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.”