Having recently completed a book, Your Church Is Too Small, I have given a great deal of thought to the question: "What must a Christian believe?" The answer to this question is the very basis upon which we can experience the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace with other Christians, even other Christians who believe much more, or much less, than we confess.
It seems that the most common objection to relational unity with other Christians is based upon a prior question, "What must we believe in order to enter into a relationship in Christ that does not compromise the historic Christian faith in any essential way?" Doctrine matters because Christianity is more than a relationship. It is a relationship, and it includes a vital experience that comes in being united with the living Christ by the Holy Spirit. But this relationship and experience is rooted in teaching, or doctrine. If you do not have a doctrinal basis for this relationship then you may have the wrong relationship, or even a dangerous relationship. This truth is routinely abused by all types of fundamentalist Christians, from all three of the great traditions, but it is a relationship that we must insist upon if we are to be faithful to Jesus Christ.
The sectarian answer to this question will always insist on an approach that says, in effect: "My (our) way or the highway." The sectarian will take a whole system of doctrinal affirmations, including a number of them that are not common to the great Christian tradition, and make these the test of all relationships.
The latitudinarian answer to this question will say: "Believe whatever you will so long as we love one another and remain tolerant." Christians from many traditions, and supposedly from no tradition, refuse to have anything to do with a doctrinal basis for relationship, insisting that doctrine divides and love unites. The core problem here is that these Christians appeal to the love of Christ without affirming faith in the person of Christ. This approach will eventually destroy vital Christianity by reducing it to an ethical framework without a biblical and historical basis.
The Heidelberg Catechism, in Question 22, asks: "What then must a Christian believe?"
Everything God promises us in the gospel (cf. Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:30-31). That gospel is summarized for us in the articles of our Christian faith—a creed beyond doubt and confessed throughout the world.
What follows, in questions 23-58, are careful and biblical applications of the articles of the Apostles' Creed.
I would argue that the framers of this catechism got it right. What every Christian must believe is to be found in the Apostles' Creed. Roman Catholics believe much more than what is in this creed. So do the Orthodox and all Protestants. All who are faithful to the core orthodoxy of Christianity and the essential teaching of the Bible believe in their heart and soul what this creed teaches. This is so because the creed teaches, in a simple summary fashion, what the Bible teaches. Again, there is more taught in the Bible than is taught in this short creed but what is taught in this creed "must" be believed by all Christians.
This approach does several important things. First, it promotes core orthodoxy and properly refuses Christian standing to cults and non-Christian heresies. Second, it keeps the faithful centered on what is primary and essential to real faith. Third, it reminds us that all Christians, regardless of their earthly communion and various beliefs, share in this "mere Christianity."
Everything I teach and everything I practice is passed through this holy test. Is the faith being confessed in agreement with the faith confessed by the earliest Christians, those who came right after the apostles and prophets of the New Testament? The Apostles' Creed has the unique role of history and place and unites us where we can and must be united.
This is why I have such precious unity of the Spirit with so many Christians with whom I disagree on one or more points of faith and/or practice. The unity I share is rooted in the experience we have in Christ and the faith that we share in the teachings of the earliest Christians. I long to see a growing army of Christians adopt this simple, but not simplistic, approach to unity. If we are baptized followers of Jesus Christ, who confess explicit faith in the Lord of heaven and earth, and affirm that our oneness is found in confessing together what the church has confessed from the earliest times then we can share a deep and growing relational unity with one another. We may not share that relationship in the same church communion on earth but we can share it in common human relationships since we are truly brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. We will all share this faith in the church triumphant so it only makes sense to find ways that we can share it now in the church militant. This is my ecumenism.
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I’m in general agreement with the Apostle’s Creed and don’t have a problem with using an early creed as a basis for belief, except for one thing. I don’t believe Jesus went to hell. I’ve never heard an explanation to this phrase, and books I’ve read on the creed have skirted the issue completely. I’ve never seen a single biblical reference to it, and even the Heidelberg Catechism to which you reference uses proof texts that don’t apply. To the contrary, Scripture shows Jesus giving His Spirit up to the Father upon His death and will be with the thief in paradise that very day. I’ve also heard creed-believing people harshly criticize others who teach that Jesus went to hell as heretics.
Was this phrase included out of some cultural context to which us moderns aren’t able to grasp? Why have I never heard an explanation? I’m at a loss. Do you have any insight?
I absolutely agree with your ideal of ecumenism, John. I’ve long believed that we Christians need to “major on the majors” — i.e., focus on our common beliefs as shown in the Apostle’s Creed. That’s my ecumenism, too.
And this ecumenism, based on the statements of the Scriptures in the Apostle’s Creed, can be a powerful force for unity. And I pray that this unity will result in the working together of different traditions within Christianity: working with each other to help feed and clothe the poor, share the Gospel, provide literacy and educational opportunities, and thus make the unity of Christians into a positive force in the world that will show others the love we have for each other, for Christ, and for all peoples. The love of Christ demonstrated this way can only attract others to the Truth of the Gospel.
The present distrust and accusations I see sadden me greatly. It seems to me that Satan is having a field day in the Church by creating separation, distrust, and suspicion among Christians of differing traditions. With many, if not most, evangelicals believing that Catholics aren’t “saved” because they “worship Mary,” how can we re-educate the evangelical population (most of whom, if my church is like most, don’t know what the Apostle’s Creed is) to this new ecumenism?
In other words, how can we, in practical ways, help realize Jesus’ prayers of unity in John 17?
We can hold high ideals of ecumenism, but how can we “make it work” in the real world? Only with the help and leading of God, of course. But how do we start?
Once again you capture the heart of the Gospel in your ecumenism.
Could we take ‘descended into hell’ as a metaphor for separated from the Father. As you know, some say that it was a ‘victory lap’ others that it was part of the suffering. So those who confess the descent as in the Apostle’s Creed, differ 180 degrees on what it means.
I wish more people saw things the way you do. I personally believe in a dogmatic reductionism that would personally and institutionally lead us to embrace all people as Christians who generally hold to the Symbol.
As one exclusively familiar with the sectarian answer to your question, I heartily welcome the mere Christianity solution. “Raised” as a narrow, conservative, Reformed Calvinist, I’ve been taught that Yahweh has reserved about, oh, 7000 that haven’t bowed the knee. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Arminians, Charismatic, seeker sensitive, mainline, etc., cannot even possibly be real Christians.
It’s been great to discover that there are many more Christians than I previously thought, and they believe diverse things. I’ve even learned how to treat them like believers. Imagine that.
Satan knows how to distort, destroy and deprive believers of the Prayer of Jesus in John 17.
Keith Green 30 years ago wrote a pretty insightful piece about this that I have never forgotten. It’s worth reviewing once again:
In light of the actions of the Episcopal Church in the last couple days, where is unity or what is FALSE UNITY?
Hi John, great post as always. In answer to Steve Scott’s question; when the creed says Jesus “descended into hell”, the proper greek word was Hades, which would be equivalent to the OT concept of Sheol, meaning “the place of the dead”. The statement in our english creed is simply a mistranslation of the original, probably greek, versions of the Creed. A more accurate translation, which is used in newer Roman Catholic prayer books is that “He descended into the dead”. Meaning simply that on the cross, the Incarnate Son of God really did experience physical death; and in accord with early church tradition, He went to Hades, to the place referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom” and took from there all of the OT Saints into the fullness of Heaven. And, it is assumed, He proclaimed the certainty of judgement to the lost who were in the region of Hades called “torments”. It is interesting that the phrase was not included in the Nicene Creed, which has a more complete confessional definition of the orthodox Christian faith. I hope this was helpful, God bless!
Nick, thanks for the comment. It doesn’t solve it for me, but sheds some light on maybe a traditional interpretation.
Unless you have access to a text of the Apostle’s Creed that is not included in Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, I am not aware of any Greek text of it that includes the clause “he descended into hell.” Thus it seems we cannot be certain that the word “hades” (as opposed to say, “gehenna,” or even something else) would have occurred in it. As far as I can tell, the clause first appears in the Latin text of either Rufinus (“descendit in inferna,” A.D. 390), or Fortunatis (“descendit ad infernum,” A.D. 570), according to volume 2, page 49 of Schaff. Prior Latin versions dating as far back as A.D. 341 completely omit the statement.