Creedal Christianity is... Ancient
If you read the newsletter about the sermon series we start today, you know I'm intending to tell you things I meant to the last 6 times I covered the 2nd Chief Part. Let's see.
First up is that there is a temptation to renounce ancient creedal Christianity. Well what is creedal Christianity? Christianity that adheres to an agreed upon confession of faith. In this sense, there are not only Lutheran creedal Christians but Reformed, Catholic, and even some Evangelicals. Don't believe that about the last? Go to High Pointe Baptist church's website here in Austin. Click "About." In all caps you'll see, "WE ARE A CONFESSIONAL CHURCH". Below they cite the two creeds that reflect the faith confessed there. The 1853 New Hampshire Confession and The Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
Though I find the Reformed and Charismatic churches do make pointed statements of faith on their web pages, of the 12 or so churches I've visited none has made such an obvious statement about being confessional as High Pointe Baptist. Take them seriously. That is really what they are about even if they don't say so in person or preaching. Still creedal Christianity is not popular. "Deeds not creeds"; what you do is more important than what you say has always resonated with the man on the street. "No creed but the Bible" is popular among Nondenom's, Church of Christ, and some Baptists. This is that old: Give me a Bible, a candle, and put me in a locked room for a week, and I will come out able to tell you what is wrong with the world and how to fix it. Not me. Give me a Bible, a candle, and lock me in a room, and I'll come out a heretic.
Since we confess a creed each week, you're not deeds not creeds' or the Bible is my creed' folks. But you may be Creeds are doctrines of men' folk. A confessional pastor asked his Bible Class why Luther put the 10 Commandments first and the Creed second in his Catechism? A man answered, "Because the 10 Commandments are God's Words and the creed is man's." If that's true, then creedal Christianity is condemned by Jesus' words: "They worship Me in vain, teaching human rules as if they are God's doctrines'" (Mt. 15:9). Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem 350 A.D., addressed this perception when the Apostles' Creed was about 100 years old. He said, "The articles of our faith were not composed out of human opinion but are the principal points collected out of the whole Scripture to complete a single doctrinal formulation of the faith. And in like manner as the mustard seed contains many branches within its tiny grain, so also this creed embraces in a few phrases all the religious knowledge contained in the Old and New Testaments " (Catechetical Lectures, V, 12).
But the anti-creedal force of deeds not creeds', no creed but the Bible', and creeds are doctrines of men' is strong. Does it move you that creeds are found in the Bible? The confession of the OT Church is still said in Judaism today. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Dt. 6:4). And read Ps. 136; surely the refrain that occurs 26 times, "For His mercy endures forever" is creedal. The NT has more creeds. 1 Cor. 12:3 gives you two short ones: "No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." 1 Tim. 2:5 is lengthier: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Read Phil. 2:6-11. You'll hear the succinctness and rhythm of a creed. Here's a portion. "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him" And my personal favorite1 Tim. 3:16: "And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness: He was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Beheld by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory".
Then we have Romans 10 where the relationship between the faith in you and the confession outside of you is treated. Protestantism, modernism, and postmodernism emphasize the subjective over the objective. The faith going on in your heart above the Faith Jude speaks of as once for all entrusted to God's people (3). True, faith, believing that Jesus kept the law in your place and paid for your breaking of it is what saves you, is what makes you a Christian, but a creed marks you as one. And what is not confessed outwardly is not really believed inwardly. Isn't that what Paul said in Romans 10? "For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" (10). So, it's a big deal when contemporary churches leave out the Creed in Sunday services especially when the Lord's Supper is celebrated. You don't know what Faith is proclaimed from that altar or confessed by those people. Creeds aren't said to God. God knows our innermost hearts and thoughts. He doesn't need Creeds. We can know neither; we only know what someone believes when they tell us.
I'm halfway through and I still haven't told you what I wanted to. It's this: belief in the Bible is not enough. In the 70s and on through the 90s, even confessional Lutheran churches would describe themselves as "Bible-believing." We we're trying to make clear that we had a high view of Scripture. It was the inspired and inerrant Word of God, the only rule and norm for all faith and life. It's true; we are a Bible believing church, but if we confess no more than that we're on our way to the nightmare death experienced by the Catholic's greatest theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Luther tells of it. "At the end of his life, he had no sure ground against the devil until he declared: I believe what is in this book.' He had the Bible in his arms. May God not grant us too much of that sort of faith." Luther goes on to say if he had only that faith he believed himself "into the very pit of hell." (From Luther's "Open Letter to Frankfurt on the Main" 1533 in Closed Communion, 9).
"I believe the Bible," is not a distinctively Christian confession of faith. Mormons, Muslims, and Unitarians say that. A Christian confession of faith states what you believe the Bible says. For example, I believe the Bible says "that Jesus Christ true God begotten of the Father before all worlds and true Man born of the Virgin Mary is my Lord" (St Antony's Cave Blog, 12-9-08). It's not distinctively Christian to believe that a Man Jesus was born in Bethlehem or even that He was born of a virgin. Muslims believe that. What is Christian is to believe that God the Son took on flesh and blood in the womb of a Virgin named Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost to take our place under God's laws and to suffer, be damned, die, and rise in our place. Creeds function to put a fence around that Gospel. People of the Law, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time and moralists today, put fences around the Law. To keep you from violating their Sabbath the Jews had hundreds of other laws to prevent you from getting that far. Christians that forbid drinking or dancing to prevent drunkenness and lustfulness have the same mindset.
Creeds are public statements of what a particular group believes the Bible says. People who subscribe to creeds believe the Bible plainly says this and not that. This is not the mindset of the world or of the heretic. Luther believed that the master stroke of Satan was to allow the Scripture to become the sole authority, and then to make it uncertain. "'Since every faction claimed Scripture for itself and interpreted it according to its own understanding, the result was that Scripture began to lose its worth, and eventually acquired the reputation of being a heretics' book and the source of all heresy, since all heretics seek the aid of Scripture'" (AE 37:14, The Lord's Supper, Stephenson, 10, fn. 28). And now you have what C.S. Lewis described in his Screwtape Letters. One demon advises another: "Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that 'suits' him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches" (81).
I've taught dozens of such men over the decades. They don't believe truth can be definitively known and so each denomination, each confessed creed has a part. It's the old 3 blindmen and an elephant. Do you really think Almighty God who loved fallen mankind so much that He sent His only beloved Son into our flesh, into our fallen world, into this manmade hell of mud and madness, left it up in the air at to what is to be believed? During an 1851 French coup, the mob was facing the Imperial Guard. A count troubled by a cough said, "ma sacree toux! That is my darn [damned] cough'. The aid understood him to say, massacrez tous. That is massacre everybody." He ordered fire' and thousands were killed (Wonder Book of Facts, 134). Much worse can happen if God's Word can't be clearly understood. Paul says it's worse than a trumpet giving an unclear sound in battle (1 Cor. 14:8). But the Bible is so clear that Jesus proves that the dead rise because God uses a present not a past tense (Mk. 12:26-27). Paul proves that all the promises of God are in Christ by pointing out that God used a singular not a plural word (Gal. 3:16).
We believe that God has revealed Himself and what is to be believed for salvation clearly in His Word. Creeds summarize those statements to leave no doubt about what is believed, confessed, and taught in a church. A church that has no creed, can teach anything. A church that wants no creed, wants to teach anything it pleases about the Bible. This has never been Confessional Lutherans. Since our very beginnings in the 16th century, we have clearly put forth what we believe the Bible says. This is to protect the Gospel and put subjective faith under objective faith. Putting the emphasis on what is to believed rather than on believing. Don't you hear that in the Apostles' Creed? It cities an objective, secular historical figure, Pontius Pilate, to root our faith in a time and space. The later Nicene Creed is more explicit: "Christ was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate".
Two closing remarks. Chesterton, a Roman Catholic, who confessed the 3 Ecumenical Creeds we do said, "I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas andcreeds" as his friends in journalism said he was. Because it is only the heretical creeds that die while the one confessing God's truth is the one "that lives long enough to be called antiquated" (Chesterton, Autobiography, 87). Luther, in our Catechism, paraphrased the Creed in 3 simple sentences, "'God created me...Jesus...is my Lord ...the Holy Spirit calls me'" (A Formula for Parish Practice, 41). There's the Ancient Faith you can easily remember, comfortably live in, and confidently die in. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Midweek Vespers 1 (20201202); 2nd Chief Part