Scene 1: Plains of Moab, 1406 BC
Deuteronomy records Moses’ final words to the people he had led through the desert, and who were now about to enter the Promised Land. Centuries later, the prophets would point back to this book as a summary of Israel’s belief. This is Israel’s creed.
The core of this creed is the Shema. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This was the key to Israel’s identity. Other nations worshiped many gods; Israel worshiped Jehovah, the one true God. Other people served their gods because of fear and oppression. Israel’s obedience was to be motivated by love.
Moses emphasized the importance of this creed in Israel’s daily life:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:6-9).
“Teach these words to your children. Talk about them while you are traveling. Meditate on them at night. Keep them constantly before you. This is your creed.” The creed was meant to be more than a mindless recitation of empty prose; it was a life-changing statement of who Israel was and what they believed.
Tragically, Israel would soon abandon her creed. When Judah was eventually carried into exile, the prophets pointed to her failure to follow the Shema as the cause of her fall. Obedience motivated by love was crucial to Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.
Scene 2: Second-Century Rome
Move to second-century Rome. Imagine that you are meeting with a group of new believers preparing for baptism. Because of their conversion, they may lose their jobs and be rejected by their families. Some will be imprisoned or even killed. Thus, the public witness of baptism carries with it the very real possibility of suffering as the result of their newfound faith.
Before this step, pastors taught new believers what it meant to be a Christian. Some of this instruction was practical: this is how Christians live. Some of it was theological: this is what Christians believe. At their baptism, the pastor asked each candidate to affirm these beliefs:
- Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
- Do you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven?
- Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
These questions became the basis for the Apostles’ Creed. For these early Christians, “I believe” was much more than empty ritual. Belief in the creed separated a new believer from his old life and marked him as a member of a new community. Confessing the creed was a life-changing statement of faith.
Scene 3: Nicaea, AD 325
Travel to the village of Nicaea, a few years after Constantine’s “Edict of Milan” that legalized Christianity. Government officials are no longer persecuting Christians, but a more insidious danger has arisen: the integrity of the church is now threatened by heresy.
Early in the fourth century, Arius, a deacon from Egypt, began to teach that Jesus was the first of God’s created beings, but not truly divine. His logic was simple: A son must be younger than his Father. Therefore, if Jesus is the Son of God, he was not eternal. Arius concluded that Jesus was a created being who was not fully God.
Orthodox Christians responded that Jesus could not forgive sin if he were not fully divine. Salvation requires a divine savior. Conflict over this issue soon broke into political strife. Crowds paraded through the streets of Alexandria, the center of the conflict, chanting competing slogans regarding Christ’s nature.
When Emperor Constantine saw that religious conflict threatened the unity of his empire, he called 318 bishops together to resolve the issue. After hearing both sides, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea affirmed the eternal existence and deity of Jesus: he is “God of very God.” The Nicene Creed summarized the theological beliefs confirmed at the Council of Nicaea. It became the standard by which orthodoxy, right doctrine, would be measured.
Scene 4: Florida, 2021
Move from the world of the early church to the Hobe Sound beach. Ask someone, “Are you a Christian? Do you go to church?” They might respond, “I love God, but I don’t like the church and I’m not interested in theological dogma. I am spiritual, but not religious.”
It may sound noble. But Paul would have responded, “This is nothing but ancient paganism with a modern face.” He preached in Athens: “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Paul knew that we cannot truly worship a god we do not know. We must know who and what we believe.
Even many Christians say, “The Bible is my only creed. I don’t need man-made ones” (see Sola Scriptura: No Creed But the Bible?). However, from the earliest days of the church, the apostles recognized that false teachers could twist biblical teaching to lead others astray. Peter warned, “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). In response to this danger, church leaders developed basic creeds that summarized Christian doctrines in a clear and memorable form—and did so with specific purpose.
A Creed is a Measuring Stick for Doctrine
A creed is a statement of faith, a summary of Christian belief. It provides a measuring stick that says, “All doctrine must be faithful to these standards.”
The Apostles’ Creed identifies core doctrines of Christianity. The creeds do not include all Christian doctrines, but they summarize doctrines that are central to the Christian faith. We will differ on many issues, but all true Christians confess what is stated in the Apostles’ Creed (and the other two ecumenical creeds which further clarify its meaning, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed).
You may say, “I believe in a pre-tribulation rapture.” Another Christian may say, “I believe in a post-tribulation rapture.” But together we say, “I believe that he shall come again.” The doctrines in the creeds are not optional. Thus, to put it simply, if you reject the statements in the ecumenical creeds, you are not an orthodox Christian.
This concept is foreign to many in our individualistic society. Someone told me, “I don’t believe Jesus was the Son of God, but I believe he was a great teacher. I try to live by the principles he taught. So I consider myself a Christian.” Imagine a person who says, “I have not been inducted into the military, and I have never attended boot camp. But I like the Marine uniform. I am a Marine.” That is absurd! It is equally absurd to say, “I do not believe the doctrines that are fundamental to Christianity, but I am a Christian.” The Apostles’ Creed defines what Christians believe. It is a measuring stick for orthodoxy.
A Creed is a Guardrail Against Heresy
From the earliest days of the church, theological drift has been a threat. A gifted church leader begins to teach something that is almost right, but that is not completely faithful to Scripture. Little by little, he moves further from orthodoxy until he has abandoned it altogether.
The Council of Nicaea was necessary because Arius was leading Christians into doctrinal error. Arius was a fluent speaker, and his teaching was logical. He did not set out to teach heresy, but little by little, he wandered from biblical truth. The Nicene Creed was a guardrail that warned, “Stop! This is heresy.”
Jude wrote, “although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Even in the first century, false doctrine threatened the church.
There are two dangers in the present-day church. One is the temptation to accept false teaching and even heresy. The creeds warn, “Regardless of the size of your crusades or your visibility on social media, you are heretic if your teaching contradicts these foundational statements.”
The other temptation is to interpret every doctrinal difference as heresy. Two Christians can disagree about whether or not there is a pre-tribulation rapture and both be within the limits of orthodoxy. One is right and one is wrong, but neither are heretics. The creeds define orthodoxy and warn us against falsely accusing our Christian brothers of heresy.
I disagree with many of my Christian brothers and sisters regarding charismatic gifts, unconditional election, and other significant doctrines. We disagree on these issues, but neither of us are heretics if we hold to the core doctrines of the Christian faith.
In our pluralistic world, many people say, “Doctrine divides.” Paul taught the opposite. He insisted, “Doctrine unites”: “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” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
In our pluralistic world, many people say, “Doctrine divides.” But our common faith unites the church.
This does not mean we ignore doctrinal differences. But we do share a common belief in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). We will disagree; sometimes we will disagree vehemently. But we are one body.
Our common faith unites the church. Alister McGrath wrote, “The creeds emphasize that to believe is to belong. To become a Christian is to enter a community of faith whose existence stretches right back to the upper room.” We are part of a church that reaches around the world, extends back to the apostles, and bridges cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and denominational barriers. The creeds proclaim that we are one body in Christ.
A Creed is a Roadmap for the Christian Life
I cannot swim; I cannot even float. Before visiting Israel, I read that the Dead Sea is so salty that anyone, even non-swimmers, can float in its dense water. When we arrived in Israel, my children asked, “Do you believe that anyone can float in the Dead Sea?” “Of course! The guidebook says it.” “Will you get in the water with us?” “No, I might drown!” I said I believed. But when time came to put it into practice, I discovered that I did not truly believe.
The truth that God is “the Father Almighty” must impact how we relate to Him daily. Belief must not be separated from behavior.
It is not enough to say, “I believe”—we must live our creed. The creeds are more than historical artifacts; they are maps for the Christian life. After we profess the faith, we must live it. The truth that God is “the Father Almighty” must impact how we relate to Him daily. Belief must not be separated from behavior.
In 1941, during the throes of the London Blitz, the BBC asked C.S. Lewis, an Oxford professor, to give a series of radio broadcasts on the core doctrines of the Christian faith. London had just suffered through fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing. Thousands of young men were dying on battlefields in Europe.
In this setting, Lewis began one broadcast:
Everyone has warned me against today’s topic [the Incarnation]. They all say, ‘the ordinary person does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion.’ I have rejected their advice because I do not think the ordinary person is such a fool…. I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him.
Lewis insisted that our theology guides how we live. Professor Lewis knew that if his fellow countrymen truly believed that God is a personal God, it would impact their daily life. A Christian in an underground bunker would face the terror of the Blitz with a different spirit than the person who believed God to be distant and uninvolved in human affairs.
Our theology guides how we live.
Eighty years later, our world is in turmoil yet again. Today, as then, we live according to our beliefs. If we truly believe that God is sovereign, we will face the uncertainties of the 21st century with a different spirit than the person who believes that life is no more than chance. Because we believe, we will live with a new spirit.
When you recite the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed, don’t let it become an empty ritual. Use it as a measuring stick for your doctrine; allow it to serve as guardrail against heresy; and make it a roadmap for your daily Christian life. Then you can truly say, “I believe.”