Thursday, August 06, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 36

Yesterday's installment in this series elicited this comment from Elizabeth Mahlou:
Any reason you chose this creed instead of the Nicene Creed? I think the latter probably describes the Holy Spirit a little more. (I tend to prefer the Nicene Creed, but that is indeed a personal preference.) Thanks for the thoughts on interpretation.
I love the Nicene Creed and, in fact, we use it as opposed to the Apostles' Creed when we celebrate Holy Communion at Saint Matthew. (We regularly celebrate Communion on the first and third Sundays of every month and on festival days of the Church Year. Many Lutheran congregations now have Holy Communion every Sunday as well as on festival days.)

Elizabeth Mahlou is right in saying that the Nicene Creed is more extensive in its description of the work of the Holy Spirit. All three of its articles, each, like the Apostles' Creed, dealing with a Person of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are lengthier than the articles of the Apostles' Creed.

But there are several reasons I'm using the Apostles' Creed as a framework for exploring what the Bible teaches and the Church confesses when it comes to understanding the three Persons of God.

First: The Apostles' Creed is probably more widely known than the other Christian creeds. One day about thirty years ago, I was channel-surfing when I ran across Pat Robertson, a person for whose theology I have no particular liking, talking about the Apostles' Creed. That struck me as interesting because as a sort of charismatic Baptist, Robertson doesn't come from the historic mainstream Christian tradition where, for centuries, the Apostles' Creed has functioned as a kind of altar call, inviting new believers and old believers to confess their faith in the God ultimately revealed to the world in Jesus Christ.

Robertson, as I recall, portrayed the Apostles' Creed as a normative statement of Christian faith, something to which every Christian could easily subscribe. I think that he was right. (By the way, you may want to make note of the date because this may be the only time I have ever said that Robertson was right about something. See here and here.)

Robertson's use of the Apostles' Creed is testimony to how well known it is.

(It should be said though, that while the Apostles' Creed is probably the most widely known of the creeds, the Nicene is the one more widely accepted by more different Christian faith traditions.)

Second: The Apostles' Creed is the oldest of the three ecumenical creeds of the Church. (The verbose Athanasian Creed is rarely used, except when pastors want to torture their congregants or sometimes, as Holy Trinity Sunday tradition.)

Unlike most other creeds or the confessions of faith from different Christian bodies, the Apostles' Creed wasn't composed by a council brought together to resolve some theological dispute. It's a simple statement of faith rooted in the teachings of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. (The Athanasian Creed, dating back to the fifth or sixth century AD, was not evidently spawned by a controversy. But its length keeps it from widespread use, I think.) Most confessional documents in my Lutheran tradition were composed for the purpose of resolving differences of opinion, including The Augsburg Confession, The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord. More recently, the Barmen Declaration, composed by the eminent theologian Karl Barth, was a statement of Christian faith in opposition to the perversion of Biblical faith advanced by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement.

Although called the Apostles' Creed, the idea, first committed to paper by Rufinus in the fourth-century, that it was composed by the apostles of Jesus on the first Pentecost, is fanciful.

But the Creed is clearly rooted in the teachings of the apostles, all of it traceable to the Gospels and parts of which were already being used by second- and third-century Christians.

Third: The biggest reason for using the Apostles' Creed as the framework here is that I began this series using Martin Luther's Small Catechism as the roadmap. (A catechism is a short document, written in question-and-asnwer form, explaining the Christian faith or a particular tradition's understanding of the Christian faith. Luther, who lived from 1483 to 1546, wrote two catechisms. The Small Catechism, first published in 1529, was designed to help families review the basics of faith at the dinner table. Generations of Lutherans have used it as a framework for preparing young people to affirm their Baptism and publicly declare their intention to live for Jesus Christ in their adult lives. The Large Catechism, which Luther wrote shortly after the smaller document, was presented for the instruction of priests, who Luther found alarmingly ignorant of the Bible's revelation of God.)

The Small Catechism has six principle parts and a discussion of the Apostles' Creed is one of them.

While Luther and the Lutheran movement see the other two creeds among the foundational confessional documents that faithfully present the truths of the Bible, the simplicity and directness of the Apostles' Creed and its freedom from concern with specific theological controversies, making it very different from the Nicene Creed, probably explain why it has played so important a role in our confession of faith and in explanations of our faith.

Back to looking at the Holy Spirit tomorrow, I hope.

Read the Apostles' Creed
Read the Nicene Creed.
Read the Athanasian Creed.

By the way, here is what we ELCA Lutherans claim to believe about the faith. This confession of faith appears in the Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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