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Sunday, July 20, 2008

What Christians Believe

What do Christians believe? That's a good question, and the answer, whatever it may be, will certainly not please everyone. However, let me have a stab at it.

C. S. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, a twentieth-century attempt to explain what Christians believe. He attempted, I believe successfully, to consider the beliefs that are common among Christians.

The Wikipedia tells us that a creed is "a statement or confession of belief," and that such creeds are often part of a religious service.

Two of the most important creeds in the history of Christianity are The Apostles' Creed, and, later in history, The Nicene Creed, which was developed from the earlier one. Many Christian denominations use one or the other of these creeds in their services, and one or the other (or both) of them are often used as a distillation of the beliefs common to Christians.

Here is the 1975 Ecumenical version of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic* and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
*Protestants take this word as meaning "universal," in other words the church world-wide, all the people who worship Christ as savior and Lord.

These 30 or so lines do, indeed, cover what strikes me as essential Christian beliefs, and I would say that if a person does not believe these things, such a person should not be called a Christian.

There are some problems, however.

One of those problems has to do with the acceptance, or use, of one or the other of the two most important creeds by evangelical churches. There is little such use. Why? Not, I think, because evangelicals don't agree with the creeds. But evangelicals emphasize the Bible as the source of God's revelation, and these two creeds are not biblical. They were written after the last book of the Bible was written. It is also true that the creeds only speak of what Christians believe about God. They don't speak of how we know about God -- the means of revelation -- very much. True, the Nicene Creed does mention the scriptures, and could be taken as implying that its entirety comes from the Bible, but it doesn't say that.

It is also true that evangelicals largely have distanced themselves from formal rituals in worship, except, of course, that we have our own rituals. There is, I think, a fear that reciting the same thing, however good it may be, over and over, tends to turn it into a meaningless ritual. That danger is real. However, my personal view is that there is an even larger danger in not reminding ourselves of our core beliefs, perhaps not at every service, but often.

In evangelical services, the sermon is usually the high point. In other churches, the recitation of one of the two great creeds often is the high point.

Another problem with the Nicene Creed above is that it says nothing about Christian behavior. To state the obvious, it says nothing at all about sex, power, or money (and a lot of other things).

(Paragraph Added March 24, 2015) N. T. Wright, in his How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, points out that the creeds leave out the entire history of Israel, and say nothing about the Kingdom that Christ established, while He was here in His human incarnation. He says that the main purpose of the creeds was to establish orthodoxy -- to settle controversial points, not to set forth a summary of Christian truth.

In subsequent posts, I hope to consider the issue raised in the previous paragraph. I also hope to consider the question of Christian tolerance, or intolerance -- must Christians believe that those from other faiths cannot be saved from eternal death? (The next post, on the matter of behavior, is here.)

I have also posted on "Evidence of God's Reality."

Thanks for reading.

Added January 10, 2018: In relation to the paragraph added in March, 2015, see this post, from the He Lives blog, which goes into detail on how various statements in the creeds were meant to combat heresies.


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

I wanted to comment on one point, and bear in mind my experience as a Christian is as a Lutheran: we see ourselves as the original Protestant "Evangelicals" (where "Evangelical" means "Good News" not "sans liturgy").

You said: [The creeds] don't speak of how we know about God -- the means of revelation -- very much. True, the Nicene Creed does mention the scriptures, and could be taken as implying that its entirety comes from the Bible, but it doesn't say that.

I would respectfully submit to you that the Nicene Creed spends more time on "how we know about God" than any other topic; and that "how we know about God" is primarily Christ and secondarily the Bible as it testifies to Christ. The Word of God is, first and foremost, Christ.

You're likely aware that when the Nicene Creed was written (first edition in use for several decades, without most of the Holy Spirit article), the books of the Bible were still up for debate. It was by no means certain that Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Revelation were going to make the cut. A few other books (now "in") had smaller question marks in their columns, e.g. 2 John.

I don't want to get too bogged down into the history of the canon; suffice it to say that speaking of a canon at that point would be an anachronism, and that how we know about God is through what the apostles passed along about Christ, who is the Good News. How the information was passed along -- Scripture -- came to be important as the apostolic witness and memories died out other than their writings.

My overall point is that people can look at Scripture all day long and not know God if they don't see that the actual means of knowing God is Christ, and that Christ is known from the ancient witnesses to him left by the apostles. Christ is the means of revelation; Scriptures just record that. I don't think we can afford to enshrine Scripture. And I speak as someone who has no fondness for traditions set above / against Scripture.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Weekend Fisher.

Ah, your gender has been (I think) revealed.

I think you are right on all points.

I was trying to defend the non-use of the Nicene Creed (or the Apostles' Creed) by evangelicals. One reason is our distaste for ritual (unless it's our own brand of ritual, of course). The other is our reliance on scripture alone (some would say bibliolatry) ad the means of revelation, or at least the only one we emphasize.

Most evangelicals would like a creed which says something about the Bible, and most wouldn't know (or perhaps even care about) what you said about the canon and history.

Thanks again.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

I'm less concerned whether the neo-evangelicals would want the Bible mentioned, more concerned whether they would see the Bible *rather than Christ* as the means of revelation.

What do you think are the odds of the neo-evangelicals recognizing Christ over, above, and before the Bible, and as the point of the Bible? Would they go for a creed like that? (Assuming they'd go for a creed at all ...)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Well, the fairly obvious response is "How do we know Christ, and about Christ?" Answer: from the Bible.

Thanks. These are deep waters, of course.

Weekend Fisher said...

I do believe we're in a loop now, if the position is that we know about Christ from the Bible and the Bible from the Bible and the church from the Bible ... :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Well, sure, it's a loop, or something, and the tradition of the church should also speak to us.