Strange as it may seem to our fellow Christians in the more liturgical churches, Baptists rarely confess their faith by saying together the Apostles Creed, let alone the Nicene Creed. Instead, Baptists have had a suspicion of creeds, perhaps in reaction to the way in which in the past subscription to the ancient creeds was required as a test for entry to many public offices. Yet the early Christians had no difficulties in confessing their faith. Neither should we today! As I have written recently:
With the general demise of the singing of old hymns, in which the congregation used to confess its faith, I think there is a lot to be said for saying the Apostles Creed in Baptist churches. Creeds have a real place in public worship, for through the saying of the creeds we are not just saying what we believe, but also committing ourselves afresh to the one in whom we believe. It would be good too to bring into Baptist worship the great credal acclamation found in the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy: ‘Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again’.
One significant early confession of faith is quoted by Paul in 1 Tim 3.16. Almost certainly this is either a hymn or a creed which was sung or recited in the worship of the early church. This may not be clear in our English versions, but it becomes very apparent in the original Greek. We have here two couplets followed by a refrain, which ensures that each ‘verse’ ends on a note of triumph. Here six important affirmations are made about Jesus.
He was revealed in flesh,
Vindicated in spirit,
Seen by angels.
He was proclaimed among Gentiles,
Believed in throughout the world
Taken up in glory
- Jesus is God’s Son: “He was revealed in flesh”. Whereas we came into being when our parents made love, Jesus was already in being before he entered his mother’s womb. Before time was, Jesus was. Yet, in a way which defies understanding, “He appeared in human form” (GNB). Here nothing is said about the purpose of his coming. However, in 2 Tim 1.10 Paul speaks of “the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel”. Left to our own devices, death would be the end of us. In the words of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “The incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness the remedy which he required”. Jesus came to save us from sin and death.
- Jesus rose from the dead: “He was vindicated in spirit”. As far as his contemporaries were concerned, Jesus ended as a failure on a Cross. But they were proved wrong. For God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, and in raising him from the dead by the power of his Spirit his claim to be God’s Son “was shown to be right” (GNB). The resurrection was the real moment of revelation when God’s initiative in the incarnation is at last seen to be vindicated.
- Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth: “Seen by angels”. The risen Lord became the ascended Lord. In ascending to his Father in glory he made known his victory over sin and death to the angelic powers. At the time of Jesus and the apostles the world was thought to be full of spirit powers, many of whom were hostile to God and to his purposes. To them Christ appeared after his resurrection in all his glory In the New Testament we have a parallel in 1 Pet 3.19 : traditional this has been understood of Jesus descending to the dead, but modern scholarship has established that “the spirits in prison” are not the dead, but rather captive angelic powers to whom the ascending Christ proclaimed his victory.
- Jesus is the Saviour of the world: “Proclaimed among Gentiles”. From the very beginning Jesus has been good news for all. The Jews of his day had been looking for a Messiah who would restore their nation to its former greatness, but Jesus broke the Messianic mould and came as the Saviour of the world. I find it significant that the day the church was born was the day when Luke tells us that good news was preached to men and women from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2.5; see also 2.9-11). In the medieval wars of religion in France, the English soldiers used to call out, “The pope is French but Jesus Christ in English!” What rubbish. Jesus can never be the exclusive preserve of any one group, nation, or race: he is the Saviour of all.
- Jesus is the Saviour of those who believe: “Believed in throughout the world”. None of the great founders of the main world religions lived in so restricted area as Jesus. None lived for such a terribly short time as Jesus. None died so young. Yet the influence of Jesus has been greater than any of them. Every fourth human being is a Christian. Jesus has not only been preached, he has also been “believed” in. A little later in 1 Timothy Paul said: “We have our hope set on God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4.10). Faith is the catalyst which turns the potential into actual. Salvation becomes a reality where men and women put their trust in Jesus as the Saviour of the world.
- Jesus shares in the Father’s glory: “Taken up in glory”. Some have thought this affirmation out of place – for clearly the preaching and the believing took place Jesus was taken up in glory. However, the emphasis here is not so much on the ascension as a past event, but a reminder that even now Jesus shares in his Father’s glory. The Crucified and Risen Lord sits at God’s right hand and enjoys a state of splendour beyond our imagining.
Yet at the same time the Jesus who sits at God’s right hand and shares in his Father’s glory, is also the Crucified Jesus. I like to think that the scars are still there on his hands and in his side. Jesus has been one of us: he knows that life can be tough, and precisely because he has been through the mill, he is able to intercede for us at the right hand of God.
This hymn or confession of faith is not a developed creed compared to The Apostles Creed. The focus is very much on the triumph of the Risen, Ascended Lord. The Cross is not mentioned. In the words of Gordon Fee, “The first stanza sings Christ’s earthly ministry, concluding with a word of triumph and glorification. Similarly, the second stanza sings the ongoing ministry of Christ through his church, concluding again with the theme of glorification”. Nonetheless, this confession of faith already embraces “major elements of the Christian kerygma”. It is an embryonic creed.
I most certainly use Creeds in worship from time to time, although one or two members of my congregations have refused to join in on the grounds that “it isn’t what Nonconformists do”! As far as I’m concerned it’s good to affirm our faith as a Christian community and link us into the tradition of the wider Church, although I suspect most folk do have unspoken mental reservations at certain points! Indeed, I preached my way through the Apostles’ Creed only a couple of years ago.
However might I take slight issue with your reasoning behind Baptists’ suspicion of creeds? I understand what you say about using adherence to a creed as a” test for entry to many public offices”, and I’m sure you’re right about that. But it seems to me (and I am no church historian) that this criterion was not the main one for rejecting Creeds. Wasn’t it more to do with people in the Established Churches who seemed quite content to rattle off a Creed during worship but whose lives bore no relation to the faith they had confessed? Or did our forebears have the idea that it was easy to speak “dead words” when what they craved was a personal encounter with the Triune God?
Of course, Evangelicalism in particular has often been very careful in defining its beliefs and this has often led to a great deal of unhealthy and self-righteous tribalism. It does therefore strike me that many of our churches require their members to sign up to a far more detailed Statement of Faith than either our Declaration of Principle or the Apostles’ Creed. So, although these churches claim to be leading their people into a “personal experience of God”, they are in fact in danger of reducing the Faith to a series of abstract propositions – the very thing they reject by not using Creeds!