Ancient Christian Creeds

Article: John Gill, the rule of faith and baptist catholicity by David Rathel (original source here)

BAPTIST CATHOLICITY AND BAPTIST HISTORY

I recently read a Baptist theologian bemoan the fact that every systematic theology he read by a Baptist author featured no serious engagement with the great tradition. This theologian further stated that every lecture he attended while a student at a Baptist seminary was similarly deficient. I cannot speak for his experience, but I suspect he is not the first person to make such claims. Baptists are not exactly known for their catholicity.

One can fortunately find in the history of our movement examples to the contrary. The Orthodox Creed used by the General Baptists commended the Apostles’ Creed as well as the Athanasian Creed, and numerous Baptist doctrinal statements have employed the Trinitarian grammar provided by the Patristic Era. The church covenant still in use at the New Road Baptist Church in Oxford, England, reads, “We denominate ourselves a Protestant Catholic Church of Christ.”

As we explore how some of our Baptist forefathers appropriated the historic tradition, I believe that the works of John Gill, an eighteenth-century Particular Baptist minister, deserve more conversation than they presently receive. His writings display a surprising degree of interest in the larger Christian tradition. His use of the tradition serves as yet another instance of a spirit of catholicity present in the history of the Baptist movement to which contemporary advocates of Baptist catholicity can point. I offer here but one example from Gill’s work—his use of the rule of faith—to demonstrate this fact.

JOHN GILL AND THE RULE OF FAITH

Gill begins his systematic theology with a defense of the need to give an orderly account of theology, acknowledging that what he entitles “systematical divinity” has become unpopular during his lifetime. To offer a justification for such a project, he relies primarily on biblical texts that appear to present Christian convictions in an organized fashion—he highlights in particular Heb. 6:1–2—and references such works as the Apostles’ Creed, Tertullian’s use of the rule of faith, Origen’s On First Principles, and Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata as examples of earlier attempts to present Christian belief in an arranged manner. The tradition, he believes, serves to legitimize the task of systematizing theology by providing numerous historical precedents.

It is Gill’s reference to Tertullian’s use of the rule of faith—the regula fidei or the analogy of faith—that merits closer examination. He makes a significant digression at its mention. Gill explains the rule of faith is not the “sacred writings” though it is “perfectly agreeable to them;” it is “articles and heads of faith, or a summary of gospel truths” that one may collect from Scripture. He believes that texts such as Rom 8:30—one that contains a “rich summary and glorious compendium and chain of gospel truths”—and 1 Tim 1:16 give it legitimacy. In his judgment, they present or at least allude to an organized body of Christian teaching.

Gill believes that Tertullian’s paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed offers a helpful summary of the content of the rule of faith. While not making the rule of faith and Tertullian’s paraphrase synonymous, he does connect the two closely together when he writes that “such a set of principles these [i.e., the Creed], as, or what are similar to them and accord with the word of God, may be called the analogy of faith.” After quoting the Creed in full as it is presented in Tertullian’s On the Veiling of Virgins, he explains that, though the Creed was not authored by the apostles themselves, it was “agreeable to their doctrine, and therefore called theirs.” It was “received, embraced, and professed very early in the Christian church.” Continue reading

This We Believe

Article by by Carl R. Trueman (original source here)

Many evangelical Christians are instinctively suspicious of the whole idea of creeds and confessions, those set forms of words that certain churches have used throughout the ages to give concise expression to the Christian faith. For such people, the very idea of such extra-scriptural authoritative statements of faith seems to strike at the very heart of their belief that the Bible is the unique revelation of God, the all-sufficient basis for our knowledge of Him, and the supreme authority in matters of religion.

Certainly, creeds and confessions can be used in a way that undermines the orthodox Protestant view of scripture. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches invest such authority in the declaration of the institutional church that the church creeds can seem to carry an authority that is derived from the church’s approval rather than conformity with the teaching of Scripture. Evangelicals are right to want to avoid anything that smacks of such an attitude. Yet I would like to argue that creeds and confessions should fulfill a useful function in the life of the church and in the lives of individual believers.

First, Christians with no creed simply do not exist. To declare that one has “no creed but the Bible” is a creed, for the Bible nowhere expresses itself in such a fashion. It is an extra-biblical formulation. There are really only two types of Christian: those who are honest about the fact they have a creed and those who deny they have a creed yet possess one nonetheless. Ask any Christian what they believe, and, if they are at all thoughtful, they will not simply recite Bible texts to you; they will rather offer a summary account of what they see to be the Bible’s teaching in a form of words which are, to a greater or lesser extent, extra-biblical. All Christians have creeds — forms of words — that attempt to express in short compass great swathes of biblical teaching. And no one should ever see creeds and confessions as independent of Scripture; they were formulated in the context of elaborate biblical exegesis and were self-consciously dependent upon God’s unique revelation in and through Scripture.

Given this fact, the second point is that some Christians have creeds that have been tried and tested by the church over the centuries, while others have those that their pastor made up, or that they put together themselves. Now, there is no necessary reason why the latter should be inferior to the former; but, on the basis that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, there is surely no virtue in turning our backs on those forms of sound words that have done a good job for hundreds of years in articulating aspects of the Christian faith and facilitating its transmission from place to place and generation to generation. If you want to, say, reject the Nicene Creed, you are of course free to do so; but you should at least try to replace it with a formula that will do the job just as effectively for so many people for the next 1,500 years. If you cannot do so, perhaps modesty and gratitude, rather than iconoclasm, are the appropriate responses to the ancient creed.

Third, the creeds and confessions of the church offer us points of continuity with the church of the past. As I noted above, there is no need to reinvent Christianity every Sunday, and in an anti-historical, future-oriented age like ours, what more counter-cultural move can we as Christians make than to self-consciously identify with so many brothers and sisters who have gone before? Furthermore, while Protestants take justifiable pride in the fact that every believer has the right to read the Scriptures and has direct access to God in Christ, we should still acknowledge that Christianity is first and foremost a corporate religion. God’s means of working in history has been the church; the contributions of individual Christians have been great, but these all pale in comparison with God’s great work in and through the church as a whole. This holds good for theology as for any other area. The insights of individual teachers and theologians over the centuries have been profound, but nothing quite matches the corporate wisdom of the godly when gathered together in the great councils and assemblies in the history of the church.

This brings me to my fourth point: Creeds and confessions generally focus on what is significant. The early creeds, such as the Apostles’ and the Nicene are very brief and deal with the absolute essentials. Yet this is true even of the more elaborate statements of faith, such as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Indeed, when you look at the points of doctrine that these various documents cover, it is difficult to see what could be left out without abandoning something central and significant. Far from being exhaustive statements of faith, they are summaries of the bare essentials. As such, they are singularly useful.

Evangelicals should love the great creeds and confessions for all of the above reasons. Yet we should ultimately follow them only so far as they make sense of Scripture, but it is surely foolish and curmudgeonly to reject one of the primary ways in which the church has painstakingly transmitted her faith from age to age.

Why do Reformed churches use creeds and confessions?

Short article by Joe Vusich

1) They help Christians make sense of the Bible by highlighting what is important and summarizing its essential message (if the Bible is the world, the creeds and confessions are the road maps).

2) They help the faithful memorize the essential beliefs of the Christian faith (especially regarding the work of the Triune God to save us).

3) They promote universal and apostolic unity (connect us to the past and to other churches by summarizing what true Christians around the world have confessed since the days of the apostles, not just what we believe in our local congregations).

4) They provide specificity to our faith and help distinguish us from false teachers and sects (the original purpose of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds).

5) They provide structure for Christians to publicly confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (the original purpose of the Old Roman Creed, which eventually expanded to become the Apostles’ Creed).

6) They are useful for apologetics (equip Christians to give succinct answers for the hope that is within them).

7) They delimit church power (establish where the doctrinal authority of the church begins and ends, and make that authority transparent to all).

8) They clarify the content of our faith to those who may ask (“these are formal summaries of what we believe and teach”).

9) They provide distilled, well-tested theological judgments that fence our thinking and help us not to stray from the biblical faith.

10) Confessing creeds is a biblical practice. The Old Testament saints daily confessed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and the New Testament church was founded on Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-18). Early Christian churches began formulating faithful summary statements of the faith even while the apostles were still alive; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16.

Why Creeds?

sproul877Article by RC Sproul: Avoiding Theological Anarchy (original source while the creeds are norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”).

Historically, Christian creeds have included everything from brief affirmations to comprehensive statements. The earliest Christian creed is found in the New Testament, which declares, “Jesus is Lord.” The New Testament makes a somewhat cryptic statement about this affirmation, namely, that no one can make the statement except by the Holy Spirit. What are we to understand by this? On the one hand, the New Testament tells us that people can honor God with their lips while their hearts are far from Him. That is to say, people can recite creeds and make definitive affirmations of faith without truly believing those affirmations. So, then, why would the New Testament say that no one can make this confession save by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps it was because of the cost associated with making that creedal statement in the context of ancient Rome.

The loyalty oath required by Roman citizens to demonstrate their allegiance to the empire in general and to the emperor in particular was to say publicly, “Kaisar Kurios,” that is, “Caesar is lord.” In the first-century church, Christians bent over backward to be obedient to civil magistrates, including the oppressive measures of Caesar, and yet, when it came to making the public affirmation that Caesar is lord, Christians could not do so in good conscience. As a substitute for the phrase, “Caesar is lord,” the early Christians made their affirmation by saying, “Jesus is Lord.” To do that was to provoke the wrath of the Roman government, and in many cases, it cost the Christian his life. Therefore, people tended not to make that public affirmation unless they were moved by the Holy Spirit to do so. The simple creed, “Jesus is Lord,” or more full statements, such as the Apostles’ Creed give an outline of basic, essential teachings. The creeds summarize New Testament content.

The creeds also used that summary content to exclude the heretics of the fourth century. In the affirmation of the Nicene Creed, the church affirmed categorically its belief in the deity of Christ and in the doctrine of the Trinity. These affirmations were seen as essential truths of the Christian faith. They were essential because without inclusion of these truths, any claim to Christianity would be considered a false claim.

At the time of the Reformation, there was a proliferation of creeds as the Protestant community found it necessary, in the light and heat of the controversy of that time, to give definitive statements as to what they believed and how their faith differed from the Roman Catholic Church’s theology. Rome itself added her creedal statements at the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century as a response to the Protestant movement. But each Protestant group, such as the Lutherans, the Swiss Reformed, and Scottish Reformed, found it necessary to clarify the truths that they were affirming. This was made necessary, not only because of disagreements within Reformed parties, but also to clarify the Protestant position against frequent misrepresentations set forth by their Roman Catholic antagonists.

The seventeenth-century confessional statement known as the Westminster Confession is one of the most precise and comprehensive creedal statements growing out of the Reformation. It is a model of precision and biblical orthodoxy. However, because of its length and comprehensive dimension, it is difficult to find two advocates of the Westminster Confession who agree on every single precise point. Because of that, churches that use the Westminster Confession or other such confessions, usually limit requirements of adherence by an acknowledgment of “the system of doctrine contained within.” These later Protestant creeds not only intended to affirm what they regarded as essentials to Christianity, but specifically to clarify the details of the particular religious communion that would use such comprehensive confessions of faith.

In our day, there has been a strong antipathy emerging against confessions of any stripe or any degree. On the one hand, the relativism that has become pervasive in modern culture eschews any confession of absolute truth. Not only that, we have also seen a strong negative reaction against the rational and propositional nature of truth. Creedal statements are an attempt to show a coherent and unified understanding of the whole scope of Scripture. In that sense, they are brief statements of what we historically have called “systematic theology.” The idea of systematic theology assumes that everything that God says is coherent and not contradictory. So, though these creeds are not created out of pure rational speculation, nevertheless, they are written in such a way as to be intelligible and understood by the mind. Without such confessions, theological anarchy reigns in the church and in the world.

The Ligonier Statement on Christology

In all good conscience I am happy to affirm along with its affirmations and denials.

Firstly, some introductory words from Dr. R. C. Sproul:

Who is Jesus? Nearly every adult person has formed some opinion of Jesus. These opinions may be superficial, uninformed, or downright heretical. The truth about Jesus, not mere opinion, matters . . . and it matters eternally.

Those who bear the name Christian profess to follow Christ as His disciples. They hold a Christology—a doctrine of Christ—that reflects their view of Christ. This Christology may be articulated implicitly or explicitly. It may represent the depth of biblical revelation and historic Christian reflection on Scripture, or it may be novel and disconnected from God’s Word. But no professing Christian lacks a Christology.

Since following Christ is central to Christianity, the church has labored for centuries to proclaim the Christ of history and Scripture, not the Christ of our imaginations. In such historic statements of faith such as the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession, Christians have articulated the biblical teaching on Christ.

Today these statements are often neglected and misunderstood, resulting in widespread confusion regarding the person and work of Christ. For the glory of Christ and the edification of His people, the Ligonier Statement on Christology seeks to encapsulate the historic, orthodox, biblical Christology of the Christian church in a form that is simple to confess, useful to help teach the church’s enduring faith, and able to serve as a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together. This statement is not a replacement for the church’s historic creeds and confessions but a supplement that articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what He has done. May Christ use it for His kingdom.

In the name of God’s Son incarnate, our Prophet, Priest, and King,

R.C. Sproul
Spring 2016

THE LIGONIER STATEMENT ON CHRISTOLOGY

We confess the mystery and wonder
of God made flesh
and rejoice in our great salvation
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

With the Father and the Holy Spirit,
the Son created all things,
sustains all things,
and makes all things new.
Truly God,
He became truly man,
two natures in one person.

He was born of the Virgin Mary
and lived among us.
Crucified, dead, and buried,
He rose on the third day,
ascended to heaven,
and will come again
in glory and judgement.

For us,
He kept the Law,
atoned for sin,
and satisfied God’s wrath.
He took our filthy rags
and gave us
His righteous robe.

He is our Prophet, Priest, and King,
building His church,
interceding for us,
and reigning over all things.

Jesus Christ is Lord;
we praise His holy Name forever.

Amen.

Affirmations and Denials

Explanatory Essay

The Guardrail of the Creeds

“While never rising to the same authority as sacred Scripture (which alone is the word of God), the ancient creeds and confessions of the Church have served the people of God through the ages as concise and precise summaries of what the Bible teaches on very vital matters. These include, amongst others, the doctrine of God, the person and work of Christ, how a man is justified in God’s sight as well as the doctrine of last things (eschatology). On today’s Dividing Line, guest host John Samson teaches on the practical value of the ancient Creeds and Confessions of the Church.”

Sound Words

is first known as the Word — the one whom the Father has sent to communicate and to accomplish our redemption. We are saved because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Believers are then assigned the task of telling others about the salvation that Christ has brought, and this requires the use of words. We tell the story of Jesus by deploying words, and we cannot tell the story without them. Our testimony, our teaching, and our theology all require the use of words. Words are essential to our worship, our preaching, our singing, and our spiritual conversation. In other words, words are essential to the Christian faith and central in the lives of believers.

As Martin Luther rightly observed, the church house is to be a “mouth house” where words, not images or dramatic acts, stand at the center of the church’s attention and concern. We live by words and we die by words.

Truth, life, and health are found in the right words. Lies, disaster, and death are found in the wrong words. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” [1 Timothy 6:3-5]

Later, Paul will instruct Timothy that sound words come to us in a revealed pattern. “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” [2 Timothy 1:13-14]

Theological education is a deadly serious business. The stakes are so high. A theological seminary that serves faithfully will be a source of health and life for the church, but an unfaithful seminary will set loose a torrent of trouble, untruth, and sickness upon Christ’s people. Inevitably, the seminaries are the incubators of the church’s future. The teaching imparted to seminarians will shortly be inflicted upon congregations, where the result will be either fruitfulness or barrenness, vitality or lethargy, advance or decline, spiritual life, or spiritual death.

Sadly, the landscape is littered with theological institutions that have poorly taught and have been poorly led. Theological liberalism has destroyed scores of seminaries, divinity schools, and other institutions for the education of the ministry. Many of these schools are now extinct, even as the churches they served have been evacuated. Others linger on, committed to the mission of revising the Christian faith in order to make peace with the spirit of the age. These schools intentionally and boldly deny the pattern of sound words in order to devise new words for a new age — producing a new faith. As J. Gresham Machen rightly observed almost a century ago, we do not really face two rival versions of Christianity. We face Christianity on the one hand and, on the other hand, some other religion that selectively uses Christian words, but is not Christianity.

How does this happen? Rarely does an institution decide, in one comprehensive moment of decision, to abandon the faith and seek after another. The process is far more dangerous and subtle. A direct institutional evasion would be instantly recognized and corrected, if announced honestly at the onset. Instead, theological disaster usually comes by means of drift and evasion, shading and equivocation. Eventually, the drift accumulates into momentum and the school abandons doctrine after doctrine, truth claim after truth claim, until the pattern of sound words, and often the sound words themselves, are mocked, denied, and cast aside in the spirit of theological embarrassment.

As James Petigru Boyce, founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued, “It is with a single man that error usually commences.” When he wrote those words in 1856, he knew that pattern by observation of church history. All too soon, he would know this sad truth by personal observation.

By the time Southern Baptists were ready to establish a theological seminary, many schools for the training of ministers had already been lost to theological liberalism. Included among these were both Harvard and Yale, even as Yale had been envisioned, at least in part, as a corrective to Harvard. Theological concessions in theological seminaries had already weakened the Baptists of the North. Drawing upon the lessons of the past, Southern Baptists were determined to establish schools bound by covenant and constitution to a confession of faith — to the pattern of sound words.

Confessional seminaries require professors to sign a statement of faith, designed to safeguard by explicit theological summary. The sad experience of fallen and troubled schools led Southern Baptists to require that faculty members must teach in accordance with the confession of faith, and not contrary to anything therein. Added to this were warnings against any private understanding with a professor, or any hesitation or mental reservation. Teachers in a confessional school not only pledge by sacred covenant to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the confession of faith, but to do so gladly , eagerly, and totally.

We are living in an anti-confessional age. Our society and its reigning academic culture are committed to individual autonomy and expression, as well as to an increasingly relativistic conception of truth. The language of higher education is overwhelmingly dominated by claims of academic freedom, rather than academic responsibility. In most schools, a confession of faith is an anathema, not just an anachronism. But, among us, a confession of faith must be seen as a gift and covenant. It is a sacred trust that guards revealed truths. A confession of faith never stands above the Bible, but the Bible itself mandates concern for the pattern of sound words. Continue reading

The Athanasian Creed

sproul83by R. C. Sproul:

Quicumque vult – this phrase is the title attributed to what is popularly known as the Athanasian Creed. It was often called the Athanasian Creed because for centuries people attributed its authorship to Athanasius, the great champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy during the crisis of the heresy of Arianism that erupted in the fourth century. That theological crisis focused on the nature of Christ and culminated in the Nicene Creed in 325. Though Athanasius did not write the Nicene Creed, he was its chief champion against the heretics who followed after Arius, who argued that Christ was an exalted creature but that He was less than God.

Athanasius died in 373 AD, and the epithet that appeared on his tombstone is now famous, as it captures the essence of his life and ministry. It read simply, “Athanasius contra mundum,” that is, “Athanasius against the world.” This great Christian leader suffered several exiles during the embittered Arian controversy because of the steadfast profession of faith he maintained in Trinitarian orthodoxy.
Though the name “Athanasius” was given to the creed over the centuries, modern scholars are convinced that the Athanasian Creed was written after the death of Athanasius. Certainly, Athanasius’ theological influence is embedded in the creed, but in all likelihood he was not its author.

The content of the Athanasian Creed stresses the affirmation of the Trinity in which all members of the Godhead are considered uncreated and co-eternal and of the same substance. In the affirmation of the Trinity the dual nature of Christ is given central importance. As the Athanasian Creed in one sense reaffirms the doctrines of the Trinity set forth in the fourth century at Nicea, in like manner the strong affirmations of the fifth-century council at Chalcedon in 451 are also recapitulated therein. As the church fought with the Arian heresy in the fourth century, the fifth century brought forth the heresies of monophysitism, which reduced the person of Christ to one nature, mono physis, a single theanthropic (God-man) nature that was neither purely divine or purely human. At the same time the church battled with the monophysite heresy, she also fought against the opposite view of Nestorianism, which sought not so much to blur and mix the two natures but to separate them, coming to the conclusion that Jesus had two natures and was therefore two persons, one human and one divine. Both the Monophysite heresy and the Nestorian heresy were clearly condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the church, reaffirming its Trinitarian orthodoxy, stated their belief that Christ, or the second person of the Trinity was vere homo and vere Deus, truly human and truly God. It further declared that the two natures in their perfect unity coexisted in such a manner as to be without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, wherein each nature retained its own attributes.

The Athanasian Creed reaffirms the distinctions found at Chalcedon, where in the Athanasian statement Christ is called, “perfect God and perfect man.” All three members of the Trinity are deemed to be uncreated and therefore co-eternal. Also following earlier affirmations, the Holy Spirit is declared to have proceeded both from the Father “and the Son.”

Finally, the Athanasian standards examined the incarnation of Jesus and affirmed that in the mystery of the incarnation the divine nature did not mutate or change into a human nature, but rather the immutable divine nature took upon itself a human nature. That is, in the incarnation there was an assumption by the divine nature of a human nature and not the mutation of the divine nature into a human nature.
The Athanasian Creed is considered one of the four authoritative creeds of the Roman Catholic Church, and again, it states in terse terms what is necessary to believe in order to be saved. Though the Athanasian Creed does not get as much publicity in Protestant churches, the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are affirmed by virtually every historic Protestant church.