What the church has believed, taught and confessed

Every Sunday throughout much of the church, you will hear confessions from the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed being confessed. This is one of the standard “orders” in a worship service, whether the church is liturgical or non-liturgical, traditional or contemporary. You will hear it in Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches. I have actually been impressed by how often one encounters the creeds even in non-liturgical, contemporary worship services, which tend to embrace all things modern.

The reason these creeds continue to be confessed is that they represent a major link of continuity between all churches, across all denominations, across all time, and around the world. We live in a time when diversity and “options” are all the rage. It is increasingly common for Christians to choose between a “traditional” and “contemporary” service even within their own church. Christians may drive long distances, passing many churches, to get to an Anglican church, or some other liturgical expression, because they feel deeply connected to ancient liturgies. Others may drive out of their community to attend a charismatic or Pentecostal church because that better reflects their worship style. Yet, in all of these expressions, one often encounters the ancient creeds of the faith.

There is a very important phrase in the Nicene Creed which is also found in seed form in the Apostles’ Creed, but is explicit in the Nicene Creed. It is the phrase, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” This is a reference to what is known as the four marks of the true church: oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Oneness refers to the fact that although there are many denominations around the world, there is only one church of Jesus Christ. We sometimes refer to this as the “church universal.” Paul frequently uses the word “church” to mean not just a particular local expression of it, but all Christians everywhere (1 Cor. 12:12, 15:9; Eph. 4:5, 6). The word holy refers to the importance of the church embodying an ethical beauty which is marked by holiness (Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 3:17; Eph. 1:4). The third word catholic does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church per se, but to our union with all believers (including Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Independent) throughout all time and place. In other words, we do not believe that our particular denomination has a corner on truth, but we share a basic common confession with all true churches, even if we disagree about some particulars such as the mode of baptism, the way churches are governed, or whether Christians speak in tongues, and so forth. The word also implies that the whole gospel should be fully proclaimed by all expressions of the church. Finally, the word apostolic means that we embrace the core teachings of the Apostles which we have received and are obligated to “pass on” to new generations of believers (Jude 1:3).

For centuries, the church has discussed how these four marks of the church can best be kept and effectively passed on to each new generation. In other words, how exactly do we best “pass down” the truths found in the Apostles’ Creed and the ethical mandates of the New Testament? Traditionally, this question has been asked in a certain way. The church has asked, “What should be believed, taught, and confessed?”

For most of church history, this question has been answered by a deep commitment to catechesis, including three elements: doctrine, practice, and ethics. However, the meaning of these terms has suffered much. The term “believed” did not simply mean “things you know in your head, or trust in your heart” but all the ways faith extended itself, whether through worship, service in the world, or our own life and witness. The word “taught” did not simply mean what you may have learned in a “new members” class, but the whole structure of Christian teaching, preaching, and proclamation which would resonate with biblical, apostolic faith. The word “confessed” was far more than a document such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. It referred to the role of the church in defending the faith against attacks, protecting the church from false teachings, and maintaining our unity with the historic faith.

We are in a period of rebuilding and reclaiming historic Christianity in the life of the church today. The books which should captivate all Christians today are books like Ezra and Nehemiah, since they, like us, lived in a time of rebuilding. We sometimes only think of those books as the record of rebuilding the temple, city, and the walls around Jerusalem. But, in a deeper sense, these books are dedicated to rebuilding the very life of the people of God after years in exile. Ezra 7:10 beautifully captures this period in Israel’s history when it records that “Ezra set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and decrees in Israel.” It is vital that we be attentive to this deep calling to all Christians to fully embrace the faith, to learn it, to embody it, and to pass it on to others.


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