No, it wasn’t that my church taught me to love doctrine. In fact, it taught me to hate it by emphasizing all the things that our group had right that everyone else had wrong. In my youth, doctrine was not about being illuminated by the truth, it was about memorizing arguments that would prove other Christians wrong.
But when I finally broke out of that sectarian “remnant” mindset, I discovered that there was a classical Christian tradition that was not bankrupt (as I had been taught). There was indeed a rich foundation, built up out of biblical truth. I fell in love with what I thought I had despised.
There were several doors into my new experience: C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was one, as was John R. W. Stott’s Basic Christianity. Much less celebrated, but equally important to me, was J. I. Packer’s I Want to Be a Christian (later renamed Growing in Christ.
At some point—I can’t remember quite when—I realized that one of the best ways to know what is central to Christian faith—what is “Mere” or “Basic”—is to meditate on the Apostles’ Creed. That was an important element in Packer’s I Want to Be a Christian, and I discovered that he was doing what others had done before him: using the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments as the framework for Christian instruction. Loving music and being curious about church history, I soon realized that this was the same pattern that Martin Luther had followed, and not just in his catechism but in his hymn-writing. That Saxon Renaissance man made these three texts memorable by converting them into rhyming verse and setting them to music: Wir glauben all’ in einen Gott, Vater unser in Himmelreich, and Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot’.
* * *This weekend I encountered the Apostles’ Creed again, but this time it wasn’t in a book or in a German hymn. It was on a DVD. Through his company Vision Video, our friend Ken Curtis (the founder of Christian History & Biography) has collaborated with others to bring us The Apostles’ Creed: A look at its origin and its relevance to our lives today.
The subtitle ("a look at its origin") does not refer to the historical development of the Creed, of which we know relatively little. We have no evidence for the authorship of the apostles, although pseudo-Augustine asserted it some time in the fifth or sixth century. We do however have late second-century quotations of creedal material by Irenaeus and Tertullian that show very strong parallels to what eventually crystallized in present form by the late seventh century. In between, we have much evidence that churches East and West were using similar material to prepare baptismal candidates.
The "origin" in the video's subtitle is instead the Creed's biblical foundations. The program features a number of well-known scholars commenting on the Creed's biblical roots: New Testament historian N. T. (“Tom”) Wright, theologian Alistair McGrath, and historian Martin Marty, among them. Even former Christian History managing editor Mark Galli is among the talking heads. But what is striking about the experience is not simply the quality of the scholars, but the ecumenicity of it all. Besides the Anglicans and Lutheran already mentioned, there’s Baptist Derek Tidball (London School of Theology), Greek Orthodox Kallistos Ware (Bishop of Diokleia, Oxford), Wesleyan Robert Mullholland (Asbury Seminary), and Seventh-day Adventist William Johnson (Andrews University).
* * *To someone whose upbringing taught him to pay attention to Christian differences, listening to voices from these varied tradition sing in unison is an attention-getting experience.
But this Apostles’ Creed DVD is not the velvet ecumenism that plays down doctrine. It is the diamond-hard ecumenism that brilliantly celebrates the central truths of the faith and explains them all by referencing their biblical foundations. This is the Christian tradition the way evangelicals love it: stated clearly and explained in explicitly biblical terms.
The result is that where the biblical text is (nearly) silent, the doctrine is skimmed over. Thus “he descended into hell” gets a brief commentary, but the more fanciful interpretations are ignored in favor of stressing the biblical truth that the Christ fully and truly died.
Similarly, because of the biblical grounding of these teachers, their comments on “the resurrection of the body” emphasize the unity of body and soul in the biblical picture of the human person. No soul-body dualism for these theologians.
This DVD is a two-hour abridged version of a series that is eventually going to run 13 or 14 hours (available Fall 2008). But the editors have made the two hours of talking heads move right along. There are a lot of quick cuts between speakers, often allowing just a phrase to escape Alistair McGrath’s lips before Derek Tidball or Kallistos Ware takes over. The pace is fast (well, except for Bishop Ware, who speaks ponderously—the basso profundo to Martin Marty’s high-strung tenor).
* * *I conclude with a tip of the hat to William Johnson. This Adventist New Testament scholar is the opposite of my Adventist upbringing. Biblically centrist and absolutely clear on what is “Mere” and “Basic.” Like Tom Wright, Johnson explains the judgment as God’s welcome setting things to rights, rather than as the day an angry God metes out punishment. Johnson also explains the book of Revelation as being about the cosmic restoration of all things in Christ, rather than, well, what seems to fascinate the people who want to sell you the apocalyptic decoder ring.
If you study the Bible, you will understand the Apostles’ Creed with great depth. If you study the Apostles’ Creed, you will discover what is “Mere” and “Basic” in the Bible. If you watch this video, you’ll have a good start on both.