Here is a good question for a Bible-affirming Christian to ask himself: “Why should I study the creeds?”
In other words, “I believe in Jesus. I believe the Bible. I believe in what it says. I know I’m saved and I have a bright eternal future to look foward to. Why should I look to the past? Why should I concern myself with man-made formulations and decisions and writings that were put together centuries ago in a different time and place for different people — for reasons that no longer seem relevant to me?”
I’ll give you one good reason: because civilizations are built on them.
More to the point, because Western Civilization was built on them — meaning, the civilization you and I take for granted because it’s all we’ve ever known (you know, the one that so many who have enjoyed its benefits and advantages are quick to vilify), is historically founded on the ancient creeds and doctrinal formulations that were put together during the earliest centuries of the Christian Church to defend against her mortal enemies, and which were given to strengthen the growing society of believers and prepare them for the task of building a new social order, a new civilization to replace the one that was crumbling and disintegrating around them.
I wasn’t always convinced of this myself.
Having grown up Roman Catholic, I was used to creeds. Mainly, the Nicene. We said the Nicene Creed every Sunday at mass. Its words always made a profound impression on me. I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And that’s just the first line! By the time I recited the last line, the final affirmation — I look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the Life of the world to come. Amen. — I knew that I had just publicly recommitted myself, along with the rest of the congregation, to upholding the entirety of the crucial fundamentals of the historic Christian faith.
Corporate, public statements of faith are a powerful thing.
By the time I graduated from Catholic grade school and went on to atheistic, anti-Christian public high school and junior college, religious creeds and professions of faith became a thing of the past. Their profound impressions had worn off. At least for a while.
When I finally came around to personally embracing what I had so many times publicly stated as a child that I believed — the basic tenets of the Gospel and of the Christian faith — my newly-rekindled belief in Christ over the next few years began to move in a decidedly different direction: away from creeds and councils and “historic” Christianity.
‘Grounded’ in Scripture
You see, I became a “Bible bigot.”
What’s a Bible bigot? John Wesley said it best.
“Nothing but the Bible, God’s Word, for me!”
Sounds admirable. Even exemplary.
Funny thing is, I didn’t practice what I preached. (I’m not sure the Rev. Wesley did, either!) I didn’t “follow it in all things, great and small.” How could I when my newly-minted anti-nomianism and hyper-animosity toward anything resembling the dead, denominational “Churchianity” that I had abandoned all those years ago, was at a fever pitch?
My “New Testament” faith couldn’t possibly turn to Old Testament laws and principles — or (heaven forbid) ancient “Romish” councils and creeds and outdated statements of man-inspired religious convictions and preferences — for scripturally sound guidance let alone authoritative governance.
It was the fundamentalist non-war cry ringing in my ears: “No creed but Christ. No law but love!”
Can you relate?
Back to the Future
Then along came Calvin. Into my life. The Puritans. The Reformers. The Westminster Confession of Faith. Historic, orthodox Protestant Christianity. Rushdoony. North. Sutton. Gentry. Chilton. Jordan. Bahnsen. “Christian Reconstruction.” “Theonomy.”
I soon shed the stifling cocoon of my former “Bible-believing” self. My Christian worldview took to flight. Apocalyptic, end-is-near, pessimistic pietism gave way to biblical blue skies and scripturally-grounded eschatological optimism.
Eventually, the creeds and councils and theological decisions of the early church to me became the blood, sweat, and tears and vital, living legacy of my spiritual forbears, my ancient brethren in the faith. Valiant, doctrinal defense of the faith was the arena in which they fought, and many died. They weren’t perfect. But, then neither are we! And yet the church progresses. The faith advances. The kingdom proceeds. The truth stands.
Why study the creeds?
Well, because we owe it to our spiritual forbears. It is the blood, sweat and tears of a vibrant theological legacy they have bequeathed to us! We also owe it to our civilization, whose very life is built on them, and whose very survival depends on the preservation and revitalization of that legacy.
So, let’s move forward.
How Firm a Foundation
I start with Rushdoony’s Preface, which he wrote in 1998, a full thirty years after the original publication (1968) of Foundations of Social Order.
Here, he says that the critical theme in all of his writings is the integral relationship between the theological doctrines of the church and the civic health and life of the society around it. When doctrine and theology are abstracted from life, the result is disaster and evil. The loss of sound theology in the church leads to decay in the Christian life.
And when the early church was busy “hammering out definitions of doctrines” in its creeds and councils, it was also “laying down the foundations of Christendom” along with them. I get the sense in reading the accounts later in the book that they knew they were doing much more than merely engaging in intellectual and theological debate over rhetoric and the nuances of pious prose. They knew there was much more at stake: their lives and their very societies.
Rushdoony cites legal scholar Harold J. Berman and his book, Law and Revolution, where Berman discusses how the doctrine of Christ’s atonement literally “reshaped” law and society, and also how “the present decline of that doctrine is leading to the death of Western civilization.”
Thus, Rushdoony concludes (he can do no other): “the foundation of true social order can only be in the triune God and His enscripturated truth and word.”
So, let’s take a look at one of those early foundations.
The Apostles’ Creed and Creedalism
Why even have a creed?
That’s a fundamental question you have to answer before you even begin to go to the trouble of putting one together. The apostles and the early church had the Gospels, the Epistles, ultimately the entire Old Testament and New Testament, plus letters, sermons, tracts and treatises that were composed, written, preached, copied and shared throughout the churches in the inhabited regions of the empire.
Lots of theological information being spread around, disseminated. In that environment, what purpose does a creed serve?
Here is the answer (from Rushdoony):
The creed is the door to the house of faith. It is the minimal statement of belief.
Moreover, he adds,
It is intensely personal.
“Intensely personal”? Creeds?
Rushdoony points out that creeds were written for the individual, who had to affirm every article of the creed as “his personal faith. This meant that a believer was held accountable for what he said he believed personally, rather than corporately. Here is where you find one of the peculiar differences between the Eastern church and the Western church, in the formulation of their creeds. The Eastern church (Greek) uses the first person plural “we”, while the Western church (Latin) uses the first person singular “I”.
Result: there’s less wiggle room in the Western church for an errant believer to walk back from what he said! But this also has resulted in the Western church being more open to reforms and more successful at summoning and marshalling the loyalty of the faithful.
Creeds were born of necessity. Churches were collective affairs. They still are. To join one, you had to least give assent to the basic tenets of what that church taught and believed. These basic tenets had to be boiled down from a large and growing body of literature (and opinion). Thus were born these brief, personal “statements of faith”.
The Apostles’ Creed was so called because it was written by early church leaders to briefly summarize apostolic teaching and preaching. There’s no exaggeration or misrepresentation in the title, though, since the authenticity of its doctrinal pedigree is based on the fact that “all of its articles are to be found in theological formulas that were current around A.D. 100.”
In other words, you can take it to the bank.
The only question is, which version would you take to the bank? The creed has gone thought several rewrites over the last two millennia. Rushdoony includes the texts of: The Old Roman Form (A.D. 390), The Received Form (A.D. 700), and an early English form (pre-1066)
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it.
Here is a typical modern version:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
*that is, the true Christian church of all times and all places
Rushdoony points out that the Apostles’ Creed is different from all other religious creeds (Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, humanist, etc.). Radically different. How? Instead of being a “body of ideas or claims concerning reality” (as all of those are), it “offers a synopsis of history.” In fact, the whole creed is a declaration concerning history.
He discusses the Creed further, along with some interesting quotes by Tertullian, Irenaeus, and the church historian Schaff, drawing attention to the fact that Schaff at the end of his excerpt declares, unequivocally, “Without a correct doctrine of creation there can be no true doctrine of redemption.” Thus, Rushdoony notes, all of the early creeds begin with God as creator, the starting point of all that follows.
Finally, he observes that “biblical creedalism” is passive: an assent by man that he is a recipient of God’s gracious act of redemption. Yet this gives man ground for “true activity”: to move in terms of true law, the canon of Scripture, “to exercise dominion over the earth in the name of the triune God. Christian creedalism is thus basic to Western activism, constitutionalism, and hope concerning history.”