From the earliest days of the history of Christianity there has been a summary of the faith that came to be called The Apostles’ Creed.
No it was not written by the Apostles but it is apostolic in content. With slight variation the wording has been the same basically since the second century though it did not have the title “creed” as of yet.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into Heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Catholic Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
This ancient confession has its origins in baptismal ceremonies. A candidate was asked three questions about God, Christ and the Spirit and immersed each time. Thus the Creed stands as a witness to the faith of the early Christians, most of whom never owned a Bible or NT. In fact the NT was not even “together” yet.
Everett Ferguson in his article on the Creed in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity states that the Creed also took on a polemical nature against the Docetic and Gnostic groups that were arising in the Second Century. Note the stress the Father as Creator of all; the stress on the physical nature of Christ’s suffering and resurrection and finally note the hope that stresses “resurrection of the body.”
I have said previously that the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of believers go hand in hand. The resurrection of bodies and the resurrection of the Earth also go hand in hand. In the history of Christianity this is true. Those who stressed the redemption of the body explicitly connect it with God’s redemption of his creation. Those who reject a literal, physical, bodily resurrection have also rejected the new heavens and new earth. During the second and third centuries those folks had names like Platonists, Gnostics, Ophites and the like.
Wolfhart Pannenberg in his exposition of The Apostles’ Creed calls attention to this very polemical thrust in the Creed. He says,
“The contrast to the Greek way of thinking (which was only able to conceive of life beyond death as the continued life of the soul, separated from the body) is expressed by the particular stress of the creed’s formulation when it talks about the resurrection of the body.” (Apostles’ Creed, p. 170, his emphasis)
The stress on the identity of the body in spite of transformation is directed against a certain current understanding that some believers have unwittingly embraced. Pannenberg notes again,
“That is why the creed insists on the identity of the matter of ‘the body’ with a rigidity which must have already seemed barbarous to the Hellenistic world” (Ibid, p. 171)
Now the question for some contemporary Christians is this: does God resurrect our dead body and then destroy it? This is clearly not what the early church, nor the historic church, has believed. The Creed links our resurrected body with eternal life. We will spend eternal life in our resurrected body.
Vocabulary of Biblical Theology
This post is not trying to establish our theology from the Creed. Rather the Creed shows us what Christians believed. That belief could be mistaken yet I do not believe it is. The Apostles’ Creed bears witness to profound biblical theology. For example in previous posts we have seen how God is the Creator and Lover of his Creation; he created the world as a place where the divine and human could experience fellowship; he is about redeeming and reclaiming that world through the work of Christ on the Cross.
The last statement is of fundamental importance. What we think about heaven and earth is not some esoteric point. The Creed does not wrangle about instrumental music. No. What we believe about redemption tells a great deal of what we think God did through Jesus when he shed his blood. Did Jesus death undo the work of Satan? That is the question. The early church in fact understood the atonement primarily in terms of Christ’s defeat of the cosmic forces of Satan, not substitutionary as the Reformers did (and most Evangelicals do) This ancient view is known as Christus Victor. Christ has conquered. The Latin fathers exclaim, “Vicit agnus noster; eum sequamur” (Our lamb has conquered; let us follow him.).
Have you ever noticed the vocabulary the Bible uses for “salvation?” We use it all of the time but do we reflect on what the words are actually saying? Here are some words:
These words are the heart of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Each of the words begins with the re-prefix, each suggests a return to an original condition that was lost or ruined. How many times have we heard a preacher say “redemption means to buy back?” Or similar themes on reconciliation and resurrection.
Now if we look in such passages as Matthew 19.28; Acts 3.21; Colossians 1.15-20; and Romans 8.11, 18-25 among many others we are confronted with the question … what is God redeeming? Reconciling? Restoring? Renewing? and Resurrecting. In fact it was these very passages (and more) that are the foundation for understanding the work of Christ … and its effect on God’s creation that he loves comes from.
The Apostles’ Creed understands this rhythm in biblical theology quite clearly. The early Church understood it too. They understood that if a Gnostic denied that Christ did not really redeem creation then Christ won a small victory indeed! Satan was able to poison more than the blood was able to cure! …
Perhaps this is why Polycarp curses those who hold that view and Irenaeus devotes hundreds of pages to the subject in the second century. Yet the early church believed that God redeems humans precisely because through Christ, the new Adam, he redeemed creation.
The early church looked forward to seeing the resurrected Lord; and living with God’s resurrected people; within God’s glorious resurrected Earth.
What is to Come on this Blog
In the next three days I will make three more posts: one on Matthew 19.28 and Acts 3.21 and their wider contexts; one on Romans 8; and one on Colossians 1. The plan is that next week we will take a hard look at 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 and 22.