The Apostles’ Creed: So, This is Christianity?
6 June 2021 | Dan McCoig
It has been 450 days since our nation’s president declared a covid-19 related national public health emergency. What have we learned in those 450 days as people of faith? If we were to put into words a pandemic-related affirmation of faith, what would we say.
Putting into words what we believe and why is a good exercise. It helps us to clarify for ourselves as well as others our beliefs – truths in which we place our ultimate trust.
On the Sundays I am preaching this summer, I will be preaching on one of the ten confessions of our church’s Book of Confessions, beginning with the Apostles’ Creed which dates to the second century and ending with the Belhar Confession of 1986. The confessions will be linked on our website and our social media pages.
Presbyterianism belongs to the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity and is therefore confessional. That means that there have been critical moments in history when we felt compelled to declare our faith anew for the church and for the world. Confessions have a “Here I stand” quality to them, a “This we believe” quality to them. They challenge others to consider where they might stand and what they believe in response to the matters take up by the confession.
For example, the Apostles’ Creed, one of the church’s oldest confessions and certainly its most ecumenical, began as a baptismal formula. Converts to the faith were instructed in the essentials of the faith and affirmed those essentials, usually on Easter Sunday at the time of their baptism, as they turned from former allegiances and loyalties to a new allegiance and loyalty to God the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer of everyone and everything. And the other confession I mentioned, the Belhar Confession [which is where we will end our journey through the confessions], is a statement of the Dutch Mission Reformed Church in South Africa that articulates the ways in which the practice of apartheid was racist and therefore a heresy of the Christian faith. The Belhar Confession declares in no uncertain terms that structuring a society where races are separated and some races are advantaged while others are disadvantaged is incompatible with Christianity and God’s vision for humanity.
Religion poses some of the most essential questions of the human experience, namely what is worthy of the best efforts of our hearts and minds? To whom or to what should we dedicate ourselves? We are here for such a short period of time. To what should we give ourselves? What matters?
Our congregation’s monthly book study group, Faith Stretchers, read in May Dr. James Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. The book is in our church’s library.
In the book, Smith distinguishes secular liturgies and sacred liturgies. Secular liturgies turn us from God and neighbor and from our most authentic selves. Consumerism, for example, is a secular liturgy. It suggests contentment is found in acquiring and owning things. Distorted political ideologies are another example. They suggest that contentment is found in pursuing and holding power for its own sake.
Sacred liturgies, by contrast, turn us toward God and neighbor. To use Smith’s word, they “re-story” us. The Apostles’ Creed “re-stories” us.
The Apostles’ Creed shows up as a baptismal formula in the second century when Christianity was still in its infancy. Its current form dates from the 8th century. Converts to the faith in the earliest decades of the faith came from Judaism as well as various pantheistic and paganistic faiths throughout the ancient world.
Christianity was born in Jerusalem among Jesus’ earliest followers, nearly all of whom were Jewish. Their experience of God was through the law of Moses and the prophets. Their identity was formed by the exodus. Once they were slaves in Egypt. Now they were free people in a promised land. This is the story they told every year at Passover. God heard their cries and set them free and they never forgot it. It was their sacred liturgy.
Jesus was a Jew. His followers experienced in him a revelation of God on the order of the law and prophets, the exodus. Just as God was healing the world through God’s covenant with God’s chosen people and their history, God in Christ Jesus was saving the world.
Imagine yourself as a catechumen in the second century. A catechumen is someone who has said he or she wishes to become a Jesus follower, a Christian. As a catechumen, you and other catechumens would have undergone a year of instruction in the faith. The instruction tool that the catechist, that would be your teacher, used would be what will become the Apostles’ Creed.
The catechist would have framed your instructional time using the Socratic Method. A question would be asked. Answers would be given. Those answers would be refined and then memorized by the catechumens.
There would have been three primary questions which correspond to the three paragraphs of the Apostles’ Creed. One, what do you believe about God? Two, what do you believe about Jesus Christ? And three, what do you believe about the Holy Spirit? Three questions, three answering paragraphs, and three persons in one God. All very Trinitarian.
The Apostles’ Creed was and is revolutionary. Affirming that God is the maker of everything and everyone and God alone possesses the power to create on such a scale countered many other narratives that described where we came from and how we got here.
If you were wondering, the first paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t conflict with science. Remember, religion answers the big, overarching queries. Religion is in the business of why. Science provides us with the details regarding how it all works. Science is in the business of what and how.
The Apostles’ Creed tell us where we came from – God. Science details our journey. God can work through a Big Bang. God can work through evolutionary processes of adaptation and mutation described by Charles Darwin.
The second paragraph is the longest. It’s a thumbnail, biographical sketch of Jesus. There is a remarkable amount of detail here. The important takeaway is that Jesus was a human person who did all the kinds of things every other human person did and does. He was conceived. He was born. He suffered. He died.
But there are some things he did that went beyond human experience, things that suggest his divinity. Things that will remain a mystery to us. He went to hell. God resurrected him. He ascended into heaven. He abides with God in heaven, from which he judges the world and from which he will return to earth at history’s end.
The third paragraph is the second longest. It’s devoted to the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit. The creed tells us it is the Spirit who gathers the church from all peoples. The church is catholic, an archaic word that means universal. The Spirit binds believers to God and to one another across time and space. The Spirit forgives our sins so that we can begin anew over and over again. The Spirit raises us from the dead and secures our place with God in heaven at this life’s end.
Several takeaways about the Apostles’ Creed. It reminds us that Christianity is a historical faith at whose heart is a historical person, Jesus. The early church didn’t make this stuff up. The modern church didn’t make this stuff up. It happened.
And the name Apostles’ Creed tells us that these words emerged from the witness of Jesus’ original followers, words that made their way into the Christian New Testament. Jesus’ first followers told others about Jesus and how he changed their lives. People responded in faith and said they wanted to follow Jesus, too. Their journey began with learning Jesus’ story, committing themselves to the story, and being baptized into the community that bears Jesus name and continues his work in the world, the church.
Jesus is worthy of the best efforts of our hearts and minds. Jesus is worthy of our love. When we speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we affirm. This is what we declare. He is the one we love. His love is the love that shapes us more than anyone or anything else.
Next week: The Scots Confession of 1560: A New Confession for a New Church.