Learning about Christian Creeds, Part 3

shutterstock_6553052382If you come from a non-creedal Christian church tradition—and there are a good number of them within Evangelicalism—you might wonder what a creed is and why other Christians include them in their worship services. Historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan defines a creed thusly: “A creed is a concise, formal, and authorized statement of important points of Christian doctrine.”1

One of the great things about the creeds of Christendom is that they introduce us to the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why theologian Alister McGrath says that the creeds “allow us to recognize and avoid inadequate or incomplete versions of Christianity.”2

In this series, we’re specifically looking at the Apostles’ Creed.

It is widely used in Western Christendom, both in the Roman Catholic Church and in various Protestant churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, among others). In fact, most evangelical churches have creedal statements that serve as something like the Apostles’ Creed. Some nondenominational churches even sing the creed in their worship services.

Take time to read through the Apostles’ Creed, and then we’ll examine some common questions about it:

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

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. Amen.

5 Questions about the Apostles’ Creed

Creeds have been an important part of historic Christianity from the very beginning. Christians recite creeds to confess or profess their faith publicly. The creeds serve as authoritative pronouncements that set forth in summary form the central beliefs of the Christian faith.

Let’s consider five questions that Christians commonly ask about the Apostles’ Creed:

1. Why is it that creeds are continually repeated? Confessional churches affirm that one’s deepest Christian beliefs must be confessed or publicly stated (Romans 10:9–10). Reciting creeds also helps in the catechetical (educational) process. But as theologian Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again.”3

2. Was the creed actually written by the apostles? No. This creed is called the “Apostles’ Creed” not because it was written by the apostles of Jesus themselves but because it contains a brief summary of apostolic teaching.

3. What does the phrase “he descended to hell” mean? The phrase “he descended to hell” was added late in the creed’s formation. Anglican theologian Alister McGrath says that it likely means that Christ is “among the dead” (a possible reference to hades, emphasizing Christ genuinely died). The Reformed tradition generally interprets it as a reference to Christ suffering God’s wrath (a type of hell) on the cross. So, I think a Christian can recite this somewhat controversial phrase in the creed in good conscience. However, some theologians find the phrase objectionable and suggest it be omitted from the creed.

4. The creed includes the phrase “the holy catholic church.” Isn’t this a reference to the Roman Catholic Church? While the Roman Catholic Church does use the Apostles’ Creed, Protestant versions of the creed intentionally lowercase the words “catholic church.” The word catholic means “universal,” and all of the original Protestant churches considered themselves legitimately part of the “catholic church” (or the universal church of Christ). So Protestants can affirm their commitment to catholicity (universality) without being officially part of the Roman Catholic Church.

5. Why doesn’t the creed explicitly mention such important doctrinal truths that continue to divide Christendom—like the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis tradition or the exact relationship of grace, faith, and works in salvation? It is true that the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t address all the doctrinal issues that divide the branches of Christendom (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), but it powerfully summarizes the essential doctrinal elements that they all share in common. The original branches of historic Protestantism valued the ecumenical creeds but insisted that there remained other issues that needed to be addressed, which they set forth in the longer and distinct confessions of faith.

The ecumenical creeds remain a critical part of Christendom and the devotion of millions of Christians.

Reflections: Your Turn

How have creeds been helpful to you?

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 3.
  2. Alister McGrath, I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 15.
  3. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 40.

  One thought on “Learning about Christian Creeds, Part 3

  1. Linda Boudreaux
    August 28, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    In answer to your question, how do I use the Apostles Creed, I use it as a litmus test to judge whether a group claiming to be Christian really is Christian.

    For instance, Mormons claim to be Christians but believe each sanctified marriage will result in another planet populated by their offspring over which they will reign as Lord just as Jesus does on Earth. There is only one Son of God (not to mention Jesus told us there is no marriage in heaven but we will be like the angels), so they depart from the Gospel, teaching in fact “another gospel”.

    On the other hand, while I believe some Roman Catholic teachings to be in error, the core Gospel message is intact, making a true understanding of our relationship to God possible. Those who point to the “worship” of Mary as a reason to exclude them as Christians have not listened to an Archbishop explain how that is not what they teach; however, the extreme “adoration” of Mary, and praying to other Saints, can lead to a distraction from growing in a personal relationship to Jesus. Many Protestant churches have errors in doctrine also, so, thinking this way, we could rule them out as Christians as well.

    Where do we draw the line? I say at the departure from the consolidated Gospel noted in the Apostles Creed, our first line of defense against apostasy. After that, read the Bible for yourself to discern what is true.

    • August 28, 2018 at 7:59 pm

      Linda:

      Greetings.

      Thank you for your very thoughtful and theological astute comments.

      I appreciate them very much.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

      • Linda Boudreaux
        August 29, 2018 at 1:07 am

        At seventeen I first experienced God personally and have learned a lot in the forty-nine years since then. I attended church, and learned from, at least nine denominations in my life, including, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, several Pentecostal churches, and Orthodox. My profound understanding is God is more concerned about our attitude toward Him than how perfect our doctrine is, yet the chuch, the ‘catholic’ church, suffers a great deal when the Good News is not fully understood.

        God has most often used me to minister to fellow Christians and it would be my joy to do so more. I also have a passion for all God’s creation and science so I enjoy your website immensely. Please feel free to use any of my comments in any way you feel appropriate.

        Your sister in Christ,

        Linda

      • August 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

        Thanks again, Linda.

        Ken Samples

    • Keith Hostetlers
      September 7, 2018 at 9:15 pm

      Your comments include a reference to Romans 10:9ff as support for the importance of repeating (confessing) the creed. Yet the creed nowhere includes what Paul tells us that we should confess in this passage i.e. that Jesus is Lord. That confession deals with how we are saved, not primarily with repeating what we are to believe. The absence of Jesus’ Lordship also means that the concept of discipleship is missing as well as the great deal of emphasis that Jesus places on the kingdom of God. N.T. Wright has also pointed out that the creeds includes virtually nothing about the earthly ministry of Jesus (teaching, healing and discipling) as reported by the gospels. The gospels occupy 45% – almost half – of the N.T. and thus merit considerable attention in our understanding of the faith, much, much more than what appears in the creeds.
      I believe that the most important aspect of the creeds is what they sought to address in the first place – the nature of Christ both as to his deity and humanity, and how he is related to God and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. The rest is only the barest of outlines of some, but certainly not all, of the important aspects of the faith.

      • September 8, 2018 at 10:31 am

        Mr. Hostetlers:

        Jesus is Lord!

        I’ve written about creeds in three of my books if you would like to read more. I reference them below.

        As Christians, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on a number of issues you raised.

        Here’s my response to your comments:

        1. Confessing Jesus is Lord (Yahweh) is what the Apostles’ Creed does do by specifically placing the Son in the proper theological context with the Father and the Spirit.

        2. New Testament scholarship recognizes numerous creeds in the New Testament and Romans 10:9 is the primitive and primary Christian creed: “Jesus is Lord!” (not Caesar). See my book Without a Doubt, chapter 4 “Aren’t the Creeds a Thing of the Past?”

        3. Romans 10:9 is both a creed and a summary of salvation. That’s what creeds do. It’s not an either-or. The Christian church has since apostolic times been a confessing church. That is why Paul weaves into his writings early creedal statements and hymns. Even N.T. Wright views 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as a primitive creed. See chapter 4 of my book God among Sages.

        4. Faulting the creed for not including more material that is in the Gospels misses the point of a creed. The creeds were intended to be short statements that could be memorized and confessed in church services and in daily life. Discipleship came in other contexts within the Christian community. See chapter 6 of my book A World of Difference “A Soldiers Creed.”

        5. Of course creeds don’t contain all the important aspects of historic Christianity. That would defeat the purpose of a short statement of faith focusing primarily upon Christ and the Trinity. Even extended Protestant Confessions have a hard time addressing every important aspect of Christianity.

        6. Along with reading the somewhat controversial theologian N.T. Wright (“New Perspective on Paul”) on creeds, I recommend you read the books on creeds by historical theologians Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, Jaroslav Pelican, and Timothy Johnson.

        7. I noticed you said nothing about the tremendous importance of creeds for our time. Evangelicalism suffers from a doctrinal crisis. Creeds are a great help. They should be prized and utilized, not devalued.

        Grace & Peace in the Triune God.

        Ken Samples

  2. Clark Coleman
    August 30, 2018 at 7:35 am

    I think that “descended into hell” is a simple mistranslation of descended into Hades. It gives rise to heretical doctrine in some teachers today, who interpret it as meaning that Jesus had to suffer in hell after he died on the cross. This suffering would mean that the work of Christ was not finished on the cross, which demands reinterpretation of his statement, “It is finished.”

    (The phrasing of this section of the creed seems chronological, so the mistranslation lends itself to the misinterpretation.)

    To non-creedal Christians, the image of millions of Christians repeating something that most of them have not thought deeply about is not likely to persuade us that we should be professing creeds.

    Then you have the related problem of Christians reciting the same words but having different intent in their minds, so that the commonality of the creed is superficial, e.g. one professor of the creed thinks it means Hades, another thinks it is metaphorical for the hell of suffering on the cross, another thinks it means suffering in hell after the cross, and another thinks it should be deleted but goes along with it because that is the price of community.

    The history of creeds is that they became more and more detailed in order to address this very problem: Heretics recited the same words as orthodox Christians, but meant something different by those words. So creeds became more and more verbose to nail down the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. Ironic that the problem persists in the Apostles’ Creed even today.

    • August 30, 2018 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks for the comments, Clark.

      Even with the challenges, I think the Apostles’ Creed remains a center piece for orthodoxy and unity within Western Christendom.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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