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creeds and confessions

On Sunday, April 25, New City Church is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This church launched on Easter Sunday in 2011 (actual date was April 24, 2011). While this means New City is still a new church, it is also quite ancient. This is because every true church is both ancient and modern. Our faith is ancient, for we believe what the Lord himself taught his apostles, and our church is modern, for we live in 21st-century America. While much has changed (see electric lighting, streaming services to shut-ins, guitars and drums, indoor plumbing, etc.), much has not. We proclaim the faith that has been handed down to us from ancient times, and we communicate this faith in this modern era.

Beginning on April 25 we will explore this ancient faith of ours in a new topical sermon series called “Ancient Faith / Modern Church”. We will use the Apostles’ Creed as a guide. This creed summarizes the core of the Christian faith:

We believe in God,
     the Father almighty,
     creator of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ,
     God's only Son, our Lord,
     who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
     born of the Virgin Mary,
     suffered under Pontius Pilate,
     was crucified, died, and was buried;
     he descended to the dead.
     On the third day he rose again;
     he ascended into heaven,
     he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
     and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
We 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.

This creed developed over time as a baptismal creed. A new convert would be taught the creed as the core of the Christian faith. It is what all Christians believe. In the year 434 Vincent of Lérins wrote about the faith of the catholic church (“catholic” means whole or entire or complete; the universal church).

Moreover, in the catholic church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “catholic”, which, as the name itself and the reason for the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.

Vincent of Lérins, “The Commonitory”, 2.6

The catholic faith—the faith that is true of all true followers of Jesus—is that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. The Apostles’ Creed summarizes this catholic faith. Notice the Trinitarian scope of the creed: it focuses on God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. All Christian creeds are Trinitarian, focusing on the Trinity as the center of Christian faith. However, Christian confessions are necessarily broader.

What is the difference between a creed and a confession? Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves explain in their book “The Story of Creeds and Confessions” that “a creed is a summary statement written early in Christian history, and a confession is a summary statement written later in Christian history”. In short, creeds are universal. They are summary statements that all Christians in all places at all times believe. Confessions are local. They are a summary statement about secondary (though perhaps no less important) issues that are peculiar to a particular group of Christians. This may sound strange; surely there was a time when all Christians every believed exactly all the same things, right? Well. Not quite. From the beginning the church has allowed some differences.

Consider “the Didache”, a first-century doctrinal statement. It provides teaching (that’s what “Didache” means) on a variety of subjects and gives instructions for baptism. It says to baptize converts in running water, such as a river or stream. If you don’t have running water available then use some body of water, so long as it’s cold water. Well, if you don’t have cold water, it says, then use warm water. And if you don’t have enough water to dunk a person, “then pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit”. Consider also the interaction between Anicetus, bishop or lead elder of Rome, and Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in the second century. Polycarp visited him in Rome to discuss the date of celebrating Easter. In the second century the practice had not yet been formalized for the whole church. Early historian Eusebius describes this disagreement:

For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.

Eusebius of Caesarea, “Church History”, 5.24.16–17

While these examples are of practice more than doctrinal disagreement, in his “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew”, Justin Martyr acknowledged a variety of views on millennialism in the early church, as well as whether a Jewish follower of Jesus could keep the law of Moses or not. In the early third century church father Origen wrote that there was a variety of views on the doctrine of the nature of angelic beings. There was no church-wide consensus on every doctrinal issue! However, there remained from the beginning this core belief that all Christians in all times and in all places believe. This is summarized by the Apostles’ Creed.

The first half of this new series will focus on the Apostles’ Creed. The second half will focus on doctrinal positions that are peculiar to New City Church (though not at all limited to us). We will see that our peculiarities were held by many in the early church. We will look at the issues of baptism and communion and church governance, as well as spiritual gifts and how we understand the law of God. These latter issues are not issues that divide us from other believers, even as they draw lines in the sand declaring where we stand on them.

Creeds and confessions are never supposed to supplant Scripture. We benefit from creeds and confessions by understanding they are tools that help us convey what we believe about God. One author put it well when he wrote,

…creeds and confessions offer concise summaries of what churches believe, both to their members and to those outside.

[And they] focus Christians on matters of non-negotiable importance to the faith (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) and on matters of importance to the well-being and good practice of the visible church (such as the mode and subjects of baptism). In turn, they respect Christian freedom in matters where they do not speak.

Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of the gifts and tools God has given us through Scripture and the early church fathers to know and defend our faith? While tradition must never be elevated above Scripture, the truth is church tradition is the process of the faith being handed down from generation to generation. Tradition benefits the church of Jesus when we use it to see ourselves in the long line of faithfulness to the truth of God in Christ that the church of Jesus has held always, everywhere, and by all.