Lord God, please teach us better to know you and love you. In Jesus name. Amen.
This morning, as you'll see from the outline on the back page of the service sheet, we're thinking about the creeds. But first I want to back up a bit, so we can see why we would want to do that!
Who is this Jesus who we remember on this Palm Sunday riding into Jerusalem on that donkey? And who are we, as we meet here as a church committed to following him? That's a good question if you're visiting, perhaps interested in finding out more about what being a Christian is all about. But you might sometimes ask yourself that question even if you've been a part of this church for years.
Well, if you look at the 'What We Believe' section of the JPC website, you'll find this (I'm abbreviating for the sake of time):
We're a gospel church
…the greatest need of anyone is to receive [God's] forgiveness, along with his Spirit to change and enable them to live for Jesus as Lord. That's why in our services we regularly say the Creeds – which remind us that God is not just personal, but three-personal: the Father, the Son and the Spirit who work together in our salvation.
We're a Bible church
… we believe that the Bible is God's Word and so has supreme authority, above human reason or church tradition, to tell us what to believe and how to live. But we also believe we should use both reason and tradition to understand the Bible rightly.
We're an Anglican church
Since we believe in the supreme authority of the Bible, we're committed to the legacy of the Anglican reformers of the sixteenth century … the Anglican reformers drew up a doctrinal basis, The Thirty-Nine Articles, which enables Christians to unite around what is primary (i.e. essential for salvation) whilst allowing for disagreement on what is secondary …
In this morning series we're taking a look at some of those Thirty-Nine Articles, which deal with key issues that go to the heart of Christian believing and living. This morning we come to Article 8, which is called "Of the Three Creeds". You can see it there on my outline that's on the back page of the service sheet. Here it is:
"The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius's Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture."
As John Rogers puts it, at the Reformation there was …
… no intent on the part of the Church of England … to depart from the Faith of the ancient and undivided church. Article 8 was written to make that point.
Although the creeds come from the centuries immediately after the time of the apostles and the time when the New Testament was being formed, it's clear in the New Testament that summaries of the core of the gospel were very important from the start. So the apostle Paul says to his apprentice Timothy (this is 2 Timothy 1.13-14):
Follow the pattern of the 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.
In fact the Bible is full of short summary statements that put in a nutshell great sweeps of Biblical history and theology. And embedded in the New Testament there are the beginnings of what you might call credal statements. So for instance, Romans 10.9:
… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
In Romans 1.2-4 the apostle Paul describes the Gospel of God …
… which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord …
Then in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4 Paul explicitly makes a summary statement of the gospel that is to be handed down. He says:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …
Then there are early trinitarian statements speaking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – for instance in 2 Corinthians 13.14, where Paul ends his letter with these familiar words:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
The creeds make it quite clear that there can be no doctrine-free Christianity. As John Rogers says:
Christianity is not, and never has been, a wordless experience of God … far more is involved in knowing God than profound emotion and inexpressible awareness. At the heart of true Christianity is a Spirit-enabled response of repentance and trust in God, who is known in and through his Word in Christ, known in and through the Gospel.
So, I have five questions about the creeds that are there on the outline. We'll go through them one by one.
First, WHAT IS A CREED?
A creed is a short summary of the Bible's teaching.
The word 'creed' comes from the Latin 'credo', which means ' I believe'. These are the opening words of the Apostle's Creed.
A creed is an authoritative statement of the main articles of the Christian faith to which believers are expected to assent.
Secondly, WHY USE CREEDS?
The creeds help us to understand the Bible's teaching more clearly.
How do they do that? Well, it seems to me that they are like a pair of glasses. Glasses are useful things. As you can see I wear glasses. Without them, I could hardly read. With my glasses, I can see clearly.
And I can see, for instance, that I am far from being alone in wearing glasses. Let me just do a little survey. If you have a pair of glasses sitting on your nose right now, please raise your hand. Don't be shy – it's hardly a secret! … Lots of us. You can put your hands down. Now will the rest of you raise a hand. Let me pass on to you what my optician rather disconcertingly said to me when I was in my mid-forties: by the time you're in your late forties you will probably need glasses, at least to read. All hands down.
Now, the thing is, there is a very real sense in which I don't like wearing glasses. They're an irritation and a nuisance. In fact I was really fed up when I first had to start wearing glasses a lot a few years ago. That, it seems to me, is how quite a lot of people feel about the creeds. Why do we have to keep saying them? The same old formula, again and again. They can seem tedious, even pointless. Many churches, indeed, have stopped using them for just these sorts of reasons.
But I'm going to let you into a secret. There was a member of this church who has now moved away who changed my life with one comment. Her name was Rachel Hird. Some of you will know her. She wears glasses. One day, in the early days of my glasses wearing, I told her how annoying I found them. And she just said to me: "You need to make friends with your glasses." That was it.
But suddenly a light went on in my mind. Of course! My glasses are not a nuisance, but my friend. They are helping me – massively. Where would I be without them? I would be in a fog. Nothing I read would make any sense. But with my glasses on my nose everything is crystal clear. In fact my sight is better now than it has ever been in my life – with my glasses.
Of course, I see right through them. They don't get in the way. Even though they are right in front of my eyes, they don't obstruct my sight. Quite the opposite. They enable me to see what's right in front of me, clearly, and in sharp focus. "Make friends with your glasses," said Rachel. And from that moment on, my attitude to my glasses changed completely. I love my glasses. They're fantastic. To be sure, it would be great if I didn't need them. But – boy do I need them! I'm so grateful for my glasses. I'd be lost without them.
So I want to say to you: make friends with the creeds. They are like lenses through which we can read and understand the whole Bible so much more clearly. With the creeds framing our thinking, everything in the Bible can come into sharp focus. It can all make sense, in a way that it would not do without the framework that the creeds give us.
Of course, it would be great if we all had so much clear spiritual insight into the truth that we didn't need them. But the fact is that not only are we finite creatures, but we are sinful with it, and our spiritual sight is all foggy without the aids that God gives us. So my hope and prayer is that you will make friends with the creeds, and see in a new way how they help us to see the truth and to read and understand the Word of God. That's why we use the creeds.
Thirdly, WHAT ARE 'THE THREE CREEDS'?
The Apostles' Creed is the shortest.
Though not written by the apostles, it is very early, and it states very briefly what the apostles taught in words largely drawn from Scripture.
A recent Catechism – a question and answer summary of basic Christian teaching – describes the Apostle's Creed in this way:
[The Apostles' Creed] is a consensus document , coming to us with the resounding endorsement of faithful believers over nearly two thousand years, for it has been recited by Christian communities at all times and in all places throughout the history of the Christian Church. And it is a benchmark of orthodoxy, that is, of right belief, guiding our understanding of God's revealed truth at points where our sin-clouded minds might go astray.
The great first generation Reformer Martin Luther said this about the Apostle's Creed:
Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement.
And the great second-generation Reformer John Calvin had these things to say about the Apostle's Creed:
… the noteworthy point about the Creed is this: we have in it a summary of our faith, full and complete in all details; and containing nothing in it except what has derived from the pure Word of God.
[The Apostles' Creed] sums up in a few words the main points of our redemption, and thus may serve as a tablet for us upon which we see distinctly and point by point the things in Christ that we ought to heed.
The Nicene Creed is longer and clarifies who Jesus is as fully God and fully man.
It derives from a creed that was written to refute the claim that the Son of God was created by God the Father, and so essentially different from the Father – not fully God. So these false teachers, called Arians, would say:
There was a time when he was not.
That was one of their slogans about the Son of God that were even turned into pop songs of their day. In response, the Nicene Creed insists that Christ was:
… 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.
So Jesus is fully God, as well as fully man.
The Athanasian Creed is longer still and further clarifies who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is made up of forty rhythmical sentences. It is "more a sermon or instructional hymn than a creed." It contains a clear and concise statement of the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, both of which must be believed for salvation. So, for instance, it says:
The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet these are not three Gods but one God.
C. S. Lewis, of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' fame, wrote this about the Athanasian Creed:
I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St Athanasius, for I think it a very fine piece of writing. The words "Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is [talking] about deserters, … those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves … to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame.
These three creeds, then are ancient summaries of what all faithful Christians, in all places, at all times, have believed.
Fourthly, HOW CAN WE KNOW THAT THE CREEDS ARE TRUE?
By testing them against the teaching of the Bible.
The creeds are rules of faith that themselves ruled by the final authority of the word of God. All the main branches of Protestantism value the creeds as faithfully embodying the teachings of Scripture. But you can test that yourself. Using that spectacles analogy – you can look past the creeds, as it were, to what the Bible teaches, and see for yourself whether the creeds are a truthful summary of the whole sweep of the Bible's teaching. Like so many others before you, you will find that they are.
Fifthly, HOW CAN THE CREEDS BY USEFUL TO US?
By getting familiar with them.
By regularly reminding ourselves of them.
Then they can help us to get clear and stay clear about the heart of the faith by which we live.
We regularly use both the Apostles' Creed and the longer Nicene Creed in our services. We don't ever read together the Athanasian Creed – though perhaps we should, now and then – it would probably do us a power of good, like a strenuous work out at the gym. But you can easily find it. If you have a copy of the Book of Common Prayer it's in there (and if you don't you could get one!) Or it's easy to find on the internet. Just Google 'Athanasian Creed'. It would be a good discipline to read it privately, say, at least once a year. It's just a few pages.
So the creeds are useful in a number of ways. They help us to interpret the Bible. They are a tool for teaching the faith to those who are newly converted. They are a confession of faith to be used at baptism. They refute false teaching that is contrary to Scripture. They can be used in our services to help us keep the main thing the main thing and to avoid straying. And they distinguish Christian faith from non-Christian religions and philosophies [I quote] …
… so that both Christians and non-Christians can see the difference and consider the unique claims of the Gospel and the errors of these religions and philosophies.
So let's make good use of them.
Let's bow our heads to pray:
Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, help us to know you more and more, and to love, trust and obey you – as you have revealed yourself to us in your Word, and enabled us to understand. In Jesus name. Amen