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Why We Say the Apostles’ Creed

Monday, October 29th, 2012

For Reformation Sunday, I was asked to share about why we say the Apostles’ Creed. Here’s what I said:

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been learning the Apostles’ Creed as a congregation. And I’ve been asked on this Reformation Sunday, when all the pieces will hopefully come together, to explain why we say the Creed, what it means, why it matters. It occurred to me as I was preparing that explaining the Apostles’ Creed won’t do much good if we can’t agree about the value of creeds in general. So let’s take a step back.

For many evangelical Christians, like us, the great enemy of the faith is not naturalism or secular media or humanism. The great threat is religion. Time and again as a child I was reminded that authentic Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. It’s me and Jesus, unmediated and uncomplicated.

Religion, by contrast, is a collection of human traditions, established for any number of reasons, that make it harder for people to have a relationship with God. Religion, some say, is what Jesus came to abolish. He scolded the religious leaders of his day because they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Mt. 23:4). Jesus overthrew religion when he taught, “You have heard it said…but I say… .” Jesus brought life where religion had brought spiritual slavery and death.

And many of us fear creeds grease the slippery slope to religion.

Well, the Reformers we remember this morning were as aware of the dangers of “religion” as anyone. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin and, before them, other famous Johns like Wycliffe and Hus, wanted their fellow Christians, priests and pope and pauper alike, to abandon the traditions of men—like the doctrine of purgatory and the sale of indulgences and superstitious traditions related to the Mass—and return to the clear, simple teaching of Scripture on matters of faith, behavior, and worship. They wanted to chip away the plaque of human tradition until they found the gleaming, precious pearl of biblical Christian faith beneath.

So it may come as a surprise to know that to accomplish this, the Reformers found the church’s early creeds invaluable, especially the Apostles’ Creed. In his book The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin followed the outline of the Creed when he addressed key doctrine of Christianity: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He didn’t believe the Creed was actually written by the twelve apostles, as many had claimed before him. But that didn’t matter. He felt it recorded their teaching faithfully. In fact, he wrote that the creed “gives, in clear and succinct order, a full statement of our faith, and in every thing which it contains is sanctioned by the sure testimony of Scripture” (II.18). That’s quite an endorsement! Especially from one of the men who insisted that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice. In other words, for Calvin, even though the creed was written by human beings like you and me, the words of the Creed contained the clear teaching of the Bible. So all of us who fear elevating the teachings of human beings over the teaching of Scripture can rest assured. Saying “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and so forth is the same as claiming, “I believe what the Bible teaches about God.”

Of course another important commitment of the Reformers was that the Church be always reforming (semper reformanda). The creed can help us here, too. For all our talk about submitting only to the Scriptures, most of us don’t actually spend as much time reading the Bible as we should. Consequently, it’s easy to forget what the Bible teaches us about God and our relationship to him. The Creed can be a helpful reminder of the basic commitments of the faith. For example, when we grow lazy in our discipleship but comfort ourselves with the thought that Jesus is cool and groovy and doesn’t want to stress us out, the creed reminds us he “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” and “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” And for us Presbyterians who do everything rightly and in order, by committee, and by the book (even if we have to write the book first), the creed reminds us that we believe “in the Holy Spirit.” And that should make a difference in our ministry.

For sixteen hundred years, Christians have relied on the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the basic outline of the Christian faith. They have used it as a guide for prayer. Reciting it together today reminds us of the “communion of saints” to which it testifies and orients our vision forward to the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” that is our hope. And that’s no empty manmade religious doctrine. It’s the consummation of our relationship with Jesus Christ, God’s “only son our Lord.”

Ministry in the Spirit in the Twenty-first Century

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Way back in 1768, a little-known Baptist pastor named Isaac Backus denounced a growing trend in preaching. By his day it had become quite fashionable to read sermons from a manuscript, instead of preaching extemporaneously. This, Backus argued, was an “upstart notion,” a newfangled approach to an old task. And it had two strikes against it. To begin with, “the reading of sermons is a dull way of preaching.” (He didn’t feel the need to elaborate that point; it just is.) Second, and more troubling, reading sermons from the pulpit made it easy for pastors to plagiarize. Though “people may know that their minister reads other men’s works [in the study] yet how can they ever know when he reads his own [in the pulpit]?”

If we stop there, Backus’s warning seems like a sampling from the fat folder titled, “The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same.” Plagiarizing sermons has only become cheaper and easier with the availability of illustrations, outlines, and full sermon manuscripts online. And the secret’s out. Suzanne Sataline published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the plague of pastoral plagiarism in 2006, which brought the issue into the light. Since then Out of Ur, Tim Challies, Ed Stetzer, the Gospel Coalition folks (and many others) have addressed the issue from a number of angles.

The deeper, more fundamental issue Backus was concerned about was that reading from a manuscript—even if you wrote it—indicated a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit. “The method of true ministers,” he countered, “always was to preach by faith.” By this he meant that a preacher ought to meditate on the word of God, give himself wholly to it (1 Timothy 4:15) and then trust that “it will be given you in that hour what you are to say” (Matthew 10:19).

In fact, Backus suspected that a lot of what ministers did was intended to “supply the want of the Spirit of God.” If the Holy Spirit didn’t speak to you through the scriptures, you could always ramble on about what some key word meant in the original Greek, cite a few religious authorities, and dismiss before anyone noticed that you didn’t have anything relevant to say.

Church was simpler then. Folks sang a few hymns and heard a word from the Lord (hopefully). I have to wonder if much of what we’ve added to the churchgoing experience since then might serve to “supply the want of the Spirit of God.” Maybe I should put that another way, because I don’t mean the rock bands and fog machines (although those do immediately come to mind). I’m privileged to travel a bit and meet pastors of all denominations, and I find that on the whole, ministers are looking for the right strategy or curriculum or institutional philosophy to propel their ministry to the next level. Or at the very least keep the doors open. What I don’t hear is pastors asking how to rely on the Holy Spirit to take charge of their ministry.

Now, I heeded the advice of Brother Backus above when I was new pastor. More than once I studied a passage, prayed, and headed to the pulpit hoping that the right words would come when I needed them. These were not positive experiences. And I see more value in the original biblical languages than he did. But I feel he’s on to something worth considering. How do we know when we’re trying to compensate for the absence of the Spirit of God? And how do we avoid the problem before it starts and, as Paul put it, “keep in step with the Spirit?”

Sister Aimee on Broadway

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Aimee Semple McPherson, known as “Sister Aimee” in her lifetime, may have been America’s first mega celebrity. Think

"Stop! You are breaking God's law!"

Oprah squared—and before cable or Twitter. Comparisons to Oprah are apt, considering (if I remember correctly) Sister Aimee was the first woman in America to own her own broadcasting company. With origins in the Salvation Army, she was a light-up-the-stage actress/evangelist in Los Angeles with a heart for the poor and a passion for the limelight. She married and divorced several times, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and reappeared a megastar.

Anyway, Kathie Lee Gifford has written a musical about Sister Aimee. I’m surprised no one’s done this yet, and I think it’s about time. You can learn more about the production here.

If you’re interested in knowing more about McPherson, I recommend two books. The first is Edith Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister looks at Sister Aimee’s religious background in Pentecostalism and the Salvation Army. It’s very well done. Another is Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Sutton’s book focuses more on the cultural side of things, including issues of gender, media, and popular culture. Full disclosure, I haven’t read Sutton’s book but I think I’ll start it today.

Faith and Justice in the Early Church (The End)

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

The early Christians didn’t distinguish between theology and practice.

These first three hundred years, during which the church was so radically countercultural, were also crucial years for the development of Christian theology. It was during this time that theologians articulated what the Bible teaches about the two natures (divine and human) of Christ. It described the relationships between the persons of the Trinity and wrote the first book about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. But these activities were not undertaken by different groups. There wasn’t a faction of “thinkers” on the one hand and “doers” on the other. And the church didn’t engage in these behaviors because they were motivated by a certain political or social agenda. Rater, they believed their conduct was the direct application of the gospel.

For example, Basil of Caesarea, who helped articulate the nature of the Trinity, connected his beliefs about Jesus directly with care for the poor. God and Jesus share one nature. And humans are made in God’s image. That means that regardless of ethnicity, class, and gender we all stand before God as one human race. We are required to care for all children of God, whether they are Christians or not. That’s pretty radical stuff.

As for the confidence Christians had in the face of persecution, the theologian Athanasius attributed this to faith in the Resurrection. Unlike pagan Romans, “All the disciples of Christ despise death,” he wrote. “They take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead.” Christians could care for the plagued and refuse to hail caesar because they didn’t fear death. This set them apart from their pagan neighbors, to be sure. And it motivated their conduct in the empire.

Conclusion

For the last 50 years or so, American Christians have been fighting for influence and input in American culture. In more recent years, we have lamented the declining impact Christianity appears to have on society at large. Churches strive to be culturally relevant in their worship and communication styles. We lobby for policies and legislation that will enforce biblical principles and values. For the first three hundred years or so, Christians approached these issues very differently. Of course we can’t simply mimic the early church. There are many important differences between the world they lived in and ours. Christians couldn’t expect to be represented in Congress by elected officials. Only citizens could depend on the state to protect their rights; and only a small percentage of the people who lived in the Roman empire were full-fledged citizens.

In other words, applying the example of the early church might be complicated. More to the point, the example of the early Christians can be uncomfortable. They were unflinching and uncompromising in their language and actions. But their perspectives and principles can be enormously helpful to us as we continue to learn how to live as “strangers in a strange land.” Their example compels us to take a close look at our convictions and decide whether we are as committed to bring our beliefs and behaviors in line and put our faith in action in a way that truly makes an impact.

This article originally appeared at ChristianBibleStudies.com. I’ve broken it into several pieces here.

Faith and Justice in the Early Church (Part 3)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The early Christians did many things we now rely upon the government to do.

What really led the Romans to fear Christians was not anything they did wrong but something important they did right. Welfare was not a value in the Roman Empire. But it was for Christians. Christians regularly and consistently cared for the poor—both Christian and non-Christian. One Roman emperor, Julian, noted that this care for the poor was one thing that made the Christian religion compelling. “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase unbelief of the pagan gods? For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Christians support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

The early Christians were also pro-life, and this played out in their commitment to adopt unwanted children. A Roman child was not part of the family until he or she was accepted by the father. If he didn’t want the child, it was discarded: put outside to be killed by starvation, weather, or wild animals. Christians regularly adopted these children and raised them as their own.

Additionally, the early Christians were committed to caring for the sick. A devastating plague decimated the population of the empire in the mid second century. Estimates put the death toll at nearly five million. Remarkably, more Christians than pagans survived the epidemic. This is because Romans were often afraid to care for their sick; they feared catching the contagious disease themselves. So, like their unwanted children, they would leave their unwanted loved ones to die alone. Christians, by contrast, would care for their sick. They didn’t fear sickness or death. And as a result of their care, many of sick Christians survived the epidemic.

Stayed tuned for part 4. If you just can’t wait, you can read the rest here.