October 2017 – This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a time of great religious upheaval in Europe as Protestants fought for a return to biblically orthodox beliefs.
Christians today are still experiencing the ripple effects of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church in Germany. One such ripple is the formation of numerous denominations.
Each denomination holds its own distinct understandings and applications of doctrine and polity. With so many differences, how can Christ followers grasp their convictions in one hand while extending the other hand of fellowship to a fellow believer with whom they disagree?
Fortunately, the question has been answered since early in the second century.
“For the early church, the Apostles’ Creed was the definitive statement on Christian belief,” Dr. Ray Rooney told AFA Journal. “They certainly believed more, but they certainly did not believe less.” Rooney is editor of AFA’s blog The Stand.
“The Apostles’ Creed takes some of the most important facets of what it means to be a Christian and boils them down,” Rooney said. “It is the absolute essentials of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, you can’t push back against any of it and still be a Christian.”
As Christendom grew, more and more first-generation believers joined the body. A person who had never been to Jerusalem, never heard the teachings of the apostles, never seen the miracles, was now hearing about them secondhand. With so many different people discussing different perspectives, early church leaders understood the need to have a succinct summary of what it meant to be a Christian.
“The earliest versions of the Creed were given by first century Christians, apostles or not, who needed to create a fence containing what it essentially meant to be Christian,” Rooney said. “As more and more people were coming to faith, they didn’t want the message to become unclear. This concreted the essentials. As you spread the gospel, you have to agree with this.”
On what doctrines can all Christians, across all time and all lands, agree?
“The Apostles’ Creed only contains 12 tenets,” Rooney said, “but there is so much going on. You have the Trinity – Father God as Creator, Jesus His Son born of a virgin, the Holy Spirit – and the reality of God’s catholic church spreading throughout time.”
This is not to say the Creed is without controversy. For example, Rooney pointed out the lowercase “c” in the phrase “catholic Church” in the Creed, and explained that the word comes from the Greek katholikos, meaning universal or worldwide church.
“When there is pushback against the Creed, usually it is not with the content, but with something we don’t understand,” Rooney said. He pointed at the line, “He descended to the dead,” or as other translations say, “He descended into hell.”
“It doesn’t say Jesus went to hell,” Rooney said. “It says He descended. That is an important distinction. Jesus died and went to the place dead people go, not our modern understanding of hell from Dante’s Inferno.
“The bottom line is that the early church thought it so important they included it in the Creed. We can and should have a lot of discussion about that line. A great place to start would be a thorough study of 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Peter 3.”
Rooney encourages contemporary Christians to view the Apostles’ Creed in the same way as early Christians viewed all creeds. It funneled their hearts and minds into the Scriptures. While the Creed does not contain every doctrine found in the Bible, every doctrine in the Creed is found in the Bible.
“We have to keep the purpose of a creed in mind,” Rooney said. “It is the minimal substance of what we as Christians believe. In the midst of arguments, theological wrangling, councils, debates, and schisms, we have stability because we can agree on this. It is a good starting point, but it is not the finishing point.”
To illustrate, Rooney pointed to the sacrament of baptism. Should Christians immerse or sprinkle? Should baptism take place as an infant or after a confession of faith? The Creed says nothing on the topic. But Rooney said God’s hand is evident even in the Creed’s silence.
“This is where Christians can sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17),” he said. “But we can keep this a Christian discussion because of our mutual embrace of the Creed. Once you have broken outside the Creed, you have set yourself outside Christianity, and our conversation needs to go in another direction.”
Rooney has spent 31 years pastoring United Methodist churches. He has seen and experienced disunity between American Christians both within and among denominations. But he said it does not have to be that way. The Apostles’ Creed can bring all Christians to common ground.
“We can be one, as Jesus prayed in John 17:21,” Rooney said, “if we focus on the essentials of the gospel. That’s the strength of the Apostles’ Creed; it keeps us focused on what is most important.”
Of course, issues that divide Christians are important. However, particular beliefs and applications of doctrine and polity are what led to denominations in the first place, and they are what hold many denominations together today. But they should not cause Christians to refuse fellowship with other believers.
The Apostles’ Creed is the table at which all Christians can come and feast together. Like the Word of God itself, the Creed is filled with deep theology, applicable doctrine, and beautiful God-centered truths.
“The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t solve all the world problems, nor does it solve all the problems in the church,” Rooney said. “But it is a great table for Christians to gather round and have room for discussion. You don’t have to believe everything I do. But we have in the Creed a 2,000-year-old answer to ‘What do Christians believe?’ We can rejoice and fellowship together around these truths while still holding tightly to the other convictions we also hold dear.”
Regarding the unity promoted by the great creeds of Christendom, the Archbishop of Spalato Marco Antonio de Dominis offered these timeless words: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.
(See 2/12 AFAJ.)
The Creed: What You Believe and Why
The Early Christians in Their Own Words
selected and edited by Eberhard Arnold
Affirming the Apostles’ Creed