Article VIII – The Three Creeds

Introduction

Are you a Bible-believing Christian?  That's what we've been looking at in the last two post on the 39 Articles of Religion which are the statement of faith of the Church of England.  The answer, if you are true Anglican, is yes.  Yes I believe the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament.  Yes, the Bible is my authority above everything else, because it is how God has chosen to speak to me.

So, you're a Bible-believing Christian then, but what do you actually believe? Well you might reply, "the Bible." But what's that about then? How do we answer that?  Or think of it another way. Suppose you become a Christian as an adult and you get baptised or confirmed.  How do you express what you believe?  You can't start reciting the Bible from Genesis 1:1 and go all the way to Revelation 22:21.

Of course, what we naturally do is come up with appropriate summaries of our faith.  We get hints of that very early don't we. So in Matthew 28:19 in the famous great commission, we have Jesus say:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19 NIV)

That Trinitarian formula has just the indication in it of a summary of the faith.  And in the New Testament we get some other indications.  So in 1 Timothy 6:12-13 we have both Timothy and Jesus making a good confession and this is the confession upon which we fight the good fight of the faith. Similarly, Jude 1:3 encourages to contend for "the faith." All of which is just to make the point that having some kind of summary of “the faith” which we can confess may be very useful.

In this post we are considering some of the older summaries of the faith, which are called the creeds. In our series on the articles, we're looking at the three articles describing the rule of faith.  The last of these refers to the creeds and it says this.

THE Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.

1. The Content of the Creeds

So what are these creeds and what's in them? Most Anglicans know both the Nicene and the Apostles' Creed because we say them regularly on Sundays. We nearly always says the Apostles' Creed in a morning or evening prayer and we nearly always say the Nicene Creed in a communion service. You'll hopefully have noticed that they follow the Trinitarian pattern of Jesus' baptism command in Matthew 28.  We believe in the Father...the Son...the Holy Spirit

The Athanasian Creed you are probably less familiar with – as am I to be honest. The authorised Church of England version is in the Book of Common Prayer and is slightly different. It's thought that this was originally used in instructing theological students.  It's a detailed exposition of the Trinity and the divinity and humanity of Jesus.

Now all of these a pretty old.  The Apostles' Creed doesn't go back to the apostles - its theology is from the apostles rather than its words - but it does seem to go back to about 200AD.  The Nicene Creed doesn't actually go back to a particular church get together in Nicea, although it is similar to one from then and it gets it's first official mention in AD451. The Athansian Creed gets its name from a theologian called Athanasius who wasn't the author, but who firmly defended the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, which is the content of the creed. It seems to go back to France in the early 500s AD.

Now the reason for the history lesson is simply this.  These creeds contain the passionate debates of the time they were put together.  The issues of the Trinity and of Jesus being fully God and fully man. Actually the very stuff contained in the first 5 articles of our 39 articles. That these things were hammered out so early, means that every church that has ever truly been a church would have been happy to sign up to the truths of the creeds – whether they use them in their services or statements of faith or not.

As I've written before, these things remain a vital statement of belief, because so many don't believe them. For example, the Unitarians, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Muslims who all undermine Trinitarian belief, while trying to claim they believe in God and Jesus!

The creeds, if you like, put down the markers on those issues.

But they don't say everything.  Which is why, for example, we have 39 articles and not just the creeds.  If it was enough to say we believe in the creeds, we wouldn't need anything else.  But between the 6th Century and the 16th Century various questions came up and so we have a new statement of faith, which deals with some of those questions.

Let me make a couple of applications to us.  First, the creeds show us the value of clearly addressing and defining what we believe.  If we don't do that, then all of a sudden we can't distinguish between ourselves and Muslims.  These days people aren't very keen on being precise and defining things clearly.  We might hear it said: "If you're too clear on what you believe it divides people, much better to be fuzzy and stay together."  But if we are to fight the good fight of the faith, we need to know what that faith is and confess it!

I heard a quote this week from a very respected church leader: “Ultimately unity is not doctrinal, but relational.” I understand what he means, but with respect, Christian unity is doctrinal.  If we listen to the Bible we have a faith – a real body of belief or doctrines – to contend for and to fight for.  When Paul talks about unity in Ephesians 4 he says this:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)

You see we are united in something – things we believe in, doctrines.  If you don't have the one faith, or believe in the one God, we're not united. So defining clearly what we believe is really important.

Secondly, the creeds, as I've said, don't say everything because they are only answering the questions of that time.  But what they teach us is that we need to faithfully confess and state our beliefs to the questions of our time.  As we're shaped by a very secular and materialist culture, it's right that we work out and confess what we believe in that light.

2. The Authority of the Creeds

The second thing I just want us to notice briefly is the authority of the creeds.  It's there in the last line of the Article.

THE Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.

The reason to emphasise this, is that it reinforces what I've said in the previous blogs.  The Creeds are only to believed because they are an accurate summary of what Scripture teaches.  Scripture is the authority. That's important, because sometimes people encourage us that we should believe what's in the creeds because they're very old, or because they have a long tradition in the church, or because lots of denominations believe them. But for Anglicans, that's not it.  We believe them, because the Bible teaches the very same truths, i.e. they are a summary of biblical truths.  The ultimate authority for our faith is the Bible, because it is what God has spoken, not the creeds.

We need to remember that – not just about creeds, but about any other statement of faith, or pronouncement of bishops, or church councils, or church leaders or whatever.  They are to be believed if and only if they can be proved from Scripture.

3. The Purpose of the Creeds

Finally I want to look briefly at the purpose of the creeds.

Historically, they were hammered out to express truth and contradict error.  They are very precise about there being one God in three persons.  Very precise that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Why? Because those things are true and when they were being hammered out those thing were under attack – usually from people who were within the church (usually from church leaders and bishops in fact).

This is the point of the passage from Jude in particular:

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 1:3-4 NIV)

A clear understanding of the faith will lead us to contend for it.  The creeds, the 39 articles and most fundamentally our Bibles help us to know what to stand. That means on the one hand, we need to stand firm in the truth. There is so much to sway us these days.  I remember an evangelical bishop coming to college when I was training.  He asked us to pray for him and simply said this "Every day someone comes to see me and tries to get me to compromise."

But actually that's our lives as Christians isn't it?  Every day the media, because it isn't Christian, tries to seeps lies into your heart.  Every day your non-Christian friends, family and colleagues and try to seep lies into your heart.  Every day, our very own hearts fight against the Spirit of God in us.  And every day, we risk being those ungodly people, who pevert the grace of God.

On the other hand, it's not just that we stand firm for the truth, but also that we contend against error. Sometimes it's easier to keep our heads down, keep quiet and muddle through.  But the challenge to us is to contend.  Be willing to put your head above the parapet.

As Christians we need the courage to stand and to contend and to tell God's truth.

Conclusion

So the creeds are a summary document explaining what we believe and particularly answering the questions about who God is and who Jesus is.  They have no authority of their own, but only as they faithfully summarise bible truth.  And they remind us that being clear about what we believe, standing firm in it and contending for it are key parts of our Christian faith.

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