The Confession of Christ: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The Swiss-American church historian, Philip Schaff, said that “creeds will live as long as faith survives, with the duty to confess our faith before men.” The Church throughout the centuries has celebrated the mystery of Christ through creedal formulations. As an Anglican, I note that we have also expressed our faith in the creeds of the ancient church.
The Book of Common Prayer, in fact, contains three “ecumenical” creeds – The Apostles’, the Nicene and the Athanasian. These three creeds are accepted by many, if not most, denominations of Western Christendom, such as the Lutheran churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and certain Reformed churches. (In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Apostles’ Creed is not used as the Nicene Creed is considered normative – being approved by an ecumenical council – in regard to being a statement of faith and for liturgical use.)
A creed (from the Latin credo, “I believe”) is simply a confession, for public or liturgical use, of the faith that one holds. A creed seeks to give a concise formulation of the faith and to express it in an understandable way. Surprisingly to some, Christian creeds actually have their origin in the New Testament writings themselves. In fact, Christ promised eternal rewards for those who would “confess [Him] before men” (Matt. 10:32), and Paul appears to associate a confession of faith with salvation: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus [Jesus is Lord] and shalt believe in thine heart… thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Certainly we may speak of the baptismal formula and the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper as proto-creeds of the early Church. In the New Testament, creedal formulas arise out of God’s initiative in Christ’s own words or in the response of the disciples to that revelation. These confessions of faith could be as simple as “Jesus is Lord” or “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37). Yet, even in the pages of the New Testament more complex creeds are alluded to in certain passages. For instance: “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (I Cor. 8:6). Such passages contain a structure highly suggestive of a creedal formula.
Yet, what is the purpose of a creed?
Historically there have been three essential purposes; recently there has been added yet another purpose. The first purpose is demarcation. The initial use of the creeds (for instance, in the New Testament and the early Christian community) was to identify the Church as an entity separate from both Judaism and the pagan world. A second purpose is celebration. The creeds have always had a liturgical function in the Church. This is especially true in regard to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the rite of baptism and the confirmation of the newly baptized. A third function is preservation. In the age of the Church councils (325-787) creeds were employed to distinguish the Church from heretical groups, as well as to instruct the laity concerning the decisions of the councils. A fourth, more recent purpose, is identification. Since the time of the Reformation, creeds, or confessions of faith, or statements of faith, have been used to point out the particular doctrinal stances of certain denominations within the Christian family, without, however, ecumenical or universal sanction. Such formulations may be seen in the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, the Lutheran Book of Concord, the Reformed Westminster Confession, or even the Our Beliefs page of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa or the Statement of Faith of the new non-denominational church plant down the street.
Nevertheless, the main purpose of any Christian creed is, of course, to confess Christ. Although each of the creeds that we will examine in this series is trinitarian in structure, the main article and emphasis in each concern the person and work of Jesus Christ. These creeds were, first and foremost, given by the Church as safeguards to protect the integrity of the believers’ faith in Christ as individuals and as a community.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
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.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Martin Luther said of this creed, “Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter or clearer statement”. The Apostle’s Creed, insofar as its present form, is not the work of the twelve apostles, as was once popularly believed. It is, however, a summation of apostolic teaching and preaching. The present form is based upon what is called the Old Roman Creed of the fourth century. (It was augmented for use in all the western churches and was put into its present form in the sixth or seventh century.) The Old Roman Creed, in turn, had been based upon earlier rules of faith that had become popular in the second and thirds centuries and that are mentioned by a number of church fathers, such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose and Augustine. The rules of faith that these writers refer to most likely began as baptismal confessions in which candidates for baptism would be asked, “Do you believe in God the Father… God the Son… God the Holy Spirit…?” to which they would reply, “I believe…” (Credo). These original rules of faith were regarded in the early Church as a portion of the “mysteries” or the secret discipline of the faith to which only the fully initiated had access.
The Apostles’ Creed (with the slight variations of differing denominations) focuses on the person of Christ as its main subject. It teaches that although the Church, like the Jews, worships a transcendent God who is almighty, yet the Church believes that God has shown Himself in the man Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most telling phrase in the creed is that this Jesus was “crucified” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, thus placing the eternal Deity in the realm of history and reconciling the absolute God with the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth. This incarnational emphasis was to place the Church on a doctrinal tightrope for the first four centuries of its existence, but, please note, it was there from the very beginning of the Christian community. It was a mystery so divine, that humankind could scarce believe it. It was so incomprehensible to the minds of men and women that many people found it difficult to accept the reality of the Incarnation in all of its glory and majesty, much less its extensive theological implications. Yet, following a precedent found in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15ff), the Church would gather in council in the ensuing centuries to assure, in particular, that the fullness of this mystery of the Incarnation would be preserved intact for the future, recognizing that all Christian theology must flow from this source. That God became man and dwelt among us is not only the heart of the creeds, it is the heart of our faith.