Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Apostles' Creed and Christian Faith 

I have just arrived back after a few days away. The following post is something that I felt like writing on the spur of the moment this evening. It could certainly do with a lot more thought, but it does try to deal with a subject that I have found increasingly concerning lately, for various reasons (a few of these reasons will hopefully become clear as you read this post). These are some of my immediate impressions on the issue.
The [Apostles’] Creed substitutes unexplained statements of historical events for the Gospel of an atoning Christ who is the perfect satisfaction of holy justice for his elect people. A new Christian creed is necessary to replace the truncated, misnamed, and misleading Apostles’ Creed. But there will be opposition from traditionalists, unbelieving church members, and ecumenists. Christians who take Scripture and creeds seriously, desiring a creed that accurately summarizes Scripture, must resist them. The question is: Will the Reformed churches put away the so-called Apostles’ Creed of the Roman Church-State, or will they continue to recite it, obscuring the Gospel and erasing the distinction between a true church and a false? Will they practice the first mark of a true church of Jesus Christ–as defined by Guido de Bres in the Belgic Confession, "the preaching of the pure Gospel"—or will they sink deeper into the mire of "unity first" thinking? Will the Gospel of justification by faith alone be clearly expressed to those whom God brings to their assemblies? Shall it contain the evangel, the Gospel of the Christ who died for the sins of his people, explained according to the authority of the Scriptures, or omit it for the sake of peace, unity, and tradition, as the Apostles’ Creed has done for many centuries?
The statement above, taken from this article, is an extreme example of the suspicion of the Apostles’ Creed that can be observed in many Reformed circles. In Mark Horne’s recent thought-provoking post he quotes William Cunningham:—
I think it is much to be regretted that so very inadequate and defective a summary of the leading principles of Christianity as the Apostles’ Creed—possessed of no authority, and having no extrinsic claims to respect—should have been exalted to such a place of prominence and influence in the worship and services of the church of Christ…
It seems as if people are suspicious of seeing the Apostles’ Creed as the central declaration of Christian faith, because it does not mention the doctrine of justification by faith alone and other doctrines like that. As Douglas Wilson has pointed out, the Apostles’ Creed may not explicitly mention justification by faith alone, but it is all about faith, starting with the words ‘I believe…’. I am also persuaded that the Creed is perfectly right not to mention the doctrine of justification by faith alone, because the object of our faith is not the doctrine of justification by faith alone but the Christ proclaimed in the Creed. We are saved by believing in Him. One can be saved without believing in justification by faith alone. A further concern that many people have is that Roman Catholics can assert the Creed too. Personally I have no problem with the fact that Roman Catholics can subscribe to the Creed. In fact, as long as they continue to seek to hold to the major creeds of the early Church I believe that we have reason to hold out some degree of hope for their future reformation. Near the beginning of the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent we read the following:
Wherefore, that this pious solicitude of the Council may have its beginning and progress by the grace of God, it has before all things determined and decreed to prefix a Confession of Faith, herein following the examples of the Fathers, who in more solemn Councils were wont to set up this shield against all heresies at the commencement of their proceedings; by which alone they sometimes drew over infidels to the faith, routed heretics, and confirmed the faithful. That Creed, therefore, which the Holy Roman Church uses as the first principles in which all who profess the Christian faith necessarily agree, and the firm and only foundation against which the gates of hell shall never prevail, the Council has judged it proper to express in the very words in which it is read in the churches, and which is as follows…[proceeds to quote the Nicene Creed]
Any church that can proclaim the Truth proclaimed by the Nicene Creed to be ‘the firm and only foundation against which the gates of hell shall never prevail’ (notice the implicit exegesis here!) is most certainly a Christian one. Charles Hodge writes:—

That Romanists as a society profess the true religion, meaning thereby the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines which if truly believed will save the soul, is, as we think, plain. 1. Because they believe the Scriptures to be the word of God. 2. They direct that the Scriptures should be understood and received as they were understood by the Christian Fathers. 3. They receive the three general creeds of the church, the Apostle's, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, or as these are summed up in the creed of Pius V. 4. They believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. In one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. And they believe in one catholic apostolic church. They acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

If this creed were submitted to any intelligent Christian without his knowing whence it came, could he hesitate to say that it was the creed of a Christian church? Could he deny that these are the very terms in which for ages the general faith of Christendom has been expressed? Could he, without renouncing the Bible, say that the sincere belief of these doctrines would not secure eternal life? Can any man take it upon himself in the sight of God, to assert there is not truth enough in the above summary to save the soul? If not, then a society professing that creed professes the true religion in the sense stated above.

The test of true faith is not whether or not Roman Catholics can assert it or not. If the papal churches truly hold the most essential articles of the Christian faith (albeit obscured by error and corruption) then we should rejoice, not begrudge them these truths. The errors in the papal churches are deep and serious. However, there still remains much gospel truth. To my mind, those who deny the sufficiency of the ecumenical creeds as summaries of the Christian gospel are departing in many ways from the general historical Reformed position. Lord’s Day 7 (particularly questions 22 & 23) of the Heidelberg Catechism seems to be pretty clear on this issue:—
Q22: What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe? A22: All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in summary. Q23: What are these articles? A23: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten 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 from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living 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.
In Calvin’s Geneva Catechism we read:—
Master. — Then the foundation and beginning of confidence in God is to know him in Christ? Scholar. — Entirely so. Master. — I should now wish you to tell me in a few words, what the sum of this knowledge is? Scholar. — It is contained in the Confession of Faith, or rather Formula of Confession, which all Christians have in common. It is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, because from the beginning of the Church it was ever received among all the pious, and because it either fell from the lips of the Apostles, or was faithfully gathered out of their writings. Master. — Repeat it. Scholar. — 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 arose 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 Catholick Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
In Calvin’s Strasbourg Catechism we find:—
Teacher: My child, are you a Christian in fact as well as in name? Child: Yes, my father. Teacher: How is this known to you? Child: Because I am baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teacher: What faith and knowledge do you have of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? Child: I have that which the principal articles of our religion signify to us, of which we make profession through individual confession. Teacher: What is this confession? Child: I believe in God the Father almighty, maker...etc.
In Institutes II.xvi.18 Calvin writes:—
Thus far I have followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed because it sums up in a few words the main points of our redemption, and thus may serve as a tablet for us upon which we see distinctly and point by point the things in Christ that we ought to heed. I call it the Apostles’ Creed without concerning myself in the least as to its authorship. With considerable agreement, the old writers certainly attribute it to the apostles, holding it to have been written and published by the apostles in common, or to be a summary of teaching transmitted by their hands and collected in good faith, and thus worthy of that title. I have no doubt that at the very beginning of the church, in the apostolic age, it was received as a public confession by the consent of all — wherever it originated. It seems not to have been privately written by any one person, since as far back as men can remember it was certainly held to be of sacred authority among all the godly. We consider to be beyond controversy the only point that ought to concern us: that the whole history of our faith is summed up in it succinctly and in definite order, and that it contains nothing that is not vouched for by genuine testimonies of Scripture. This being understood, it is pointless to trouble oneself or quarrel with anyone over the author. Unless, perchance, it is not enough for one to have the certain truth of the Holy Spirit, without at the same time knowing either by whose mouth it was spoken or by whose hand it was written.
Calvin then goes on to show that the Creed demonstrates that ‘our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ.’ In Mark’s post he quotes from Francis Turretin who claimed that ‘by the providence of God the principal heads of religion were comprehended in the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue, the Lord’s prayer, and the sacraments.’ Mark also quotes the following from Turretin:—
Although the church which was in the papacy before the Reformation did not have among the articles of its faith justification by faith alone, the rejection of all sensible sacrifices beside the sacrifice of Christ and the repudiation of the worship of images and of the invocation of the saints and other articles (concerning which there is controversy between us), it does not follow that believers did not have in the doctrine received for that time the necessary food for salvation. Such articles are not positive and affirming, containing things that are to be believed and done, in which therefore the essence of faith and religion consists, but negatively and excluding the errors which ought to be rejected, which do not pertain to the building up of faith. As no one would put down among nourishments the care of avoiding poisons which could produce death, so the positive articles work salvation properly, while the negative only remove those things which can interfere with salvation.
The point of all these quotes is to demonstrate that there is a pretty good Reformed case for saying that the Christian faith is summed up in the early Church creeds. Consequently, there is also a good case to say that, although they have been dangerously obscured by error and corruption, Roman Catholics do still hold to the essential truths of the gospel. To those who would claim that their beliefs imply a rejection of the orthodox creeds I would give John Owen’s wise advice that it is unjust to insist that your theological opponent holds to a heresy as an implication of other beliefs that he holds when he himself strongly rejects the validity of that implication. As long as Roman Catholics assert the truths of the basic Christian creeds we must recognize them as a Christian Church and content ourselves with highlighting the inconsistency of certain others of their beliefs. It seems to me that many Protestants have a confused notion of what the truths of the gospel really are — for all of our vocal claims to defend these truths. Is the gospel the declaration of the historical salvation accomplished by Israel’s God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, or is the gospel more a declaration of the mechanics of soteriology? Is the central object of our faith the doctrine of justification by faith alone, or the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of the biblical story? Robert Jenson writes (something I believe I have quoted before):—

…modern Christianity, i.e., Protestantism, has regularly substituted slogans for narrative, both in teaching and in liturgy. It has supposed that hearers already knew they had a story and even already knew its basic plot, so that all that needed to be done was to point up certain features of the story—that it is "justifying," or "liberating," or whatever. The supposition was always misguided, but sometimes the church got away with it. In the postmodern world, this sort of preaching and teaching and liturgical composition merely expresses the desperation of those who in their meaningless world can believe nothing but vaguely wish they could.

Now the synthetic polemical point: there is one slogan-like phrase that is precisely a maximally compressed version of the one God's particular story. This is the revealed name, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." It is thus no accident at all that in our postmodern situation, the struggle between realistic faith and religious wool-gathering settles into a struggle over this name. The triune name evokes God as the three actors of His one story, and places the three in their actual narrative relation. Substitutes do not and cannot do this; "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier," for example, neither narrates nor specifically names, for creating, redeeming, and sanctifying are timelessly actual aspects of the biblical God's activity, and are moreover things that all putative gods somehow do. In the postmodern situation, we will easily recognize congregations and agencies that know what world they inhabit by their love and fidelity to the triune name; and we will recognize antiquated Protestantism by its uneasiness with the triune name.

John Barach gave a helpful quote from James Jordan recently, on the subject of the Westminster Standards:—
... it is important to realize that to a large extent the Standards were intended for pastors, for ordained clergymen. The writers knew that what laymen need is the Bible, the whole Bible. The Confession set up standards for the guardians of the Church. But there are churches today that are full of people who know the five points of Calvinism, but who cannot tell you the five basic "sacrifices" of the Bible, because these laymen have been indoctrinated primarily in the Westminster Standards rather than in the Bible. That was not the intention of the writers, though of course they expected pastors to teach the content and theology of the Standards along with teaching the Bible.
There is a very real danger for those who have been brought up on the Reformed catechisms and confessions. These confessions always risk drawing attention away from the story of Scripture to certain doctrines that are largely abstracted from the story. Whilst these doctrines certainly have their place, they have tended to overshadow that which is most essential. Nowadays when ‘the gospel’ is mentioned far too many people think of abstracted doctrines about how a person gets to heaven when they die rather than about the story proclaimed by Scripture. I believe that Scripture itself will bear out my assertion that the essential truth of the gospel, which one is saved by believing, has to do with the historical climax of Israel’s story in the story of Jesus Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:1f.). I believe that authors like Richard Hays have demonstrated quite powerfully that the debates that took place in the book of Galatians were more about the shape and sequence of the narrative of redemption than they were about some abstract doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’. However, the books of Galatians is one of the many books misused to teach a gospel composed of abstract dogmatic ‘ducks in a row’ rather than a gospel that is rooted in the telling and living out of a particular story. If we truly understood the centrality of the story we would be far more concerned about errors such as dispensationalism, which horribly distorts the Biblical story. However, since most dispensationalists strongly hold to an abstract doctrine of justification by faith alone, we turn a blind eye to their mangling of the gospel. If we truly understood the centrality of the story we would be far more concerned about errors such as Protestant sectarianism, which runs totally counter to the Biblical story. However, since most Protestant sectarians strongly hold to an abstract doctrine of justification by faith alone, we excuse their practical denials of the gospel. If we truly understood the centrality of the story we would be far more concerned about the fact that most Christians barely know the story. But since we are more concerned with an abstract doctrine of justification by faith alone, we turn a blind eye to the paucity of the understanding that most people have of the gospel itself. I don’t believe that acknowledging all of the both weakens the polemic against the errors of the papal churches one iota. Rather it reinforces our arguments considerably. However, at the same time it reveals the degree to which the Protestant churches themselves have been corrupted as regards the gospel. The widespread rejection of the Apostles’ Creed as the summary of our faith deeply concerns me, as I believe that it is a symptom that dangerous error on the subject of the gospel has infected many churches. Should we be concerned when Reformed people begin to claim that the Apostles’ Creed, which their forefathers deemed to contain the essential truths of the Christian faith, is an insufficient declaration of the gospel? I believe that we should be very concerned. We ought to be concerned when we are asked to readjust out understanding of the object of Christian faith. We ought to be concerned when we are asked to make belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone a sine qua non of true faith. I fear that all of these things can tempt us away from looking to Christ. When what Turretin terms ‘negative’ and ‘excluding’ doctrines are considered to be the essential truths of the Christian faith we should begin to worry. The gospel can be corrupted by addition, just as easily as it can be corrupted by subtraction. I am increasingly aware of the fact that there is a real difference among evangelicals regarding the nature of the gospel. Could any other area of difference be more concerning?

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