Creeds were never formulated to invent fundamental doctrines, but rather to defend them. They are repudiations of false doctrines—condemning new error by affirming established truth. As time passed, new errors required new affirmations; thus church creeds and Christian confessions have become longer and more complex.
That’s why Together for the Gospel, a very modern confession of fundamental Christian doctrine, has such an expansive, detailed, and nuanced statement of faith. Conversely, ancient statements of Christian doctrine, such as the Apostles’ Creed, tend to be far simpler and more narrow in their focus:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Apostle’s Creed is one of the earliest and simplest statements of faith in the history of creeds. It is not an exhaustive statement of faith (although it does summarize some of the major points of apostolic doctrine), nor was it ever intended to be. It was a brief, rudimentary confession designed to distinguish Christianity from Judaism or pagan religions.
But in recent times there has been no shortage of evangelical leaders who seem determined to use the Apostles’ Creed not as a wall of defense for an exclusive faith, but as a generous gate for an inclusive religion. Rather than focusing on what the creed argues for, they prefer to overlook whatever the creed fails to argue against.
Paul Crouch, the late president of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, captured that sentiment perfectly when he wrote:
Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, crucified, risen again, ascended to heaven, by whose blood our sins are forgiven, who will return in power and glory to judge the living and the dead. Beyond these absolute essentials of “FAITH,” there is infinite room for honest men and women to disagree and debate the limitless issues of “doctrinal purity.”Foreword to James R. Spencer, Heresy Hunters: Character Assassination in the Church (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1993) vii.
In other words, Crouch suggested that all who profess faith in those few essentials that he lists should be permitted to teach whatever else they feel is right, and no one should publicly subject those teachings to any further theological scrutiny. It is alright for us to disagree, he conceded, but Christians should “NEVER judge a brother or sister by name” in any sort of critical doctrinal appraisal. To do so, he believed, is unbecoming to the cause of Christ. He labelled the practice “heretic hunting.”
The truth is that virtually all the historic creeds of the church serve a purpose that is diametrically opposed to the benign broad-mindedness Crouch appealed for. The creeds were written to confront error. They present truth dogmatically, in specific and well-delineated terms. All of them are polemic, controversial, argumentative. They aim at separation, not unity. The Nicene Creed (325) defended the doctrine of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed (c. 428) spells out the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. Then there are Roman Catholic creeds, Greek and Russian creeds, and Protestant creeds. Virtually every creed after the Apostles’ Creed addressed matters of doctrinal controversy.
Paul Crouch is not alone in suggesting that the test of orthodoxy ought to be nothing more than the Apostles’ Creed. That view evidently is shared by increasing numbers of evangelical leaders.
Perhaps the most popular and persuasive defender of this view was Charles Colson, former counsel to the Nixon White House and founder of Prison Fellowship. Colson was an influential and highly respected leader within evangelicalism, known for his well-honed writing and speaking ministries. I have deeply appreciated much of what he wrote over the years. Often his insights were extremely perceptive. I found myself on the same side of the fence with him on most important issues.
That is why it is so hard to understand the way Colson defined Christian orthodoxy. He implied that the true non-negotiables of Christianity were all settled by the Apostles’ Creed.Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992) 186. He suggests that all evangelical Christians should be willing to embrace as brothers and sisters in Christ everyone who can give assent to this ancient creed.
But is the Apostles’ Creed a full enough statement of faith so that all who give assent to it can be embraced as Christians? Does it contain sufficient safeguards against false doctrine to serve as a test of fellowship?
The creed cannot be traced to any specific author or date. The earliest known text comes to us from the middle of the fourth century, but it is assumed to have existed before then. Roman Catholic tradition says the apostles themselves wrote the Creed, each contributing one article of faith. But the historical evidence does not support that. The phrase “he descended into hell,” for example, was not part of the Creed until the late fourth century; it is borrowed from another creed of that era. The word “catholic,” the phrase “the communion of saints,” and the final phrase (“life everlasting”) are all later additions to the creed.Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983 reprint) 1:19. The full Creed as it is known today did not come into general use until the seventh or eighth century.
Moreover, the Apostles’ Creed is by no means a complete statement of all the fundamental doctrines essential to genuine Christianity. For example, since there is no statement about the deity of Christ, a Jehovah’s Witness, who denies Christ’s deity, could give full assent to the Creed as it stands. In fact, the ancient forerunners of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the followers of a heretic named Arius, defended themselves by appealing to the Creed. William Cunningham wrote, “Nay, it is well known that Arians, who deny the divinity of the Son and the Holy Ghost, have no hesitation in expressing their concurrence in the creed.”William Cunningham, Historical Theology, 2 vols. (Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters, 1991 reprint) 1:89.
There are also issues in the Creed that are clearly not essential. Is salvation prerequisite on knowing that it was Pontius Pilate who condemned Christ to death? Must a person understand in what sense Christ “descended into hell” in order for that person to be saved? Must every truly regenerate person be able to define the holy catholic church, or the communion of saints?
The truth is, many of the statements in the Apostles’ Creed are open to widely varying—or even contradictory—interpretations. Unfortunately, there is little agreement between the major Christian traditions about what the words mean.
Christ’s descent into hell, for example, is interpreted by some to mean that He actually went into the infernal flames—although Scripture teaches nothing like that. Others, appealing to the Latin terminology, believe the Creed simply means that He descended into hades, the realm of the dead. Or what about “the holy catholic church”? Those who follow the Pope dogmatically interpret that as a reference to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants interpret “catholic” in accord with its literal meaning, “universal.” “The communion of saints” has been interpreted by various commentators as a reference to the fraternity of saints already in heaven, actual communion between earthly and heavenly saints, or simply fellowship among believers here on earth.
William Cunningham cited an essay written by a Lutheran writer named Ittigius, who “exhibited in parallel columns the Lutheran, the Calvinistic, and the Popish interpretations of all the different articles in the Creed. . . . Another writer afterward added a fourth column, containing the Arminian or Pelagian interpretation of all the articles.”Historical Theology, 1:89. According to Cunningham, it could not be proved that any one of these systems was inconsistent with the intent of the Creed—though at points they clearly contradict each other. The words of the Creed are simply not specific enough to determine which of these views it intends to affirm.
But the differences between these various interpretations reveal the difference between true Christianity and false Christianity. All of this comes back to the doctrinal position raised by Paul Crouch and Charles Colson. How can they argue for the objective truths of Christianity based on a creed that is so subjective?
Arguing for the Apostles’ Creed as the arbiter of fundamental Christian doctrine has only added further confusion for an evangelical movement already suffering from perpetual erosion of theological identity. The fundamentals cannot be drawn from any source external to Scripture. That is why we must conduct our search inside of God’s inerrant Word. And that is where our series on the fundamentals of the Christian faith will continue next time.