Does the Creed Really Matter?

The outline of the Christian faith that we saw in Acts 2:14–36 (last week) provides a starting point for grasping the essential points of “the faith. We call this the kerygma, or the preached faith, of the earliest Christians. This is what they confessed and believed in order to be followers of “the Way,” or Christians. This underscores the importance of confessing the faith faithfully right down to the present day. As we’ve seen, we cannot talk about being faithful followers of Jesus without “the faith.”

What Matters Is Right Doctrine

Frequently people tell me that catholicity doesn’t matter. What matters, they argue, is right doctrine. They then argue that we get this right doctrine only by exegesis of the Bible alone. They insist that their church (or worse yet, they themselves) is right since they truly follow the Bible. Yet in many cases their church is less than two generations old. (This explains one reason why really important doctrines, like the Trinity, are not practically important in so many American churches and contemporary evangelical movements emerging in our time.) But all of this really begs an extremely important question: Isn’t catholicity itself an important doctrine?

Simply put, the doctrine of the Apostles is that there is one church (Ephesians 4). This one church is in union with the living Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Its life is in the trinity. This church is visibly broken but the essential core of where its oneness is to be found, and where our prayer and work for unity begins, can be determined rather easily. We must return to Christ the center if we would be both doctrinally and practically faithful to the kerygma (the core of preached and shared faith).

So right doctrine matters immensely. But it matters in a way that is to easily missed when we set ourselves up as authority figures over the Scriptures and the Apostles.

The record of the patristic writers is, if you read the hundreds of unambiguous statements they left, both clear and strong. They believed there was only one church and this one church was to cover the whole earth with the gospel of Christ. (This is the essential idea behind the word catholic.) They lived this truth in every way possible by staying focused on the mission of Christ, not by majoring on their idiosyncrasies or differences.

The Value of the Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed arranges the essential truths of the Christian faith in terms of a natural and logical progression. By this I mean that the order of divine revelation, rooted consciously in the Trinity, is followed precisely by the Apostles’ Creed. The creed moves from God the Father and his creation, to the person and work of Christ—his supernatural birth, life, death, and resurrection. Then you are brought to the Holy Spirit, the church and future things. (The later, more highly regarded Nicene Creed follows this same order, thus demonstrating that the earliest Christian creed got the order and form right.) The great nineteenth-century Protestant theologian Philip Schaff, who has mentored my thinking in profound ways, summarizes my understanding well.

It is by far the best popular summary of the Christian faith ever made within so brief a space. It still surpasses all later symbols for catechetical and liturgical purposes, especially as a profession of candidates for baptism and church membership. It is not a logical statement of abstract doctrines, but a profession of living facts and saving truths. It is a liturgical poem and an act of worship. Like the Lord’s Prayer it loses none of its charm and effect by frequent use, although, by vain and thoughtless repetition, it may be made a martyr and an empty form of words. It is intelligible and edifying to a child, and fresh and rich to the profoundest Christian scholar, who, as he advances in age, delights to go back to primitive foundations and first principles. It has the fragrance of antiquity and the inestimable weight of universal consent. It is a bond of union between all ages and sections of Christendom. It can never be superseded for popular use in church and school (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 reprint of 1931 edition, I:15).

St. Augustine (354–430), the esteemed fifth century theologian, referred to the Apostles’ Creed “as a brief and grand regulator of true faith.” The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther believed that the Christian truth could not be put into a shorter and clearer statement. And John Calvin, who followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed in the actual arrangement of his classic, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, believed this creed was an admirable and true summary of the Christian faith. The famous Lutheran, J. T. Müller, said this creed held “the double significance” of being both a bond of union for the universal church and the seed from which all other creeds have grown. And Reformed theologian, W. G. T. Shedd, writing in the nineteenth century, believed the Apostles’ Creed expressed the earliest attempt by Christian minds to systematize the teachings of Scripture. He called the creed “the uninspired foundation” upon which the whole super-structure of symbolic literature rests. What else can I say?

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