Confessing the Christian Faith
Most Christians the world over confess their faith in worship services using an ancient creed, most often the Apostles’ Creed, though sometimes the fuller Nicene Creed. Once in a great while it might be the Athanasian Creed. Yet there are some who find the use of a Creed unfamiliar. Others question the use of Creeds altogether. Some will object that the use of a Creed becomes rote and meaningless. Perhaps a few clarifications will be helpful.
First, what is a creed? A creed is a statement of faith. It says what we believe. Creeds are both personal and corporate. Marriage vows and creeds are two things that should not be “personalized.” A creed is not just anyone’s personal statement of faith, but states what the church as an institution authorized by Christ to define, declare, preserve, and defend the faith has concluded is the truth. But the individual who receives those words as the truth then says them with the whole congregation as a confession of what he/she believes in the company of the believing congregation.
Second, what do creeds do? (1) Creeds enable the Church to affirm to the world and to itself what it believes. If an unbeliever asks, “What is the Christian faith? What do Christians believe?” the creed states what we most assuredly believe. Then, when we say the creed we not only say to the world, “This is what we believe,” but we also remind, reaffirm, and reassure ourselves and one another that we these are the things we do indeed believe. There is something wonderfully comforting about stating with God’s people what we all believe. Elizabeth Elliot has a little booklet on grief that she wrote after her second husband Addison Leitch’s death of how helpful the Apostles Creed was to her as she grieved. She used it to answer the question, “What things have not changed even though my husband has died?”
(2) Creeds are a teaching tool by which the church teaches its baptized children and its new converts what the faith is. The most common historic practice for preparing people to make public confession of their faith has been to teach a course in which three things were covered, The Apostles Creed, The Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer. In this way people learn what we believe, how God calls us to live, and how Christ teaches us to pray. Called Communicants’, Confirmation, of Catechumens’ Classes, they teach covenant children and prepare adult converts what to believe, how to live, and how to pray.
(3) Creeds draw boundaries of belief for churches and individuals. Take the simple statement of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his (God’s) only Son, our Lord.” Any body claiming to be a church that cannot affirm the historical man Jesus, the Messiah, is the unique Son of God, and the Lord of his people is by definition not a church. Any individual professing to be a Christian who cannot make that affirmation is by definition not a Christian. I do not mean to say that this confession of Christ is all needed to be the church and to be a Christian, but use it as an example of how creeds draw boundaries.
When the counsel of Nicaea met, it had before it two competing views of the person of Christ. Some called him the Son of God but meant he was a created being with a nature like the Father’s who came into existence in time. Others meant that he was the eternal Son of God whose nature was the very same as the Father’s. Which was true? When the Council completed its study and debate, it concluded that the doctrine of the Church was: “(We believe) in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, begotten, not made being of one substance of the Father.” That statement was a non-negotiable tenet of the Christian faith. Those who could not confess it were not Christians; bodies that did not confess it were not the Church.
Third, what are we doing when we use a Creed in worship? We are confessing before God and to the world and ourselves the core of our Christian belief with the church of the age. What we confess the true Church has always confessed and continues to confess universally. When we say the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed we are standing with millions of Christians for two millennia and with millions of Christians all over the world today.
Fourth, what about those two troublesome statements in the Apostles’ Creed? Of course, we have in mind He descended into hell and I believe in the holy Catholic church.
What do we mean when we say, He descended into hell? There are two ways to take the statement: (1) It could be descriptive of what Christ experienced as he “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” By those sufferings he experienced hell for us. This is the approach of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Why does the creed add, ‘He descended to hell?’ To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross, but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
(2) The other possibility is that “He descended into hell” means that, after he was buried he, according to his human nature, remained under the power of death for a season, his body in the grave, his soul in heaven with God. The word translated “hell” in English is “Hades” which can mean not the place of punishment prepared for the devil and the wicked but simply the condition and place of the dead.
This is the explanation given in the Westminster Larger Catechism: “Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death? Christ’s humiliation after death consisted of his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which has been otherwise expressed in these words, ‘He descended into hell’.” This does not deny that Christ suffered hell (in the fullest sense) on the cross. The question about Christ’s humiliation on the cross includes these things: “having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, death of the cross.”
I believe that the Catechism’s understanding of the phrase is the one that is most solidly grounded in the Bible. (For reasons of space I cannot argue this now but compare Psalm 16:10 with Peter’s use of it in his sermon on Pentecost in Acts 2: 24-32.) If He descended into hell means what our Catechism says it means, then of what comfort is it to us? Part of the pain of death for us is that our bodies are souls are separated from each, that we and our human loved ones are absent from one another, that our bodies are laid in the ground, while our souls/spirits go to be with God while we await the resurrection. This is called the “intermediate state,” and the phrase tells us that Christ, too, has experienced not only the moment of death but what follows death until the Last Day.
Then, what about the holy Catholic church? We do not confess that we believe in “the Roman Catholic Church” (which may or may not be an expression of the church – but that is for another day). The word “holy” means “set apart, different” as when the Old Testament called Israel “holy.” “Catholic” means “universal.” The holy church is universal in that it includes the church through all the ages, includes those saints in heaven (“the church triumphant”) and those on earth (“the church militant. It includes the true confessing church of all times and places. In other words, the church is much bigger than our time, or our earth, or our place on the earth.
The Heidelberg Catechism explains it well: “What you do you believe concerning ‘the holy Catholic church’? I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”
On the Lord’s Day stand with all your brothers and sisters in the congregation, with all of who have gone before you, and with all the church throughout whole world and confess the faith of the Church with understanding, confidence, and joy.