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Unchangeable Truth for an Ever-Changing World
By John Koessler
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 Moody Bible Institute
All rights reserved.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Thomas H. L. Cornman
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, died, 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 saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Apostles' Creed
The Apostles' Creed centers on Christ. It declares Christ to be the only Son of God and Lord. According to J. I. Packer, the creed expresses with confidence the essential reality that "Jesus was, and remains, God's only Son, as truly and fully God as his Father is." It declares that He was virgin born. His crucifixion, death, and burial were followed by His miraculous resurrection from the dead. It also affirms that this same Jesus who ascended into heaven will return as judge.
This preeminent creed was written to protect the church from theological aberrations and clarify what constituted genuine Christian belief. At the time, the fundamentals of faith were being challenged and even twisted. Today, as these fundamentals of faith continue to be challenged by those who propose new doctrines, we need to clarify anew what are the fundamentals of the faith and look at their implications for the twenty-first century man and woman.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
When the early church began to carry the good news of salvation to the Gentiles, moving beyond the religious community of the Jewish people to whom the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ had been delivered initially, questions soon arose. What was essential to the Christian faith? What necessary beliefs and behaviors were required for belonging?
Acts 15 records the first institutional discussion of questions. In the first verse we read, "Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'" This assertion led to significant discussion about the essentials of Christian faith and practice. The matter was so important that it could not be handled at a regional level. The disciples in Syrian Antioch sent a delegation to Jerusalem so that the matter could be concluded for the whole of the fledgling church.
At this early stage, the core question was soteriological: What results in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of the individual? The apostles Peter and James both spoke to the issue, arguing that individuals are saved by grace through faith and not by adherence to external standards or behaviors. Both indicated that those who would add to faith were returning to the failed models of the past that neither earlier Jews nor the contemporaries of Peter and James could achieve.
The solution to the problem was clear. The apostles, representing the entire community of faith, declared that Gentiles should not be troubled by Jewish custom, but should be bound to the essential doctrine that salvation was by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 15:8–11, 19–20, 28–29).
They concluded that the central message of Christianity is the work of Christ on the cross, validated by His resurrection. Today, even those who would not identify themselves with evangelical Christianity acknowledge this: "Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the suffering and degradation of its god." To that idea, the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19, adds that without the work of Christ on our behalf and His resurrection from the dead, we have a futile faith. The young church in Jerusalem understood this and protected her doctrine from the intrusion of contaminating elements that would have changed the message of life into a burden that no one could bear.
THE APOSTLES' CREED
The discussion of what constituted the essential elements of the faith continued after the New Testament era. Because the ancient world had a high rate of illiteracy, it became critical to find ways to protect the church from those who sought to alter the message of Christianity. The creed or confession became a defense against those with variant views who wished to gain a platform for their theological aberrations.
The Apostles' Creed represents one of the earliest attempts to provide such protection for the larger community of belief. The creed began by affirming the cardinal belief in God. This was not subject to debate in the early church. God exists and He is both all-powerful and Creator. The core of the creed was Christocentric. It declared Christ to be the only Son of God and Lord, born of a virgin. It affirmed His death, resurrection, ascension, and return to judge the world's inhabitants.
Implicit in the creed, although not clearly articulated, are two other important beliefs. One is the truth that Christ came to provide for the forgiveness of sins through His death. The other is the reality of a bodily resurrection both of Christ and of those who believe in Him. Consequently, four facets of the foundational faith were expressed either explicitly or implicitly in this third-century creed: the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and His resurrection and return.
The perceived threats to the faith that had called for the Apostles' Creed in the third century led to a series of church councils beginning in the fourth century. The Christian faith began to gain popularity and eventually became part of the cultural mainstream during the time of Constantine when the persecution of the church ended. The preservation of the essential facets of the faith required increased vigilance. Roman culture had long been an eclectic mix of traditions and religions. In this environment Christianity was in danger of becoming commingled with other belief systems.
In A.D. 318, a church leader from Egypt began to suggest new ways of thinking about Jesus and His relationship with God the Father. He attempted to combine Christian theology with Greek philosophy and provide a simpler model of understanding a complex, abstract notion. Arius proposed that Jesus could not be the Father's equal. Instead, He must have been God's first and most glorious creation. He claimed that Jesus Christ was of a different essence from the Father and was not God. The church exploded in response. The very foundations of the Roman Empire appeared to be shaken as well.
THE CREEDS OF NICEA AND CHALCEDON
In an effort to preserve both theological and political unity, the emperor Constantine called the leaders of the church together to engage in theological discussion. A council of the church met at Nicea to resolve the debate about the nature of Jesus and His relation to the Father. After heated discussion, another creed was formulated, designed to codify what the members of the council believed was the church's orthodox understanding of the faith. The Nicene Creed, as we know it today, sought to provide a standard against which those professing membership in the community of faith could be assessed.
The creed reiterated the substance of the Apostles' Creed with one significant addition. The full and complete deity of Christ was not clearly explicit in the earlier creed. To those present at Nicea, this lack of clarity allowed for Arius's views. The council decided it would eliminate the possibility of such an error in the future. The newer creed stated that Jesus Christ, "the Son of God, [is] true God of true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father, through whom all things came to be." The deity of Christ was upheld as a doctrinal essential in the fourth century and it was stated in a way that few could misunderstand.
The church continued to refine its confessional statements, as discussions about the person of Christ and His relation to the Father persisted throughout this ancient period. In each case, councils were called and definitions framed in response to novel approaches to doctrine that the church either had not anticipated or considered to be beyond the pale of orthodoxy. By 451, the church had convened its fourth ecumenical council to discuss the person and work of Christ. In this case the main question had to do with the relationship between the deity and humanity of Christ. A fifth-century monk by the name of Eutyches was accused of teaching that Christ's humanity was fully absorbed by His divinity.
The Council of Chalcedon produced a definition that once again attempted to establish the boundaries of orthodox Christology. The essentials included the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, and His work of salvation on behalf of a sinful humanity. The members of the council did not feel the need to restate the certainty of His return to judge. They did allude to the authority of Scripture by affirming that the prophets of old and the Lord Himself taught in accordance with the content of the creed they produced.
THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE REFORMATION
The church of the Middle Ages continued to define what doctrines should be considered the irreducible core of the Christian faith. While there were a variety of theological opinions during this period, the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, and the belief in the authority of Scripture continued to be affirmed.
Contributions of Anselm
Toward the end of the eleventh century, Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, England, wrote his landmark treatise Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), which argued two essential points: God became man, and that man was Jesus Christ. For Anselm, Christ's full and complete deity was never in question. Anselm's work also explained the reason why God had become man. The entire human race had sinned in Adam, leaving each person with a debt owed to God. Without satisfaction, "God cannot remit sin unpunished." Someone had to provide satisfaction to God for man's sin. Since no human could make restitution for such an enormous debt, God had to become man in order to satisfy His own justice and bring redemption to human beings.
We see in Anselm's writing the clear lines of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, as opposed to the idea of Christ's death as a ransom to Satan. Anselm's treatise also alluded to the Virgin Birth and showed that he believed in the authority of Scripture.
Contributions of Luther
The Protestant Reformation continued the pattern of affirming the essential elements of Christian orthodoxy. Martin Luther, hailed as the first of the Reformers, was committed to the fundamental doctrines of an orthodox evangelical faith. Luther lived at the beginning of the sixteenth century and is credited with starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517, when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Paul Althaus, in his Theology of Martin Luther, described Luther's view on the atonement. He wrote, "Luther, like Anselm, views Christ's work in terms of satisfaction."
For Luther, Christ made satisfaction for sinners in two distinct ways. He fulfilled the will of God through a life of obedience to God's Law, and He suffered on the cross as the punishment for sin by experiencing the wrath of God. In both instances, the benefit accrued to humanity and was done in our place.
The first of the Lutheran confessions, Augsburg (1530), reflected Luther's commitment to the essentials. In this confession, all five of the core doctrines of the evangelical faith were clearly articulated. The authority of Scripture was affirmed in the preface and became the basis for all that followed. The Virgin Birth, deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and return of Christ were also spelled out:
It is also taught among us that God the Son became man, born of the Virgin Mary, and that the two natures, divine and human, are so inseparably united in one person that there is one Christ, true God and true man, who was truly born, suffered, was crucified, died and was buried in order to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but also for all other sins, and to propitiate God's wrath. The same Christ also descended into hell, truly rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God, ... The same Lord Christ will return openly to judge the living and the dead as stated in the Apostles' Creed.
Contributions of Calvin and Knox
Like the Lutherans, John Calvin and those who followed him in the Reformed tradition tied their theology to the historic creeds that were compatible with their understanding of Scripture. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in final form in 1559, Calvin expressed his positions on key doctrines. The Bible was authoritative, and as such it provided the foundation for the church and for her doctrines, rather than the Scriptures deriving their authority from the church. Calvin argued that the authority of Scripture must be determined through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, rather than exclusively through the internal proofs in the biblical text.
Of Christ, Calvin asserted, "We indeed acknowledge that the Mediator who was born of the Virgin is properly the Son of God.... Although he was God before he became a man, he did not therefore begin to be a new God." Calvin agreed with the position of Anselm and Luther, viewing Christ's death as satisfying God's justice.
Calvin's influence spread throughout Europe and was carried to Scotland through the efforts of John Knox (1514–1572). He was responsible for the establishment of Protestantism in Scotland and for the formulation of a creed for the new church in 1560.16 The Scotch Confession of Faith followed a Calvinistic view and touched on the essential doctrines of evangelical Christianity. Christ came in the fullness of time, being born of a virgin. He was completely God and completely man, and the authors of the creed specifically denounced the doctrines of Arius and Eutyches, among others. This same God-man was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. The confession affirmed that this resurrection was witnessed by many, including Christ's enemies. The reason for Christ's death was that He might voluntarily offer Himself as a sacrifice on behalf of sinful humans. This included suffering the wrath of God that sinners really deserved. Christ suffered in body and soul "to mak[e] the full satisfaction for the sinnes [sic] of the people."
The authority of Scripture comes rather late positionally in the Scotch Confession. Despite its place, the confession follows the typical Reformed formula, expressing the sufficiency of Scriptures to reveal that knowledge of God to man that is essential for the Christian life. This authority came from God and not by church or council.
The Westminster Confession
When the English and Scottish ministers met at Westminster in 1640 to create a new confession of faith for the English speaking kingdoms, they too came to the conclusion that the age-old standards of orthodoxy should be reaffirmed in the work they were producing. Since their confession was an extension of the Protestant Reformation, it must be understood as a reaction to Roman Catholicism and the prevailing fears that the monarchy was ceding ground to Roman doctrine. Nonetheless, the confession produced at Westminster was an attempt to articulate a clear and proper Reformed doctrinal standard. While the bodily resurrection of Christ was not explicit in the confession, the other four points were stated boldly. Scripture has authority and ought to be believed and obeyed. It is self-authenticating and because of that is to be received as the Word of God. Jesus Christ was virgin born and He is of the same essence as the Father and equal with God the Father in every way.
The ministers gathered at Westminster also committed themselves and their churches to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. "The Lord Jesus," they wrote, "by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself; which through the eternal Spirit once offered up to God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father ..."
THE RISE OF MODERNISM
The views established during and immediately after the Protestant Reformation remained the core of evangelical Christianity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Reformed confessions continued to be the general expression of belief. German Lutherans developed the doctrine of Scripture to a more complete level, building on the core "Scripture alone" concept of Luther. During the seventeenth century, Lutheran theologians began to explore the origin, inspiration, and authority of Scripture in depth. Luther and earlier Lutheran scholars had been content to take these areas for granted. Those who came later focused on the concept of verbal and full (plenary) inspiration; that is, the very words and the complete content of Scripture come from the Holy Spirit and are therefore authoritative.
Excerpted from Foundational Faith by John Koessler. Copyright © 2003 Moody Bible Institute. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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