A new series: An exposition of the Apostles’ Creed
1. ‘I believe …’
WE BEGIN this month with a new series of reflections based on the Apostles’ Creed. Traditionally the Apostles’ Creed is recited weekly in Christian worship as part of the liturgy. The Apostles’ Creed provides a summary of the teaching of the New Testament.
Although the Creed was not written by the apostles themselves, it is deemed apostolic because it contains the main tenets of the Christian faith that the church received from the apostles. The present form of the Creed can be traced to the 8th Century, although variations can be found as early as the 3rd and 4th
centuries. The earliest form of the Creed was the one used by the church in Rome in connection with baptism. The Greek version is found in the writings of Marcellus of Anycra in AD 340 and Rufinus used the Latin version in about AD 400.
As a baptismal formula, the Creed is structured according to the three-fold question format in Hippolytus’s “Apostolic Tradition” which was composed in the early years of the 3rd Century. In the early church, three questions were put to the baptismal candidate: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, our Saviour? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, a holy church, and the forgiveness of sins?” To each of these questions, the candidate must reply “I believe” before he or she was baptised in the name of the Triune God in relation to which the three parts of the Creed were structured.
The Apostles’ Creed, in its present form, is not the only creed that has been formulated by the church. Other creeds, some of which are more ancient, like the Nicene, the Athanasian, the Ephesian, and the Chalcedonian, were also formulated with the view of articulating the essential tenets of the Christian faith. On the last few pages of “The Methodist Hymnal” there can be found a number of creeds, some of which are very recent, and of Korean and African origins. These creeds are similar in substance to the Apostles’ Creed even if their language is somewhat different. Like their older counterparts, these contemporary creeds serve as attempts to enunciate the teachings of the church.
The Apostles’ Creed begins with the simple statement “I believe.” Theologically, this statement serves as the prefix to all that follows, the fundamental presupposition of all the other assertions made in the Creed. Every statement in the Creed is therefore a faith-statement: faith is their basis, and only in faith may they be understood and grasped. Faith is therefore the indispensable presupposition for our knowledge of the being and acts of God.
What then do we mean by faith? Faith is trust: it is trusting in the God who has revealed Himself to be absolutely trustworthy. Faith finds refuge in God. The German theologian Karl Barth stresses that faith cannot be understood except relationally because faith has primarily to do with trust. “In God alone,” Barth maintains, “is there faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold to Him, to His promise and to His guidance. To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty.” To have faith is to en-trust oneself to God.
According to the Bible, faith is a gift from God. This means that faith is not something that man can harness or develop – it is not intrinsic to man but its possibility is grace. Faith and grace are therefore inseparable. Faith can never be seen as the contribution on the part of the human being, which establishes for him some sort of claim on God. Faith is an undeserved divine free gift to man, and therefore can never be seen apart from grace – as something “natural”. But faith at the same time is also a real and personal decision on the part of the believer.
Faith is not the passive consequence of some irresistible grace, but an active movement God-ward on the part of the believer. This decision, it must be stressed, is a free decision of the believer, the result of divine persuasion, not coercion. In the same way, faith is the decision of the individual, although that decision has as its locus the Christian community. Thus the great Reformer Martin Luther could say that “the Christian is a person in his own right; he believes for himself and not on behalf of anyone else”.
Faith, however, also implies knowledge and understanding. Faith trusts because it knows; it has knowledge of the God whom it trusts. So faith is never a leap in the dark, never a mindless religious fanaticism. Neither is faith a blind trust that asks no questions. Here the thought of Anselm, the 11th Century theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, was enlightening. For Anselm, true faith was characterised by its quest for understanding, for true faith is a form of knowledge. The knowledge of faith, to be sure, must not be understood as purely cognitive knowledge.
Without faith, knowledge of God is impossible
The knowledge of faith is profound as it is intimate, mysterious as it is personal. The knowledge of faith is analogous to our knowledge of another person, and not our knowledge of inanimate objects. It is a knowledge that results from an I-Thou rather than an I-It relationship.
Faith, then, is exclusive: its trust and its loyalty belongs to God alone – to this God, the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and no other god. Barth again makes this point with unusual clarity: “… faith is concerned with our holding to God exclusively because God is the One who is faithful. Similarly, the knowledge of faith is also exclusive knowledge – it is the knowledge of the One God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ”.
The concept of revelation is therefore paramount. Just as the knowledge of God is impossible without faith, so faith is impossible without revelation. Faith is knowledge of the God who has revealed Himself. And this revelation takes place in a particular person, and in a particular context, although its significance is universal. In the person of the carpenter in Nazareth, God has revealed Himself as the Creator and Saviour of the world.
The relationship between faith and reason must now be explored. To say that the knowledge of God is possible only through faith does not mean that human reason has no part to play. We are reminded once again of Anselm’s dictum that true faith always seeks to understand. Reason is placed within the nexus of faith, and plays an instrumental role. Reason “discovers” the inner rationality of the truth that is appropriated by faith. It operates within faith and has no power apart from it to discern the truth of God. The “reasonableness” of faith is therefore to be found in its response to God’s revelation.
Thus, theologically speaking, “I believe” has to do with the very basis of everything that is asserted in the Apostles’ Creed. It is also the basis of everything the Christian says about God. To put this differently, faith in God in His revelation is the possibility and the actuality of the Christian’s talk about God. The Christian is a believer who has come to a trusting relationship with God and whose knowledge of God is the result of this relationship. Thus, the Christian’s knowledge of God can never be theoretical or abstract.
Theological knowledge is not a “belief system” or even a set of teaching: it is knowledge of a personal God made possible by grace. In the same way – and this is saying the same thing from a different angle – the doctrines that are found in the Creed must never be seen as something quite detached from the life of the Christian. The Creed does not provide us with abstract propositions about God. They rather bring to expression the faith by which we must live.
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.