Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 2
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Tell me, who do you think wrote The Apostles’ Creed?
At first blush, the answer seems quite apparent. Obviously, the apostles wrote The Apostles’ Creed. If one does not stop to think more deeply on this, and research its origins, one could quickly buy into this idea.
According to an attractive legend that emerges in several versions, it happened something like this particular version, written several hundred years after the account described:
On the tenth day after the Ascension, the disciples composed the creed.
Peter said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
And Andrew said, “and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”
James added, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”
And Thomas said, “He descended into hell and on the third day rose again from the dead.”
And James said, “And he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father Almighty.”
And Philip added, “Thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Bartholomew said, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
And Matthew added, “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.”
And Simon said, “the remission of sins.”
And Thaddeus, “the resurrection of the flesh.”
And Matthias concluded, “with the life everlasting.”
Wait a second. It is not that easy. It simply didn’t happen that way.
The apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had a significant part in conveying to us Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments as we know them now. They believed the contents that we confess in The Apostles’ Creed, but they are not the ones that developed this simple liturgical formulation that we so often recite.
In its generic form, it emerged from a simple, Trinitarian, baptismal declaration of belief in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, into this more specific credal statement. Although every part of what we declare in it was held as belief by the early church, what we now call The Apostles’ Creed evolved through the early centuries, along with other, similar credal statements. By the eighth century, this became the most common expression of individual and corporate faith.
As we now embark on this phrase-by-phrase study, I ask for your prayers. Large, complicated books of theology have been written on each of these phrases, or on the subpoints implied by these phrases. Scholars, much more intellectually gifted and more knowledgeable than I, have dedicated their lives to detailed reflection on these themes. My very sincere effort is to help acquaint you with this historic confession, which embodies the essence of our faith and helps us be better grounded as contemporary disciples of Jesus, to live more aware of the truths of our faith in the relativistic era that marks our existence.
I. “I believe” – You can’t live without some kind of faith.
Everybody believes something. Faith is crucial to all human existence. We believe that we can know what time it is. We believe that if we drop an object, the force of gravity will bring it to the ground. We believe that day follows night and that there is a predictable symmetry of how nature functions. We begin early in life, by trial and error, to identify persons whom we can trust. It doesn’t take long to know whether Mother and Father are reliable. Every child, if honest, can do a pretty accurate computer printout on those areas in which their parents are trustworthy and those areas in which they must learn to fend for themselves. The older we get, the more sophisticated we become in assessing what persons and institutions in which we can put our faith. Faith, based on some rational process, is involved in items as varied as our confidence in the toothpaste we buy, the news report to which we listen, the airline on which we choose to fly and the person to whom we commit ourselves in marriage.
The Apostles’ Creed is an endeavor to reduce to a very basic credal statement what I believe and don’t believe about God. It is highly individualistic in that when I say it, or choose not to say it or choose to say just parts of it, I am making a faith statement.
And The Apostles’ Creed is a succinct statement of what we believe or don’t believe about God. It is corporate. It didn’t come together in a haphazard fashion. It is a combined effort of centuries of believers who developed credal statements more simple and more complex, based on Scripture and the kinds of issues being faced in the societies in which they lived.
So, when I recite The Apostles’ Creed, I am declaring what John Huffman believes in September of 2003. This statement is as up-to-date as this morning. At the same time, it brings all the historical richness of faith content of those millions of followers of Jesus of the past twenty centuries. It is not just that I declare my beliefs, but I join with this great company of believers in this common expression.
II. “I believe in God” – This is the starting point of all theological formation.
Either there is a God or there isn’t. The study of human history makes it quite clear that humankind is religious. Scratch us at the surface, and most people have some belief in the existence of a divine reality, to be referred to as God or gods. Contemporary surveys show that even in this secularized world, most people still believe in some kind of divine reality. The atheistic writings of some philosophers, political theorists and psychologists have not been able to rid modern men and women from religious notions.
There are some classic arguments from reason that would point to the existence of God. These used to be called “proofs.” Our post-Enlightenment way of looking at truth causes us to be a bit careful in using such a blanket term as “proof.” Nonetheless, these classic arguments from reason are worth mentioning.
First is the ontological argument. It was developed by Archbishop Anselm. It declares that people somehow or other have a concept of God as “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Anselm basically argued that if you and I have the ability to conceive of something greater than that which we can conceive, then there must be a reality behind this human conception. The very idea that there could be a divine being, a mind greater than anything greater than I can think, is important to consider. Whether it makes the final proof is another matter.
Second is the cosmological argument. It comes from Thomas Aquinas. He argued from what he believed to be the “principle of cause and effect.” What we see happening must have a reason for happening. When an egg comes flying through the air and splatters on the shoulder of a political candidate, you assume that the egg didn’t, in its simple eggness, suddenly decide to take wings and fly through the air. Probably someone threw it. If a tomato comes flying my direction in the middle of a sermon, I will not only duck to avoid being hit by it, I will instinctively look in the direction from which it came to see who might have taken such exception to me personally and what I am trying to say.
Look around you. What do you see? Did it all just happen, or was there a reason behind it? Was there an unmoved mover? Either we have an infinite universe that was uncaused and is unchanging, or there is an infinite God who was uncaused and is unchanging.
Third is the teleological argument. The French philosopher Voltaire and others took the position that if you see something as complex as a watch that really works both as jewelry and as a timepiece, there must be, somewhere behind the existence of that watch, a watchmaker. It is absurd to think that the watch made itself. And, in logical progression, it is nonsensical to believe that this complex universe, which functions in such exquisite ways, could all have come about by happenstance. A design this complex must have behind it a designer.
Fourth is the moral argument. Built into how we look at life is a sense of what is fair and what is unfair, what a person ought to do and ought not to do. Where did we get such moral sensibility? Moral relativists will say that each culture develops its own sense of right and wrong. However, most cultures have moral codes against theft, dishonesty and murder. Even in those few societies that may not reflect such moral standards, a philosopher, politician or religious leader, who comes along and by words and example points out the negative consequences of theft, dishonesty and murder, may pay a severe price for his or her disruption of that society’s mores. Yet that person will most likely end up being seen as a change agent for something better.
Now, as persuasive as I believe these and other arguments are for the existence of God, when these arguments are fully articulated and accepted, you don’t automatically come up with a picture of the God of the Bible. Reason can only take you just so far. You need revelation in addition to reason. Some people who are not prepared to accept revelation will find these kinds of rational arguments for the existence of God to be initially helpful. The Apostle Paul chose to take this approach when he wrote the Book of Romans. He points out that the invisible things of God are clearly seen in that which is present in nature. He argued from Creation to the existence of God. The psalmist does the same thing when he says in
The Bible opens with this most epic-making assumption: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . .” (
The psalmist declares, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God'” (
Can you see how one can quite healthfully juxtapose the rational arguments for God alongside the special revelation. Reason points to something or someone greater than ourselves, does it not? It is only as we have a self-disclosure of that Someone that it all begins to come together. That’s what we are saying when we declare, “I believe in God . . .”
III. “I believe in God the Father” – This God is personal!
It is now that The Apostles’ Creed begins to get specific in its description of God. If I were putting together this creed, I would have probably reversed the order, and it would read something like this:
“I believe in God, Creator, Sustainer of all that is, who has revealed himself as Father.”
It is interesting to note the church’s formulation is in different order. It states, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
Why is this? Wouldn’t you think you would move from the grand, broad, generic, reasonable understanding of a Creator-Sustainer God to the more personal definition of that God? Most likely we would, wouldn’t we? Perhaps it is for this very reason that the church put the personal right up front.
You see, to believe in God could mean so many different things. Broadly speaking, there are three different classic notions in which the relationship of God to the world has been conceived.
One is pantheism, which means, in some sense, everything is literally God. In pantheism, God is the world. The universe and God are identical. We are in God and God is in us. This is not the God of the Bible that sees God as the “Wholly Other,” who initiates history and breaks into that which is His creation in special ways. This is a kind of absorption of the universal force into its very self.
Another is deism, which removes God from the world altogether. In deism God is entirely transcendent, functioning above and beyond and outside of the world. In a way, this over stresses the truth that God is holy, God is separate, other, different from God’s creation. As we have already seen, God is the “Wholly Other.” But the God of the Bible sees this God in relationship with His creation, not divorced from it.
And there is theism, which in a way we have already described in contrast to pantheism and deism. Theism sees God as both being involved in the world, yet above and beyond the world. Theism thinks of God as both immanent and transcendent, at the same time, being in the world and yet being beyond the world, sharing our life and at the same time directing life. This is the biblical, Christian view of the relationship of God and the world. The Christian believes that God is neither contained in the world, nor divorced from the world; that God is, at one and the same time, in existence separate from His creation, yet very directly and personally involved in that creation.
When we declare, “I believe in God the Father . . . ,” we are not making what is primarily a gender statement, we are declaring that the Creator-Sustainer God is personal. We receive some of this understanding from the Old Testament, but not nearly as much as we learn of this from the New Testament. The very Old Testament understanding of God emphasizes the sacredness of His Name when it refers to Him as Father, it is primarily in relationship to His identity as Creator. It is in the New Testament that we confront, with great frequency, the highly personal understanding of this Sustainer-Creator God being “our Father.” Jesus, approximately 100 times in John’s Gospel alone, talks about the Father. He uses a very interesting word for Father. It is the Aramaic word, Abba. It literally means “Daddy.” They were initially offended that Jesus would talk about God in such an intimate, familiar way. For this reason, He constantly made this reference. When He taught them to pray, He said, When you pray, say “Our Father.” He describes how God functions as a good father who wants the very best for His children.
Not only does this highlight the personal nature of God, it also helps us understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Later we will try to understand a bit more of what it is for God to be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The use of the term Father also makes a declaration of distinction of Christianity from ancient fertility cults. The New Testament church was birthed in the first century surrounding of pagan religions, with their pantheon of gods. These gods, as distinct from the Old Testament understanding of God, were represented with material images in mythology that were not dissimilar to the soap opera mentality of our day. The agricultural cycles in an agrarian society caused the creation of the worship of fertility goddesses, both in terms of what they might do for the harvest, and how one might even become connected to them in pagan sexual worship practices.
This is not an anti-feminist or intentional male-chauvinist statement to refer to God as “The Father.” Dr. Carl Henry, certainly noted for his evangelical conservative credentials, declares:
The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as He, the pronoun is primarily personal and generic, rather than masculine and specific. It emphasizes God’s personality in contrast to impersonal entities.
What Dr. Henry is saying is that when the Bible speaks about God as “He,” it is not saying that God is masculine as opposed to feminine. It is saying that God is personal as opposed to impersonal. He is a “he” as opposed to an “it,” not as a “he” as opposed to a “she.” Right up front in the Creed you see a God of loving care who makes provision for us. We need to be reminded of this.
IV. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” – Ours is the all-powerful Creator God!
You know, it is possible to have a God who is too small. That’s really the problem with pagan deities. They have been created by human beings. Creatures have created their own gods. That is the opposite of the Creator God who is all-powerful, who has created everything that is.
The Bible describes this God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, as having magnificent attributes. Let me list some of these for you. You may want to search them out in the Bible in more detail and read more deeply into theology to unpack some of this for yourself. I will simply identify them with brief comment. Historic theology divides these attributes into two categories: Natural Attributes and Moral Attributes.
His natural attributes are listed the following way.
- Omniscience – God knows all things and is absolutely perfect in knowledge.
- Omnipotence – Our God has all power.
- Omnipresence – Our God is present everywhere.
- Eternal – Our God is not limited to past, present and future. He has no beginning and no end, no limit. He is an ever-abiding presence.
- Immutable – Our God is absolutely unchangeable in nature. He remains forever the same. We are changeable. Therefore, how He relates to us in His unchangeableness may differ, as a loving parent may act in a particular ways, depending on how the child acts. Nonetheless, at the core of who He is, He is unchangeable. His character is constant.
There are what we call the classic moral attributes of God.
- Holiness – God is totally apart from all that is evil in His perfection, purity and absolute sanctity.
- Righteous – God always functions in ways that are right.
- Just – God always acts in ways that are just, fair, totally devoid of caprice and vindictiveness.
- Merciful – God yearns to offer us forgiveness that is congruent with holiness, righteousness and justice.
- Lovingkindness – God reaches out to us with the ultimate of care.
- Love – God cares. By His very nature, He yearns to embrace you and me, and His heart is broken when we resist.
Now you can see what a big task we have cut out for ourselves in teaching and preaching through The Apostles’ Creed. You see how every phrase in it triggers many more phrases that help us unpack its meaning. On these attributes of God alone, we could have broken down these simple words into multiple categories, reflected theologically on each of those categories, and quoted scores of verses from the Bible to support this understanding of the nature of God. That’s why these credal statements are so important to us. They give theological sinew, strong substance to undergird our faith.
And now, let us conclude in a very practical, personal way this day’s teaching.
During the summer weeks, I have been reading a magnificent book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. titled, The Question of God; C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. My dear friend of many decades, Dr. Nicholi, is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University as well as a practicing psychiatrist in the Boston area. He teaches a course at Harvard University on this theme, contrasting two men, one a brilliant psychoanalyst and the other literary figure, both of whom started out as atheists. The one, Freud, although exposed in matters of faith, stiffened his resistance to both the Jewish and Christian faith. C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, came to faith and became one of the great twentieth century apologists for the faith.
Nicholi, reflecting on life transformation of many who have had conversions in mid-life, raises a question of how C. S. Lewis, a gifted and highly-intelligent militant atheist and respected faculty member in perhaps the most prestigious university in the world, came to embrace a worldview so in conflict with his atheism. Not only did he embrace the Christian worldview, he spent the rest of his life defending it and becoming its “most influential spokesman.” Lewis had even been more certain of his atheism than had been Sigmund Freud who, in his youth, wavered in his atheism as an undergraduate at the University of Vienna. Lewis, at Oxford, had never wavered. He had stated, “Though I like clergymen as I like bears, I had as little wish to be in the church as in a zoo.” The notion of an Ultimate Authority who might interfere in his life made him feel nauseated. He wrote how he had surrounded himself with a barbed-wire fence and guard with a notice, “No Admittance,” to anything that remotely resembled God. Then he describes in a letter a transforming change in his life, “. . . very gradual and intellectual . . . and not simple.” First, throughout his life, from the time he was a boy living in Belfast to his conversion in his early thirties, he periodically experienced a sense of intense longing for some place or person. He recalled that when he was eight years old, an intense desire “suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from the depth not of years but of centuries . . . It was a sensation, of course, of desire, but desire for what?” Then it disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. He described this longing as a yearning for “Joy.” He describes how he eventually came to realize that no human relationship could ever satisfy that longing. It was a “pointer to something other and outer.”
A few of his close friends were “thoroughgoing supernaturalists.” Lewis thought it was all “errant nonsense.” He felt there was no danger of his being “taken in.” Yet he experienced a “loneliness and sense of being deserted” by these friends.
Then he met some faculty he admired who were devout believers, one of them being Professor J. R. R. Tolkein. He reflected on some of the writers he most admired and realized that they embraced the “spiritual worldview.” He read G. K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, a book that profoundly impressed him with arguments he later used in his own writings. Chesterton was a prolific British author, journalist, poet and literary critic. As a 19-year-old soldier in World War I, he had read Chesterton and dismissed him, noting that his pessimism, atheism and hatred of sentiment would have made Chesterton the least congenial of all authors. Lewis then adds, “It would almost seem that Providence . . . quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together.”
He warns that a young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. He realized that Chesterton had that same “kink” as some of the other authors that C. S. Lewis admired: “Chesterton was a believer.”
About the same time, a second event happened that had “a shattering impact.” One of the most militant atheists among the Oxford faculty, T. D. Weldon, sat in Lewis’ room one evening and remarked that the historical authenticity of the Gospels was surprisingly sound. This deeply disturbed Lewis. He immediately understood the implications that if this “hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew” thought the Gospels true, where did that leave him? He had considered the New Testament stories myth, not historical fact. If they were true, he realized that all other truth faded in significance. Did this mean his whole life was moving in the wrong direction?
Lewis remembered an incident that happened several years earlier – on the first day he arrived at Oxford as a teenager. He left the train station carrying his bags and began to walk in the direction of the college, anticipating his first glimpse of the “fabled cluster of spires and towers” he had heard and dreamed of for so many years. As he walked and headed into open country, he could see no sign of the great university. When he turned around, he noticed the majestic college spires and towers on the opposite side of the town and realized he was headed in the wrong direction. Lewis wrote many years later in his autobiography, “I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.”
Lewis wrote that he began to feel his “Adversary” – the One he wanted desperately not to exist – closing in on him. He describes going up Headington Hill on top of a bus. He felt that he was trying to shut something out of his life, “I could open the door or keep it shut . . . The choice appeared to be momentous but it was strangely unemotional . . . I chose to open . . . I feel as if I were of man of snow at long last beginning to melt . . . “
He describes being back in his room at Magdalen College, night after night, feeling that which he had greatly feared had at last come upon him. “I gave in and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
He describes this as the first phase in the transition. It “was only to Theism, pure and simple . . . I knew nothing yet about the Incarnation . . . The God to whom I surrendered was sheerly nonhuman.” Although at first he felt he was posting letters to a non-existent address, once he accepted, with considerable resistance, the presence of an Intelligence beyond the universe, Lewis concluded that this Being demanded complete surrender and obedience. This was the beginning of his conversion, not yet to faith in Jesus Christ, to the conviction there was a God who was alive, personal, all powerful, who had been and was now seeking him out.
Perhaps you don’t believe at all. Perhaps you feel God is pursuing you in a similar way. Open your life to Him with an openness of mind, openness of heart. That’s the starting point of what can be for you life transformational.
And for the rest of us who are already disciples of Jesus, hopefully this study will make clearer to us what we believe both in the basic objective truths of our faith and the application of those truths in helpful ways.
This is one of a series of sermons based on The Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.