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.

April 19, 2013

On the side of life

In light of the trial of Kermit Gosnell going on now it is quite fitting that the theme of the April issue of Tabletalk magazine/devotional from Ligonier Ministries is “Defining Personhood.” The issue includes an article from Randy Alcorn, founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries and author of the excellent book Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments.

In the article Alcorn writes, “Each person, regardless of his parentage or handicap, has not been manufactured on a cosmic assembly line, but personally formed by God.” This is the foundational truth for anyone with a biblical worldview on defining personhood–the fact that God Himself has knit together each human being according to His will and His plan, and that life begins at conception.

Alcorn quotes Meredith Kline’s observation: “The most significant thing about abortion legislation in Biblical law is that there is none. It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.” Alcorn elaborates, writing that every Israelite “knew that the preborn child was a child” and therefore God’s command “You shall not murder” was all that needed to be said on the matter.

Alcorn challenges the assertion made by those on the “pro-choice” side that a fetus or an embryo is not a human being. “Like toddler and adolescent, the terms embryo and fetus do not refer to nonhumans but to humans at various stages of development. It is scientifically inaccurate to say a human embryo or a fetus is not a human being simply because he is at an earlier stage than an infant. This is like saying that a toddler is not a human being because he is not yet an adolescent. Does someone become more human as he gets bigger? if so, than adults are more human than children, and football players are more human than jockeys. Something nonhuman does not become human or more human by getting older or bigger; whatever is human is human from the beginning, or it can never be human at all.”

The article is full of other brilliant counters to the many arguments so often trotted out by those on the side of death…the side commonly referred to as “choice.” Alcorn mentions the response of Alan Keyes to a thirteen-year-old girl in Detroit who asked whether he would support an exception for rape. Keyes, who, in my opinion, is one of the most effective defenders of the right to life today, responded to her question with a question of his own: “If your dad goes out and rapes somebody, and we convict him of that rape, do you think it would be right for us to then say, ‘okay, because your dad is guilty of rape, we’re going to kill you’?” The class, of course, answered no, as would any rational person.

Alcorn expands on Keyes’ response, writing that “Imposing capital punishment on the innocent child of a sex offender does nothing bad to the rapist and nothing good to the woman. Creating a second victim never undoes the damage to the first. Abortion does not bring healing to a rape victim.”

I have quoted more extensively here than I usually do, because quite frankly I think Alcorn and Keyes communicate the pro-life position more clearly, more powerfully and more effectively than just about anyone else, certainly than me. But it is important to remind ourselves of the arguments in favor of life, since the culture and the media so regularly and so loudly communicate the arguments in favor of death. Kermit Gosnell is a monster; there is no other apt description for someone who willingly does the things he did–and does it for profit, at that. I hope that receives the penalty for his crimes that he deserves. But incarcerating Gosnell–while a definite step in the right direction–will not solve the problem; it will not change the fact that millions of babies are killed in the United States every year. We need to pray, but we also need to act. We need to communicate with legislators, we need to actively support the pro-life position and those who are on the front lines defending life. And, unpopular as it may at times be, we need to directly and firmly challenge those who disagree that it is simply not possible to adhere to the Bible and support abortion. The two are simply not compatible; indeed, they are unalterably opposed.

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