Earlier this year Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research joined together to complete a survey of 3,000 Americans for the purpose of evaluating the state of theology in the United States. One of the questions statements participants were asked to respond to was this: “There is little value in studying and/or reciting creeds or catechisms.” Twenty-seven percent of respondents agreed with this statement, with another 16% responding that they were not sure—meaning that two in five people do not see any merit in the study or recitation of creeds or are not sure there is merit.
Another statement in the survey was this: I recite or use historical Christian creeds in personal discipleship. Seventy percent of respondents said no.
This prompted a question in my own mind—what is the purpose of creeds? While I was certainly familiar with the Apostle’s Creed before I began filling the pulpit of a Presbyterian church regularly over the past year, I had never been a member of a church that recites the creed regularly. While I could recite the Lord’s Prayer, I have never been a member of a church that recites it regularly. While I am familiar with the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms, I have not studied them in depth and cannot recite any portion of them other than the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
I grew up in independent Baptist churches, where the ideas of tradition that are prominent in the Catholic church as well as a number of Protestant denominations were generally frowned upon. “We have no creed but Christ” is a common mantra among those in independent churches. But are the creeds and catechisms of the church merely tradition?
Certainly the creeds and catechisms are not infallible; that is a distinction of the Bible alone. Confessions, catechisms and creeds, however, are summaries of the teachings of Scripture, a means through which we can learn and even memorize some of the most important elements of biblical theology. Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said of the Apostle’s Creed, “It signifies a brief and summary form of the Christian faith, which distinguishes the church and her members from the various sects.” It is important for any Christian to know what they believe. The catechisms, creeds and confessions provide a starting point and a means of consistent reminder. Regular recitation and repetition of the creeds and catechisms can serve to reinforce the crucial elements of our faith.
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church, writing in Tabletalk magazine, said, “[I]f you are to set out those things that differentiate Christianity from all other religions, including monotheistic ones (for example, Judaism and Islam), the Apostles’ Creed would provide an excellent summary of those doctrines unique to Christianity. … Ursinus chose the Apostles’ Creed as the skeletal structure for the section of his catechism dealing with God’s grace because the creed so effectively summarizes the basics of the Christian faith that no non-Christian could possibly recite it. In this sense, the creed defines what is Christianity and what is not.”
Robert Rayburn, in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, writes, “Creeds serve a variety of purposes in the life of the church. They are a testimony of the church’s belief to the world; they offer a summation of Christian doctrine for the instruction of the faithful; and they form a bulwark against the incursion of error by providing a standard of orthodoxy and a test for office-bearers. In these ways creeds also serve to protect and to foster the bond of Christian fellowship as a unity of faith and doctrine, of mind and conviction, and not merely of organization or sentiment.”
So what is the Apostles’ Creed? It is not in the Bible. We could not turn in our Bibles and find the Apostles’ Creed contained there. Neither was it written or developed by the apostles. In fact, it was written at least 150 years after the apostles had all died. What it is, then, is a record and summary of what the apostles taught.
There are two elements of the Apostles’ Creed that are often confused or debated. The first is the reference to the holy catholic church. You will notice that the word “catholic” is not capitalized in the creed, and it does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” means universal, and in the Apostles’ Creed it is referencing all those throughout time and around the world who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for Salvation.
The other element of the creed that is debated is the statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” There are, including John Calvin most prominently, who hold that Jesus literally went into hell on Saturday between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday. There are others who hold that this is not the case, and is not what the Bible teaches. I am of the opinion that there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides, and I am not going to examine or elaborate on them here. Frankly, I am not sure I have come to a decision myself as to what I believe on that question.
There is reason to believe that there were creed-like statements utilized in the first-century church, during the time of the apostles’ ministry. Philippians 2:5-11 may have been a confessional hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter, and Galatians 4:4-6 provides a succinct presentation of the roles of the Father and the Son in redemption as well as the existence and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Whether creeds and catechisms are weekly parts of the worship service in our churches or they are utilized regularly in our personal devotions, they do have purpose, merit and value.