Apostles’ Creed

In the Winter edition of The Schwenkfeldian there was published an article on the general value of creeds in the confession of Christ (click on the tab, also under Ecclesiology, “Creeds and Confessions”). In this article, originally a follow-up article to “The Importance of Creeds and Confessions,” Dr. Tim promotes, more specifically, the value of the Apostles’ Creed in Schwenkfeldian loyalty to Christ. 

The Apostles’ Creed and Loyalty to Christ

The recent publication of Caspar Schwenckfeld: Eight Writings on Christian Belief (Canada: Pandora Press, 2006) reveals that it can no longer be stated without qualification that Schwenckfeld was opposed to creedal statements. While he opposed the proliferation of ecclesiastical creeds and confessions of faith during the Reformation era—the golden age of creed-making in the history of the church—he nevertheless affirmed the Apostles’ Creed (at least). Its bare essentials of historic Christian orthodoxy sum up the truths in which are found the church’s oneness. Christians throughout history from various schools of thought on different continents have been able to affirm them. By valuing this creed, Schwenckfeld set us an example for the uncertain days in which we live. Indeed, it is expected of a bona fide Christian body like the Schwenkfelder Church that members will affirm self-consciously, gladly, and publicly the Apostles’ Creed. We do not rationalize its teaching, but affirm without mental reservation the revealed (supernatural) Christianity of which it speaks.

The Apostles’ Creed dates back to the eighth century and is, in turn, an elaboration of an Old Roman Creed dating back to the fourth century, and mentioned in its Greek version by Marcellus of Ancyra and in Latin by Rufinus (c. 400 A.D.). It found acceptance throughout the West in the medieval period, and was embraced by both Roman Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation. The succinctness and clarity of the Apostles’ Creed makes it ideal for use in new members’ classes and as a means by which members of the Christian community, whether new or old, can affirm their faith in public worship, during an age of secular skepticism outside the church, cultural submission in the church, and religious pluralism around her.

The content of our credo (Latin for “I believe”) may be broken down variously into perhaps twelve specific or five more general affirmations. Space only affords us room to speak more generally of the Creed’s doctrines of God the Father, the Son, the Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, and the Christian’s hope.

When we affirm our belief in God the Father Almighty, we profess not the Trinity’s fatherly protection of humanity in general and of God’s people in particular, although all that is also biblical teaching. Rather, we affirm our belief in the first person of the Godhead: the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We use the term “person” with discretion. In Augustine’s words, we use it not because it is (completely) ideal, but so that the truth of the Trinity may not go (wholly) unspoken. What distinguishes our everyday use of the term “person” from its use in relation to the three subsistence’s of the Godhead is that the three divine persons mutually indwell each other. We call this vital idea perichoresis (Greek) and circumincessio (Latin). It explains how the one God is three persons (co-equal and co-eternal) without also being three Gods (tri-theism). It also explains why there can be no absolute division of labor in the works of the triune God. Thus, while the Creed tells us that God the Father is almighty because of His Creatorship of heaven and earth (1 Pet. 4:19)—that is, of everything outside of the Godhead—we bear in mind that all that the Father created was made through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:3, 10; Col. 1:16–17; Heb. 1:2–3; 11:3).

Secondly, we affirm our belief in Jesus Christ—the Father’s Son, second person of the Trinity, and Lord of his people. Here the Creed is at its most fulsome. It expresses not only the eternal aspects of Christ’s existence, but also summarizes the major facets of His earthly life and work.

By confessing that Christ was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,” we state our belief in the virgin birth, wherein the Holy Spirit formed Christ’s humanity in the womb of Mary (a nature as well as a body [cf. Heb. 10:5]). Accordingly, what was “born of the virgin Mary” was fully man while yet retaining full divinity. We observe Christ’s authentic humanity in his sufferings, crucifixion, and death under Pontius Pilate. As if to remind us that all creeds need to be double-checked against Scripture, the creed next states that Jesus Christ “descended into hell” (the traditional version). This single most debated clause is altered in the modern version, to read more accurately that Christ “descended to the dead.” We may say that, under the divine wrath of the cross, Christ went through hell (Matt. 27:45–46), although His words to the penitent thief remind us that after death He went to paradise, and not to hell (Lk. 23:43, 46). His body went to the tomb, but His Spirit returned to His Father.

The third day the Father raised Christ bodily from the grave (Acts 2:24; 1 Cor. 15:4). This resurrection was not simply spiritual—a sort of vague metaphor of hope—but corporeal (bodily): a prototypical demonstration of what every believer will one day experience, when raised in resurrection to a new and higher plane of life. In the resurrection Christ became the Son of God with power (Rom. 1:3–4). Forty days later, He ascended to His Father (Lk. 24: 50–53; Acts 1:9–11), where he was rewarded for his work of redemption with an eternal state of exaltation (Phil. 2:8–9). He continues to this day to pray for His people and to empathize with them (Jn. 17:24; Acts 7:55; Heb. 7:25). He will do so until the final act of the drama of redemption is played out; namely, the second appearance of Christ “to judge the living and the dead” (cf. Acts 17:31). Determining the outcome of the judgment will be our spiritual and not our physical state. That is, whether or not we are alive to God and in relationship with Him (the Father) through Christ, His Son. Those who are alive, await with patience the consummation of the salvation we presently enjoy (Heb. 9:28).

Thirdly, we gladly affirm the Holy Spirit: His existence, personhood, and ministry. The holiness of the Spirit reminds us that He is no human spirit. He is the third person of the Godhead. As such He is no impersonal force. No force can be lied to (Acts 5:3, 4), tested in some personal way (Acts 5:9), fellowshiped with (2 Cor. 13:14), or grieved (Eph. 4:30). Co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Son, the Spirit’s role is to apply the very gospel the Father planned and the Son has executed. He therefore brings the people of God from death to life, granting us faith, and directing us into a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the truth. As “the Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15) He enables us to enjoy more of the filial assurance, freedom, and obedience of the gospel. The more we do so, the richer becomes our belief in the Spirit. That said, belief in the Spirit is not an end in itself. The Spirit inspired and applies the Scriptures (the written Word) precisely in order that we may discern more of Christ (the living word), and grow into likeness with Him.

Fourthly, we believe in the “Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.” The church is a miracle of God’s grace. By the appointment of the Father, the work of the Son, and the application of the Spirit, the church both exists and spreads. She is made up of believers of the Old and New Testaments. All believers are holy in a positional sense: we have been separated (“sanctified”) from the world unto God (1 Cor. 1:2). This, of course, does not mean that we must have a cultish outlook on anything not of the church, but it does mean that we operate in this life on the basis of principles significantly different from those in vogue among our peers. In doing so, we share a kindred experience with fellow believers all over the world regardless of gender, race, color, financial standing, or even denominational creed. In this sense the church is catholic (that is, universal, not “Roman Catholic,” which is an oxymoron). She is also catholicising, since there are people groups yet to be reached with the gospel. Not all of us may be called to be missionaries, nevertheless every believer endeavors at least to embrace the inhabited world in prayer (1 Tim. 2:1). This is particularly important for bodies like the Schwenkfelder Church, which is a localized denomination. What we profess belief in, and work towards, is the communion not simply of the descendants of those who made it “off the boat”—as precious as is that history, but of all the Saints, whether actual or potential.

Finally, we believe in hope. This hope is first and foremost spiritual. Its essence is the forgiveness of sins, which is the privilege of saints alone. Later, at the time of the Reformation, the forgiveness of sins was discussed against the backdrop of the doctrine of justification. We believe in forgiveness not chiefly because we forgive others, but because God has—having punished Christ in our place and dressed us in the righteousness of His Son—first forgiven us. The belief we exercise is then most joyful: we are no longer condemned! Christ, by virtue of His sacrifice, has freed us from sin’s guilt, and guaranteed that some day we shall escape entirely its pollution and presence. But our hope is also bodily. The promise of the gospel is not only that we shall be delivered from sin, but also from its every effect. The eternal life promised those in Christ is one that finally we shall live out in psychosomatic (body and soul) wholeness, in a perfect and never ending enjoyment of assurance, freedom, and love. In a world of shattered dreams and broken promises, we maintain the faith we have been given in the divine promises of the fulfilled redemption we shall enjoy forever on the new earth (Matt. 19:28; Rom. 8:18–23).

Two sets of questions come to mind in closing. First, where does this leave us individually? Can we each say without mental reservation: “‘I believe’ these essential tenets of the faith’? Before we each answer this question for ourselves, let us be clear on the nature of this belief. What Scripture means by belief is not typically something simply nominal or intellectual, but a saving faith that is ultimately about conviction that the tenets of Scripture are true and personally applicable, and about trust in the triune God of whom these propositions speak. It is in our hearts then, as much as in our heads, that we affirm the Apostles’ Creed. Schwenkfelder authority Dr. Peter Erb recently reminded the Ministerium of this, noting that the Latin credo (“I believe”) comes from cor do (“I give my heart”). Faced with the great love of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and blessed with the communion of the saints and the certainty of eternal hope, dare we offer God anything less? While the public affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed does not guarantee eternal life, those who possess it are not slow in affirming its truths, whether mentally, emotionally or volitionally (with our wills).

Second, where does the Apostles’ Creed leave the Schwenkfelder Church? Our attitude to the Creed reveals the degree to which the Schwenkfelders adhere to historic Christian orthodoxy. In other words, while God continues to speak to us today, He does not contradict what He has already revealed in His Word. Rather, He applies His ancient Word to our hearts and calls us to obey it. By adhering to Scripture and its summary in the Apostles’ Creed, we are reminded of the God to whom we are to submit. We also notify the church and the world that the Schwenkfelder church is not a cult ~ sometimes confused as Swedenborgian [1]—but a member-body of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. We forget this to the detriment of Schwenckfeld and the Christ he served. Let us then affirm the faith of Christ’s Church confidently and publicly, with God’s obedient people everywhere, and share the faith boldly, in the belief that as long as we echo Scripture and seek to glorify God, our voices matter, and contribute to the sustenance and growth of Christ’s church.

[1] It is not unusual to hear enquirers wonder whether— or even presume that—the Schwenkfelder Church is a cult. This is to confuse the Schwenkfelders with the Swedenborgians, who are also present in Pennsylvania. Founded by Swede Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the Swedenborgians are otherwise known as the Church of the new Jerusalem. In addition to odd perspectives on an array of doctrines, the Swedenborgians deny the Trinity, claim that the Last Judgement has already occurred (or is occurring), and regard Swedenborgianism as supplemental to Christianity.