jasonbwatson

November 17, 2014

The value of creeds

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.

November 12, 2014

The State of Theology

Last month Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with LifeWay Research, released the findings of a survey conducted on the state of theology in the United States. The survey polled 3,000 American adults between the end of February and the beginning of March 2014. The objectives of the survey were “To quantify among a national sample of Americans indicators of the theological understanding of
Americans today providing comparisons between: Christian church goers and the unchurched; and, Those who consider themselves Evangelical and those who do not.” As with any survey or statistic, there must be some discernment used in reading and applying the survey results, but the survey claims that the sample provides 95% certainty that the margin of error does not exceed plus/minus 1.8%. Accordingly, the results are worth considering, especially for anyone whose ministry is focused on the spiritual development of parishioners or students. You can easily find the full results of the survey by visiting Ligonier.org or by googling State of Theology, but I want to zero in on a few of the results here.

First, 71% of survey responders agree–strongly or somewhat–that individuals must contribute their own efforts for personal salvation. This is a startling number–particularly in light of the fact the Bible makes it abundantly clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and that works have nothing to do with salvation. Any belief to the contrary is dangerous for one of two reasons; either humans are capable, in an of themselves, of contributing to their own salvation, or the death of Christ on the cross was somehow insufficient in and of itself to provide salvation. To suggest that Christ’s atoning death on the cross must be supplemented by man’s efforts is to seriously undermine the entire salvation message. John 3:16 is nullified by the position that human efforts are required to obtain salvation. And lest you temper your concern about this figure by suggesting that the 71% is surely made up of unbelievers, note that 38% of self-identified Evangelicals strongly agree with this notion. That is the same percentage of Evangelicals who attend church once a month or more who strongly disagree with the statement, meaning that even Evangelicals are evenly split over whether or not man has a role in salvation. It is not surprising, given the tenets of the Catholic faith, that 49% of Catholics strongly agree that human effort is required, but 38% of Evangelicals to do so is cause for concern.

Oddly enough, 87% of self-identified Evangelicals who attend church at least once a month strongly agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone. Only 33% of other Christians strongly agree, and just 13% of non-Christians. That range is not surprising. It is baffling however, that 87% of Evangelicals can strongly agree that salvation is through Christ alone while 38% of them also agree that human effort is a required element of salvation. That means some 25% of Evangelical responders are either schizophrenic or deeply confused.

The beliefs about salvation segue right into a question in the survey about the authority of Scripture. A startling 41% of survey respondents agree–either somewhat or strongly–that the Bible is not literally true. I am pleased that 80% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with this statement, but it concerns me that one in five do not strongly disagree! Forty-five percent of survey respondents believe that the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose–and only 66% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with that. Only forty-eight percent of survey respondents agree that the Bible alone is the written Word of God. While 79% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree, just 62% of all Evangelicals strongly agree and only 22% of Mainline Protestants strongly agree. This means that there is considerable belief that the Bible is not God’s only revealed, written Word. Among all survey responders, only 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches. And while 78% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree with that statement, that still leaves almost a quarter who do not strongly agree. Even more troubling is that only 23% of “Other Christians” strongly agree.

So what can we learn from these statistics? First, the term “Christian” can obviously be applied very loosely, and just because someone identifies him- or herself as a Christian does not mean that they believe the things I would expect a Christian to believe. Second, we live in a world that is divided on issues of biblical authority and godly living at best, opposed to it at worst. (For example, 43% of the survey responders indicated disagreement that sex outside of marriage is a sin while only 48% indicated agreement. The balance was “not sure”). Accordingly, we need to be more diligent and more vigilant than ever in our churches, in our Christian schools and in our families that we are equipping our students with the Truth of God’s Word and preparing them for the realities of the world in which we live.

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