The Apostles’ Creed is one of the confessions of Christendom. It is regarded as the creed of all who call themselves Christians. But it is well known that, especially in recent times, there has been a great outcry against creeds of every kind… The ideas begotten of evolution, of constant progression, have made these people intolerant of anything which bears the marks of age.
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1. The Need Of A Creed
With the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. — Rom. 10:10.
Having completed a series of sermons on the first chief part of the Catechism — God’s holy Law — we now proceed to consider the second chief part, — the Apostles’ Creed.
In our study of the Commandments we have been standing in the august presence of Almighty God. We have heard His thunder tones from Sinai, saying: “I am the Lord thy God”; “Thou shalt…” “Thou shalt not…” We have caught glimpses, such glimpses as sin-weakened minds and souls are capable of catching, of the exalted character which God’s holy Law not only outlines for us, but demands of us. If we had come to our study of this Law without any knowledge of the Gospel we could only have become frightened, and have been driven to despair.
Sinai, the mount of the Law, stands before us as the moral Mont Blanc of the universe; its inaccessible summit crowned with the unsullied white of perpetual snow, and scintillating dazzlingly in the rays of the morning sun. On this background of unsullied white and untarnished gold, God, the perfect artist, draws, in His Law, His conception of a perfect moral being. It puts to shame every human achievement. It is the despair of every morally aspiring life. No man, of himself, can ever hope to touch it. It sets before us a plan of life so exalted in its demands, so God-like in its character, that no unaided human power can ever hope, in this world, even to approximate it. But here is where the Gospel comes to man’s rescue. It tells us what God Himself has done for us, paying the moral and spiritual debts we were unable to pay; preparing for our acceptance, free of all cost to us, the perfect righteousness which alone makes us well-pleasing in His sight.
The Apostles’ Creed presents, in summarized form, the heart of the Gospel. This is, at least in substance, if not in completed form, the oldest of the three great statements of the Christian faith, known as the oecumenical, or universal, creeds. The other two are the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds, respectively. We are now going to make a study of the Apostles’ Creed. However, before we take up the several statements of it, we shall consider a few general points profitable for us to know.
The Outcry Against Creeds
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the confessions of Christendom. It is regarded as the creed of all who call themselves Christians. But it is well known that, especially in recent times, there has been a great outcry against creeds of every kind. In a convention of one of the larger American denominations a few years ago, one of their leaders declared: “We are up-to-date doctrinally, we have no creed.” On the table before me, as I write, there is a book with the title, — “Not Creed but Character.” This is not altogether new, there always have been some who have taken this view; but it was especially symptomatic of the spirit of the generation just past. There is some evidence that this wave has reached its crest and is slowly subsiding. But we must never expect this opposition to cease.
Many of these modern religious progressives regard creeds in general, and especially the older ones, as relics of the childhood of our religion, hence no longer appropriate expressions of our mature manhood, with its advance in knowledge. The ideas begotten of evolution, of constant progression, have made these people intolerant of anything which bears the marks of age.
Some Christian bodies, as such, are opposed to creeds. A few of these are fairly evangelical, and decidedly active in the work of the Church, especially in the field of missionary endeavor. This reaction may have been, in part, the result of the abuse of creeds. For creeds may be abused, and are abused when men think that the formal acceptance of a creed is all that is necessary, and give all manner of evidence that the real faith of which the creed is but the statement has never been livingly appropriated. But the chief trouble with these people is that they fail to appreciate the real nature of creeds, and the part they have ever played in the conscious development of the understanding and appreciation of divine truth on the part of the children of God. Another point not to be lost sight of in this connection is the fact that these people, in spite of their protest against creeds, have a creed nevertheless. And sometimes, in certain respects, a narrower and more exclusive one than those against which they protest. The fact that their creed is unwritten, or, if written, is not known as a creed, does not alter the facts in the case a particle.
These evangelical opponents of a creed, and by evangelical we mean those who claim the Bible as their creed and accept most of its teachings, sometimes have experiences which ought to open their eyes to the fallacy of their position. A few years ago one of the younger of the American denominations, having a platform one of the chief tenets of which is the cry for a creedless Christianity built on the broad and untrammeled truths of the Bible, celebrated the centenary of its founding. On this occasion one of their leading men gave emphatic utterance to doctrinal views diametrically opposed to the tenets for which they have stood as a church ever since their organization, which, indeed, was one of the points which led to their organization as a distinctive denomination. His utterances were strongly resented by his brethren. This shows, as before stated, that, in spite of their professions to the contrary, they have a creed. It further shows that no church can long exist, as a distinctive organization, without a well defined creed or confession.
The worst opponents, the real vandals, of the creeds, are not those aforementioned; but those who are altogether out of sympathy with the great formal principle of the Reformation, which is that the Bible is the revealed will of God, and the absolute rule of faith and life. To them the Bible also is but a human production, the writing of it a little more under Divine guidance than the ordinary literature of Christian people; but still to be corrected and improved from time to time. Naturally, then, in their opinion, creeds, or statements of doctrine, cannot be static, or authoritative; but must be revised to agree with their ever changing views of Scripture and divine things.
When the opposition of this class of men is sifted closely it is found not to result alone, or even chiefly, from a general dislike of creeds; but from a disbelief of many of the fundamental truths therein set forth. The doctrine of the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the doctrine of sin, the person and operations of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection and the future life, are some of the more fundamental Biblical truths, disbelief of which is back of their dislike of creeds.
The cause of this rejection of Scripture, and the creeds drawn therefrom, is a false idea of liberty and authority. The motto of the ancient world was, society is above the individual, the individual must be sacrificed, if need be, to preserve the authority and power of the State. This principle carried to the extreme, as it generally was, led to tyranny on the one side and abject slavery on the other. On the part of the Church, Rome is the supreme embodiment of this hurtful principle. The Reformation rightly assailed, and largely abolished, this false principle. But the true Reformation, represented by Luther, did not destroy, or seek to destroy, true authority. His only aim was to take it out of the hands of those to whom it did not belong, or abused it; to find the true authority, and uphold it. In all spiritual matters, in all matters of absolute right and wrong, the one infallible authority is God, and the revelation of His authoritative will is in His Word. But, as has ever been the case in human affairs, many were not satisfied with the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free; they would no longer recognize God’s authority as set forth in His Word. These men determined to be their own supreme authority. Their reason is to sit in judgment on God’s Word. This is the real genesis, and the sustaining motive, of the fight against creeds. Against this Protestantism gone mad we protest just as energetically as we do against Rome’s tyranny over men’s consciences.
This same desire for unrestrained liberty is often turned so as to become a plea for practical accomplishment. These opponents say, if we abolish creeds see what a larger union of Christians might be effected. True, we might in this way make a greater show in the way of numbers; but would there be any greater unity? Could there be any more real co-operation? “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3.) Is there so little reverence for God’s truth; so little desire to stand for principle, so characteristic of many of the fathers that they were willing to sacrifice for it all they held dear in the world; that we can give it all up for a union in which there is no real unity? About the only basis of agreement left would be something like this: There is no infallible source and criterion of truth, hence we believe only in the right of everyone to believe as he pleases. To this we can subscribe — no — not for a moment! As long as the truths of God’s Word are precious to us, we will follow the Apostle’s exhortation, and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, and for the formulation of the statements of this faith in doctrinal confessions, or creeds.
The Creed and Its Purpose
Before a man hurls sneers, or anathemas, at a creed he should at least seek to answer for himself the aforestated questions. But many evidently have not attempted this, or have consulted very unreliable authorities. What is a creed? It is a free, joyous, fearless declaration of the faith of an individual, or a Church. The great creeds are the Church’s statements, in the shortest possible form, of what she understands God’s Word to teach. But they are not mere intellectual summarizations of Scripture doctrines. The best thought of the best men of their respective ages was put into the creeds. But they did not have their birth in the cloistered study. They were born of the travail of men’s souls in time of conflict. They were called forth from the souls of devout men in the dark hours when the truth they loved dearer than life was being assailed, perverted, and denied. The creeds of the Church are the children of love, for the bringing into life of which many surrendered their own lives.
The creeds are not Divinely inspired, and no one claims this for them. God’s Word is the final touchstone by which these, and all other human productions, must be judged. And every Christian who is intelligent and wisely sincere in guarding his soul’s interests, will search the Scriptures diligently to find whether the creeds he has been taught to accept have been drawn solely from this unpolluted fount. But while the Bible is God-given, and the creeds man-made, the latter are the confession, made to God and before men, of what those who are of one mind and heart find in God’s Word. Such a confession God demands of us. Our own good requires it. Even the world expects it.
This point is often met by the assertion that those who object to creeds also make a confession; that they confess belief in the Bible. The Bible, they say, is their creed. This sounds very loyal, and has an appearance of plausibility which attracts. But let us examine it closely for a moment. All the Christian world professes to accept the Bible. Next door to you may live a man who professes to accept the Bible; but he refuses to believe in the clearly revealed Bible doctrine of the Trinity; he denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; he will not accept the doctrine of the atonement, which is the underlying truth of all Scripture; he scoffs at the idea of a bodily resurrection. He says he accepts the Bible, but he puts his own interpretation on it; much of it he explains away. You have studied the Bible. You know that all these doctrines which your neighbor denies are clearly and emphatically taught there. And more, you have not only accepted these truths on the basis of authority, but the Spirit of God has wrought in your heart; you have also experienced the truth of these doctrines, you have learned to love them, they are exceedingly precious to you. This being the case, can you allow that man’s statement to go unchallenged when he says, I accept the Bible, it is my creed? Are you willing to be known as standing on the same general platform with him? No, indeed. You point out to him his fallacy. You attempt to show him that he has no right to claim to accept the Bible when he positively rejects many, if not most, of its most fundamental doctrines. And, if you cannot prevail on him to change his position, you at least make clear to him what yours is. Now what have you done? Just what the early Christians did. You have made a confession of faith, a creed. Necessity has driven you to do so. You have met your neighbor’s professedly Biblical, but, in reality, most unbiblical creed with a positive, Biblical creed. And you have found that, starting from a general statement common to both, you differed, as far as heaven is from earth, on most vital subjects. This is a statement of facts which may be verified in actual experience almost any day. Do we need any more convincing proof of the need of a creed?
The assault on creeds usually proceeds on the assumption, expressed or implied, that the Bible is God’s Word, while the creed is not. As before stated, the creeds, as to their form, are not inspired; but the truth expressed, being a faithful epitome of Biblical doctrine, is just as much of God when embodied in the creed as the same statements are when scattered through a dozen or twenty books of the Bible. The statement of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the son of the Virgin, is no less a Divine truth in the Creed than it is in the four Gospels. The only difference being that in the Creed the dress is human.
The purposes which a creed serves may be thus briefly stated. First, it summarizes Scripture for us. The doctrines of Scripture have an historical development, and many of them, an historical setting. Many of them were gradually unfolded through the centuries. A doctrine is usually presented at one place in Scripture from one point of view, at another place from a different viewpoint. One book or chapter develops one side of a doctrine, another book or chapter a different side. A creed gathers up these different threads of truth and presents them as one strand. The Bible is the quarry from which the separate blocks of truth are cut, the Creed is a completed edifice.
In the second place, a creed is an interpretation of Biblical truth. Of this we have already spoken. It keeps the insincere from hiding behind vague generalities. It gives those who honestly and heartily accept Bible truth an opportunity of confessing, as God requires, their faith. And it is a support to us in our hours of weakness; a creed is a stabilizer. When confronted with appealing opinions, and a man’s knees begin to tremble, he should turn to the old symbols, tried in the fires of a thousand battles, approved by unnumbered thousands of the best thinking, and best living, men and women who have ever graced God’s earth; does this new claimant for acceptance agree with the age honored creed? If not there are the gravest of reasons why it should be scrutinized, not only by the best powers of our minds, but in the searching white light of the whole counsel of God.
Again, a creed is the watchword by which the true soldier of Christ’s army is to be distinguished from the disinterested, the rebels, and the deserters. As no man should be ashamed of the flag of his country, or, if ashamed of it, give it up and seek another, so no one should be ashamed of the flag of Jesus Christ, the banner of His Church.
Finally, a creed is a heritage which we pass on to succeeding generations. It is the means by which we discover to our children, and children’s children, our and their Christian succession, our oneness in the faith with the Apostles and the saints of every age. By means of the creed we preserve for our children, and transmit to them, the faith of the great historic Church, the faith drawn from the Sacred Word, tried in the fires and not found wanting.
God requires such confessions of us. Both the Old Testament and the New are full of them. And God has ever owned them, and given His blessing to those who made them. Peter made such a confession concerning the person and nature of Christ, and Jesus declares that it was a revelation of the everlasting Father Himself (St. Matt. 16:16.) The interpretation which Thomas put on the historic facts of Christ’s passion, as far as he knew them, drew from him a denial; but other revelations caused him to change his mind, and called forth a positive creed, which elicited Christ’s approval. And such passages as our text lead to the inevitable conclusion that some form of creed, embracing the fundamentals concerning Christ, was the customary requirement in Apostolic days of all those who sought entrance to the infant Church. Our text is a weighty condensation of the whole Gospel, the doctrines concerning Christ and His atoning work. It requires faith in these Gospel facts. It requires that confession be made of this faith before the world, and implies that failure to make such confession results in the loss of the final blessing — eternal life. No stronger word can be uttered setting forth the need of a creed.
The Apostles’ Creed
Brethren, there is not even the shadow of real cause for believing that the Apostles’ Creed has been outgrown. It is, indeed, very brief, and the same conditions which, in the earliest days, necessitated the formulation of this creed, later demanded the formulation of fuller denominational confessions. These we should know, study, and love. But the elements of revealed truth essential to the existence of a Christian Church are in this old Creed. We should give it earnest, devout study, which it will richly repay. We should love it for its truth, for its age and sacred associations.
Let me give you an illustration of the hold this Creed has on the Christian world. The Baptist denomination, having in its communion many brilliant, devout, and evangelical men, is probably the most outspoken in its general dislike of creeds. But not many years ago, at a meeting of a world’s Baptist convention, held in England, three thousand delegates were assembled. At the request of the renowned and eminently evangelical Dr. Maclaren, that assembly arose, as one man, and united with him in repeating the Apostles’ Creed.
One of the most scholarly and painstaking books on the Apostles’ Creed, from the point of view of historical treatment, is from the pen of a Scottish theologian of the Reformed Church. In the preface he tells us that he is ashamed to acknowledge that the Creed is rarely heard in the Scottish churches. He speaks with warmth of the folly and fraud of the act by which the church had been deprived of it. He relates how, on the continent, he had come to love it, and, ten years previously, had introduced it in the congregation he served.
Our love for the Apostles’ Creed will stand in exact ratio to our intimate acquaintance with it, and our love for the great fundamental truths of the Gospel of which it is the synopsis. May we so know these truths that we will not be disturbed by the outcry against the creeds. May we so know this Creed, and the living truths to which it gives expression, that when we repeat it we will be confessing the real faith of our hearts, without which there is no salvation.
By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.
- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
- Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0