Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Brian Mattson, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center For Cultural Leadership. You can fan his Facebook page (Dr. Brian G. Mattson), follow him on Twitter ( @BrianGMattson), and read his blog (www.brianmattson.squarespace.com).
Before I launch into my series of meditations on the Creed, I think it helpful to first examine it as a whole. Seeing the broad sweep of things before attending to its details, looking at the big, blown-up illustrations on our map, will make our reflections more fruitful.
What follows, then, might be called: “The Apostles’ Creed: A Trailer.” This is just a teaser designed to whet the appetite, to show us that there is so much more in this simple creed than meets the eye. Reciting this creed in church can often feel so ho-hum, so boring. Actually, it is a beautiful piece of writing, almost like a piece of Baroque music. We only need ears to hear. It encompasses in succinct form the whole of God’s works: creation, redemption, and consummation. Here is my brief, stream-of-consciousness commentary on this ancient map, bequeathed to us by our spiritual fathers and mothers:
“I believe…” Credo. A Latin term. Not “I suppose.” Not “I surmise.” Not “maybe.” Not “I hope.” I believe. Christian faith is not the result of a giant “leap.” It is the place from which we leap.
“in God, the Father Almighty…” God is our Father, our source, our benefactor, the one on whom we rely and depend, who cares for us, protects us, admonishes us, forgives us. He is all-mighty. There is nothing to thwart him, nothing to stand in his way, nothing that lives, moves or has its being outside of his absolutely sovereign will. He is not a demiurge, a bumbling, low-level divine being, but almighty, transcendent above all, the one to whom all else must give an account.
“Maker of heaven and earth.” Heaven and earth. A Hebrew idiom meaning, everything. God created all things out of nothing. He is not a sculptor, who works with preexisting material; rather, he speaks and it comes into existence. He is not the creation itself. He is not part of the creation. The creation is not him, nor is it a part of him. God brought the universe into being, distinct from his own being. He was, is, and will forever be Creator, and everything else was, is, and always will be creature.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” Jesus=Hebrew, Yeshua, “God saves.” Christ=Messiah, Anointed One, God’s “right hand” who acts for the salvation of his people. He is the only begotten Son, divine, eternal, always with the Father in eternity. But he is also our Lord, the exalted one, David’s Son, the inheritor of the eternal kingdom of a new heavens and a new earth. He is the Lord to whom every knee will bow and every tongue will one day, willingly or unwillingly, confess.
“who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…” This Jesus is not the product of this fallen world, not a man simply endowed with higher intellect or genius. He is God, and comes to us supernaturally, from the outside. Nothing in this fallen world can save (active voice), but must be saved (passive voice), and therefore this Jesus is not personally of this world, but rather came into this world.
“and born of the virgin Mary…” Fully God, yet fully man! He deemed it not a disgrace to enter the world through the womb, to take his mother’s very flesh, to be “born of a woman, born under law,” in order that he might redeem those under the law. He did not float above the world like a Gnostic guru, but cried for his mother, nursed at her breast, skinned his knee, grew up a young boy in knowledge and stature. He was as true a human being as there ever was.
“he suffered under Pontius Pilate…” Suffered! Not appeared to suffer! Not avoided suffering! Not denied suffering! No! He suffered, knowing that sin and misery, curse and death cannot be wished away by fantasies or denied by retreating into the depths of the soul or mind. The only way to exaltation and glory was the way of humiliation, suffering, and death. Under Pontius Pilate? There is a name we know! Findable, traceable, confirmable—his suffering was limited to a time and place. It had a duration, a fixed end. Suffering is not a permanent feature of his divine being, not, as some like to say, an attribute of God, but is rather an historical moment of eternal consequence.
“was crucified, died, and was buried…” Crucified!? The cruelest form of punishment ever devised by the twisted heart of man! He did not die in a roadside accident, from an influenza virus, or stoned by a mob. He was crucified! The punishment reserved for the worst sort of men—traitors to the Supreme Emperor—was given to one standing in the place of… traitors to the true Supreme Emperor. He died. God in the flesh died. The death sanction proclaimed on Adam, “you shall surely die” now fell on the Second Adam. He was buried, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, he bore the cold fate of all sinful humanity.
“he descended into hell…” There is no torment, no condemnation, no punishment, no sanction, no purification, no limbo, no purgatory he has not endured for you! He took it all—all of it. For you. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for you. The one who holds the keys of death and hell is your advocate. Whom then shall we fear? Trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all this we are more than conquerors because Christ has conquered them first!
“the third day he rose again from the dead…” Vindicated! He who was dead is raised; perishable is now imperishable; the dishonorable, now glorious; that which was weakness, now in power; the natural, now fully endowed and clothed with the Spirit of God. Jesus is now forever immortal. Death has died. It has no victory and it has no sting. Jesus is victorious, and, with Paul, we can say, “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“He ascended into heaven…” He was exalted into the everlasting, imperishable life God had intended for humanity in the Garden. He takes us not simply back to the Garden, but back to the future, back to our destiny. He does not return to the Garden to be tested, but to the unshakable City whose builder and architect is the Lord.
“and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…” “The Lord said my my lord, “sit at my right hand and I will make your enemies a footstool for your feet,” David wrote, commenting on the promise God had made him to give one of his descendants an eternal kingdom. Jesus has ascended to take this very seat. His no longer rules as just His Father’s Son, but he rules as his right-hand man. A human being. And because Jesus did all his work on our behalf, we are, amazing as it should seem, privileged to be “co-heirs” with Christ.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead…” The wrongs will be righted. Evil will be punished. Death, despite what the mass murderer thinks in the moment he takes his life with the authorities at the doorstep, is no escape. All the dregs and horrors of humanity are destined to sit before his seat and receive their due, their actions will be seen by all for what they really are, abominations to the Lord. Those who trust in the Lord will fully, finally, and forever be openly vindicated because of the work of Christ.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit…” The Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, the life-giving power of God, to make us alive in Christ, to raise us from our spiritual death and bondage to sin, to unite us to Christ so that we might ascend with him to the heavenly realms. He is our life-giver, our comforter, our teacher, our correcter, our trainer, our equipper for righteousness and good works.
“the holy catholic church…” We are a “church,” ecclesia, a “called out community.” To be “called out” means to be set apart from something else. Thus, we are holy, divided from, set apart from the world of sin, sanctified, purified people. And we are truly catholic, universal, not restricted to a certain people, a certain race, a certain nation, a certain tongue. We are Jews and Greeks, Indians and Poles, Germans and English, French and American—oh, for ten thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise! Oh, there are ten thousands upon ten thousands of tongues to sing, for we are the catholic church!
“the communion of saints…” Reconciled to God, we are reconciled with each other. All the old scores to settle, all the slights, all the wrongs, all the prejudices, all the gossip, all the marginalizing, all the back-stabbing fades away in the light of God’s great work. The saints, we holy members of God’s called-out community, have true communion with each other because of our communion with God
“the forgiveness of sins…” What needs to be said? Oh, much! No karma, no payback, no self-flagellation and whipping, only receiving the wide and great mercy of God!
“the resurrection of the body…” No escaping this mortal coil, no throwing off the so-called evil material body, but rather a restoration and perfection of God’s original, beautiful design. That which was corrupted by sin, hampered by disease, hunger, and thirst will be raised in incorruptible glory. Just as certainly as Jesus Christ was raised, never again to die, so we also are destined to be raised never to die—because, we finally affirm…
“…and the life everlasting…” All of God’s manifold promises from one end of the Scriptures to the other can be summed up in this exquisite, beautiful phrase: everlasting life. Not any kind of life we have ever known, but a life without sin, without strife, without tears, without pain, without loneliness, without estrangement, without bitterness, and without death. And, more than that, a life full of blessedness, contentment, joy, goodness, love, satisfaction, all in the presence of the Father who made us, the Son who redeems us, and the Holy Spirit who glorifies us.
And let us never forget our final word, a confirmation in our hearts and a declaration to the watching world: “Amen!” Let it be! Here we stand, and we can do no other!
I intend to expand on many of these articles in coming posts. Stay tuned…