by Jared Lidgerwood
Previously we have looked at why the Christian church has the Apostles’ Creed. We now turn our attention to consider how the creeds (generally) protect the life-giving gospel.
As the early Christian church busily set about establishing new churches they proclaimed the gospel – spreading the news about a treasure that offered forgiveness from God the Father; promised life, both new and eternal in the Son; and gave a clear understanding through the Holy Spirit. It was the apostles who led the charge and took this life-giving gospel out to the nations – telling people, travelling, sometimes under persecution, and never keeping quiet. Within a single generation the gospel message had been proclaimed all over the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, North Africa and into Europe.
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, writes to the church in Colossae telling what he prays for them: to be filled with knowledge, and to be pleasing to God, to be strengthened, and filled with joy and thanksgiving (Col 1:3-14). And then in describing what they should be thankful for, he writes what looks suspiciously like a song, or what we could call a creed.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. 21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Col 1:15-23)
It is a statement about who Christ is. Some call it a Christological Hymn (see also Phil 2:6-11; John 1:1-17) as it seems to follow a formula and a set pattern. Paul may be referring to something that was pre-written; a statement that defines particular things that the early church believed. In fact, the word ‘creed’ comes from the Latin word credo, meaning ‘I believe and trust’.
A creed can be incredibility useful. Paul used the ‘creed’ in Colossians 1 to spur Christians on in thanksgiving and endurance in faith. It also serves to define the truth of the faith. And as such, helps to protect the life-giving gospel.
If someone tried to suggest that: “Jesus was only a really great guy who was blessed by God,” the early Christians had this statement from the Apostle Paul and as such could rebuff by saying. ‘No, Jesus was far more than just a great guy – he’s the first-born over all creation, he sits over and above every part of creation, and everything that was created was created through him and for him’ (Col 1:15-16).
And as the years go on, the challenges to the faith became more and more present. People wrestled with what the Bible said and what it meant, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes suggesting doctrines or teachings which were heretical. For example, one of the earliest sectarian doctrines, labelled Docetism, affirmed that Christ did not have a real or natural body during his earthly life and instead was only an apparition. Jesus wasn’t really human, just pretended to be! As you would imagine, there was pushback.
Having a creed would helpfully guide those early Christians in what to believe by offering short summaries of biblical truth, and in doing, so provided some theological boundaries to help keep out false doctrines.
How then do can we be sure that those in power in the church did not make up the creeds as a way to quash all teachings that did not suit their agendas?
This is a valid concern which understandably worries some Christians today. There have been many different teachings and interpretations to consider. Yet here is how the creeds help. Each time a new teaching is raised (regardless of where it originated), the teaching could be compared (by a body of believers) to what was said in the Bible. If what is being asserted can not be drawn from the pages of scripture then the teaching could be rejected or corrected. And the result was that the accepted creeds captured what could be verified by the church at large from the foundational truths that they all had in the scriptures before them. The creeds became statements to fall back on, not because they have authority on their own, but because they expressed what was in scripture. The creeds were never meant to be exhaustive, but they were and continue to be a good starting point. Over the course of history and as challenges have been raised, the surviving creeds have proved to be helpful statements of belief for the church at large.
The result, Christians today can be confident that when declaring the accepted creeds that they stand with the Christian church across the centuries and around the world in professing the life-giving gospel.
In part 3, we’ll look why Christians should use creeds today.