Who Needs a Creed?
If you were to ask the question, "Who needs a creed?" the answer from many would probably be, "Not us!" Such ancient documents are seen at best as outdated and at worst an irrelevance. That may be the majority view, but that does not mean it is right. The church is always confessing its beliefs whether it realises it or not; the issue is whether or not they reflect belief that is authentically Christian. Let me suggest a number of ways the Apostles' Creed helps us in our understanding of Christianity that is biblical.
It Helps us Articulate the Christian Faith
The very notion of 'creed' immediately suggests the idea of expressing belief. In the barest sense it is an expression of what Christians believe; but historically there was more to it. The Latin verb credo from which 'creed' is derived carries a more personal sense. Hence several major creeds begin with the words "I believe in..." – in the sense of placing confidence in particular truths. The Apostles' Creed spells out the truths a person must believe in if he or she is to be a Christian.
Martin Luther commends the Apostles' Creed by saying, "Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement." The challenge it presents to the church in the 21st Century is to use it as a framework for expressing these time-honoured truths that are essential to Christian faith for the world of our day.
It Provides a Tool for Teaching the Faith
It has been said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the Apostles' Creed was the Alpha course of its day. That isn't far from the truth. Successive generations have come up with their own tools for presenting the main teachings of the Bible, but the Apostles' Creed is the mother of them all.
J I Packer's book, I Want to be a Christian (1977), is a fairly recent example of how the Creed can continue to function in a contemporary church setting as an effective teaching tool today. He uses it as a framework for exploring each tenet of faith it contains, in such a way as to lead young Christians to see the essence of what is meant, but at the same time providing pointers for those who want to dig deeper.
At an even simpler level, the simple practice of memorising the creed and reciting it publicly still has enormous merit – especially in an age when memorising anything is deemed passé. In the syllabus of what every child ought to learn by heart, the Apostles' Creed must take its place alongside the Books of the Bible, Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer as one of its core components.
The creed is a wonderfully versatile tool for instruction. It has a use with children, seekers, new converts and those who realise that no matter how long we may have been in the faith, familiar truths always have fresh depths to be explored.
It Makes us Focus on the Heart of the Faith
There is always a temptation to get lost in the minutiae of what the Bible teaches. Nowhere was that more damaging than in the church at Corinth and Paul's response to their distractedness is timeless. He reminds them of what he had taught them in the first place: "What I received I passed on to you as of first importance..." (1 Cor 15:3) – here are the core teachings that form the bedrock of the Christian Faith.
So as the Creed spells out the sum of saving knowledge for the early church, it takes us first and foremost to the God of the Bible in all his uniqueness and glory. His uniqueness lies in the fact that he is Trinity and his greatest glory is seen in the salvation he provides at such extraordinary cost through his own Son. And so today, in an age when evangelical Christianity is rapidly losing its way, the creed brings us back to the heart of both the gospel and the faith: God himself.
It Guards the Gospel against Distortions of the Faith
Historically, creeds have had a double function: to serve as both a fence and a foundation. They serve as the latter in that they crystallise the essence of all a person needs to know for life and salvation. In that sense they provide a foundation for the church.
The sad reality of course is that the church has been plagued, not merely from without, but more often from within by distortions of that teaching. So creeds have been formulated to provide a fence to guard the church against such aberrations. The Apostles' Creed is particularly concerned to secure a fence around the very heart of the gospel.
It Shows the Need for Personal Faith
Perhaps the greatest threat of all to the church and the teachings on which she stands in every generation is that of sliding into nominalism. Paul warns Timothy that the Last Days will be characterised by those (in the church) who have a "form of godliness" but who deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). He warns against them in the strongest possible terms.
It is a danger that lurks most subtly in the Reformed community where we are inclined to lay great store on scholarship and precision. That can be paradise for the kind of people who Paul is warning about – especially those who delight in controversy. The essence of Christianity that is authentically Reformed is its concern for authentic experience: all truth should lead to godliness.
The first three words of the Creed embed that conviction at the very centre of the truths it goes on to confess. It is only as we declare our belief in this God and all that he has done that we can actually know him along with all the benefits he promises in the Gospel through genuine personal faith.
That's why we still need the Creed in our day!