I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into 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 Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
Anyone reading this blog has likely said the above words of the Apostles Creed, or some linguistic variation of the same, countless times. Confusion about the line “He descended into hell” notwithstanding (That’s a conversation for another day!), Christians have affirmed and confessed the truths contained therein for centuries. Yet there can be a temptation to just recite the words mindlessly without giving thought to what they are declaring. What is the purpose? Is it just another liturgical box to check or are we publically confessing something meaningful?
It’s important to pause here and note that you may have heard the phrase “I have no creed, but the Bible”. On the surface this sounds plausible and commendable. After all, the Bible is the only inerrant, infallible, and inspired Word of God, whereas creeds are clearly not. However, if you were to ask a Presbyterian, a Mormon, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a Roman Catholic if they believed the Bible, all of them would answer yes. Yet each would have a very different interpretation of what the Bible says. It is here that we see the wisdom and benefit of creeds. They clearly articulate what an orthodox Christian believes to be true. While not an exhaustive statement of faith, they provide a key summary of how true Christianity differs not only from other monotheistic religions, but also from individuals and groups who would claim the name of Christ yet abandon and pervert the doctrines of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
It is as a result of this latter situation that the statements referred to as the Ecumenical Creeds were birthed. The creeds were the product of theologians gathering together in meetings called Ecumenical Councils to debate and resolve disputes over matters of doctrine. They include the aforementioned Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed (My personal favorite!), the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Each sought to further clarify orthodox belief and/or confront a specific heresy that had arisen at the time.
The Apostles Creed is believed to be the oldest of the creeds, dating back to the second or third century. The Nicene Creed was initially written in 325 AD and it was later expanded in 381 AD. Articulating a fuller understanding of the Trinity, it prevailed against heretical notions that Jesus was a created being, rather than eternally God Himself. Next up was the Chalcedonian Creed, sometimes referred to as the Definition of Chalcedon, in 451 AD. This creed served to combat false ideas about the human and divine natures of Christ. A half-century later came the Athanasian Creed, believed to be written in 500 AD. It continued to build upon the earlier creeds in its focus on fleshing out the doctrine of the Trinity and the mystery and majesty of Christ’s incarnation.
While the creeds provide a succinct overview of orthodox Christianity, there are confessions and catechisms that serve to unpack crucial truths of the faith in order to educate believers. Much like the creeds above, these are viewed as subordinate to Scripture, yet they contain rich explanations of doctrine. In the PCA, we hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith, The Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Collectively these are referred to as the Westminster Standards. Men who are candidates for ordination in the PCA must vow that they receive and adopt the confession and catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. Written in a question and answer format, the catechisms make for an easy way to learn about crucial tenets of the faith. The confession provides a deeper understanding of many aspects of faith and life. If you have a question about reformed theology, chances are the answer will be found somewhere in the Westminster Standards!
Moving from Westminster Abbey in London to the University of Heidelberg in Germany, we get the Heidelberg Catechism, which you may recall we studied as a church a few years ago. Also written in a question and answer format, it is divided into three sections covering The Misery of Man, The Redemption of Man, and The Gratitude Due from Man. It is clear, concise and comforting. If it has been a while since you’ve read this catechism, I would highly encourage you to revisit it.
This brief blog is just scratching the surface of creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Many other classics including The Belgic Confession, The Canons of Dort, and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith are all of great value (Full disclosure, as you might imagine the Baptist confession restricts baptism to professing believers, but Presbyterians will find that they agree with most everything else). More modern efforts include the New City Catechism and the Ligonier Statement on Christology. For you parents and grandparents, the Kid’s Quest First Catechism from Great Commission Publications is an outstanding resource to use with children…or adults for that matter, truth is truth after all!
So to circle back to the point of this blog, our robust reformed tradition has produced these creeds, confessions, and catechism to train believers for faith and life. They are not a replacement for the study of Scripture, nor were they meant to be. Yet they serve to unpack and explain the truths contained in Scripture. I commend all of the above for your personal and family study, you won’t be sorry!
Soli Deo Gloria!
For further study, see the following: