Saturday, 10 April 2010

The apostles' creed

This is the apostles' creed, the oldest commonly known creed, coming from around 50 years after the latest writings of the New Testament:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    the Maker of heaven and earth,
    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
    born of the virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
    and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
    the holy catholic church;
    the communion of saints;
    the forgiveness of sins;
    the resurrection of the body;
    and the life everlasting.

I used to find this confession something of a puzzle. It seems relatively light on specific doctrinal confession, taking most of the space on recounting historical events. My mathematical and scientific mind wasn't so used to this kind of fodder. Over a number of years my thinking has changed - I hope, developed and matured. The construction of this confession is now something I appreciate and value very deeply.

Now, I don't think this or any man-made confession is infallible. For one thing I think that the arguments that "he descended into hell" was not intended literally by the confession's authors are implausible, given the position of that statement (coming after crucified, died, buried, and as a separate statement to that one). And I think that statement is false; Christ told the dying thief that "today" they would be together in paradise. Christ's sufferings are in the Scriptures uniformly attributed to the cross, not to a mythical "descent into hell". I think that those who have used the confession in the last 500 years in this sense (i.e., it refers to the cross) are right in intent, even if it is not really what the confession says.

But, coming back to my point, I think that the historical emphasis is very helpful. The confession arose in the times when the Gnostic challenge was very strong, and the fact is that Gnostic-type errors have never died, but manifested themselves again and again in different forms in the church. By Gnostic-type errors, I am talking about the tendency to separate history from theology, facts from ideas, values from events - flesh and blood from soul and spirit.

Theological liberalism is a form of Gnosticism. Theological liberalism sought to "de-mythologise" the Bible, stripping out the historical claims and keeping the ethical teaching. But in the Bible, the ethical teaching is a fruit, and God's historical actions in the world are the roots. Dig out the former, and quite quickly you won't have any consistent basis for the former - as the recent history of the West shows.

The Bible is a very earthly book. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He acts in this world - not some mythical private sphere - to judge and to save. Jesus is Lord, not simply of our private values and personal beliefs, but of the hills, valleys and plains too; of the public, visible reality that you can see on Google Earth. He actually came into this world, lived, suffered, and died and rose - to be Lord of this world, not of a different or invisible one. He's Lord of all seven days of the week, not just Sunday; Lord of the world, not simply the church. When we understand that, we'll understand that secularism is actually functional atheism, and that secularism no more matches with Christianity than Gnosticism does - because it is (in its Christianised forms) a species of Gnosticism.

Theistic evolution is another crypto-Gnostic scheme, that separates God's acts from God's words. It relegates the creative accounts of Scripture to theological stories that are intended to teach theological ideas, but not because they tell an account of what actually happened in the real world. Fruits without roots again.

This insight is part of what gives me confidence as a missionary and elder. As I preach the gospel and spread the word in this world (badly, but with God's help to keep going forward), I have confidence that Jesus, as Lord of this world, will achieve his purposes. I believe that his word will transform real-world institutions - individual lives, families, places of work, cultures and even governments. Those things aren't in another sphere, where Jesus' Lordship is less important - they're an integral part of the very universe he is Lord over. We can pray and work with confidence, not just hunker down into a holy huddle waiting for the second coming to rescue us into a world where Jesus actually does reign.

Tomorrow I've been asked to address a student Christian Union on the subject of post-modernism. Post-modernism denies the validity of meta-narratives - i.e. of universally true stories which transcend local cultures and boundaries. The gospel is nothing else than a meta-narrative, and the Apostles' Creed hence denied post-modernism 1900 years in advance. I submit that a Christian who really appreciates the logic of the construction of the Apostles' Creed is a Christian who is well-armed against many of the erroneous -isms plaguing the church today. Once you've grasped Genesis 1:1, that in the beginning God made not just souls and Platonic realms of ideals, but the real-life heaven and earth in which we live, and once you've grasped the flesh-and-blood gospel of a Saviour who really suffered terrible agony on a Roman gibbet around 30AD, and once those insights have penetrated throughout your thinking, you're well on the way. Truly the ancients have a lot to teach us, even in the very fundamentals.


Ned Kelly said...

Judge the QUICK and the dead? Amazing how our minds slip into common phraseology and direct our pens contrary to our wishes. As for Jesus descending into Hell, I wonder whether we know what this phrase was originally intended to convey. Ephesians 4:8-10 says that Jesus descended somewhere, and maybe "hell" is more correctly sheol, or maybe Ephesians is simply speaking on the incarnation. I have often pondered the agony in Gethsemane, would contemplation of physical torture be enough to sweat drops of blood, many martyrs have know their fate without reacting that way. The severity of Jesus' suffering suggests He was concerned with more than physical pain, perhaps it was the thought of separation from the Father through acceptance of our sin, and this is expressed metaphorically as descent into hell. As for Luke 23:43, "today" does seem to translate into "this very day", but for that to be true, Jesus must have gone to heaven and then come back for his body for the resurrection, which doesn't seem right. I suspect that Jesus was neither on earth nor heaven between the crucifixion and resurrection, just where I know not, but separated from God, the end result of sin, seems plausible and hell seems as good a word as any to describe that condition. Certainly not the future hell that awaits those who fail the final judgement, but certainly a hell of a type.

David Anderson said...

Hi Ned,

I didn't follow that comment about quick and dead! Quick is old English for living... I copied and pasted the confession in!

My reasons for thinking that the authors of the creed intended a literal descent into hell are:

1) The phrase appears additionally to "was crucified, dead and buried". Therefore I think, given the economy of language in the confession, that the "descent" is something additional to the crucifixion, death and burial.

2) Moreover, there appears to be a clear temporal sequence. The statements are not random, but are intended to come in chronological order:
born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, descended, rose. The "descent" is something that happens after burial, but before rising.

I think that the Bible teaches that upon his death, Jesus's human soul went in spirit to the place of departed saints, which we call "heaven", whilst his body remained in the grave. Then on his resurrection, body and soul were reunited. I think this because:

1) Scripture divides created reality into two realms, heaven and earth (the latter meaning the same as we call "the universe" - i.e. including the whole physical cosmos that we can presently access), and knows no other place but these. i.e. there is a lack of alternatives.

2) Scripture uniformly ascribes Jesus' sufferings to the cross. Atonement was made there. To ascribe further post-cross sufferings to him is a rather theological innovation!

3) The verse in Luke already referred to.

4) As our forerunner, I see no problem in Jesus going ahead on the path that we will follow: on physical death, to heaven, then reunited with our bodies later at the resurrection.

I incline to the belief that in this 3-day period Jesus was presenting his high priestly work in the "true tabernacle" in heavens - i.e. he did the work ascribed to him in the book of Hebrews. It was upon the acceptance of this work that resurrection then became "possible", the offering having been accepted. This view I think harmonises with the fact that Jesus did not "ascend" to his heavenly rule until the 40 days were over.

Ned Kelly said...

Thanks for that David, I wasn't previously aware of the old English meaning of 'quick'. The spiritual realm is one open to many interpretations as I have read in various commentaries, and I am as ever uncertain. Your second point (1) would suggest that all who have died are in the spiritual world of heaven, even the truly evil who will be judged and sent to hell. Does that mean that hell, the final destination after the final judgement, does not yet exist, and that the current 'heaven' is some form of limbo where every departed soul awaits the final judgement? I don't need to know as a matter of faith, I am entirely comfortable with the ambiguity, but ever curious.

David Anderson said...

In saying that creation includes only "heavens and earth", here "earth" means "universe" and "heavens" means both heaven and hell! I can see that might be confusing!! In my understanding, "heavens" = the spiritual realm the other side of the "firmament" which God created to separate us from that realm.