Last week's session centred our attention on the Bible, our understanding of the nature of divine revelation and the key role given to the Scriptures in the Uniting Church's Basis of Union. This is an important foundation as we proceed this week to look in detail at the doctrine contained in the Apostles' Creed. The Creed forms a practical framework for gathering together from the Bible the major elements of Christian belief and for recalling them.
The little book I Believe in God... Current Questions and the Creeds by Klaas Runia is a valuable discussion of the history, nature, use and contents of the Creeds. Professor Runia was, at the time, Vice-Principal of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria and Professor of Systematic Theology there. A thorough-going Dutchman (I have heard him give a lecture at University of Queensland), he brought to Australia a wide knowledge of the work of continental theologians, particularly the work of Barth and Bultmann. He became actively involved in the meetings of the Tyndale Fellowship at Ridley College in Melbourne.
□ Reviewing the Week
The aim of It's a Great Life! has been to establish group members in that faith in God's work of redemption which releases eternal life within us, to help them to a sound basis for assurance that they have eternal life and to help establish a healthy pattern for spiritual growth.
In reviewing the week, be sure to observe whether this has been achieved for each person. Allow out-of-session time with any person who still has areas of uncertainty.
Quickly review the five "growth factors" - Bible, Prayer, Worship, Fellowship and Witness. Then allow time for group members to note the "extras" that they may also have written down on p.25. One group noted that "our growth depends on us as well as on God". Also important is "time allocation -'prime time' for God" and "pray about everything - ask thankfully - not necessarily expecting 'yes'."
□ This 1 Believe
The Apostles' Creed is given here in the version agreed by the International Consultation on English Texts (1975), as it appears in the back of the Australian Hymn Book.
Some background information on the origin of the Creed is helpful for the leader, though it is not suggested that it is important for the group as a whole.
The Latin author Rufus (or Rufinus), in an exposition of the Creed written about 404AD, recounts that the apostles, having been equipped at Pentecost with the ability to speak different languages, were instructed by the Lord to go forth and preach the gospel to the various nations of the world. "As they were therefore on the point of taking leave of each other, they first settled an agreed norm for their future preaching, so that they might not find themselves, widely separated as they would be, giving out different doctrines to the people they invited to believe in Christ. So they met together in one spot and being filled with the Holy Spirit, compiled this brief token, as I have said, of their future preaching, each making the contribution he thought fit; and they decreed that it should be handed out as standard teaching to believers" (K. Runia, I Believe in God.., p. 15 [Tyndale, London, 1963], quoted from J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds , p.1). A later, more fanciful account gave each phrase to one of the apostles. This form of the legend became very popular in the Middle Ages and pictures appeared in psalteries, prayer books and church windows showing each apostle with the credal article attributed to him.
The first major questioning of the apostolic origins of the Creed came with the Council of Florence (1438-45) in a meeting between the Eastern and Western Churches. The Eastern representatives insisted that they did not possess and had not seen this Creed. The Reformers did not regard the question of origins as very important. Calvin, for instance, could say, "I call it the Apostles' Creed without concerning myself in the least as to its authorship. With considerable agreement, the old writers certainly attribute it to the apostles in common, or to be a summary of teaching transmitted by their hands and collected in good faith, and thus worthy of that title. I have no doubt that at the very beginning of the church, in the apostolic age, it was received as a public confession by the consent of all - wheresoever it originated" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, xvi, 18).
□ TRINITY -one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The structure of the Creed is trinitarian, i.e. it affirms that the one God has revealed himself as three persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Old Testament strongly affirms the oneness of God. Note, for example, the Ten Commandments in Ex.20.2-6 and the Shema in Dt.6.4-9. We find this oneness affirmed in the New Testament also (see Jas.2.19). But here we also hear the claims of Jesus to be the "I Am" (Jn.8.58-59) and to be "one" with the Father (10.30-31), both claims readily recognised by his hearers. And the evidence of Jesus really praying to the Father. Add to that the teaching that the Holy Spirit is personal and divine and we have the Biblical foundations of the doctrine of the trinity. As the JWs remind us, the word "trinity" is not found in the New Testament. However, the teaching is strongly there. At the beginning of the ministry of Jesus we note the witness of Father and Spirit to the Son (Mt. 3.16-17). In his final commission, he refers to baptism in the one name of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" (28.19).
□ FATHER - Creator and Lord. The very first statement about God in the Old Testament is "In the very beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate..." (Gen. 1.1). God is seen to be the Creator of the whole physical universe. Today it is widely taught that it all happened by chance and that life as we know it "evolved" - in other words, the present complex life-forms came about by purely chance mutations (changes) over a very long period of time. The Bible says little about the processes by which the incredible variety of live came about, but affirms that God is the Creator. This affirmation is central to how we relate to God in worship - as creatures to their Creator (see, for example Ps.24). Our prayer for practical needs (see Mt.6.11; Jas.5.13-18) assume that God is Creator. The events of the incarnation require our understanding of God as Creator (Jn. 1.1-14). Our future hope and the summing up of human history assumes that God is Creator (2 Pet.3.10-13). This Creator is revealed to us as Father. Life in the Garden of Eden included relationship with God. The original purpose (broken by human sin) was that the Lord God would walk and talk with them there (Gen.3.8) . Because human sin has broken this relationship, it is important that we understand that God is Lord. He is the final authority. All our human thoughts, words and actions finally come under his judgment.
□ CHRIST - God the Son. Many times in the New Testament Jesus is called the Son of God (we think, for example of Peter's declaration in Mt.16.16). Because his Sonship is unique (unlike the loose way in which some people will say, "there's a bit of divinity in all of us"), we use the term God the Son. Paul's affirmation in Phil.2.6-11 (which may possibly be an early Christian confession or hymn) is striking. Jesus "always had the nature of God". For him being equal to God was not "a thing to be grasped" (RSV) - an allusion to the temptation of Adam and Eve (Gen.3.4). He "took the nature of a servant" becoming a man. Following the cross, "God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name." Verses 10-11 are a direct and striking allusion to Is.45.23 in the LXX Words written about the Lord in the Old Testament are taken as applying to Jesus, though not in a sense that would replace God the Father with Jesus. He is seen to be the one who "existed before all things, and in union with him all things hold their proper place" (Col.1.17).
□ Virgin Birth. The only accounts relating to the conception and birth of Jesus are found in Matthew and Luke. The information could only have come from Mary herself and there may have been a certain reticence in telling the story during her lifetime. Matthew's account (1.18-25) attributes the conception to the activity of the Holy Spirit, not to sexual relations with a man. This was in fulfilment of Is.7.14 which in LXX clearly designates a virgin. The coming child will be called Immanuel, "God with us". Luke (1.26-38) recounts Mary's visitation by the angel Gabriel. It is unmistakably stated (v.34) that Mary was a virgin, that conception would take place through the Holy Spirit's power (v.35) and that the child would be called the Son of God (vv.32,35). These two accounts do not say that virgin births happen, but that it happened on this one occasion and that it is quite congruous with the coming of the Son of God into human history. If he was not born of a virgin, as some affirm, then he was just another great man, not the eternal Son of God coming into our history. If he was not born of a virgin, then Mary must have been an adulteress.
□ Cross and Redemption. The cross is central to the life of Christ and the divine plan of redemption. It is striking that about a third of the Gospel records (29 out of 89 chapters in all) are devoted to Jesus' last week, his death and resurrection. Paul affirms "As for me, I will boast only about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ..." (Gal.6.14).
As we seek to understand the meaning of the Cross of Christ, we firstly see the great Love of God, the great desire of God to rescue sinners and to bring them back into a positive relationship with himself (Jn.3.14-16; Rom.5.8; 2 Cor.5.19). We also see the seriousness of human sin. God is the moral Ruler and "sin pays its wage - death" (Rom.6.23a). The holy God who is also the loving Father can only forgive us on the basis of an offering he himself has made in the person of his Son (Rom.3.21-26).
To understand the Cross requires an appreciation of Jesus as the God-Man. Redemption is the action of God himself, not an appeasement offered by sinful men. Yet Jesus stands also as a representative of the whole human race, the second Adam (1 Cor. 15.22,45) who lived a sinless life (Jn.8.46; Heb.4.15). Jesus was (and is) eternal, and both Rev. 13.8 and Heb. 14.14 seem to be speaking of the Sacrifice occurring at a particular date in history, yet accomplished from all eternity. Its benefit was therefore available for those who believed before he came (Rom.3.25-26) and reaches forward to the needs of those yet to be born. So, again and again, the New Testament writers restate the theme that Jesus took the consequences of our sin. The sinless one identified himself with our sin (2 Cor. 5.21), experiencing, not simply physical death, but separation from the Father (Mt.27.46).
□ Resurrection and Ascension. But Jesus didn't stay dead. On the third day he rose to life. When Paul talks about it in 1 Cor. 15, he is concerned to emphasise that it really happened - "he was buried and he was raised to life three days later" (v.4). The resurrection confirms the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (Rom.1.4). It affirms the validity and efficacy of his death as a sacrifice for human sin and therefore also the good news of forgiveness and a whole new life in him (1 Cor.15.12-20).
But he is no longer visibly present with us. He had to depart physically (from a life limited to one location at a time) so that the Spirit could come (Jn.16.7) and minister in all places simultaneously. He had to depart physically so that he could live within us through the Spirit and create us together into his Body. He ascended into heaven in a visible departure (Acts 1.6-11).
□ Second Coming. On several occasions, Jesus stated very clearly that he will be coming again (see, for example, Mt.24.36-44). The theme was also strongly taught in the early Church (note Paul in 1 Thess.4.13-18). Many writers have endeavoured to help us by putting the various references together into a coherent scheme. But that is as impossible as it might have been trying to write the life of Jesus from the Old Testament, even though, in retrospect, we can see how it all fits together. Some points, however, are clear. (a) This Second Coming will be a personal and visible return to earth (Acts 1. 11). (b) It will be glorious and majestic, in contrast to the humiliation of his first coming (as in Mt.24.30). (c) It will be sudden and unexpected - in fact, the time is unknown, except to the Father (Mt.24.36). (d) It will be the summing up of all human history, the last judgment and the complete and final triumph of righteousness (Mt.25.31-46).
□ HOLY SPIRIT. The first reference to the Spirit is in the second verse of the Bible (Gen. 1.2). However, since the Hebrew word may mean "spirit" or "wind", the reference is not very clear. So the Good News Bible translates "the power of God was moving over the water" and says in the footnote, "or the spirit of God; or a wind from God; or an awesome wind." The Greek of the New Testament also uses the same word for "spirit" and "wind" (note Jn3.5-8), "The Spirit of the Lord" of "the Holy Spirit'' refer to God invisible but always present and active in his creation and in the lives of people. We note in Acts 5.3-4 that a lie to the Holy Spirit in v.3 is called a lie to God in v.4. The teaching of Jesus on the Spirit is found particularly in John 14-16. He is the Helper (parakletos, 14.16). He is at work in the lives of unbelievers in bringing them to faith (16.8-11). He is the agent of the new birth (3.5). His work is important throughout our Christian life. He gives assurance that we are God's children (Rom.8.16). He works to sanctify us (Rom.16.16) - to bring the work of Christ for us to completion in us. He produces the "fruit of the Spirit" in us (Gal.5.22) producing the character of Christ within us. He gives believers a whole variety of gifts so that, together, we can be the Body of Christ and fulfil his mission in the world (Eph.4.1-16; 1 Cor.12.12-3 1). It is worth noting what the Creed lists its third section under the heading of the Holy Spirit.
□ The Church. Jesus spoke about the Church at Caesarea Philippi after asking the disciples who they thought he was (Mt.16.15-19). A great deal has been built around these words and the question of which "church" (in the sense of organisation) is the true fulfilment of the words of Jesus. But the focus of Jesus was not on an organisation but on people - people who believe in him as Saviour and seek to obey him as Lord. (Consider Peter's own understanding of the words of the Lord in 1 Pet.2.4-5). To fulfil the Lord's commission (Mt.28.18-20), these believing people may undoubtedly need an infrastructure of organisation and buildings. But, while we have called these "the church", they are only the church in a secondary sense. Paul liked to think of the church as the Body of Christ sharing his life, gifted to fulfil his will (Eph.1.22; 4.1-16).
□ Communion of Saints. Communion is fellowship, sharing together in the gospel, belonging to one another in the family. Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, "Love one another" (Jn.13.34.35) - their love would mark them out as his disciples. Their oneness in Christ would convince the world of the truth of the gospel (Jn.17.21,23). And this sharing and belonging is not just with "the church militant" - those who are still in the battle, in the race - but with "the church triumphant" - those who have gone before us and are now the great crowd of witnesses (Heb.12.1-2).
□ Forgiveness of Sins. Many religions focus on a variety of means by which people may endeavour to get themselves up to God. The Christian faith is based on the good news that God has reached down to us. Our relationship with God is not based on achievements of our good works but on what divine grace has done for us (Eph.2.8-10). We are put right with God as a gift (Rom.3.24). We receive divine forgiveness by faith and are then to express a forgiving spirit towards others (Mt.6.12; 18.21-35).
□ Resurrection of the Body. Greek thought tended to view the physical world, and hence the body, as evil. The Greek hope for the future was to be rid of the body so that the soul could be released from its shackles to live on forever - this is the immortality of the soul. The Jewish and Christian view was that physical world and the body were created good by God, though affected by the Fall. The body is the necessary means by which the life of the soul and spirit can be expressed in the world. We have therefore expected the resurrection of the body for the life and relationships of heaven. The resurrection body will be recognisable but different (1 Cor.15.35ff).
□ Life Everlasting. The term "everlasting (or eternal) life" refers to a quality of life first and a duration of life second. It consists, said Jesus, in knowing the Father and the Son (Jn. 17.3) - a relationship begun and continued through the ministry of the Spirit. Eternal life begins here and now when we put our trust in Jesus as our Saviour and Lord. It continues beyond the end of this life into heaven itself (Jn.14.1-3). We look forward to the binding and punishment of Satan and the Reign of God forever.
The quotation from Klaas Runia forms a helpful link between the data we believe and our trust in the God who has revealed himself to us.
□ And More...
Explain that the readings for the week have been especially chosen to reinforce the central truths that have been the focus of today's session. Encourage a regular practice of Bible reading and prayer. If class members are already using Scripture Union or other notes, be sure to commend them. Discuss the availability and helpfulness of such notes for those who aren't using them. Express the hope that, whatever other Bible reading people are involved in, they may be able to add these readings each day.
© Peter J Blackburn 1995, 1999