When you recite the Apostles' or Nicene Creed in church on Sunday morning, you are verbally joining the venerable communion of saints, ritually confessing your solidarity with the church of all ages. 

By reciting the Apostles' and Nicene Creed we are confessing the universal, historic faith of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As one early church Father expressed it: "In the universal church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all; for that is truly and in the strictest sense 'catholic' or 'universal'" (Vincent of Lerins, d. 450 A.D.).  More than any others, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds meet these stringent requirements.  C. E. B. Cranfield's comments are helpful: "What unites Christians of different traditions, languages, and nations and of different generations and centuries is a more effective and powerful vehicle of such confession than any occasional statement composed by an individual, however gifted, or by any particular denomination or group of Christians."[6]

Increasingly, however, the ecumenical creeds are being omitted in Evangelical worship services, or replaced with "creeds" composed by others—creeds that cannot by any stretch of the imagination  claim to embody the "catholic" or "universal" faith.[7]  These modern statements usually reflect some kind of agenda such as feminism or environmentalism.  Sometimes they are just faddish and inferior, but they are almost always dangerous.  When they are expressions of some modern social or political agenda, then they can be quite literally heretical.  To alter, without biblical support, the orthodox Church's confession of God is nothing less than heresy.  When a pastor or church modifies the historic church's Scriptural confession of God in order to bring it in line with the spirit of the age, the document is idolatrous. The god confessed is only the projection of modern man's highest aspirations, not the true and living God who exists independently of fallen man's imaginary ideals.

Consider this actual example:

 

We believe in God—

         who works in the hidden stillness of every dawn;

         who beckons us to visit the tomb of our fears so

         we might discover the birth of hope;

         who sends reoccurring dreams, fragrant flowers,

         good friends and bright angels with messages of joy and

         possibility.

 

We believe in Jesus, the risen Christ—

         who meets us on every path;

         who greets us with respect, names, and calms our fears,

         and bids us walk and talk as children of the Light;

         who is always going before us into our workplace and playspace.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit—

         who gathers us into community;

         who works through the lame and the late,

         the wrinkled and the newborn, the hurting and the hopeful;

         who nudges our prayers, kindles our longings, and prompts our praise.

 

This "creed" continues with two more articles: one on the "Easter people" and another on the church.[8]  Besides the intolerable banality of the imagery and the idiotic attempt at poetic language, this creed is idolatrous, pure heresy.  This new creed is not merely an attempt to update the archaic language of the old creeds or explain some of the more difficult words and phrases; nor is it even an attempt to deal with issues relevant to modern Christianity.   Rather, this creed alters the content of the Christian faith.  The God confessed has only a superficial resemblance to the biblical God, even though the Trinitarian names are retained.  This creed shows no concern whatsoever to attribute to God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit any of the attributes or activities that the Bible emphasizes.  Is God creator?  Is he almighty?  Is Jesus God's Son?  We are left to wonder!  Is Jesus true man and true God?  Was he really born?  Did he die?  Does the cross mean anything?  What about man's sin?  Is there forgiveness?  What does it mean that he is "the risen Christ"?  Did this happen in space and time ("the third day") or just in the minds of the disciples?  Did he ascend to heaven?  Is he coming again?  Who knows?  This creed certainly doesn't tell us!  And who cares?  Let's all just be happy!  The god here confessed is not the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of Christianity who demands our allegiance and promises us salvation from sin in Christ; rather this god has no objective existence—he is fundamentally the projection of a modern congregation's sentimental thoughts about a higher power.

 

The Creeds as Doors into the Church

What standard should a church to use to determine what doctrines are essential to the Christian faith?  How can we know whether a person's confession is biblical?  Another way to word this question is to ask what kind of personal confession of faith the leaders of the church will require of those who wish to join the church.  When the elders interview a candidate for membership, what doctrines must the candidate confess?  These are crucial questions today, because many churches require adherence to various idiosyncratic doctrines for membership.  Even if you may not be required to confess something so outrageous as the "creed" I just quoted, nevertheless, you may not be admitted into the membership of some churches if you don't believe in a pre-tribulation rapture.  You may be barred from membership in other churches because you don't agree with that denomination's mode of baptism or their particular theory of the Lord's special presence at the Eucharist.  Historically, the boundaries of the church have not been drawn so tightly, but history often doesn't matter much to American Christians.  The classical position is that the door into church membership ought to be no narrower (or wider) than the door into heaven.  What, then, must a person believe in order to enter into heaven?  Answer: He must be able to confess honestly that he trusts "in God the Father Almighty, etc." 

The Apostles' Creed embodies the common faith of Christians everywhere.  It is truly an ecumenical creed, in the best sense of that word.  An honest commitment to the truths outlined there ought to serve to identify true Christians.  When churches and Christians abandon the ancient creeds they open a theological Pandora's box and let loose a whole host of false doctrines.  Worse than that, all sorts of non-essential doctrines are often elevated as tests of orthodoxy.[9]  In many independent churches that have strong personalities as leaders, the pet doctrines of the pastor himself are often made to function as boundaries for church fellowship.  For example, in the past I have been denied membership in a local Evangelical church simply because I did not agree with the leadership's view of end times. 

This tendency to elevate secondary, non-essential doctrines is greatly diminished in creedal churches.  The ecumenical creeds do not include anything about the millennium, the rapture, or the Antichrist, indeed, they contain nothing at all about the interpretation of the book of Revelation!  These doctrines are not necessary for salvation; neither should they be made necessary for church membership.  The creeds set forth what is essential and abiding, not what is controversial and faddish.  They deal with what God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have done for us in creation, redemption, and sanctification—in other words, those teachings on which the Christian faith stands or falls.  Other non-essential doctrines simply cannot function as barriers to true fellowship in a church that recognizes the centrality of the Apostles' Creed.

All of this comports well with the origin of the Apostles' Creed, which developed from the questions asked to church membership candidates at their baptism.  Our Lord instituted the initiatory rite of baptism with the mandate that all be baptized "into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).  What does it mean to be baptized into this Name?  Who are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  What have they done for me?  As a baptized Christian you bear this Name; now what does it mean to you?  Your answer should be, "I trust in God the Father Almighty. . . . and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. . . and I trust in the Holy Spirit. . ."   

The creeds, then, developed in the early church as baptismal confessions.  The candidate for baptism was asked a series of three questions to which he was to respond "I believe."  We have an example of how this was done in the Apostolic Constitutions of Hippolytus (c. 200 A.D.).  He has recorded for us one of the earliest examples of the creed:

 

Minister: Do you believe [trust] in God, the Father Almighty? 

Candidate: I believe!

Minister: Do you believe [trust] in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? 

Candidate: I believe!

Minister: Do you believe [trust] in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church, and in the resurrection of the flesh? 

Candidate: I believe!

 

The Apostles' Creed, therefore, is a confession of the very Name of God into which one has been baptized.  Trusting in the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be compared with opinions about the time and character of the millennium or the proper form of church government.  The Apostles' and Nicene creeds embody the truths necessary for salvation.  This is what defines a Christian.  He or she is one who trusts in God the Father and Creator of all; God the Son, the Redeemer of God's people; and God the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier of the church. 

In reciting these trinitarian creeds, moreover, we learn the true meaning and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity.  As baptized Christians we do not bear the generic name "God."  We have not been named and claimed by a "Higher Power" or the "Unmoved Mover."   Believing in "God" does not necessarily make one a Christian.  God has specifically revealed his true and proper Name to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is the only Name we confess.  This is the God who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us.  None other.  The Triune God is the only true God. 

The creeds eloquently instruct us that the origin of our doctrine of the Trinity is not to be found in idle theological speculation. Although in the history of the Church it has often been buried beneath loads of subtle metaphysical terminology, the doctrine of the Trinity is not something that ancient theologians cooked up to keep simple Christians befuddled and confused.  God has revealed himself to us in salvation history as working for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Father is the Father because he created me and sustains me.  I know that he is the Father because I know what he has done for me.  The Son is my Lord because I know what he has done for me in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit because of what he does for me: he makes me holy (=sanctification).  There is no finer Trinitarian summary of the Apostles' Creed than Luther's brief exposition (see Appendix B). 

 

In Whom Do You Trust?

During the Republican convention in Houston in 1992, the Christian Coalition sponsored a rally that featured then-Vice President Dan Quayle. The crowd, packed into a hotel ballroom, went wild when Mr. Quayle appeared.  "Do we trust Bill Clinton?"  Mr. Quayle asked.  "No!" the crowd bellowed.  "Do we trust the liberal media?" "No!" the answer came again.  Then Mr. Quayle asked: "Who do we trust?"  The response was immediate and loud: "Jesus!"  Mr. Quayle, expecting the audience to shout "George Bush," was stunned.[10]

We do this every Sunday morning.  We clarify our ultimate loyalty.  The pastor asks, "Christian people, in whom do you trust?" and the response comes "I believe in God the Father. . ."  Reciting the creeds on Sunday morning provides us all with an opportunity for a personal, yet united profession of our faith before God and the world.  Cranfield notes that before 1933, in Germany it was customary for the pastor alone to recite the creed during Sunday morning worship.  With the rise of the Nazi regime that practice was altered.  After 1933 the congregations began to join in the public recitation.  "Church members wanted this opportunity, in the face of Nazi attacks on the church, to confess their faith personally and publicly."[11]  Christians today must publicly confess their faith in the face of a new Fascism, the relentless attack on the Christian church by a sophisticated humanistic culture.[12]  A vigorous and wholehearted recitation of the Apostles' Creed can serve well as a weekly reminder to the Christian community that its ultimate loyalty may never be placed in politicians, scientists, doctors, intellectuals, media personalities, or the State. Only the biblical God is Creator and Savior.

Some have criticized the Nicene and Apostles' creeds because they do not say anything about "justification by faith."[13]  This is a very weighty objection, but it arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the language and purpose of these creeds.  These creeds are not designed primarily to be a list of doctrines to which Christians give their assent. The great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavink criticized the all-too-common tendency we have as Christians to reduce our faith to believing a list of ideas and doctrines: "They no longer confess their faith, but they only believe their confession."  When true and lively faith wanes in a church, the creeds and confessions can easily degenerate to the level of documents to which the people give formal, intellectual assent.  But the fault must not be located in the creeds and confessions themselves, but in the people!

The Apostles' Creed is not primarily a list of ideas that we give assent to, rather it is a public, personal confession of our trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, acknowledging God's work of creation, redemption, and sanctification for us.   When you recite these creeds you are not saying something like, "I believe this about that" or "I think that these ideas and concepts are true."  Not exactly.  Some confessions and catechisms provide for this kind of thing.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism is filled with abstract definitions of doctrinal terms: Q. What is justification?  A. Justification is . . .  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it's not how the Nicene and Apostles' Creed have been written.

The first two words of these creeds are often dangerously misunderstood.  These creeds begin with the words "I believe."  Unfortunately, in the minds of many Christians this assertion is basically equivalent to "I think" or "I am of the opinion."  Nothing could be more erroneous.  The word "creed" comes from the Latin verb credo—the first word in the Latin creeds.  The Greek translation of the creeds uses the word pisteuo, which is precisely the word that is used for "faith" in the New Testament (John 3:16, 36; Rom. 10:10).  (Remember, originally these creeds were composed in the language of the day—Latin and Greek.)  What is the significance of the fact the creeds begin with the words credo and pisteuo?

When you say, "I believe [credo, pisteuo] in God the Father Almighty," you are not stating an opinion or even assenting to a doctrine; rather, you are confessing your personal trust, your faith in the Father Almighty.  "I believe [credo, pisteuo]" is exactly equivalent to the language of personal trust used in the New Testament: "I believe in" or "I place my faith in" or "I trust in"  ("Believe [pistueo] on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household," Acts 16:31). 

No one is saved from sin and death merely because he believes in the doctrine of justification by faith. As far as that goes, demons have correct doctrinal knowledge (James 2:19).  No one is justified merely because he assents to the Reformation doctrine of justification.  Unfortunately, many contemporary professors are convinced that they are Christians merely because they believe in the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.  Don't make that mistake.  Only those who place their faith and trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can know that they are justified.  The creeds provide opportunities to verbalize one's faith and trust in the God who justifies us in Christ Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.  There is no doctrine of justification by faith articulated in the creeds because the creeds express the faith of justified sinners!

 

Faith in Faith or Faith in God

Moreover, the faith of the justified sinner does not focus inward, but reaches out and lays hold of the one true God.  After the initial "I believe" the creed is silent about the believer's subjective act of faith.  The all-important thing is not the faith of the Christian, its strength or character, but the One in whom the Christian trusts.  Unfortunately, these creeds are conspicuous by their absence in so many Evangelical churches today.  It's almost as if the experience of the people in church has become central.  The focus of many contemporary church services is not so much on objectively confessing and worshipping God, but on the expression and experience of the people.  The services are orchestrated and delib­erately designed to produce certain desired responses in the people. Rather than providing the means whereby the congregation can offer objective worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, too many church services today are geared towards engineering various psychological experiences.  The historical creeds serve as a healthy check on this overdose of experience so common today.  They provide us with a way of moving outside of ourselves and our own experiences so that we can claim by faith for ourselves God the Father's work of creation, God the Son's work of redemption, and God the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification.

We live in an age when not many are concerned about the objective content of the faith—whether what they believe is really true or not—but are preoccupied with the Christian's own personal activity and disposition.  We want to know what will uplift and help people, what will produce a certain kind of positive response in people's lives.  A woman called me recently and asked me about our church.  "Is it uplifting and exciting?" she asked.  "Will I go away feeling good about myself every week after the service?"  I told her, "Our worship is truly vigorous and joyful.  We give thanks to God every week for what he has done for us in creation and redemption. But, I have to be honest with you.  We meet together at God's command to glorify him.  We are not there for stimulation or excitation. We gather to confess our sins, receive forgiveness, commune with the Lord, and be instructed about sin, righteousness, and eternal life from the Word of God."  After a few more minutes of conversation, it was obvious that this was not the kind of church she was looking for.[14]

In contrast to this modern experience-centered, man-oriented Christianity stands the whole undivided tradition of the church of Jesus Christ.  What is most important is not what kind of experience you have with God, but whether you trust in the true God. Now, experiences are good.  When the true God works in your life you not only know it, but you feel it.  Nevertheless, our faith does not rest in our own experiences, but in the gracious work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for us.  We are not saved because we have experienced something in the past, however exciting and moving it may have been.  In other words, true faith is not necessarily expressed by the statement "I believe that I am saved," but rather, "I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."  Many people believe that they "got saved," but, unfortunately, their hope is founded on an experience they have had in the past.  They believe (= are of the opinion that) they "got saved" even though they are not presently trusting in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Confessing the Apostles' or Nicene Creed in the worship service reminds us that we are gathered together, in opposition to the world, as those who trust in the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

If you have followed my arguments so far and agree with my analysis, then you should now understand the need for the public confession of the Apostles' and Nicene creeds in Sunday worship.  Furthermore, you ought to evaluate how you recite these creeds.  If these creeds really are personal confessions of faith and trust, if they really do embody the core biblical teachings about God and his work, then you and I ought to recite these creeds wholeheartedly and energetically.  When the pastor calls to the congregation, "Christians, what do you believe?" or better "Christians, in whom do you trust?" you should respond with a vigorous, loud recitation of the creed.  Faithfulness to the true and living God is a life-long calling. The challenge of remaining loyal to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit engages the church as her most arduous and adventurous task.  G.K Chesterton called it "the romance of orthodoxy":

 

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. . . . It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own.  It is always easy to be a modernist—as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.[15]

 

Appendix A

 

The Two Most Frequently Asked Questions About the Apostles' & Nicene Creeds

 

1.  What do we mean when we confess to believe in  "one holy catholic and apostolic church" (NC) or in the "holy catholic church" (AC)?

 

First of all, the word in this phrase that most often confounds Protestants is the adjective "catholic."  What do we mean by this qualifying adjective "catholic"?   The term "catholic" itself is not found in Scripture.  Nevertheless, it has found its way into the ecumenical creeds because it expresses a biblical truth about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The word "catholic" is derived from the Greek adverb kath'holon ("in reference to the whole").  The closest words we have to it are "universal," "undivided," or "whole."  When we acknowledge that we believe in the "holy catholic church" we are confessing our solidarity with the whole church of Jesus Christ wherever and whenever she might be.  The early church bishop Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.) was the first to use the term "catholic." What he wrote is what we confess in the creed: "Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church."[16]

Now, obviously, the word "catholic" cannot refer to the Roman  Catholic church. The very notion of a universal Roman church is a contradiction.  To suggest that the Roman church is the only true church is not very catholic, but sectarian!  The Church of Christ has one Head, the ascended Lord Jesus.  No human pope, bishop, pastor, moderator, mentor, etc. can ever claim that loyalty to him (or her) constitutes the mark of the true Church.  The mark of catholicity is loyalty to Jesus Christ.[17]

The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is catholic; therefore it is not restricted to one location or institution.  We count a particular congregation as part of the catholic Church if the leaders and people confess the apostolic, orthodox faith, thereby manifesting their union with the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The catholic Church is the apostolic Church. Apostolic churches meet the following criteria: 1) their ministerial orders (pastors, elders, deacons) are grounded in the authoritative apostolic blueprint and provide care and discipline for members;[18] 2) they strive to maintain and guard the Apostles' doctrine in their preaching and teaching; and 3) they administer the apostolic sacraments (the Lord's Supper and Baptism) regularly and faithfully.  No other institutional or organizational marks are necessary.  As long as they are faithful to the above three marks, they are apostolic churches, even if they are institutionally structured as independent, episcopal, congregational, or presbyterial bodies.

We dare not degenerate in our thinking to the point where we become sectarian in our conception of the church.  We may be convinced that presbyterial government and Reformed doctrine represent the most faithful exposition of the Bible; but we must never think that because we have these commitments we are the only true church. We are catholic, but not Roman, Reformed, but not sectarian.  In other words, the Church of Jesus Christ is larger than our local church and denomination.  It is larger than Presbyterianism, even Protestantism.  The true catholic Church is also older than Presbyterianism and Protestantism. It predates the Reformation.  The catholic Church is one world-wide fellowship of believing people together with the triumphant saints in heaven—both Old and New Testament saints—all united to Christ the Husband and Head.  You must think of nothing less than this when you confess to believe in "one holy catholic  and apostolic Church."

Secondly, what about the term "holy"?  What does that mean?  The Church is holy because it is united to the ascended Lord Jesus Christ.  The Church is holy because it is positioned in union with Christ in the closest possible relation to our holy God.  Holiness in the Bible always has spatial, even geographical connotations.  This is seen most clearly when we begin with the symbolic structure of the Old Covenant.  The nearer you were to God, the holier you were.  In the Old Covenant there were degrees of holiness that corresponded to the degrees of nearness to the Lord's special presence in the tabernacle and temple.  The land of Canaan was holy when compared to the other nations, because the Lord dwelt in the midst of his people in the land of Canaan.  This was not true of other nations.  The city of Jerusalem was holier still, since the temple resided within her walls.  Other cities may have been holy, but not as holy as the holy city Jerusalem.  All of the Israelites were constituted a holy people because they lived in the holy land and were nearer to God's special presence than the Gentile peoples.  The Levites were holier still because they ministered in the tabernacle and temple area.  The common Israelite was not allowed to touch or enter some parts of the tabernacle/temple complex.  The priests were even one degree holier, since they were able to enter into the Holy Place to offer sacrifices. Finally, the Most Holy Place was the inner room where the Lord's special presence manifested itself over the Ark of the Covenant.  Only the High Priest could enter this room.  He was the most holy man in Israel.  And this room was the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place.

The New Covenant situation is different.  There are no more graded zones of holiness.  There are only two categories—either you are holy or you are unholy.  The man Jesus Christ, our great high priest, has entered the true Holy of Holies (heaven itself) and sat down at the right hand of God.  All who are united to him ("in Christ") are holy.  All who are not are not holy.  The holy catholic church consists of all believers, who in Christ are themselves "seated in the heavenly places" (Col. 3:1).  This is what we mean when we confess "one holy catholic church."  It doesn't mean that everyone in the universal church is perfectly holy in behavior.  Behavioral holiness—what we call holy living—is a consequence of our positional holiness in Christ.  Behavioral holiness is our duty; positional holiness is our privilege.  Behavioral holiness is progressive and incremental; positional holiness admits of no degrees, since one is either united with Christ by faith or not. 

In the language of traditional Reformed theology we would call positional holiness "definitive sanctification"—the word "sanctification" is derived from the Latin word sancio, "to make holy."  Our progress in behavioral holiness we would call "progressive sanctification."  The catholic Church is definitively holy through its union with Christ by the Spirit, and therefore it is also being progressively sanctified by the same Spirit.[19]  This is the one holy catholic and Apostolic Church that we confess.

 

2.  What does "he descended into hell" mean in the Apostles' Creed?

 

There are at least six possible interpretations of this clause:

 

1.  It means that Jesus actually descended into hell (gehenna, the abode of the damned), the place of the damned, to suffer the wrath of God.

2.  It means that Jesus actually descended into hell (gehenna, the abode of the damned) to preach the Gospel and give some residents a "second chance."

3.  It means that Jesus actually descended into hell (gehenna, the abode of the damned) to proclaim his victory over sin, death, and the devil.

4.  It does not mean that Jesus literally "descended" to hell; rather, he symbolically descended into hell, that is, he literally suffered hell for us as our substitute on the cross.

5.  The phrase would be better rendered as "he descended into hades."  It means that Jesus actually died, and his human soul and body were separated, his spirit leaving his body to inhabit for a time the place of the departed dead (sheol, hades).

6.  It merely means that "he went to the dead" or "he descended to the dead" or "he descended into the grave." In other words, it means Jesus genuinely suffered death.

This list might seem confusing at first, but these options can be grouped according to a few common assumptions.  The first four interpretations all presuppose that hell (gehenna) is in view, whether literally (1-3) or only symbolically (4).  Option #5 suggests that "the place of the departed dead" (OT sheol, NT hades) would be a better way to render the original wording of the creed.  The sixth option is a modern make-shift that only adds to the confusion, since one must then ask what this phrase adds to "he was crucified, dead, and buried."  Notice the very carefully ordered sequence in the creed:

 

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate

was crucified, dead, and buried;

he descended into hell;

the third day he rose again from the dead;

he ascended into heaven,

and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty

 

Clearly the creed intends for the descent clause to add something to the affirmation that Jesus was "buried."  More than that, it follows in an historical sequence of events: born, suffered, crucified, dead, buried, descended, rose again, ascended, and sits.  The descent happened before the resurrection.  The descent comes after his burial and before his resurrection.  This carefully constructed historical sequence rules out the symbolic interpretation that is so common in Reformed circles (#4 above).  Even though both Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism (Q.44) explain the descent clause this way, it does not do justice to the placement of the clause in the historical sequence.  Furthermore, we know from history that this symbolic interpretation was not the view of the early church, which was responsible for composing the creed.

The substance of what Calvin says is true enough.  Jesus did indeed suffer the wrath of God for us—that which characterizes hell.  Nevertheless, this penal curse was vicariously borne by Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross (Gal. 3:13).  His death marked the climax of the Father's just wrath.  This rules out option #1, which understands Jesus suffering hell in some sense after his death and burial.  There is nothing at all in the Bible to indicate that Jesus suffered any added punishment after his death on the cross.  Jesus cried out "It is finished" on the cross (Jn. 19:30).

The questions therefore are: Did Jesus descend into hell or into hades?  And what did he do there?   Let's begin with what we do know.  First, we know that Jesus suffered death in his human nature— that is, his soul and body were torn apart.  That is what the Bible calls physical death.  The biblical record says that when he died "he gave up his spirit" (Jn. 19:30).  Luke 23: 46 tells us that Jesus himself prayed, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  If Jesus' human "spirit" or "soul" (the two words are used interchangeably in Scripture) departed on the cross, where did it go?  If Jesus' body was subsequently buried, then his soul must have gone somewhere.  In other words, where was Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning?  And what was he doing?  The descent clause has an answer.

Second, we know that Jesus could not have been in hell preaching to the pious Old Covenant saints or to the departed damned so as to give them a "second chance."  Whatever 1 Peter 3:18-20 means, it cannot mean that Jesus was preaching the Gospel to the Old Covenant's righteous dead in sheol or to the pre-flood wicked dead in hell.  The early church Father Augustine labeled this view as heretical.  I don't know that I would go that far, but it certainly doesn't make biblical sense.  The Reformed scholar Randall Otto summarizes the objections to this interpretation quite well: "Let it suffice to assert that any preaching to the OT saints would be superfluous, since they had already believed the Gospel and were thus justified (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6-9). Moreover, preaching to the impenitent dead would be against the entire tenor of Scripture, which pronounces judgment after death (Heb. 9:27) and condemnation to the wicked dead without review as, for instance, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus indicates (Luke 16:19-31)."[20]

Almost surely what is in view in 1 Peter 3:18-20 is a reference to the Spirit of Jesus, who inspired Noah to preach the Gospel to the pre-flood generation, the spirits who did not repent and are now in prison. This is Augustine's interpretation.  Christ preached through the Spirit using Noah during the 120 years prior to the flood.  They who heard Noah's preaching are now in prison, but when Christ preached to them through Noah, they were given the opportunity to repent.  This fits with the reference to the "Spirit" who strove 120 years with the generation before the flood (Gen. 6:3).  Peter interprets this as the Spirit of Jesus preaching through Noah (1 Peter 1:11).  In his second epistle Peter tells us explicitly that Noah was "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5; cf. Heb. 11:7).

Well, where does that leave us?  If 1 Peter 3:18-20 does not help us in our understanding of the phrase "he descended into hell," are there any other Scriptures that might help?  If Jesus did not descend into hell in order to suffer further punishment or to preach a second chance to the Old Covenant damned, could there be another reason for his descent into hell?  Yes, in fact, there is Luther's very attractive interpretation.  Luther understands the descent clause to refer to Christ's triumph over Satan and all of his hellish hosts.  When Christ descended into hell it was an opportunity to proclaim his comprehensive victory over sin, death, and the devil himself.  The soul of Christ descended to hell in order to destroy it for believers, thus "redeeming them from the power of death, of the devil, and eternal damnation of hellish jaws" (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration 9.4).  Christ appears before Satan victoriously to announce his victory on Satan's own turf.  The very kingdom of Satan has been spoiled. Jesus appears in hell as Conqueror.  As Christus Victor Jesus descended into hell: "Having disarmed principalities and powers, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15).[21]

Jesus' descent into hell to herald his own victory seems to be the most biblical option.  Since the differentiation between sheol-hades (the Greek and Hebrew terms for the undifferentiated place of the departed dead, without reference to blessedness or damnation) and hell (gehenna) is not always carefully distinguished in the Scriptures, this interpretation fits well with statements in the New Testament that clearly state that Jesus' soul departed for the place of the dead (hades) after his death.[22]  In Acts 2:27 Peter puts the words of Psalm 16:10 into the mouth of the resurrected Christ: "You will not abandon me to the place of the departed dead [hades]."  The NIV misleadingly translates hades as "the grave."  The soul of the man Jesus Christ was clearly separated from his body during the three days when his body rested in the tomb.  His spirit/soul went to the place of the departed dead.  We know from Luke 23:43 that he visited the Paradise side of hades; and we can surmise from the passages quoted above that he also marched through hell itself (the damnation side of sheol-hades), announcing his victory over Satan and all his demonic legions (Eph. 4:8-10). 

 

Appendix B

Luther's Small Catechism: The Apostles' Creed

 

The First Article: Creation

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

What does this mean?  I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; also clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and home, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life; that He defends me against all danger, and guards and protects me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which it is my duty to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true! 

 

The Second Article: Redemption

And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.  He descended into hell.  The third day He rose again from the dead.  He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

What does this mean?  I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns for all eternity.  This is most certainly true!

 

The Third Article: Sanctification

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

What does this mean?  I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers, and will at the Last Day raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true!

 

 

ENDNOTES



[1] "The Church is, indeed, not founded on symbols [creeds and confessions], but on Christ; not on any words of man, but on the Word of God; yet it is founded on Christ as confessed by men, and a creed is man's answer to Christ's question, man's acceptance and interpretation of God's word."  Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (6th ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker [1931] 1983), vol. 1, p. 5.

[2] The Apostles' Creed is quoted or embedded in all of the major Reformation confessions and catechisms.  It is most often explained in these Reformation documents as part of a larger structure that includes the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer.  See Mark A. Noll, ed., Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991). The origin and development of the Apostles' Creed itself is exhaustively detailed in J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (New York: David McKay, 1972), pp. 1-204.

[3] The Eastern Orthodox Churches do not include the phrase "and the Son" (Latin: filioque) in the third article on the Holy Spirit.  Eastern texts of the Creed will also often begin with the corporate "We believe" rather that "I believe."  For an excellent discussion of the origin of the Nicene Creed and an explanation of the meaning of the filioque clause, see Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils & Christ (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).

[4] "Indeed, a creed is quite inescapable, though some people talk as if they could have 'only the Bible' or 'no creed but Christ.'  As we have seen, 'believing the Bible' involves applying it.  If you cannot put the Bible into your own words (and actions), your knowledge of it is no better than a parrot's.  But once you do put it down in your own words (and it is immaterial whether those words be written or spoken), you have a creed." John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), p. 305.

[5] Robert L. Dabney, "The Doctrinal Contents of the Confession: Its Fundamental and Regulative Ideas, and Value of Creeds," in The Memorial Volume of the Westminster Assembly (Richmond: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1897).

[6] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Apostles' Creed: A Faith to Live By (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 6.

[7] The temptation to despise  historical creeds and confessions has dogged American Christianity with its emphasis on spontaneity, individualism, and anti-traditionalism.  Consequently, sects have multiplied in America, sects which have little or no root in the historic Church of Jesus Christ.  Philip Schaff's mid-nineteenth century judgment still haunts American Evangelical Christianity: "Anyone who has, or fancies he has, some inward experience and a ready tongue, may persuade himself that he is called to be a reformer; and so proceed at once, in his spiritual vanity and pride, to a revolutionary rupture with the historical life of the church, to which he holds himself immeasurably superior.  He builds himself in a night accordingly a new chapel, in which now for the first time since the age of the apostles a pure congregation is to be formed; baptizes his followers in his own name. . . rails and screams with full throat against all who refuse to do homage to his standard. . . . Thus the deceived multitude, having no power to discern spirits, is converted not to Christ and his truth, but to the arbitrary fancies and baseless opinions of an individual, who is only of yesterday. . . . Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false ware at pleasure. What is to become of such confusion is not now to be seen."  Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964 [1865]), pp. 149-50.

[8] Sourcebook of Worship Resources (Canton, OH: Communication Resources, Inc., 1994), pp. 3-4.

[9] See Gary DeMar and Peter Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity (Fort Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1988).  DeMar and Leithart expose the error of many creed-less and confession-less independent churches in America that elevate pre-millennial dispensationalism such that all who reject this eschatological position are branded as unorthodox and heretical!

[10] This incident is related by Fred Barnes in his review of Ralph Reed's Active Faith in the Wall Street Journal (June 10, 1996).

[11] Cranfield, The Apostles' Creed, p. 6.

[12] See the haunting exposé of America's growing Fascist culture by Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview (Concordia Publishing House, 1993).

[13] The most notable and referenced critic of the Apostles' Creed in our circles is the Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Cunningham.  After a string of criticisms, his conclusion is that "the Apostles' Creed, as it is called, is not entitled to much respect, and is not fitted to be of much use, as a summary of the leading doctrines of Christianity" (William Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. 1 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960], p. 90).

[14] Much more could be said about the experience-oriented tendencies of American Christianity.  Emphasis on experience as foundation in the church leads ultimately to liberalism.  For an eye-opening explanation of the subtle origin and meaning of 20th century American Liberalism see J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, first published in 1923, but most recently re-published by Eerdmans (1985).  See also Machen's "The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance" in his collection of sermons, God Transcendent (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), pp. 157-167.

[15] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1959), 101-2.

[16] Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 8.2 (Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, trans. by Maxwell Staniforth [London: Penguin Books, 1968], p. 103).

[17] Some churches have substituted the adjective "Christian" or "universal" for "catholic" in order to avoid the unfortunate Roman Catholic associations that the word has taken on since the sixteenth century.

[18] Unfortunately, various churches denominate these ministerial offices differently, which leads to much confusion.  It is not my purpose here to sort out all differences in labels.  I am not suggesting that only those churches that call their board of older wise men "elders" can qualify as apostolic churches.  Nor do I mean to imply that other churches that do not use the words "minister" or "deacon" should be disqualified.

[19] Luther highlights the Spirit's activity in this entire third section of the Apostles' Creed.   He places the heading "Sanctification" over this entire article, beginning with the words "I believe in the Holy Spirit."  Luther says, "If you are asked, What do you mean by these words, 'I believe in the Holy Spirit'? you can answer, 'I believe that the Holy Spirit makes me holy, as his name implies.'  How does he do this? By what means?  Answer: 'Through the Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting'" (Luther's Large Catechism, II, 40-41; Tappert, trans. and ed., The Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959], p. 416).

[20] Randall E. Otto, "Descendit in Inferna: A Reformed Review of a Creedal Conundrum," Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1990): 143-150.

[21] David P. Scaer argues quite convincingly for this interpretation in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35.1 (March 1992): 91-99.

[22] The very best systematic discussion of this subject is found in John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 121-146.