Theology of Faith: The Creed – Understanding the Faith and Creeds

Steve —  April 23, 2021 — Leave a comment

Understand the Purpose and Value of Creeds

By Drs. John Frame and Steve Childers

In the Applied Theology series of courses, you’ll learn a Trinitarian theology of faith, hope, and love by understanding and applying to your life what the Bible teaches about: 1) Faith found in the Apostles’ Creed, 2) Hope found in the Lord’s Prayer, and 3) Love found in the Ten Commandments. You’ll learn from God’s Word that:

A mind that is renewed by faith and a heart that is aflame with hope results in a life that honors God by loving him and others deeply and well.

In Theology of Faith Course: Lesson 1, you’ll learn the purpose and value of Christian Creeds in the study of theology. 

About the Applied Theology ProjectThe Applied Theology Series provides you accessible, affordable seminary-level teaching designed to help you learn how to apply theology to your life and ministry in practical ways – with the goal of helping you better know, love, serve, and honor God as LORD in all of life. Seminary professors John Frame and Steve Childers combine their almost 90 years of teaching and ministry experience to help you apply theology to life and ministry.

Read the transcript for Theology of Faith Course: Lesson 1 below!

Understanding the Christian Faith and Creeds

By John Frame and Steve Childers

The Apostles’ Creed is a brief summary of the essential biblical doctrines of the Christian faith believed by most professing Christians throughout history, including those among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. 

The creed was not written by Jesus’ apostles, but it represents their apostolic faith rooted in the teachings of Jesus. Our ultimate goal in studying the Apostles’ Creed, and any creed or confession of faith, is to help us better understand the teachings of the Bible.

The Apostles’ Creed is not the earliest written summary of Christian beliefs, but the culmination of many rules of faith and similar creeds written in previous centuries. The earliest summaries of Christian beliefs are found in the Old and New Testaments, including: 

•    “God is LORD.” (Exod. 3:16, I Kings 18:39, Joel 2:32)
•    “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut. 6:4, Mark 12:29)
•    “There is one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 8:5-6)
•    “Jesus is Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36, Rom. 10:9-13, 1 Cor. 12:3, Phil. 2: 6-11)
•    “Jesus is the Christ, Son of God, Son of David.” (Matt. 16:16, 1 Cor. 15:3-7, Rom. 1:3-4)
•    “Jesus Christ has come in flesh.” (1 John 4:2)

God gave these brief summaries in Scripture to help followers of Jesus learn and preserve their beliefs. When false prophets began teaching heresy in the early church, the Apostle John instructed followers of Jesus to use a brief summary of Christian beliefs, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” to test whether their teaching was from God.

The writings of the early church Fathers contain similar rules of faith that were used as catechisms for converts in preparation for baptism and as a part of the baptism rite itself. In the first and second centuries, rules of faith varied from church to church. But soon the churches created collective summaries that took the form of creeds they all believed to be the essential doctrines of biblical truth. By the second century, the basic form of the Apostles’ Creed can be found in widely dispersed Christian communities. 

The Purpose of Creeds
In the first part of the third century, the early form of the Apostles’ Creed was used in Christian baptism as a holy pledge of allegiance to the Triune God. In The Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus (170 – 235), a church leader in Rome, gives us an example of how these credal statements were used in baptisms.

Pastor: Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? 
Convert: I believe

Pastor: Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God who was born of the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead? 
Convert: I believe

Pastor: Do you believe in Holy Spirit, and the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh? 
Convert: I believe
The church used these early creeds, and the later Apostles’ Creed, not only for the preservation and teaching of their beliefs, but also as their holy pledge of allegiance to the Triune God of the gospel in worship and all of life. 

In the early 5th century, Augustine encouraged Christians to use the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments as practical expressions of faith, hope, and love – the three virtues the Apostle Paul extols in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Even for those who cannot read, the creed, the prayer, and the commandments can be memorized and used to help them understand the Bible and aid them in worship, strengthening their faith, hope, and love for God and people.

The Value of Creeds
The greatest value of studying the Apostles’ Creed, or any creed or confession of faith, is to help us better understand the Bible. The doctrine of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) affirms that the Bible clearly teaches, either explicitly or implicitly, all God’s truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life. Because the Bible is God’s inspired Word, which includes an understandable and consistent set of truths, we can understand it on our own – through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

Nevertheless, God also gives his Church pastors and teachers to help us better understand and obey the teachings of the Bible, so we will mature spiritually in ways we could not without them. (Eph. 4:11-13, Heb. 5:12-14). Since the first century, church leaders have been faithful to preserve and protect written summaries of what the church believes to be essential biblical doctrines of the Christian faith in creeds and confessions of faith.

But we must be on guard against the danger of placing more value on the confessions and creeds from church councils than on the Bible. History has proven that creeds and confessions sometimes fail to represent the teachings of Scripture faithfully. 

The infallible Scriptures must be our sole authority (sola Scriptura) in all issues of faith and practice. And we must test the teachings of all church leaders, creeds and confessions against the clear teachings of God’s Word. Martin Luther reflects this in his famous statement: 

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. 

Even though the Bible alone is sufficient to help us understand all the essential beliefs of the Christian faith, we are in need of summaries to help us better understand and apply these beliefs to our lives. The historic Christian creeds and confessions, including the Apostles’ Creed, give us just these kinds of helpful summaries.

The Nature of Creeds
Since the Apostles’ Creed was often used in the early church as part of worship, it’s very brief – only about one hundred words. So people could easily memorize it and have a brief summary of what they believe about God in their minds and hearts.

But the brevity of the creed means it is missing more detailed explanations of essential Christian beliefs, including the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. So when unbiblical beliefs began spreading throughout the churches, the result was much division and controversy.

To help resolve these controversies, the first two historic ecumenical councils of church leaders met in the fourth century. As a result, prominent heresies were condemned and the historic Christian beliefs in the Apostles’ Creed were affirmed and clarified by the creation and adoption of what is known today as the Nicene Creed. In subsequent generations, the church saw more challenges to historic Christian doctrine, resulting in more church councils and creeds to help followers of Jesus clarify biblical beliefs about God.  

By the end of the sixth century, the various major branches of Christianity began to move in different doctrinal directions, adding affirmations that originated from their different traditions. That doctrinal divergence continues to the present day. But the early church’s Apostles’ Creed, as amplified and explained by the Nicene Creed, is the only authoritative, ecumenical statement of the Christian faith that is widely accepted by most Christian traditions throughout history. 

Therefore, our primary focus in this study is on explaining the foundational beliefs affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed in the light of its subsequent affirmations and clarifications in the Nicene Creed and other great historic Christian creeds and confessions of faith.

The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed present us with much more than doctrinal truths to believe. They also give us a summary of the Triune God’s unified unfolding story of salvation in history.  

This is the gospel – the good news that the Father’s creation, ruined by the Fall, is being redeemed by Christ and restored by his Holy Spirit into the kingdom of God on earth. Here we see a vision of God’s Triune lordship over the whole universe he has made from the beginning in creation until life everlasting. This is the gospel we believe and profess, not only at our baptism, but throughout our lives.

The Apostles’ Creed consists of three long sentences that contain twelve affirmations, revealing the Bible’s teaching on the nature and work of the Triune God. The Trinitarian structure of the creed is based on the biblical structure of the Triune God’s unfolding story in history.

The Bible presents all individual doctrinal affirmations as vital parts of the bigger biblical story of who God is and what God does as Triune Lord: beginning with the Father’s creation in Genesis 1:1, reaching its apex in the Son’s redemption revealed in the New Testament, and ending with the Spirit’s restoration of all things in Revelation 22:21. 

Therefore, the first sentence of the creed reveals God the Father as Creator, the second sentence reveals God the Son as Redeemer, and the third sentence reveals God the Spirit as Restorer: 

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

In subsequent chapters we’ll examine each of these sentences and their affirmations in detail.

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