Highlights

‘I believe’: the place and importance of creeds in the Christian faith

Oct 2017    

The act of saying “I believe” is a self-involving act, transcending mere intellectual acknowledgement and involving our disposition, our action, and most of all, an openness to be transformed by that which we believe.

Given this is so, what constitutes the content of Christian belief? To be sure, a true answer is (and must be) “Holy Scripture”, but I suspect this answer is too broad to be very helpful. After all, heretics have similarly appealed to Scripture as their source of authority.

A more specific answer could perhaps be drawn from a scriptural passage like Romans 10:9 – “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV 1984). True, but herein lies the immediate follow-up question: “What does it mean to confess Jesus as Lord? What’s the content behind that specific confession?”

Here is where the creeds and confessions come in. Both serve as “fixed formula[s] summarising the essential articles of the Christian religion and enjoying the sanction of ecclesiastical [church] authority”, as defined by church historian J. N. D. Kelly.1 While the creeds distinguish Christian faith from non-Christian faith (orthodoxy versus heresy), the confessions distinguish one type of Christian faith from another type of Christian faith (denominational distinctives). Our focus will be on the creeds.

There are at least three creeds maintained by the Western (Latin) church — the Apostles’ Creed (circa AD 140); the Nicene Creed (otherwise known as the Nicaea-Constantinopolitan Creed, AD 381, an expanded and revised version of the Creed of Nicea of AD 325), and the Athanasian Creed (late 400s to early 500s). To that list could be added the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451), if one considers the stipulations and decisions of the Council of Chalcedon to be creedal statements.

I will leave it to subsequent articles (Editor’s note: Beginning MM Nov 2017) to expound on specific creeds.2 For now, I merely wish to highlight the general importance of creeds within our Christian faith.

First, creeds serve as a summary of what lies at the heart of our Christian faith. The creeds provide a succinct answer to what it means to confess Jesus as Lord. Even according to the barest form of the creeds, to confess Jesus as Lord means to worship the one God in Trinity, the One who is creator, saviour and judge; it is to announce that we believe corporately as part of the “holy catholic (meaning universal) church”, and to declare that our confession brings about a transformation (“the forgiveness of sins”), orienting us to a certain hope.

Second, creeds serve as an interpretive guide to our reading of the Scriptures, even as their statements are drawn from Scripture itself. It is widely recognised that no one approaches the reading of Scripture from a tabula rasa (blank slate), but that we approach the task of understanding the Scriptures with pre-understanding. In this case, creeds shape our pre-understanding. As we read Scripture, what we glean in turn acts as a check in verifying what the creeds say. This is the well-known hermeneutical circle between the parts (what Scripture says in its details) and the whole (what the creed says) at play.

Third, creeds further doctrinal exploration, while regulating its discourse. As theologian Robert Jenson pointed out, one cannot keep saying “Jesus died to save us from our sin” without pondering how that might work; without the kind of second-level reflection that doctrinal exploration is concerned with.2 Yet, the statements of the creeds, with their embodied ecclesial authority, delimit our doctrinal exploration by displaying clearly the boundary markers of orthodoxy.

Given the importance of creeds, they should feature as a regular part of our corporate worship services. Nothing is more edifying than to have entire congregations confess together and corporately what and, more precisely, who it is that governs our lives on a day-to-day basis.

I am assuming the creeds are already a pivotal feature of our catechismal and baptismal classes; in addition, a pulpit series preaching through the statements of one of the creeds would facilitate the exposition and consolidation of the tenets of our Christian faith — much-needed in our time and age — enabling the church to arrive at a clearer understanding of its unique identity.

 

1 Early Christian Creeds, 3rd ed. (New York: Continuum, 1972), 1.
2 A slim and very readable resource I would recommend in this regard is Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils, KNOW Series Book 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
3 Robert Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), kindle loc. 517.

The Rev Dr Edmund Fong –
is a newly-minted lecturer at Trinity Theological College, having joined in January 2017. He lectures in the subject areas of theology and hermeneutics. Edmund is an ordained Presbyterian pastor and, together with his family, worships and serves at Adam Road Presbyterian Church.

Picture by Gino Santa Maria/Bigstock.com

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