Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Why I Believe in Household Baptism

I grew up Southern Baptist and was convinced of the “believers only” view of baptism. In seminary, when I realized almost all my theological heroes viewed baptism (and the church) differently, I began studying the doctrines of the church, the covenants, and the sacraments. Here are eleven things I learned that persuaded me to believe in household baptism (sometimes called paedobaptism).

1. Neither view explicitly taught. The difference between the views is NOT that one is taught explicitly, while the other is not. Neither view is taught explicitly. There is no text that explicitly prescribes or describes the baptism of believers only. Likewise, there is no text that explicitly prescribes or describes the baptism of believers and their children. Both sides are dependent on their interpretive principles and various inferences based upon them.

2. Hermeneutical differences. The difference between the views is rooted in two incompatible interpretive principles. The “believers only” view of baptism comes from an interpretive principle of essential discontinuity between the Old and New testaments. This view says, “No principle established in the Old testament continues into the New unless it is clearly reconfirmed in the New (or prophesied in the Old) as being part of the New.” The “household” view comes from an interpretive principle of essential continuity between the Old and New testaments. This view says, “A principle established in the Old testament continues into the New unless it is clearly denied as being part of the New.”

3. Essential continuity of the gospel. The way of salvation is essentially the same in the Old testament as in the New. Though the Old testament is preparation and shadow and the New testament is fulfillment and substance, the good news is the same good news.

4. Essential continuity of the covenant. The way of salvation is essentially covenantal, because the way of communion with God is covenantal. From the beginning God has voluntarily condescended to grant his creatures communion with himself by way of a covenant.

5. Two historical covenants: works and grace. The first covenant was a covenant of works (Gen. 1:28ff; 2:16-17). Its parties were God and Adam with his seed (household) in him. Its promise was eternal life (Gen. 3:22). Its condition was works of obedience (Gen. 2:17; 3:17). This covenant was irreparably broken at the fall (Rom. 3:20; 5:12-21). The second covenant was a covenant of grace. Its parties are God and Jesus, the God-man, with his seed (household) in him (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 3:21; 5:12-21; 8:3; Isa. 42:6). Its promise is eternal life and salvation. Its condition is faith in Jesus Christ. It is gracious in two ways: (a) the promise is given to us by virtue of Jesus’s sacrifice and obedience for us, and (b) even the faith by which we take hold of the promise in Jesus is a gift given to the elect by grace.

6. Various administrations of the one covenant of grace. The covenant of grace has been administered differently in redemptive history. So, while it has always been essentially the same covenant, its administration has been different. We see it first proclaimed and administered by blood sacrifice in the Garden of Eden after the fall (Gen. 3). It included Adam and his household. We see it reconfirmed with Noah (Gen. 6) and administered by blood sacrifice and by the special redemptive-historical event of the flood. It included Noah, his sons, and their households. It is reconfirmed with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and administered by blood sacrifice and circumcision (Gen. 12ff). It included their whole households. We see it reconfirmed with the nation of Israel through Moses and administered by the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws in the Promised Land, including the signs of circumcision and the end-of-week Sabbath (Ex; Lev; Num; Deut). It included whole households.

7. The household principle not revoked. Given the consistent principle of the covenant’s administration to whole households from the time of Adam forward (not just from Moses forward) and without any clear revocation of that principle in the New testament, we should believe that the principle continues into the New testament. God administers his covenant of grace to whole households (i.e. believers and their children).

8. The household principle reconfirmed. Besides finding no clear revocation of the household principle in the New testament, there is ample positive evidence for believing it continues.

(A) One of the key texts used to support the “believers only” view, actually explicitly denies it. Jeremiah 31:34 says, “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Believers only-ists believe this prophecy of the New covenant limits its membership to those who know the Lord in a saving way. But that’s not what Jeremiah intends. Jeremiah is speaking of the New covenant in contrast to the Old in terms of the condition of the covenant people in his day, which he describes earlier in 6:13, saying, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.” The contrast Jeremiah is developing isn’t about covenant membership. It’s about the higher scope and degree of the Spirit’s work to sanctify God’s covenant people through the better Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus in the New covenant, a work that will reach its consummation when faith turns to sight and the invisible church becomes the visible church in the age to come. In the old covenant just a few believers received the anointing of the Spirit and were invited into the special presence of the LORD (i.e. the priests). They were charged to teach the rest of the people saying, "Know the LORD." But in the new covenant all believers receive the anointing of the Spirit (think: Pentecost) and are therefore made priests. Because all believers are priests, all are invited to draw near to the special presence of the LORD to enjoy intimate fellowship (to know) the LORD. Turning back to the OT types and shadows in which the Spirit's work was more constrained by the lesser Aaronic priesthood is a denial of the gospel (cf. Heb. 8). Furthermore, denying the continuation of the household principle and, therefore, excluding the infant children of believers from the kingdom in the New covenant is to conceive of it and Jesus's priesthood as a lesser administration compared to the Old! If we read further in Jer. 32:39, where the prophet is still describing the New covenant, we learn that's not at all what he intended since he explicitly teaches the continuation of the household principle. The text says, “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good *and the good of their children after them.*” Jeremiah prophesies that the household principle continues into the New covenant.

(B) Jesus pronounced the priestly blessing upon believers and their infant children, saying “To such belongs the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). In what sense did the kingdom of God belong to them, if they hadn’t yet made a public profession of faith? It belonged to them in the sense of its visible administration. It belonged to them according to the household principle. They were members of the visible church and as such were visibly united to Jesus and his kingdom.

(C) On the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter taught the men of Israel using the same formula God had given to Abraham when he instituted circumcision in Gen. 17:7, viz. “The promise is for you and your children (i.e. Jewish households, believers and their children from among the Jews) and for all who are far off (i.e. Gentile households, believers and their children from among the Gentiles), everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (i.e. both Jews and Gentiles with their households).”

(D) Five household baptisms are recorded in Acts and 1 Cor. If the Apostles believed the household principle did not continue, why wouldn’t Luke and Paul have been crystal clear that *only* believers within those households were baptized?

(E) In 1 Cor. 7:14 Paul teaches that the children of at least one believing parent are holy (i.e. set apart to the Lord as his possession). In what sense are they holy? They are not holy in the sense of being regenerated (though they could be). They are holy in the sense of belonging to the visible church, which is the body of Christ on earth, and should therefore receive the visible administration of his covenant, including the initiatory sign and seal, viz. baptism.

(F) In Eph. 6:1-4 Paul commands the children of the church to obey their parents in the Lord without distinguishing between believing children and unbelieving children. He understands that they are all “in the Lord,” visibly speaking, by virtue of their membership in the visible body of Christ.

9. The problem of apostasy. The Bible teaches that there are three categories of persons in relation to God, which is the outworking of the distinction between the visible and invisible churches. There are true believers who are members of the visible church (i.e. the covenant visibly applied), unbelievers who are members of the visible church (i.e. the covenant visibly applied), and unbelievers outside the visible church (i.e. who need to make a credible profession and be baptized to enter the visible church). The visible church is all those throughout the world who profess the true religion (whether they be a false professor or not) and their children (whether they have made a credible profession of faith or not). Visible church membership has NOTHING to do with regeneration since regeneration is, by definition, invisible. The invisible church is made up of all the elect who have existed or will exist. Among the visible church are both wheat and weeds, true believers and unbelievers (e.g. false professors or the children of a believing parent who never believe). Nonetheless, all are covenant members, visibly speaking. All have received the covenant sign of baptism. All have been united to Christ the vine (John 15:1-8), visibly speaking. They stand on grace (Gal. 5:4), visibly speaking. They have tasted of the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (Heb. 6:4-6), visibly speaking. They have been sanctified by blood of the covenant (Heb. 10:29), visibly speaking. These passages that speak of being cut away from union with Christ and thrown into the fire (John 15:6), being severed from Christ and falling away from grace (Gal. 5:4), falling away (Heb. 6:6), and outraging the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29) make no sense from a Calvinistic baptist perspective (i.e. those who at least believe in eternal security). Classical Arminians do more justice to these texts than Calvinistic baptists, because the texts really teach a kind of falling away from union with Christ and losing a share in his Spirit, which makes the Calvinistic baptist assignment of these warnings to the realm of the hypothetical unsatisfying. Of course, Arminians believe they teach that a person can lose his salvation. But that won’t do either since the Bible is clear about the eternal security of God’s elect. So what can these texts mean? I submit that they all have the household principle in view. The visible administration of the covenant of grace, which constitutes the visible church, includes both true believers and unbelievers. And the unbelievers, while not invisibly joined to Christ, are nonetheless visibly joined to him by his covenant. They can, therefore, really be severed from him. They can really fall away from grace. They can really outrage the Spirit of grace. There really is such a thing as apostasy. This has huge implications for the third mark of the church, viz. church discipline.

10. The expansiveness of the New covenant. Are we to suppose that after 4000 years of redemptive history, the visible administration of the covenant was suddenly restricted to believers only without a single clear word about it from God? What about all those children who had already been members of the covenant prior to Jesus’s ascension into heaven? Are we really to think that the Apostles viewed them as excommunicated without giving a single word of counsel or encouragement to their parents? Isn’t the New covenant supposed to be better due to its wider scope (i.e. both men and women receive the initiatory sign, both Jews and Gentiles are included, all believers are priests together in Christ, the church IS the temple now, wherever she is found)? But your kiddos are OUT! That last sentence doesn’t seem to fit.

11. The nature of sacraments. The “believers only” view of baptism misunderstands the nature of sacraments (ordinances) in the first place. Sacraments are NOT our testimony to God. They are his testimony to us. They are signs and seals of his covenant, his promise. They testify to his great faithfulness NOT ours. Baptism is meant to visibly mark off God’s people from the world. As the sign is administered God is demonstrating visibly for all to see that the one baptized is different from the world by virtue of his covenant. The Lord’s Supper is similar, except it marks off those who have made a credible profession of faith from those who have not *within the visible church.* As it is administered, God is demonstrating visibly for all to see that those invited to his table are different from others within the body, thus reminding his covenant children that the promises he has held out to them in their baptisms must be received from him by faith. But the bottom line is this: the sacraments are about what God is doing before and among his people NOT about what God’s people are doing before him.

Anyway, more could certainly be said, but these are the basic issues that convinced me of the household baptism view. Perhaps they will be useful to others as well. 

The Apostles' Creed: Jesus Christ, His Only Begotten Son, Our Lord

In this lesson we transition from a focus upon the Father and the works more properly associated with him to a focus upon the Son and the works more properly associated with him. We transition from the works of creation and providence generally speaking to the work of redemption.

This section of The Apostles’ Creed does not begin with the Son’s eternal being but with his special revelation in the incarnation as “Jesus Christ.” That is significant. We know God’s triune nature through the incarnation. The name God gave to his incarnate Son just before his conception teaches us much about him. In Luke 1:30-33 the angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The name Jesus is the English transliteration of the Greek word Ιησούς (pronounced yay-soos), which is a transliteration of the Hebrew word יֵשׁוּעַ (pronounced yah-shoo-ah), which means “the LORD saves” or “salvation is from the LORD.” God gave his incarnate Son this name to emphasize the work he was sent to accomplish, so we confess in Larger Catechism Q. 41 Why was our Mediator called Jesus? A. Our Mediator was called Jesus, because he saves his people from their sins. Jesus came to seek and save the lost.

The word Christ is the English transliteration of the Greek word Χριστός (pronounced kris-tahs), which comes from the root χριο (pronounced kri-ah). Χριο means “anointed,” as by oil. Χριστός means “anointed one.” The Hebrew word with the same meaning is מָשִׁ֫יחַ (pronounced ma-she-ahk), which is transliterated into English as messiah. The word Christ is not a surname. It is a title. In OT times the prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with the Holy Spirit, which was oftentimes signified by olive oil, at the time of their installation. The authority and ability to execute their office depended upon this special anointing (cf. Num. 11; Ps. 51:11). Jesus is the eschatological prophet, priest, and king. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit above measure (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32; Acts 2:33; 1 Cor. 15:45). He was therefore authorized and enabled to accomplish the work he was sent to do. He has brought forth the first fruits of a new creation by defeating death and giving his people eternal life by the Spirit. The life we have in him is by virtue of his own anointing with the same life. We, the body, have life through our union with him, the head. As Ps. 133:2 says, “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” He has become to us, as the Apostle says, “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), so we confess in Larger Catechism Q. 42. Why was our Mediator called Christ? A. Our Mediator was called Christ, because he was anointed with the Holy Ghost above measure; and so set apart, and fully furnished with all authority and ability, to execute the offices of prophet, priest, and king of his church, in the estate both of his humiliation and exaltation.

After fixing our attention upon the historical Jesus Christ, the Creed looks back into eternity. Jesus is different from every other person in redemptive history. He is the only begotten Son of the Father. Some translations of the Creed read “only” instead of “only begotten.” Why the difference? The original Greek word is μονογενες (pronounced mah-nah-geh-nes). This is the word the Apostle John uses in John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18. The earliest English translations render it as “only begotten,” which carries the sense of uniqueness through origin. More recently, however, Greek scholars have questioned this translation, contending that it has nothing to do with origin but simply means “only.” I believe the original rendering is correct (cf. Ps. 2:7; Prov. 8:25; Mic. 5:2; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:2-3, 5). Jesus is the only Son from (i.e. origin) the Father. This from-ness is his begotten-ness or generation. He is the only eternally begotten or generated Son from the Father. As The Nicene Creed says, he is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Before becoming Jesus Christ in the incarnation, the Son was eternally with the Father and the Holy Spirit, three persons in one true and living God. So we confess in WCF 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” The Son’s begotten-ness is what defines him as Son. It is the personal property that distinguishes him from the Father and Spirit, so we confess in Larger Catechism Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead? A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity. Jesus’ deity was absolutely necessary for our salvation. Again we confess in Larger Catechism Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God? A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation.

Jesus is also described by the title “our Lord.” This title refers to one with authority. He is the one Head over his church. It is to him that we owe our total allegiance and obedience. And it is to him that we have entrusted our lives. The Apostle Peter thus concludes his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:34-36, saying, “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” This Lordship is equivalent to Jesus’ mediatorial office as king, so we confess in Larger Catechism Q. 45. How doth Christ execute the office of a king? A. Christ executes the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them; in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins, preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel. The Apostle Paul also teaches in Romans 10:9-13, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” The simple confession of Jesus’ lordship was one of the earliest Christian creeds. For Jews who were already trained in the Scriptures it was enough to profess that Jesus was the promised Messiah whom God had made Lord over his people to be admitted into communing membership in his church.

Review Questions 
  1. What does the name Jesus mean? 
  2. What does the title Christ mean? 
  3. How are Jesus’ mediatorial offices of prophet, priest, and king significant in our salvation? What specific needs do each office meet concerning our salvation?
  4. Of what is Jesus’ begotten-ness a property? 
  5. What is the significance of Jesus’ lordship? How does it affect our assurance of salvation?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

New Podcast: The Geneva Mountain Boys

Rev. Hank Belfield, Minister at Providence OPC in Chilhowie, VA, Mr. Corey Paige, member of Neon Reformed and student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and I began a new podcast last November called the Geneva Mountain Boys. Our goal is to reach out to Applachia and beyond with the historic Christian, Protestant, and Reformed faith. We began with a series on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. We're now doing a series on The Apostles' Creed. We'd love to have you subscribe to our feed and give us a listen. Here are the pertinent links:


The Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation

Episode 1: Sola Scriptura
Episode 2: Sola Gratia
Episode 3: Sola Fide
Episode 4: Solus Christus
Episode 5: Soli Deo Gloria

The Apostles' Creed (current series at the time of this post)

Episode 6: The Apostles' Creed (Part 1): Origin and Use of the Creeds
Episode 7: The Apostles Creed (Part 2): Overview

The Apostles' Creed: Maker of Heaven and Earth

Last time we began to examine the Creed’s description of the object of our faith, viz. the triune God. The first part of that description concerned “God the Father.” Thus we learned that the God in whom we believe is a personal (or relational) God. He is the Father eternally, in his being (i.e. his operations ad intra), in relation to his begetting of the Son. He is also the adoptive Father temporally, in the economy of redemption (i.e. his operations ad extra), in relation to all he those he has redeemed from the curse of sin and misery. The Creed further described him as “almighty,” signaling that his power is unmatched. Nothing lies outside his sovereign authority and strength.

In this lesson we will consider the next part of the Creed’s description of God the Father. He is “maker of heaven and earth.” The phrase “heaven and earth,” is the Bible’s way of referring to everything except God. In Genesis 1:1 we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Nicene Creed also adds, “of all things visible and invisible.” The visible is the material universe. The invisible is any immaterial aspect of the universe, including human souls and angels. God’s work of creation is one of the two works by which he executes his eternal decrees. Shorter Catechism question seven asks: “What are the decrees of God?” It answers: “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Question eight then asks: “How does God execute his decrees?” And it answers: “God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence.” It continues in questions nine and eleven to define these works, writing: “The work of creation is, God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good,” and, “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” This is essentially what is being communicated in the phrase “maker of heaven and earth.”

It should be noted that just as with the attribute “almighty,” the Creed does not mean that the Father does these works to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit. On the contrary, the Son and Holy Spirit do the works of creation and providence just as the Father does. These are the works of the triune God, not the works of any particular person of the Trinity exclusively. Nonetheless, the Bible teaches that the three persons perform different operations in their work ad extra that correspond to their operations ad intra. God the Father does these works through the Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:2; John 1:3; 5:17; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2-3). Thus it is appropriate to ascribe these works, first, to the Father. God’s works of creation and providence teach us several important things about him.

The Creator-Creature Distinction

God is essentially different from us. We are creatures. He is not. “God is,” as Shorter Catechism question four says, “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” We are composite; he is not. We are bodily; he is not. We are limited; he is not. We are temporal; he is not. We are changeable; he is not. This distinction entails our utter dependence upon him.

Creaturely Dependence

We are dependent upon God for our very existence. God created us from nothing on the sixth day (cf. Gen. 1-2). We are not only dependent on him for our beginning (i.e. his work of creation) but also for our continuation (i.e. his work of providence). As the Apostle teaches: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This dependence is true for every aspect of our being, including our knowledge of him. We are dependent on God’s self-revelation to know him. We cannot know him otherwise. This makes the Holy Scriptures—God’s special revelation to us—most necessary. It is interesting that the Creed does not mention the Scriptures. That is not because the early church viewed them as unnecessary. It is because their necessity was unquestioned. How do we know the Creed’s teaching on God’s triunity? We know by depending on the Scriptures, a dependence that the Creator-creature distinction entails. This distinction also entails our accountability to God. If we owe our existence to him, then we owe our allegiance to him. We do not belong to ourselves but to him who created us. He is deserving of all our honor and thanks (cf. Rom. 1:21), because he is most excellent. The Apostle exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33- 36). Any rebellion against him is, therefore, condemnable to the highest degree since the one offended is excellent to the highest degree.

The Creator-creature distinction also entails our ability to rest in the assurance that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11b) and that “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28b). The God who created all things by the word of his power is “able to save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25) since he is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:38). Further, the Apostle encourages us with respect to anti-Christian spirits, writing, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The same power that created the heavens and the earth from nothing is at work to save us. Nothing can stand in his way. “If God is for us who can be against us” (Romans 8:31b). This should bring us great comfort.

But not only should we be comforted with respect to our salvation, but also with respect to everything that happens to us in this life. Caspar Olevianus comments on this section of the Creed, writing, “Whoever is persuaded that by His providence God administers everything most wisely, and whoever is fully reconciled to Him in Christ, ought to consider whatever happens— whether public or private, happy or sad—as nothing other than benefits, indeed benefits of God, for our salvation” (An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, p. 48).

As we confess belief in the “maker of heaven and earth,” we confess one of the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith. God is God; we are not. This should bring great terror to those who continue in rebellion against him. There is no escaping his final reckoning. But it should bring great comfort to those who have been reconciled to him through faith in Jesus Christ.

Review Questions

1. What does the phrase “heaven and earth” mean in the Bible?
2. Which two of God’s works does the word “maker” have in view?
3. Of what prior work are God’s works of creation and providence the execution?
4. What is the difference between God’s works ad intra and ad extra? What is the significance of this distinction? What is the importance of the decree in maintaining this distinction?
5. What is the Creator-creature distinction? Why is it important?
6. What does our utter dependence upon God entail about our knowledge of him? Our assurance of salvation? Our comfort in all circumstances?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: God the Father Almighty

The Apostles’ Creed is a confession of faith. As such it not only speaks about the act of faith (i.e. “I believe”) but also its object. In what do Christians believe? Answer: God, but not just the concept of god. We believe in the one true and living God, the God who is and who has revealed himself generally in his works of creation and providence and specially in the the Holy Scriptures and the incarnation. As J.I. Packer notes on pp. 31-32 of Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “Today’s idea is that the great divide is between those who say, ‘I believe in God’ in some sense and those who cannot say it in any sense. Atheism is seen as an enemy, paganism is not, and it is assumed that the difference between one faith and another is quite secondary. But in the Bible the great divide is between those who believe in the Christian God and those who serve idols—“gods,” that is, whose images, whether metal or mental, do not square with the self disclosure of the Creator. One wishes that some who recite ‘I believe in God’ in church each Sunday would see that what they actually mean is ‘I do not believe in God—not this God, anyhow!’”

A.W. Tozer famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” The Creed begins by identifying God as “the Father.” What is meant by this designation? According to Scripture God is Father in at least two ways. First, God is a Father in relation to his Son. He eternally begets his Son. The Son is eternally begotten of him. Thus we confess in WCF 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” Though the Son and the Holy Spirit are also fully God, the Creed begins with the Father because he is first in order of origin in the trinitarian relations. This order of origin is not chronological. God did not become a Father when he begot his Son. There was no such when. He is always the Father who begets his Son. The Father begets; the Son is begotten. This is why the Apostles often refer to the Father as God in relation to the Son whom they typically designate as Lord (cf. John 3:16; 1 Cor. 12:6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 1:5; 1 Pet. 3:3; Jude 1). It is also why The Apostles’ Creed begins with God the Father.

But there is another sense in which God is designated Father. He is also, eternally, the heavenly Father of all his adopted children within the creation. Thus Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father in heaven…” And the Apostle encourages the Romans, writing, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17). We also confess in WCF 12.1: “All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.” To confess faith in God the Father is to confess that we belong to him as his beloved children. Our fundamental identities are not found in the various human relationships that bind us—whether earthly families, marriages, national citizenship, etc.—but in the heavenly family, marriage, and citizenship into which we have been adopted. To be an adopted child of God is to participate, albeit in a creaturely way, in the eternally blessed relationships of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our God is personal. He does not become personal when he creates. He is eternally personal in himself personally invested in the history of his creation. This personal investment is revealed to us by way of a covenant. Thus Caspar Oliveanus teaches on pp. 9-15 of his An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed that the Creed is at bottom a covenantal affirmation. Our God is not only over and apart from us. He is also for and with us.

The Creed continues by describing God the Father as “almighty.” Besides the fact that he is good, we confess that he is unlimitedly powerful. But this raises a question. Does the Creed’s attribution of almightiness to the Father mean that the Son and Spirit are less mighty? No. The power of the Father is an attribute of the deity he shares with the Son and the Spirit. Just as each person of the trinity is equally God, so each is equally almighty. But what does God’s almightiness entail?

I remember a moment in fourth grade when one of my teachers asked if anyone in the class could draw a two-dimensional shape with just two straight lines? Believing I could do anything, I raised my hand. She handed me the chalk. I walked to the board. After several failed attempts, I sat down. The lesson was clear. Some things are impossible by definition (i.e. a two-dimensional shape, by definition, cannot be drawn with only two straight lines). Does God’s unlimited power mean that he can draw a two-dimensional shape with two straight lines? No, that’s nonsensical. God’s almightiness does not mean he has the ability to be nonsensical. It also doesn’t mean he has the ability to act contrary to his own nature. God cannot sin, which is another way of saying he cannot cease to be God. God’s almightiness means that he is able to do whatever he pleases, as Ps. 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” And he is only pleased to do that which is consistent with his nature.

God’s almightiness is evident in his works of creation and providence. God spoke forth the creation from nothing by the word of his power. Moreover, as we confess in SC 11, “God's works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” Both these works are the execution of God’s eternal decree, of which we confess in WCF 3.1: “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Included in this decree is the predestination of some (i.e. the elect) to everlasting life and the foreordination of others to eternal destruction.

To confess that God is almighty is to confess that he controls all that comes to pass in such a way that it cannot be otherwise. His plan cannot be thwarted. But if that is true, what about evil? And what about human free will? While God’s almightiness is not limited by his creation in any way, he has created human beings with moral agency. That means we have the freedom to act according to our nature. Like him we are able to do whatever we please, but we are not able to please whatever we please. We are not able to get behind our nature to change it at any point. We are secondary agents with the power of secondary causation. God is therefore able to be in control of all we do without that control being active at every point. We only do what God has decreed we will do AND we always ultimately do what we please. Both are true. We alone are culpable for the evil we do, because we are the only active causal agents in it and we always intend evil by it. God’s agency in evil's occurence is permissive, and he has ordained it for good reasons, reasons that he has not fully disclosed to us. He is not the author of evil, but neither is evil something that is outside his power at any point.

But if God has the power to rid the world of evil, why doesn’t he? This is sometimes called the problem of evil. The argument goes as follows. (1) Evil exists in God’s creation. (2) An all-good God would eliminate evil if he could. (3) An all-powerful God could eliminate evil if he would. (4) Therefore, God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful. The problem with this problem is that it doesn’t simply make the elimination of evil an entailment of God’s goodness. We would agree with that. It makes the immediate elimination of evil an entailment of God’s goodness. We disagree with that. As Packer says on p. 48 of Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, “If God moves more slowly than we wish in clearing evil out of the world and introducing the new order, that, we may be sure, is in order to widen his gracious purpose and include in it more victims of the world’s evil than otherwise he could have done.” Further, he has already begun this good process within all his adopted children, and because he is almighty we can be assured that he will finish what he has begun. There is therefore much comfort in the doctrine of God’s almightiness. As Oliveanus writes on p. 41 of An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I have a covenant with God almighty, who by His omnipotence both brings to pass whatever He wills in all the world and prevents, confuses, and drives back whatever He does not will or has not decreed, so that it is impossible for these things to happen.”

Christians believe in the one true and living God who has revealed himself as both an eternal Father to his only begotten Son and a temporal Father to his adopted children. He is personal, good, and powerful. Working out his holy and wise decree for his own glory and the good of his adopted children.

Review Questions

1. What is the significance of the designation “Father” being applied to God? In what two ways is he a Father?
2. What is the significance of the Creed’s description of God the Father as “almighty”? Why is this attribute ascribed to the Father? Are the Son and Spirit less mighty?
3. Does God’s almightiness mean that he can do anything? If not, in what does it mean?
4. How does God’s almightiness relate to human free will and the existence of evil?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: I Believe

The Creed does not open with the declaration, “I know,” “I feel,” or “I think.” It opens with the declaration, “I believe” (Pisteuo, Credo). This is significant. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Faith is the context in which we attain a saving knowledge of God (i.e. “that he exists and that he rewards”) and fellowship with God (i.e. “draw near to God”). We find this same idea expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament teaching that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 2:5; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). The Hebrew word that is translated “fear” connotes the idea of faith. This faith is independent of seeing. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” And 1 Peter 1:8b says, “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him.” So why is faith the context of a saving understanding of God?

Our lack of understanding is due to sin. Romans 1:21-22 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” And Romans 3:11 quotes Psalm 14 to describe the estate of sin, saying, “No one understands; no one seeks for God.” One aspect of our salvation is having our understandings enlightened to a true knowledge of God. This is what Hebrews 11:6 means when it says, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists.” But if faith only involves knowledge of God, then it is insufficient to save. James 2:19 is clear: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” While saving faith never involves less than a true knowledge of God, it always involves more.

Historically, saving faith has been defined by Protestants as having three essential aspects:

1.      Knowledge
2.      Assent
3.      Trust

The knowledge of faith includes all that God has revealed in his word for our salvation, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the Apostle has in mind when he says in Romans 10:14-15, 17, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Saving faith requires knowledge of the word of Christ. Thus WCF 14.1a says, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word.” In order to believe in Jesus we must know about him. But if we only have knowledge, we haven’t yet believed. After all, the Apostle says in verse 16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’”

Many people are aware of the basic teachings of Christianity but reject them as nothing more than cleverly constructed myths. Faith also involves assenting to the truthfulness of the Bible’s teaching as the word of God. The Apostle commends the Thessalonians for this in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. The text says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” WCF 14.2a says, “By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein.” But if we know the gospel and assent to its truthfulness we still have not believed unto salvation. After all, the demons assent to the truthfulness that God is one (cf. James 2:19).

Faith also includes personal trust. The illustration of a chair is sometimes used to make this point. I may know that a chair is in the room. I may assent to the truth that the chair would hold my weight if I were to sit upon it. But until I actually sit upon it, I have not put my personal trust in the chair. Putting this in terms of the gospel, I may know the Bible’s teaching about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I may even assent to the truthfulness of it. But until I trust that Jesus’ did his redemptive work for meon my behalf, I do not have a saving faith in him. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Therefore WCF 14.2b says, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”

This faith is given to us as a gift of God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is never perfect in this life but needs to be nourished and strengthened by regular engagement with the means of grace. WCF 14.1 says, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.” This faith also changes the way we live our lives. WCF 14.2a says, “By this faith, a Christian…acts differently upon that which each particular [Bible] passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.” And this faith overcomes the world by persevering to the end. 1 John 5:4-5 says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” WCF 14.3 says, “This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

What we believe—our creed—should be precious to us. To believe the material of The Apostles’ Creed is a supernatural work of God that transforms our lives and gives us final victory over the curse of sin and misery. It marks the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. It is the foundation of our love to God and neighbor. It is a basic philosophy of life, providing a stable foundation from which to answer the most important questions. The Apostles’ Creed gets to the heart of Christian identity. As the Declaration of Independence contains the basic principles of the United States, so the Creed contains the basic principles of the visible church, which is the kingdom of Christ on earth. To profess the Creed is to claim citizenship in the new creation. Good men and women, our brothers and sisters, gave their lives to remain faithful to the teaching of the Creed. Whenever we recite it we join our voices with them, carrying on the same mission under the same banner to the glory of King Jesus. 

Review Questions

1.      What is the significance of the Creed’s opening declaration “I believe”?
2.      What are the three essential aspects of saving faith?
3.      What must we know to be saved? How do we acquire that knowledge?
4.      What does it mean to assent to the truthfulness of Holy Scripture?
5.      What does it mean to personally trust in the gospel of Jesus?

The Apostles' Creed: Overview

The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of The Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24 AD. It was adopted by Rome and became a common creed of the Western Church. It states:

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 and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

What are the characteristics of this creed?


The Apostles’ Creed has a trinitarian structure. It begins with a focus on the Father, continues with a focus on the Son, and ends with focus on the Holy Spirit. While there is no precise formulation concerning persons and substance as with The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, there is, nonetheless, an implicit recognition of the trinitarian nature of God. We see an ordering within the trinity, the Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third. The Father is the Father due to his eternal begetting of the Son, and he is our Father due to the Son's redemptive work for us. The Son is the Son due to his being eternally begotten from the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit due to his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. These are their distinct personal properties (Larger Catechism, Q. 10). They are assumed here and made explicit later in church history. We also see particular operations ascribed to each person. The Father is the almighty creator. That’s not to say that the Son and Spirit are any less mighty or any less creator. It is simply to say that in the works of God ad extra (i.e. creation and providence), certain operations are attributed to the Father, certain operations to the Son, and certain operations to the Spirit. The Father creates and redeems through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an intra-trinitarian order of operations that is fundamentally indivisible and thus, properly speaking, one operation of the divine will. Yet each person performs a different action in the execution of that will.


The Apostles’ Creed is also intensely historical. Christianity, at its most fundamental level, is not a set of abstract philosophical axioms. It is an account of concrete historical events. To be sure, these events have immense philosophical import, but they come first. The infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God has revealed himself through time and space. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Thus time and space began. In the course of time and in a particular place the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. The incarnate Son suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead. These are all historical events.

Among these events the past is emphasized. The creed mostly covers what the triune God has already done for us. He created us. He provided all that was needed for our salvation. But we also see the present. The incarnate Son is presently seated at the right hand of the Father where he continually intercedes for us as our priest and rules over us as our king. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, presently indwells and sanctifies the church, binding its members together as one body, and applying to us the forgiveness of sins. We see the future as well. The Son will eventually return for the final judgment, and at that time the Holy Spirit will raise our bodies from the dead, thus fitting us for life everlasting. Whether looking to the past, the present, or the future, the creed teaches us the basics about what God is doing in and through history. It is quite literally his-story.


The Apostles’ Creed is redemptive. The history through which the triune God has been revealing himself is not chaotic but purposeful. It’s purpose is the good news of the accomplishment and application of our salvation. This should be the main focus of the church of Jesus Christ, which is why she is properly called evangelical.

The accomplishment of our salvation is the special work of the the Father’s only begotten Son, our Lord. It began with his incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was born to die, suffering under Pontius Pilate so that he would be crucified, die, and be buried. In this way he descended into Hell for us, suffering the full penalty we were owed for our sins. He was raised from dead for our justification, ascended into heaven, and sat at Father’s right hand to continually intercede for us and rule over us. On the last day he will come again for the final judgment, openly acquitting his saints and condemning his enemies.

The application of our salvation is the special work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who sanctifies the church universal, making it holy. He is the one who binds us together as one communion. He is the one who seals to us the forgiveness of sins and fits us for his future resurrection work that we might live in glory forever.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: The Origin and Use of the Apostles' Creed

The Origin of the Creed

The Apostles’ Creed gets its name from its supposed authorship. Legend says that the Apostles composed it ten days after the ascension of Christ when the Holy Spirit was poured out from heaven. The Roman Catholic Church has even claimed to know which Apostle wrote each part of the creed. But while Apostolic authorship has been summarily disproven, the creed is still appropriately named since it faithfully communicates the inspired Apostolic teaching of the NT.

Various phrases found in the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to the Roman Symbol which developed as early as the late second century. This symbol was preserved in three subsequent formulations (cf. John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., 23-24):
  1. The Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (215 AD): Do you believe in God the Father all governing? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died and was buried and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and in the resurrection of the body?
  2. The Creed of Marcellus (340 AD): I believe in God, all governing. And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried, who rose from the dead on the third day, ascending to the heavens and taking his seat at the Father’s right hand, whence he shall come to judge both living and dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting.
  3. The Creed of Rufinus (404 AD): I believe in God the Father almighty, invisible and impassible. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit from Mary the Virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; he descended to hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended to heaven, where he sits at the Father’s right hand and from whence he will come to judge both living and dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of this flesh.
St. Augustine also preached a sermon on a North African variant of the symbol around 400 AD. Leith offers this reconstruction (Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., 25):
We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of all things, ruler of the ages, immortal and invisible. We believe in Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord, born of the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father, thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead,. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting through the holy catholic church.
The Textus Receptus of the Creed

Leith writes, “The date and place of the origin of the present form of the Apostles’ Creed cannot be fixed with precision. There is considerable evidence for a date late in the sixth or seventh century somewhere in southwest France” (24). The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of the Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24. It was adopted by Rome and became a common creed of the Western Church. It states:
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
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Use of the Creed

Historically, the church has used the Apostles’ Creed as a catechetical guide and profession of faith for new converts. It serves as a brief summary of the Christian faith, which, combined with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed, defined Christian orthodoxy in the NT church up to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Since then that definition has also included the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide. The Apostles’ Creed, therefore, helps us to recognize and avoid any inadequate or incomplete versions of Christianity that may arise today. It also reminds us that Christian identity is not simply a matter of subjective feelings. It is an objective reality based on the doctrines we profess to believe. Saving faith may involve more than knowing these doctrines but it never involves less. It may be true even while our knowledge is incomplete and inaccurate, but it cannot be true while we consciously reject the doctrines of the creed. Saving faith is not a matter of individual preference. It is to have one’s heart and voice joined with others in a common confession of faith about the triune God and his works. The Apostles’ Creed is useful to that end. It is a time-tested confession of faith suitable for the church’s life and liturgy. It is a towering monument and trustworthy guide to the Spirit’s work in his church over the last 2000 years.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Apostles' Creed: The Origin and Use of Creeds in the Church

What is a creed?

The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which is the first word in the Apostles’ Creed. It means “I believe.” Sometimes called a rule or symbol, a creed is a confession of the content of one’s faith. Confessions of faith can be any length, long like The Westminster Confession of Faith or short like the creeds. A creed is a short confession of faith which can be more easily memorized and recited.

What is creedalism?

In what has become the gold standard compendium of the Christian creeds, John Leith writes, “Christianity has always been a ‘creedal’ religion in that it has always been theological. It was rooted in the theological tradition of ancient Israel, which was unified by its historical credos and declaratory affirmations of the faith. No pretheological era has been discovered in the New Testament or in the history of the Christian community. From the beginning Christianity has been theological, involving men in theological reflection and calling them to declarations of the faith.” (Creeds of the Churches, 1). While some contemporary Christian denominations may eschew creeds in principle, they are nonetheless creedal in the broadest sense of the term. The short quip, “No creed but Christ,” or “No creed but the Bible,” is itself a creed—although a bad one to be sure! The moment a minister opens his mouth to interpret and apply the teaching of Scripture, he is declaring and encouraging those who hear him to share his belief (i.e. his creed). Our choice is not therefore between creedalism and non-creedalism but between good creeds and bad creeds. To reject a robust and self-conscious creedalism is really to prefer one’s own private creed over the public creeds that have time-tested pedigrees in the church. In his excellent book The Creedal Imperative Carl Trueman writes, “Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (15).

Oftentimes the use of creeds is rejected on the grounds that it undermines the Protestant tenet sola Scriptura (i.e. the Scriptures are our only infallible rule for faith and practice). But, ironically, the formal rejection of creedalism actually undermines that tenet. Sola Scriptura requires the creedal tradition of the church for its implementation. After all, the Scriptures teach that Christian faith and practice, including biblical interpretation, must be worked out in the context of Christian community.

Proper biblical interpretation cannot coexist with individualism. Christians need one another across the centuries as well as today, because the Holy Spirit didn’t begin his work of illumination in our time or with any single individual. Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Christian doctrine is the business of the church. The history of doctrine is not to be equated with the history of theology or the history of Christian thought. If it is, the historian runs the danger of exaggerating the significance of the idiosyncratic thought of individual theologians at the expense of the common faith of the church. The private beliefs of theologians do belong to the history of doctrine, but not simply on their own terms. For one of the most decisive differences between a theologian and a philosopher is that the former understands himself as, in Origen’s classic phrase, ‘a man of the church,’ a spokesman for the Christian community” (The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1, 3). Creedalism recognizes and applies this truth by employing publicly received statements of faith from the past as authorities in the life of the church today.

No doubt, the Scriptures are the primary and only infallible authority for our theological reflection, answering the most basic question, viz. what has God revealed? But the creeds serve as secondary authorities, answering the less basic—but no less necessary—question about what we believe God’s revelation teaches. Every heretic has his proof text; therefore it is the second question that forms the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between Christian doctrine and non-Christian doctrine.

What are some of these creeds? 

The Bible itself contains several creeds. The most ancient is the shema of Deut. 6:4. The text says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This text was recited each time the priest presided over Israel’s public worship. It is what set Israel apart from the pagan nations around her. Israel believed in the one true and living God; the nations believed in many gods. We find similar formulations in the NT. Most NT scholars believe that Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 is a creedal formulation that was being used in the public worship of the church. The apostle writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” We see a similar kind of formulation in 1 Tim. 3:16. The text says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” This is most likely an example of the “words of the faith,” “good doctrine,” and “the teaching” that Paul charges the young Timothy to guard and faithfully set before the church in 1 Tim. 4:6-16.
In the time after the Apostles the church continued to produce and use creeds. Just as Israel’s shema was taken up in an apologetic context to distinguish her from the nations (i.e. those without) and the sound doctrine about which Paul wrote Timothy was taken up in an apologetic context to distinguish true teachers from false teachers (i.e. those within), so we find the post-apostolic church doing the same. Pelikan writes, “When the the church confessed what it believed and taught, it did so in answer to attacks from within and from without the Christian movement” (11). Leith agrees, writing, “Generally speaking, creeds have not been written in the quiet periods of history but in those moments of historical intensity when the Church has been engaged by foes from without, or when its mission or life has been endangered from within” (2).

In the late third and early fourth centuries one of the most ancient creeds was formulated in defense of the full deity of Christ. A teaching called Arianism, named after the north African presbyter Arius (256-336 AD), had arisen within the church. The Arians taught that the Son was not eternal like the Father. He was the first and highest creation of the Father but not his equal. Arius summarized his teaching by saying of the Son, “there was when he was not.” In 318 AD the church called an ecumenical (i.e. universal) council to decide the matter. In 325 AD that council produced the Nicene Creed, defending the full deity of the Son against the Arian detractors. The creed was later revised and updated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. In its final form it states:
We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. 
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
By the late fifth century several challenges had also arisen with respect to the nature of the Son’s incarnation. Some taught that Jesus was only divine (i.e. the docetists). Others taught he was only human (i.e. the adoptionists). Still others taught that his divine nature was complete but the human incomplete (i.e. the Apollynarians). Others taught that his divine and human natures combined to make a third nature that retained aspects of each but was neither fully (i.e. the Eutychians). Others taught that Jesus was both divine and human but never simultaneously (i.e. the Nestorians). An ecumenical council met at Chalcedon and in 451 AD and issued the creed known as the Definition of Chalcedon. It says:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us. 
Along with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are typically considered the ecumenical creeds that established Christian orthodoxy in the early to medieval church (100-1500 AD).

How have creeds been used? 

In the early church creeds were used to train and identify recent converts. In his book “I Believe”: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, Alistair McGrath notes that Jews who had already been trained in the Scriptures from birth were only required to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah before being baptized. This belief was formally professed through the simple creed: “Jesus is Lord” (Acts 2:36; Romans 10:9; 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Php. 2:11; Col. 2:6). But for Gentiles who had no such Scriptural foundation more was needed. The church produced more substantial creeds for that purpose. Such catechetical training typically lasted three years. After that time converts were required to profess their faith before the assembly by reciting the creed on Easter Sunday. Afterward they were baptized and received the Eucharist for the first time (11-12).

Creeds have also been used in the church’s liturgy. Christians not only need to make public profession of their faith in the interest of becoming members of the church. They need to continue to make such professions as an aspect of their collective identity as the church. Therefore, an element of the church's public worship is its common confession of faith. As the Apostle writes, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, emphasis added).

Beyond these two most basic uses, and because creeds are confessions of faith, we might apply to creeds some of the same uses Carl Trueman ascribes to confessions in his booklet Why Christians Need Confessions. Among them we should include: (1) Creeds delimit church power, (2) Creeds offer succinct summaries of the faith, (3) Creeds highlight that which is of importance, (4) Creeds relativize the present and connect us to the past, (5) Creeds represent the substance of our worship, and (6) Creeds fulfill a vital part of Paul’s plan for the post-apostolic church.

Apostles' Creed: Schedule

I recently taught a Sunday School series at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church on the Apostles' Creed. I plan to post the lessons here over the next few weeks. The class schedule is as follows:
  1. The Origin and Use of Creeds in the Church 
  2. The Origin and Use of the Apostles’ Creed  
  3. Overview of the Apostles’ Creed 
  4. I Believe 
  5. God the Father Almighty 
  6. Maker of Heaven and Earth 
  7. Jesus Christ, His Only Begotten Son, Our Lord 
  8. Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, and Born of the Virgin Mary 
  9. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Died, Was Buried; He Descended into Hell 
  10. The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead. 
  11. He Ascended into Heaven and Is Seated at the Right Hand of God the Father Almighty 
  12. From There He Will Come to Judge the Living and the Dead 
  13. The Holy Spirit 
  14. The Holy Catholic Church 
  15. The Communion of Saints 
  16. The Forgiveness of Sins 
  17. The Resurrection of the Body 
  18. The Life Everlasting 
Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
       Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ,
       His only begotten Son, our Lord,
       who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
       and born of the virgin Mary.
       He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
       was crucified, died, and was buried;
       he descended into hell.
       The third day he rose again from the dead.
       He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
       From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
       the holy catholic Church,
       the communion of saints,
       the forgiveness of sins,
       the resurrection of the body,
       and the life everlasting. Amen.

Suggested Reading
  • Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, Westminster John Knox Press, 1982. (Advanced)
  • McGrath, Alister, “I Believe”: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, InterVarsity Press, 1997. (Introductory) 
  • Miller, Samuel, The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions, Presbyterian Board of Education, 1839, Reprinted by A Press, 1991. (Advanced)
  • Olevianus, Caspar, An Exposition of the Apostles Creed, Reformation Heritage Books, Trans. Lyle D. Bierma, 2009. (Intermediate)
  • Packer, J.I., Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, Crossway, 2008. (Introductory)
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), The University of Chicago Press, 1971.(Advanced)
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, Yale University Press, 2003. (Advanced)
  • Trueman, Carl R., The Creedal Imperative, Crossway, 2012. (Intermediate)
  • Trueman, Carl R., Why Christians Need Confessions, The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2013. (Introductory)
  • Witsius, Herman, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, vols. 1 and 2, Reformation Heritage Books, reprinted 2010. (Advanced)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Do You Hate Me?

Thus far in our series Engaging the Homosexual Movement we have looked at arguments/objections from nature, morality and authority that might be raised in the interest of normalizing the practice of homosexuality. And we have offered Christian answers to each objection. Last time we began addressing another argument/objection that differs from the first three while simultaneously touching upon each. It is not so much an argument for the normalization of the practice of homosexuality as it is an objection against the God who condemns it. Given the truthfulness of the previous three answers, one might ask, “Does your God hate me?” In other words, does God hate those who approve of the practice of homosexuality? We concluded that the Bible’s answer to that question is complex. God hates those who approve of the practice of homosexuality, because their sin is a personal offense against his infinite greatness and goodness. But he also loves them in at least two senses. First, he loves them in a general providential sense. God provides for their temporal needs. As Jesus teaches in his sermon on the mount in Matt. 5:45, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Second, he loves them in a salvific sense in that he freely offers life and salvation to them if they will repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and for all those he has foreordained to eternal life, he loves them by actually saving them from their sin.

A further objection might arise after delivering such an answer, viz. “Do you hate me?” In other words, if there is some sense in which your God hates those who approve the practice of homosexuality, does that mean there is some sense in which you hate me as well? As we will see, the answer to this question is also complex.

The Bible describes the church as hating the wicked and vice versa. Prov. 29:27 says, “An unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, but one whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked.” Also, at least fifteen of the Psalms (5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 139, 140) are imprecatory prayers in which the psalmist calls out to God for the destruction of the wicked. Ps. 58:6-8 says, “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.” David also says in Psalm 139:21-22, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” We see the same relationship between the church and the world in the New testament. Rom. 12:9b says, “Abhor (i.e. hate) what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” And 1 Jn 2:15-17 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” James 4:4 is similar. The text says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” But perhaps the most shocking example of this teaching comes from Jesus’ own public ministry. In Luke 14:26-28 he teaches his disciples, saying, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” What does Jesus mean? He means that if we are to follow him we must learn to unreservedly love the things he loves and hate the things he hates regardless of our earthly relations. If we ever begin to treat any of our earthly relations, including our relation to self, as if it was more important, more foundational, than our relation to Christ, then we have left behind faithful Christian discipleship. So there is a sense, a very qualified sense, in which we are called to hate those who approve of the practice of sin, including ourselves when we discover ourselves sinning.

But the church is also called to love the world! Jesus teaches in Matt. 5:43-48, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” And Rom. 12:14-21 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

So how is the church to simultaneously hate and love those who approve the practice of evil? We get an important clue in Rom. 12:19. The text says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Here we see how our hatred for those who approve of the practice of wickedness should differ from God’s hatred of the same. God knows the heart infallibly and has the authority and ability to exact vengeance with perfect righteousness. The church does not. Now, it’s important to recognize that at this stage in the Apostle’s argument in Romans he is speaking to the church as the church and the way it and its members should relate to the world when it comes to matters of faith and practice. He is not speaking to every possible relationship a Christian might have within the world. For example, when Paul says “Never avenge yourselves,” he is not teaching pacifism. Individual Christians most certainly have the right to seek to punish evil doers in the world for the purpose of exacting reparations in the right circumstances. For example, Christians can serve in the military, as police officers, and practice self-defense. But the church as the church should not. The church as the church never enacts discipline as a merely punitive measure in the interest of exacting reparations. The church enacts discipline through its councils at local and regional levels in the interest of repentance and reconciliation. Church discipline is restorative. Furthermore, church authority is never compulsory or legislative; it is ministerial and declarative. That means the church, and Christians within the church, should confront the wicked with a gentleness and humility that wins them by repentance rather than with a harshness and overconfidence that pushes them away with contempt.

So how should the church’s hatred for the wicked be expressed? It should be expressed as a simple yet unwavering disapproval, grief, revulsion, and godly separation from the wicked. Rather than approving the practice of sin, we should disapprove it. Rather than rejoicing in wrongdoing, we should grieve over it and be repulsed by it. Rather than joining ourselves with those who practice wrongdoing in order to fellowship with them as if nothing were wrong with their beliefs and practices, we should maintain a proper degree of separation. This is how our hatred should manifest itself. It should never manifest itself as contempt or vengeance.

But what about loving our enemies? How should the church simultaneously love those who approve of the practice of sin? Our love for the wicked should be expressed in the same way God’s love is expressed. Jesus bases his teaching about loving our enemies on the character of the Father in Matt. 5:45, saying, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” As we have seen, God loves the wicked in a general providential sense by providing for their needs. We should do the same. As Jesus says in Matt. 5:41-42, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” In other words, the command to love our neighbors is not limited by a religious litmus test. We should be ready and willing to show hospitality and mercy to our neighbors, providing for their basic needs as we are able, regardless of whether they approve of the practice of sin or not. Moreover, as we have seen, God loves the wicked in a salvific sense through the free offer of the gospel. We should participate in that love as well by inviting those who practice sin to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ, standing ready and willing to welcome any who would come to him. After all, we cannot know whether today’s Saul/Paul the Pharisee may not be tomorrow’s Saul/Paul the Apostle. The secret things belong to the Lord. 

In conclusion we might answer the question, “Do you hate me?” by saying, “Yes (in a very qualified sense) but, even more fundamentally, no. I hate you in the sense that I disapprove of, am grieved by, am revulsed by, and must maintain an appropriate degree of separation from you as long as you approve the practice of any sin, including homosexuality. But I love you in the sense that I am ready to show you hospitality and mercy as my neighbor and to invite you to receive the free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”