Author: Ron Graham
The Apostles’ Creed
—Double meanings in the Creeds
The most common creed in Christendom is the so-called “Apostles’ creed”. This creed dates from around AD 600, although patterned after similar statements dating from AD 200. It is called “The Apostles' Creed” not because the apostles wrote it (although some assert that they did), but because it is supposed to sum up the apostles' doctrine.
The “Apostles’ Creed”
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.”
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church; the communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
The problems with creeds...
There are problems with such a creed. Because of these problems, churches of Christ generally do not recite or confess the “Apostles' creed” (nor any other creed) as such, but simply use the scriptures directly. Jesus and his apostles themselves state the Christian faith, and we consider that the scriptures are sufficient (2Timothy 3:16-17).
1 Double Meaning
Firstly, there is the problem of double meaning (ambiguity). Take for example the two following phrases as used in the “Apostles' creed”...
- Descent into Hell. It is one thing for two people to recite together the words, "He descended into hell", but they may not each be interpreting the word "hell" in the same way. Some (correctly) take this as not meaning eternal hell, but hades, the place where the spirit goes at death until the resurrection (see Acts 2:27). Others believe (incorrectly) that Christ entered into the hell called gehenna (eg Matthew 18:9), the eternal abode of the wicked (note also Ephesians 4:9-10 kjv).
- Holy Catholic Church. Some, when confessing the creed would treat the word "catholic" as properly referring to the universal or undenominational world-wide church (1Corinthians 12:12-14), whilst others would incorrectly believe it to mean the Roman Catholic Church.
Sometimes confused meanings will creep into a creed over time as word usage and meaning changes. Other instances might be deliberately written into a creed so that two parties in disagreement can inject their own different meanings yet enjoy a common form of words. Whatever the reason, where a creed is ambiguous, it fails to produce the intended expression of a common faith.
2 Half Truth
Secondly, there is the problem of inadequacy or a lack of complete truth. For example...
- Forgiveness of sins. The “Apostles' creed” mentions "the forgiveness of sins" but says nothing of what one must do to receive forgiveness. Thus a later and longer creed (the so-called Nicean creed) replaces the vague "We believe in the forgiveness of sins" with the more specific: "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" (note Acts 2:38, Ephesians 4:5).
- The Holy Spirit. The creed says, "I believe in the Holy Spirit" but fails to clarify whether the Holy Spirit is one of three who are God, or merely an impersonal divine force (note John 14:16-17,23-24, and John 15:26).
Attempts to fill in these inadequacies only create a growing confusion of creeds and more and more division, because the more detailed and specific a document becomes, the fewer will be those who will accept and confess it. Thus, in order to be widely held, it is necessary for a creed to be inadequate. This is a dilemma in writing creeds.
3 Wrongly Dividing the Word
Thirdly there is a similar problem with creeds —that of selectivity. A creed effectively labels certain doctrines of the Bible as essential, and by omission makes other doctrines secondary or non-essential. This creates a dichotomy (a dividing in two) in the word of God, namely that some things the scripture commands and teaches are necessary whilst others can be set aside. For example the “Apostles' Creed” makes no mention of the following...
- The priesthood of all believers and the high-priesthood of Christ (Revelation 1:6, Hebrews 7:23-28). Some people believe (incorrectly) that priests have to be appointed on earth, whilst others (correctly) believe that such a priesthood was abolished with the old covenant (Hebrews 8:4-6).
- The fruits of the Spirit versus the sins of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-24, cf 1Corinthians 6:9-11, 2Peter 1:4-11). In a society where sins of the flesh, especially sexual immorality, are accepted and even encouraged, the church must emphasise and distinguish godly living.
These are two examples of a great many important elements of our faith and obedience to God. Why has a creed selectively excluded these things, apparently as non-essentials? You might say that if a creed were to include the whole of the gospel, and not select anything to set aside as optional or secondary, then it would be the gospel itself and not a creed. Precisely my point.
A creed has to be selective to be a creed. A creed has to be less than the whole gospel. So rather than upholding the gospel of Christ, a creed effectively subtracts from the gospel. (Revelation 22:18-19).
4 No Authority from Christ
Creeds present a fourth problem: Christ gave no authority to write creeds and to bind them upon the faithful. His word is the only authority in all things. The test of fellowship should be...
- Not acceptance of the “Apostles' creed” or any other man-made creed. There is only one basis for faith and fellowship among Christians, and that is the new covenant mediated by Christ, namely his gospel (Romans 1:16-17). Anything more or less than that is unsound. Our basis should not be acceptance of creeds composed by fallible men...
- But rather acceptance of the scriptures, wholly and solely, as authority in our faith and obedience. (2Timothy 3:16-17 again). Strangely, some creeds have a sola scriptura (only scripture) clause —isn't it a contradiction to have, as your authority, a creed saying that scripture is your only authority?
“The Apostles' Creed”, like any creed, has authority only among those who confess it, and it is of human authority, as are all creeds. The scriptures have authority among all and the scriptures are of Christ's authority.
A creed like “The Apostles' Creed” closes debate, whereas those who follow the Bible only, are always free to re-examine their faith, doctrine, and practice in the light of the Bible. If they find that they are in error on some point...
- They do not have to change their creed, for they have none.
- They do not have to change the scriptures for the scriptures do not err.
- All they have to change is themselves. They can do this immediately without having to convene a council or get authorisation for the change, for their authority is the very word of Christ (John 14:15,23).
- Their only “problem” is to abide in the teachings of Christ (2John 1:10).