The Deposit of the Faith (Part 6)


The History of Christianity #41

Our Scripture verse today is Galatians 3:27 which reads: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Our quote today is from R. C. Sproul. He said: “Creedal statements are an attempt to show a coherent and unified understanding of the whole scope of Scripture.”

Today, we are looking at “The Deposit of the Faith” (Part 6) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Response: Creed
Another element in the church’s response to heresies was the use of various creeds, particularly in baptism. Quite often the church in a particular city had its own creedal formula, although similar to others in neighboring cities. Apparently what happened was that a “daughter” church used the formula it had learned from the “mother church,” although with some variations. On this basis, scholars have classified ancient creeds into “families,” and such families can then be used to trace the relationship among various churches.

One of these creeds was an earlier and shorter formulation of what we now call the Apostles’ Creed. The notion that the apostles gathered before beginning their mission and composed this creed, each suggesting a clause, is pure fiction. The truth is that its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year 150 AD. Due to its use in Rome, the ancient form of the Apostles’ Creed is called “R” by scholars. At the time, however, it was called “the symbol of the faith.” The word symbol in this context did not mean what it does to us today; rather, it meant “a means of recognition,” such as a token that a general gave to a messenger, so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger. Likewise, the “symbol” put together in Rome was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies circulating at the time, particularly Gnosticism (nos-tuh-siz-uhm) and Marcionism (mahr-shuh-niz-uhm). Any who could affirm this creed were neither Gnostics (nos-tiks) nor Marcionites (mahr-shuh-nahyts).

One of the main uses of this “symbol” was in baptism, where it was presented to the candidate in the form of a series of three questions:

Do you believe in God, the Father almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

This is the core of what historians call “the old Roman symbol,” or simply R. It is obvious that this creed — like most ancient creeds — has been built around the trinitarian formula that was used in baptism. Since one was baptized “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” these questions were posed as a test of true belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Closer scrutiny reveals that this early creed is directed against Marcion (mahr-shuhn) and the Gnostics (nos-tiks). First of all, the Greek word pantokrator (pan-to-krat-or), usually translated as “almighty,” literally means “all ruling.” What is meant here is that there is nothing — and certainly not the material world — which falls outside of God’s rule. (Other ancient creeds say “Creator of all things visible and invisible.”) The distinction between a spiritual reality that serves God and a material reality that does not is rejected. The world, its matter and its physical bodies, are part of the “all” over which God reigns. This emphasis on divine creation and rule over it and over all of history was one of the many points derived from Jewish tradition that Christians continue to hold and consider central to their faith.

The creed’s most extensive paragraph is the one dealing with the Son. This is because it was precisely in their christology that Marcion (mahr-shuhn) and the Gnostics (nos-tiks) differed most widely from the church. First of all, we are told that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God.” Other ancient versions say “Son of the same” or “His Son,” as does our present creed. The important point here is that Jesus is the Son of the God who rules over this world and over all reality, and who is the creator of all things. The birth “of Mary the Virgin” is not there primarily in order to stress the virgin birth — although, quite clearly, that is affirmed — but rather to affirm the very fact that Jesus was born, and did not simply appear on earth, as Marcion and others claimed. The reference to Pontius Pilate is not there to put the blame on the Roman governor, but rather to date the event, thus insisting that it was a historical, dateable event. And docetism is further denied by declaring that Jesus “was crucified…died, and rose again.” Finally, it is affirmed that this same Jesus will return “to judge” — a notion that Marcion (mahr-shuhn) would never accept.

The third clause, although less explicit because the needs of the time did not require it to be extensive, also shows the same concern. The holy church is affirmed because, over against the Gnostics (nos-tiks) with their many schools and Marcion (mahr-shuhn) with his own church, Christians were beginning to underscore the authority of the church. And the “resurrection of the flesh” is a final rejection of any notion that the flesh is evil or of no consequence.

While an analysis of R helps us understand the original purpose of the Apostles’ Creed, it is important to realize that this incipient form of the Apostles’ Creed was only one of several creedal statements employed at the time in connection with baptism. Churches that had strong connections with Rome, such as those in North Africa and Gaul, used variant forms of R. But the churches in the Eastern portion of the empire — in areas such as Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor — had their own creedal formulas. Thus, while R was the basis for the Apostles’ Creed, the Baptismal Creed of Caesarea (se-zuh-ree-uh), or some other creed of the same family, was the basis for the Nicene Creed — which, as we shall see, was formulated in the fourth century and is the most widely accepted of the ancient creeds.


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