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I would like to argue that you would do well to study the Apostles’ Creed. To which, some of you may be thinking, “What is the Apostles’ Creed?”

For centuries the Creed has been used by Christians around the globe to help guide them in worshiping the one true God of the universe, it has been studied and written on by the behemoths of theological study like Augustine and Calvin and it has protected the church from heresy and heterodox teaching. For these reasons, the Apostles’ Creed is worth our attention.

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.

Having read the Creed, let us look now at a few reasons why studying the Creed is a good idea.

Creed as Summary

When I was a young man in the throes of North American high school life, it was often the case that I would be assigned a novel to read and write a report on. Being young, dumb, and reckless I would usually capitulate to the deadly sin of procrastination. Perhaps this was God’s grace to me, but I thank him dearly for Spark Notes during this period of my life. Spark Notes is a website which provided easy to read summaries of the books I was assigned and, thus, helped me to pass my projects.

The reason I bring this up is simply because I think it speaks well to the function of the Apostles’ Creed. Spark Notes provides the summary of the book, but this summary can never replace the book itself. The book is the primary source from which Spark Notes derives its summary; no book no summary. Similarly, the Apostles’ Creed acts as a summary of fundamental Christian teachings found in our primary source, the Bible. The Creed does not replace Scripture or overpower Scripture. In fact, it can’t do this precisely because it is from Scripture.

Therefore, we need to view the Creed as a summary. J.I. Packer in his wonderful little book Affirming the Apostles Creed relates the Creed to something akin to a “power-point declaration of the basics of the Christian message.”[1] It’s not as if the Creed says, “this is everything you ever need to know in your walk with Christ” but it does say, “this is the minimum you need to affirm to walk with Christ at all.” As Albert Mohler puts it, “All Christians believe more than is contained in the Apostles’ Creed, but none can believe less.”[2] The Creed is a summary of Scriptural teaching and in no way replaces the Bible as the primary source in the life of the believer.

So what exactly does the Creed summarize as being essential for Christian faith? Surprisingly, many things. This is odd for us in the twenty-first century, we are so used to a one-hundred-and-forty-character limit, that we attempt to distill our faith down into the most succinct statements possible. Thus, we are surprised when we look to the Apostles’ Creed and see that the supposed “bare bones” includes; the Trinity, creation, the Incarnation, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and more.

Admittedly, this does not feel like a summary; it feels like the beginnings of a systematic theology. Yet the church of yesteryear thought these elements important. Important enough to compile them together and use them in their churches, thus, we should too. The Creed summarizes a lot of big topics, but they’re a lot of big topics that we desperately need to refocus on in our own day. 

Creed as Arbiter

Previously we demonstrated how the Creed derives from Scripture—its primary source—and acts as a summary of what the Bible teaches. Since the Bible is our ultimate authority in faith and life in the Christian community then the Creed, likewise, emphasizes what is important and what is not. We might say that it helps us to see what is of primary importance versus secondary importance. This facet of the Apostles’ Creed makes it extremely helpful in spotting christainesque systems of belief which, in fact, are not Christian at all.

Now some of you at this point may be thinking, “doesn’t the Creed just exacerbate unnecessary divisions between churches then? It seems rather inconsequential whether or not someone believes in the Trinity, or in the two natures of Jesus. Shouldn’t we rather be accepting of a multitude of Christian beliefs?” However, we need to realize that what’s at stake here is nothing less than the gospel itself. To believe in something which is opposed to the teachings of the Creed is to reject the gospel. Sometimes division over niche theological points may seem trivial, but it’s actually extremely important for what we proclaim as a church to know exactly what we believe on the fundamentals.

G.K. Chesterton puts it perfectly in his book Orthodoxy, “It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing.”[3] The church is balancing on the true gospel found in Scripture and displayed in the Creed. To deviate an inch is to fall to our death. For these reasons the Creed acts as an arbiter between acceptable belief and unacceptable heresy.

Creed as Tether

In the twenty-first century progress is god. We are firmly located within a technological society always looking forward and never looking back. We’ve become entrenched in technique unable to break apart its relentless grasp which pulls us toward the unknown future and away from the known past. This supposed “progress” is the bread and butter of the twenty-first century. Yet perhaps, it would do us some good to look to the past. Perhaps having historical roots whose tendrils stretch throughout time, space, peoples, and nations would ground us in the present. The Apostles’ Creed—as well as the other historic creeds—provide this tether to the past we so desperately need.

For nearly two thousand years, the Apostles’ Creed has been used in churches throughout the world to articulate what it is that we believe. When we recite the Creed, we are not simply moving our lips and saying some trivial jibber-jabber. We are reciting the same Creed that Saint Augustine recited, the same creed that inspired John Calvin to write his institutes, the same Creed that churches throughout multiple nations and multiple centuries have proclaimed. When we recite the Creed, it shows that we refuse to capitulate to the cultural narrative that newer is always better. It shows that we resist regression through progression. It ties us to our past reminding us that we hold to one gospel and are a part of one church. It’s an affirmation of “our common Christian heritage” of “the basic beliefs that unite Christians throughout the world and across centuries.”[4]

The Creed helps us look forward, reminding us of what it is we must proclaim to the world, while connecting us to the past. The Creed holds us to the present. It connects us to a shared history while pointing us forward firmly planting us in the moment. It prevents us from being so eschatologically minded that we are no missiological good. It prevents us from being so focused on “progress” by reminding us that our faith has not changed throughout the years but has remained the same. Thus, the Creed joins us to our brothers and sisters in Christ from bygone days who are not dead, but alive in Christ cheering us on as we continue to live for Christ today.

Creed as Theology

One of my favourite theologians is a dutchman who goes by the name of Herman Bavinck. Living during the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries his theological work deals significantly with the problems we face in modernity. One of the things that is noticeable about his theology is his struggle as a theologian with the aversion people have to theological study. The rigorous academic study required to do theology well, meant people began to see theology as unnecessary for religious practice. Worse than that they began to see it as detrimental to a real living faith.

Bavinck writes, “Nowadays aversion to dogmatics is universal. Many look forward eagerly to a new word, a new dogma, want a religion without theology, life without doctrine, and therefore devote themselves to a practical, undogmatic Christianity.”[5] It is interesting to note how similar this is with our own age. However, as Bavinck did in his time, so too must we fight the aversion to theological study in our own. We need to reclaim theological acumen; we need to reclaim the Creeds and confessions so that we might be a witness to the world. A good starting place for this is to study the Apostles’ Creed.

Since the Apostles’ Creed acts as a summary of essential Christian beliefs, since it helps us judge between true and false gospels, since it is a thoroughly biblical document, and since it joins us to our theological ancestors it’s, therefore, a wonderful place to begin theological study. This is precisely what this work seeks to accomplish. Thus, we study the Creed with the purpose of increasing theological literacy.

Yet there’s a danger in this. Sometimes, it can be tempting, to study theology in a cold detached way. It can be tempting to arrive at theological conclusions not with the use of Scripture and prayer, but with cold independent logic. Instead, we should follow in the footsteps of John Calvin who argues that doctrine is more than just head knowledge, “Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; it is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation on the inmost recesses of the heart.”[6]

We don’t come to the Creed for answers that will impress our Bible study group. Rather, we come to the Creed so that we might learn about the God who saved us and have our hearts increasingly transformed by his love. Therefore, as we embark on a study of this foundational Christian document let us prepare our hearts so that we might meet God in a fresh way through the process.

Conclusion

I hope these reasons above inspire you to begin the journey of studying the Apostles’ Creed. As you can see this valuable document performs many functions for us, which I think, makes it worthy of study. It summarizes our beliefs, it helps us arbitrate between true and false teaching, it ties us to the past, and it sets us up for theological study. For these reasons and more let us study the Creed with openness. Let’s examine its lines and meditate upon them so that we might grow in our theological literacy. Let’s turn to the Creed and undertake to know God in a deeper way.

 


[1] Packer, Affirming, 15.

[2] Mohler, The Apostles’ Creed, xvi.

[3] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 151.

[4] McGrath, I Believe, 14.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol 1, 604.

[6] Calvin, The Institutes, 447.

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