I believe in God the Father almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and is seated
at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there 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.
Ben had just graduated from college and was devoting a year of service working for a nonprofit that was rebuilding damaged homes in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. He had grown up in a Jewish family but found himself attracted to the community at Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New Orleans.
Ted was baptized as a child, but after his father came out as a gay man and left the church, Ted left too, believing love for his father entailed forsaking Christianity. But then he started attending a small group in Cincinnati with his girlfriend.
Peter was a Tulane University senior; he was raised in a Christian home but had never set foot in a Presbyterian church before. He loved to ask hard questions and was even considering seminary.
Dylan hadn’t given much thought to God until he saw volunteers from New City Church tutoring children at the school where he worked. A year later, he was studying the Gospel of John and was baptized.
Claire met some Christians at a coffee shop on Magazine Street. Her visit to Redeemer was the first time she had been to church.
How do we communicate the essence of Christianity to the Bens, Teds, Peters, Dylans, and Claires in our cities? How do we teach the doctrines of the faith to people who have little exposure to Christianity?
These were the questions we were asking as we planted our churches in New Orleans and Cincinnati. In some ways, it’s the age-old missionary question: How do we contextualize the Gospel in such a way that people from a given culture can hear and understand it?
British theologian and author Lesslie Newbigin encouraged us to begin thinking of the West as a mission field 50 years ago. But in some ways the challenge is even more difficult now. Many people in our cities don’t know much about Christianity, but they think they do. Most have little background in the church. They have heard just enough to have either adopted a syncretistic spirituality mistakenly believing it was Christianity, or they have rejected a stereotype without ever engaging the Gospel. And many of those who do have a church background are either nominally Christian or embrace a fundamentalist legalism that is far from the Gospel.
So how do we teach the Christian faith’s timeless truths in a situation like this? As we tried to nurture our young congregations, we kept coming back to the Apostles’ Creed.
Many associate creeds with a stale, formal Christianity, not remembering that the ecumenical creeds were formulated, in part, as missionary endeavors. The Apostles’ Creed developed early in Christianity’s history, as the fledgling faith began to grow and spread beyond Judaism. Hebrew converts, for the most part, needed to see that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. But many gentiles were coming to believe in Christ, so the church needed a way to explain its most important doctrines to those with little knowledge of the Bible. The Apostles’ Creed was developed in its early drafts before A.D. 200. By the 500s the Creed was in its final form. Though it wasn’t written by the Apostles, it was meant to summarize their teaching.
We’ve found the Apostles’ Creed to be an incredible teaching tool as urban church planters.
The Creed is Accessible
Shakespeare has said “brevity is the soul of wit,” and the Apostles’ Creed is amazing in its brevity. Every preacher knows cutting the sermon down to a manageable size is the most painful part of writing it. The Creed takes the almost 800,000-word Bible and boils it down to about a hundred words. And it does this while retaining the essence of the biblical storyline. Regular use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship and teaching provides people a basic vocabulary and framework for understanding the Christian faith.
The Creed is a Story
The late modern and postmodern mind tends to be more receptive to narrative than precepts. But the Creed is both. It’s a statement of beliefs but in the form of a story — the story of God and His world, complete with characters and a plot. It tells us about the way God interacts with His people. And it tells us about the future. The Creed’s story begins with God’s creation and ends with eternity. The plot includes God becoming human. The crisis is Jesus’ suffering and death. The resolution is in His resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to equip the church to live faithfully until the resurrection of the dead.
When Christians affirm their faith by professing the Apostles’ Creed, they are effectively retelling this story. We are summarizing what we believe. But we’re also telling one another a story that we already know and often forget. It’s a story that bears repeating because there is no better story. And it gives us our bearings in life.
The Creed Clarifies
By making explicit what we do believe, the Apostles’ Creed guards the church against what we don’t believe. The Creed allows Christians to identify and avoid inadequate or harmful versions of the story.
Regular use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship and teaching provides people a basic vocabulary and framework for understanding the Christian faith.
It also keeps us from riding our own hobbyhorses by keeping the biblical story in balance. For example, Christians today in the Western world tend to be very individualistic. We don’t seem to have much of a sense of belonging to a community. Our relationship with God, we think, is only about personal salvation. The Apostles’ Creed guards against individualism by reminding us that belonging to the church (and being in community) isn’t just helpful to the Christian life; it’s the goal of the Christian life. When we confess “I believe in the holy catholic (universal) Church, [and] the communion of saints,” we are reminded that Christianity is not “just me and Jesus.” We are reminded that Jesus died to save a people for Himself. And He saves us not just out of sin, but into a community. This is not only a local community composed of people we know, but a global community that transcends times. Despite their differences, Christians throughout the centuries and across the continents have agreed on the tenets of the Apostles’ Creed.
The Creed Unifies
I (Ray) don’t know what your experience in kindergarten was like, but I bet it wasn’t so different from mine at Public School 8 in New York City. There was a lot of diversity in my school: smart kids, not so smart kids; different ethnicities, different sizes; the kids who ate paste and the kids who didn’t. And at P.S. 8 everybody (no matter who they were) fought on the playground. But one thing brought us all together: the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a unifying factor, even in all our diversity.
It doesn’t take great powers of observation to see that the church resembles my kindergarten class. There is great variety in the church: Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, some who eat paste, some who don’t. Every denomination has its strengths and weaknesses, as well as its unique history and traditions. Sometimes Christians fight like kids on the playground. But there is one thing that has united Christians from every tradition: the Apostles’ Creed. There is something beautiful and extraordinary about knowing that when you confess the Apostles’ Creed, there are people all over the world doing the same thing in different languages. Swedish Lutherans and Korean Presbyterians, African Pentecostals and Guatemalan Catholics, Chinese house churches and Egyptian Copts — all can affirm, “This is what we believe.”
The Apostles’ Creed guards against individualism by reminding us that belonging to the church (and being in community) isn’t just helpful to the Christian life; it’s the goal of the Christian life.
In a context where almost everyone is a Christian, it’s probably useful to identify your church over and against other expressions of Christianity. In other words, you are highlighting distinctions. But in a missionary context, Christians need to work together. We need to provide a unified front in order to more clearly communicate the Gospel to a watching world.
Maybe you’ve heard the old Emo Philips story:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for.”
He said, “Like what?”
I said, “Well … are you religious or atheist?”
He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! What kind?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Wow! Me too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist Church of God.” I said, “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God.” I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Confession of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Confession of 1915?”
He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Confession of 1915.” I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off the bridge.
This is not a call for ignoring differences. A major weakness of the modern ecumenical movement has been to try to boil everything down to the lowest common denominator. That’s not what we are encouraging. But by focusing on the Apostles’ Creed’s core doctrines, it gives a way to live with each other in humility, gentleness, love, and patience. We are to lay aside less important differences and look for and celebrate what we have in common.
We may have to argue, debate, and sometimes even fight, but we need to do it the right way. This is one reason the Apostles’ Creed is so important. It outlines for us Christianity’s core doctrines. Those who fall inside it can still have differences and even fight from time to time, but they can fight like brothers.
My three brothers and I (Josh) fought a lot growing up. But the way I fought with my brothers is completely different from the way I’d fight with someone breaking into my house. We all need to understand the difference.
The Apostle Paul tells us that there are wolves, and the church needs to be defended against them. But when taking aim, make sure you shoot at the wolf. All too often Christians aim indiscriminately; they may get the wolf, but they hit a lot of sheep in the process.
The Apostles’ Creed gives us a doctrinal framework for partnering in the work of the Gospel. Individual congregations and denominations would do well to recognize that they are not on mission alone. The resources and witness of the church are so much stronger when congregations work together to love their cities and embody the Gospel.
Creeds are Inevitable
Many people object to the very notion of a creed. Isn’t that giving your mind away, simply subscribing to a set of ideas? Nietzsche speaks for our age when he distinguishes those who inquire from those who believe. People who inquire are good thinkers; people who believe are simplistic. Nietzsche explains, “In the Christian world of ideas there is nothing that has the least contact with reality — and it is in the instinctive hatred of reality that we recognize the only motivating force at the root of Christianity.”
Is Nietzsche correct? Is confessing a creed tantamount to intellectual suicide? A lot of people think so. But the truth is that life is not possible without some form of creed. Creeds are inevitable. Whether you are religious or not, everyone has a creed.
Steve Turner — the British music journalist who has written books about U2, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash — nails the modern mood in his poem “Creed,” spoofing contemporary society’s “creed of creedlessness.”
We believe in marxfreudanddarwin
We believe everything is ok
as long as you don’t hurt anyone,
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.
We believe everything’s getting better,
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated.
You can prove anything with evidence.
We believe that all religions are basically the same.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
Creation, sin, heaven, hell, God and salvation.
We believe that man is essentially good.
It’s only his behavior that lets him down.
This is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.
We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him.
We believe there is no absolute truth,
except the truth that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds,
and the flowering of individual thought.
Turner’s contention is that even the most secular of people have their own sacred beliefs, their own inherited creeds, even if they’re self-contradictory. Creeds are necessary; they are how we make sense of reality. Everyone interprets life through the lens of some set of basic beliefs.
Atheist Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” argues that modern science is built not on empirical evidence, but on unprovable statements. Even science, to conduct experiments, needs to operate according to untestable presuppositions before it can move forward. The question isn’t, “Should you have a creed?” but “What creed should you subscribe to?”
The Creed Gives Hope
Living in New Orleans, I (Ray) know what a whiplash life can be at every moment. We were recently at the Mardi Gras season’s final parade, an utterly lovely moment. I thought, “I don’t know of a better picture of heaven than a Mardi Gras parade.” It’s a picture of grace and hospitality — everyone on the floats has paid a lot of money to give things away to strangers. This is the only major event that I know of that is completely free of advertising or sponsorship. Nobody makes any money from it. They just get together to celebrate, and to give and to share. It’s a picture of creativity that reflects our Creator. Its diversity is beautiful: All walks of life line up together to share, to talk, to laugh, to celebrate together. It’s the best celebration I know, a glimpse of the party that is the kingdom of God.
Then I got home and opened my laptop, and there were the pictures. People in their festive green and gold and purple helplessly crowded around a young man bleeding on the ground. He’d been shot on the parade route half a mile from where my family and I had been standing.
In the midst of these almost otherworldly, joyous, wildly beautiful celebrations, there are signs of brokenness and death all around. As soon as the parade passes, you look behind you and see some of the 172,000 New Orleans homes that were flooded, some 50,000 still in ruins eight years later. Or you pick up the paper and read a report of yet another murder.
This is a reminder to us: All our celebrations are marred by the Fall. This is true in New Orleans, Cincinnati, or any other place in our fallen world.
But the Creed points us to “resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.” Revelation tells us that God will rid the world fully and finally of all infection and evil. This makes way for a new cosmic order where brokenness, suffering, and death are banished. This is the substance of Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” There will be rest from your trials, pain and enemies. “And death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” The new order will be characterized by peace and joy. None of the old world’s evils can hinder the saints from fully enjoying the consummate presence of God.
John was writing to comfort a people suffering intense persecution. His words are meant to grant them the hope to withstand their trials. When we think of our problems at work or school, we often say we’re being thrown to the lions. Our lions are figurative, but for first-century Christians they were the real thing. Belief in the life everlasting was a living hope for people experiencing the most severe of troubles — how much more then for us! If you grasp this, you can face anything.
There are disappointments, broken dreams, and broken hearts in the lives of people reading this magazine right now. You’re not facing literal lions, but maybe you’re exhausted, thirsty, thinking, “My marriage is so bad. I don’t think I can take it much longer. Where can I get the strength to go on?” Or, “I don’t think I can get out of bed and go to that job I hate one more day.” You might be disheartened by the injustice you see around the country and in your city, or by the darkness of your own heart. Maybe you can’t bear the loneliness that you feel, or you struggle with chronic pain and sickness. Where can you get strength for today?
It comes in the hope of a glorious future. You can try dieting; you can buy yourself a new iPad; you can switch jobs or cities or marriages or churches. You may escape the pain for a few moments. But in order to be sustained, you need a much bigger hope than any of those things can bring.
The Christian story is a fundamentally hopeful one. That is why the Apostles’ Creed ends with a confession of trust in “the life everlasting.” Where the latest worship fad or program may fade, this is time-tested, enduring fuel for mission for Ben and Ted and Dylan and Peter and Claire, and you and me.
The Rev. Dr. Ray Cannata is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, where he has served since December 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina.
The Rev. Joshua Reitano is senior pastor of New City Church, which he planted in Cincinnati. Ray and Josh together wrote “Rooted: The Apostles’ Creed” (2013). It is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major book sources, or directly from the publisher, Doulos (www.doulosresources.org).
Illustration by Ashley Shugart