Who Needs A Creed?
When I was at Primary School in the British state school system many moons ago, it was still the norm not only to teach pupils the Apostles’ Creed, but also to have them recite it in class. Looking back on that experience brings many thoughts to mind.
On the one hand, it is almost incredible to think that a state education system could require all pupils to learn such an overtly Christian statement of faith by heart. It would be inconceivable today – as much because it meant learning something by heart as for the fact it happened to be Christian. But on the other hand, the act of standing and reciting the creed had something of the feel of the daily act of pledging allegiance to the flag must have for many American school children. The words rolled of our tongues, but with little or no understanding of their meaning, or true appreciation of their significance. My guess is that the same is true for many churches where the practice of reciting the creed is still in vogue today and that raises the question, ‘Who needs a creed?’
The answer to that question from many in the broad sweep of Christendom, would probably be, ‘Not us!’ Such ancient documents are seen at best as outdated and at worst an irrelevance in an age that is more interested in the present than the past and in which the very idea of beliefs that are fixed is tantamount to sacrilege. That may be the majority view – in a de facto, if not conscious sense – but that does not mean it is right. The church is always confessing its beliefs whether it realises it or not; the issue is whether or not they reflect belief that is authentically Christian. There is a perennial need for such views to be challenged, ultimately for the sake of the gospel.
That has come home to me more than ever in the congregation and community I serve on the edge of inner city London. Within the church there is an entire cross-section of people from all sorts of backgrounds. At one end of the spectrum there are those who are well-grounded in the Faith after years of teaching and study. At the other end are those who come along to Sunday services and mid-week groups who haven’t got the faintest clue of what Christianity is all about. And there is everything else in between! On top of that there is the local parish: a diverse community with all shades of religious belief and none at all. People generally are suspicious about church – especially a church that has the word ‘evangelical’ on its sign. So where does one begin to address such an array of needs? Let me suggest a number of ways the creed can help.
It Helps us Wrestle with the Challenge of Articulating the Faith
The very notion of ‘creed’ immediately suggests the idea of expressing belief. In the barest sense it is an expression of truth in abstraction: ‘This is what Christians believe…’ but historically there was more to it. The Latin verb credo from which ‘creed’ is derived carries a more personal and existential connotation. Hence several major creeds begin with the words ‘I believe in…’ – in the sense of placing confidence in, or relying on particular truths. The Apostles’ Creed spells out the truths a person must believe in if he or she is to be a Christian.
Its history says a lot about its purpose. Even though legend had it that the original authors of this statement of faith were the twelve Apostles – each one contributing one of its twelve constituent parts – the reality is that it evolved from a number of earlier statements of faith. The main antecedent was the so-called Old Roman Creed; but that in turn seems to have been an evolution of two other documents: the Epistula Apostolorum and what has come to be known as Der Bazileh papyrus – probably part of an Egyptian communion liturgy. Each in their own historical setting was an attempt to articulate the faith crisply and clearly for seekers and catechumens.
Those who framed these various statements of faith were simply following the pattern found in Scripture itself. From the simplest article of faith found in the Great Shema – ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Dt 6.4) – right through to the Carmen Christi of Philippians, the Bible has multiple examples of its teachings being summarised and confessed. Its teaching has to be systemised if it is to make sense.
Martin Luther commends the Apostles’ Creed by saying, ‘Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement.’ Philip Schaff says, ‘As The Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue the Law of laws, so the Apostles’ Creed is the Creed of creeds.’ The challenge it presents to the church in the 21st Century is to use it as a framework for expressing these time-honoured truths that are essential to Christian faith for the world of our day.
It Provides a Tool for Teaching the Faith
It has been said that the Apostles’ Creed was the Alpha course, or Christianity Explored course of its day. That isn’t far from the truth. Successive generations have come up with their own tools for presenting the main teachings of the Bible, but the Apostles’ Creed is the mother of them all. It sets the principle and provides a paradigm for what needs to be taught.
J.I. Packer’s book, I Want to be a Christian (1977), is a fairly recent example of how the Creed can continue to function in a contemporary church setting as an effective teaching tool today. He uses it as a framework for exploring each tenet of faith it contains, in such a way as to lead young Christians to see the essence of what is meant, but at the same time providing pointers to those who want to dig deeper.
At an even simpler level, the simple practice of memorising the creed and reciting it publicly still has enormous merit – especially in an age when memorising anything is deemed passé. In the syllabus of what every child ought to learn by heart, the Apostles’ Creed must take its place alongside the Books of the Bible, Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer as one of its core components. And if adults haven’t got there yet, it’s never too late to start.
The creed is a wonderfully versatile tool for instruction. It has a use with children, seekers, new converts and those who realise that no matter how long we may have been in the faith, familiar truths always have fresh depths to be explored.
It Makes us Focus on the Heart of the Faith
There is always a temptation to get lost in the minutiae of what the Bible teaches – as is seen in all too many of the distractions and controversies of the New Testament Church and the church generally throughout its history. Nowhere was that more damaging than in the church at Corinth and Paul’s response to their distractedness is timeless. He reminds them of what he had taught them in the first place: ‘What I received I passed on to you as of first importance…’ (1Co 15.3) – here are the core teachings that form the bedrock of the Christian Faith.
So as the Creed spells out the sum of saving knowledge for the early church, it takes us first and foremost to the God of the Bible in all his uniqueness and glory. His uniqueness lies in the fact that he is Trinity and his greatest glory is seen in the salvation he provides at such extraordinary cost through his own Son. Grasping this is the theological equivalent of finding the holy grail of science: the theory of everything.
In an age when evangelical Christianity is rapidly losing its way in a maze of ‘steps to salvation’ and myriad books and sermons on the ‘how to’ of the Christian life, the creed brings us back to the heart of both the gospel and the faith: God himself.
It Guards the Gospel against Distortions of the Faith
Historically, creeds have had a double function: to serve as both a fence and a foundation. They serve as the latter in that they crystallise the essence of all a person needs to know for life and salvation – that inevitably is more than just a ‘simple gospel’. In that sense they provide a foundation for the church, since the church is the community of the redeemed and is built on the teaching ‘of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’ (Eph 2.20). The Apostles’ Creed encapsulates positively what the essence of that teaching is.
The sad reality of course is that the community of the redeemed has been plagued, not merely from without, but more often from within by distortions of that teaching. So creeds have been formulated to provide a fence to guard the church against such aberrations. It is noteworthy that the most insidious distortions of the faith that threatened the church in the early centuries of its existence concerned the doctrine of God himself – whether as Trinity, or in the mystery of the incarnation. It is understandable, therefore, that the Apostles’ Creed is particularly concerned to secure that fence, given the era in which it was framed.
It would be nice to think that almost twenty centuries later, the church no longer needs to go over these elementary teachings of the faith again; but it does. Whether through the assault of Open Theism or that of well-meaning ignorance, the truths enshrined in the Creed still need to be guarded and the Creed itself continues to be a most effective way to do so.
It Shows the Need for Personal Faith
Perhaps the greatest threat of all to the church and the teachings on which she stands in every generation is that of sliding into nominalism. Paul warns Timothy that the Last Days will be characterised by those (in the church) who have a ‘form of godliness’ but who deny its power (2Ti 3.5). He warns against them in the strongest possible terms.
It’s a danger that lurks most subtly in the Reformed community where we are inclined to lay great store on scholarship and precision. It can be paradise for the kind of people who Paul is warning about – especially those who delight in controversy. The essence of Christianity that is authentically Reformed is its concern for authentic experience. The experiential Calvinism of the Reformation and Puritan eras was driven by the conviction that all truth leads to godliness. The study of theology can never be merely academic.
The first three words of the Creed embed that conviction at the very centre of the truths it goes on to confess. It is only as we declare our belief in this God and all that he has done that we can actually know him along with all the benefits he promises in the gospel. There is a piety reflected in the Creed that is the key to understanding its truths and making them live for the church and all its members. The piety of genuine personal faith.
Mark Johnston is the Senior Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London.