Dear Church Family,
Confessing our faith through the historic creeds of the Christian Church is an important aspect of our corporate worship. There are some who decry the use of confessions and creeds as man-made constructs that have no place in the Christian faith; however this goes against the teaching of Scripture itself and the long standing traditions of the Christian church. Indeed, there are many good reasons – essential reasons, even – for the use of creeds and confessions.
In his book, The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman argues that creeds and confessions are necessary, useful and helpful in the church, and indeed a biblical imperative. In the last chapter of the book, “On the Usefulness of Creeds and Confession,” he makes these points with regard to the importance of having and adhering to an agreed upon confession of faith:
(1) All Churches and All Christians have Creeds and Confessions
(2) Confessions Delimit the Power of the Church
(3) Creeds and Confessions Offer Succinct and Thorough Summaries of the Faith
(4) Creeds and Confessions Allow for Appropriate Discrimination between Members and Office-Bearers
(5) Creeds and Confessions Reflect the Ministerial Authority of the Church
(6) Creeds and Confessions Represent the Maximum Doctrinal Competence That Can Be Expected from a Congregation
(7) Creeds and Confessions Relativize the Present
(8) Creeds and Confessions Help to Define One Church in Relation to Another
(9) Creeds and Confessions are Necessary for Maintaining Corporate Unity
I don’t think that I can add much to these salient points. For a more in-depth explanation of these points, I recommend the book.
In the corporate worship of our church, we use both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. “The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds have been in use in the Christian church since the third century and are approved for use by all the Reformed liturgies. The single exception might be the Westminster Directory, where, though the inclusion of the Apostles’ Creed was twice approved, it was for some reason omitted from its final form.” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 35).
The Apostles’ Creed
The form of the Apostles’ Creed which we use today seems to have had its origin in a baptismal formula – something that new believers confessed upon entering into the life of the church through baptism. Our present form saw some development over the course of many centuries, particularly from the second to the ninth centuries AD. Though the Nicene Creed is the first official (received) doctrinal creed of the whole Christian church, the Apostles’ Creed was probably in use at an earlier time.
The title Apostles’ Creed first occurred in a letter sent by the Synod of Milan in 390 AD. Over the course of several centuries, this creed saw development and refinement. “By the opening of the ninth century, the received text of the Apostles’ Creed, as we have it, exercised a virtual monopoly in Western Europe.” (Jack Rogers. 1985. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, 65).
The Apostles’ Creed follows a general outline concerning five main topics: (1) God the Father and His role as Creator; (2) the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ and His role as Savior set in historical context; (3) the Holy Spirit and His role in bringing about eternal life; (4) the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ; and (5) the future hope of the Christian in the world-to-come. In questions 23-58, the Heidelberg Catechism expounds and explains the meaning of each phrase of the Apostles’ Creed.
The Nicene Creed
Though lengthier and more detailed, the Nicene Creed follows the same general outline of the Apostles’ Creed. “The Nicene Creed was the first official doctrinal statement of the whole Christian church. It developed from the work of the first two ecumenical councils, Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, and was accepted as a definitive statement by the prestigious council of Chalcedon in 451, after two centuries of struggle to clarify the relationship of Jesus Christ to God and to humanity. It has been used in worship ever since the sixth century as part of the communion service.” (Jack Rogers. 1985. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, 39).
In particular, the Nicene Creed summarizes the teaching of Scripture concerning the hypostatic union (the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures). Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this doctrine: “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever” (WSC 21).
Also of note in the history of the Nicene Creed, is the controversy of the filioque clause (filioque meaning ‘and from the Son’). In the Nicene Creed, we confess that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This was Augustine’s view and though not part of the original Nicene Creed, the filioque clause (‘and from the Son’) was added at the Council of Toledo in 589. This was the historic view of the Church, but was one of the things that eventually led to the split between the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1054 AD.
Both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds are basic and universal to the Christian Church. And, the historic development of creeds and confessions in the Christian church teaches us about the necessity of development and precision in the doctrines of the Christian faith. Consider these words from a sermon preached by J. Gresham Machen called “Creeds and Doctrinal Advance”:
“…all real doctrinal advance proceeds in the direction of greater precision and fulness of doctrinal statement. Just run over in your minds again the history of the great creeds of the church. How meagre was the so-called Apostles’ Creed, first formulated in the second century! How far more precise and full were the creeds of the great early councils, beginning with the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325! How much more precise and how vastly richer still were the Reformation creeds and especially our Westminster Confession of Faith!
This increasing precision and this increasing richness of doctrinal statement were arrived at particularly by way of refutation of errors as they successively arose. At first the church’s convictions about some points of doctrine were implicit rather than explicit. They were not carefully defined. They were assumed rather than expressly stated. Then some new teaching arose. The church reflected on the matter, comparing the new teaching with the Bible. It found the new teaching to be contrary to the Bible. As over against the new teaching, it set forth precisely what the true Biblical teaching on the point is. So a great doctrine was clearly stated in some great Christian creed.”
When we understand the historic development of the creeds and confessions of our church, even if only in a cursory manner, we come to see that these statements and documents often came into being in an effort to refute false teachings and to bring greater precision to the understanding of what the Bible teaches. When we recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in our corporate worship, we are uniting our voices in our profession of faith together with the saints of old. And, we are reminding ourselves of the basic content of what we believe as Christians.
As the Preacher reminds us, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The same errors and false doctrines from the history of the church raise their ugly heads, time and again. Therefore, as we confess and come to better understand the foundations of our historic faith through the use of creeds and confessions, we will be better prepared to identify and refute those errors and false doctrines. And, more positively, we will be all the more ready to make a defense to everyone who asks to give an account for the hope that is in us as Christians (1 Peter 3:15).
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch