God Almighty?

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“Christ the Pantocrater” icon. Pantocrater is a Greek compound word for “all mighty”, thus depicting Christ as the all-mighty God

The first line of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father almighty“. What does it mean to call God almighty? At first glance, of course, it means to affirm that God can do anything he wants. He is all-mighty; or, put another way, His might is not limited by the common limitations of human infirmity. He is mightier than anything in this world.

Of course, the snide theologically-minded junior higher might retort about God’s might: “well can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?”. Beside the fact that the question is a bit wonky (I’m fairly certain it is meant to be unanswerable), it points out a more important question: can God’s might transcend normal boundaries of logic, creation, love?

Alister McGrath explores this question by asking: can God create a four-sided triangle? He answers by saying,

Four-sided triangles do not and cannot exist. The fact that God cannot make such a triangle is not a serious issue. It just forces us to [think about God’s might] in a more complicated way. “To say that God is almighty means that God can do anything that does not involve logical contradiction.” (Theology: The Basics, Kindle Locations 1260-1263)

This is an important assessment. McGrath highlights the fact the God does and will not transgress the boundaries of logic; of course, this is preeminently because he is the one who created those boundaries in the first place! God made triangles three-sided; why would he want to create a four-sided one?

McGrath finishes his exploration of God’s might by answering that his might has boundaries. These boundaries are in place not because he is weak; God can in fact do anything. However, God won’t do anything which transgresses who he is or that which goes outside of the bounds he himself set up. God’s might is thus limited, but by choice. God mightily limits himself so as to remain inside the boundaries he decided upon.

Another (better) way to approach this is to say that affirmation of the line “God is almighty” is not the same as saying that “God is sheer might”. God is mighty, but he is also faithful to his promises. God is sovereign, but he is also love. This means that God’s might will never betray his love etc. And actually, 1 John 4 tells us that of all the things that God could be, he is in and of himself love. His might is thus subordinate to his love. He limits his might, and doesn’t transgress the boundaries he set up.

Hans Urs von Balthasar has a helpful discussion on this line of the Creed:

It is essential, in the first instance, to see the unimaginable power of the Father in the force of his self-surrender, that is, of his love, and not, for example, in his being able to do this or that as he chooses. And it is just as essential not to understand the Father’s love-almightiness as something darkly elemental, eruptive, prelogical, since his self-giving appears simultaneously as a self-thinking, self-stating, and self-expressing. (Credo, 31)

“Prelogical” is an important term here: God’s might does not come before the logic of his love. It is expressed in terms of his love. Here we have limitations again: God’s might is limited, or put better, filtered through his love. God cannot properly do anything he chooses if it out of line with his other attributes or out of line with the definitions he’s already created. For him to do this would create a God of sheer will, unloving, oppressive, “eruptive”.

von Balthasar concludes here that to say “God is almighty” is to affirm the unending nature of God’s love:

When the New Testament refers to him in many passages as “almighty”, it becomes evident from these that this almightiness can be none other than that of a surrender which is limited by nothing (Credo, 31)

Almightiness in terms of love means that God’s love is so mighty and his surrender so great that it cannot be stopped! This is what the cross is! God’s self-sacrificing, mighty love which destroys the power of sin and death and results in life eternal. Ah, that we can affirm!

Faith and Doubt

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Kallistos Ware, in his primer on Eastern Orthodoxy — The Orthodox Way — begins his book talking about what he calls “a mystery”: God. God in his essence is ultimately a mystery to us. In all that he reveals of himself, he is still a great cause of wonder and awe. As much as we may be able to comprehend him, we are still infinitely far from comprehending him.

Because of this, the Orthodox have a way of “doing theology” called apophatism. “Apophatic” theology is essentially doing theology through negation. Or, put another way, the Orthodox stress that one safe way of “knowing” God is by knowing what he is not. God is not finite. God is not a man. God does not change, etc.

Now, why do theology in this manner? Ware explains:

Without this use of the way of negation…our talk of God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth. If we say that he is good or just, we must at once add that his goodness or justice are not to be measured by our human standards. If we say he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears a unique significance. So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect”. Having made an assertion about God, we must pass beyond it: the statement is not untrue, yet neither it nor any other form of words can contain the fullness of the transcendant God. (p 14)

God is then, ultimately, in his bare essence, a true mystery. In all that we affirm about God, we must also “go beyond”, explain what he is also not.

With that said, Ware then goes on to explain that because God is a mystery, knowledge of  God must be less of an affirmation of facts or truths about him, and more of a personal knowing of him. Theology, properly speaking, does not give us an air-tight knowledge about God; rather, it leads us into an ever-deepening friendship with him.

Ware explains by way of the Nicene Creed:

In the [Nicene] Creed we do not say, ” I believe that there is a God”; we say, “I believe in one God”. Between belief that and belief in, there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief have no practical effect upon my life.

I say to a much-loved friend, “I believe in you”. I am doing far more than expressing belief that this person exists. “I believe in you” means: I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. (p 16)

It is not the task of Christianity provide easy answers to every questions, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery (p 14)

Going on from this, Ware addresses the question of doubt. Usually doubt is seen as something opposite to faith. They are seen as opposing forces, such that to struggle with doubt means to be weak in faith. But, having seen that theology is less about having complete knowledge about God, and more of an intimate friendship with him — entering ever-deeper into a mystery — doubt ceases to be an opposing force.

Ware explains:

Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, enabling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own cry, “Lord I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite — that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it…

The words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt”. As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace” (p 16)

Holy Saturday: He Descended into Hell

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I’ve written on this subject before, but I want to cover another time. We say in the Creed that Christ “descended into hell”. What do we mean by this? Hans Urs von Balthasar — in a compilation of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed called Credo — has some helpful comments.

He explains that while Christ’s descent into death on Saturday is by no means the victory of Easter — for he was truly dead! — Christ died in a unique way in which no one else had, which opens up new possibilities and realities:

[T]his dead man is different from all the rest. He has died purely from love, from divine human love; indeed, his death was the supreme act of that love, and love is the most living thing that there is (p 53-54).

While it is true that Christ was truly dead like any other man, he died in a way no other man had: out of perfect love, which is living and redemptive. What this means that in descending into death, perfect love is brought into the depths of death, and death is thereby transformed into life. Balthasar says this about Christ’s descent into death:

Thus his really being dead — and that means the loss of any and every sort of contact with God and his fellow human beings — is also an act of his most living love… From Holy Saturday onward, death becomes purification. On that day, the dead Lord opened up a way out of eternal forlornness and into heaven…Descending into [death], Christ has thrown open the entranceway to the Father (54)

Put simply, Balthasar concludes that by going down into death by a perfect divine love, Christ has transformed death into life by love. The realm of the dead is thereby purified, and opened up to Father.

This is good gospel news for all who have died before, for it opens up heaven to all those Old Covenant saints. Balthasar explains, “under the Old Covenant…for everyone, there was only Sheol, the place of being dead” (54). The saints of old, as Hebrews says, died without receiving “the things promised” (Heb 11:39). They went into death, but could not enter into paradise without purification. The death of Christ brings life into death, and purifies the realm of the dead, thereby opening heaven to those who went before us.

Christ descends into the realm of death and opens it up by love. This is the good news of Holy Saturday.

Apostles’ Creed: What does “the holy catholic church” mean?

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Our church says the Apostles’ Creed nearly every week in our liturgy. In one of the lines, we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church”. For some, this is a strange term. And the reason is because nowadays, the term catholic has come to mean: the Roman Catholic Church. Understandably, many want to sort of shy away from this term.

However, during the time of the Reformation, the Reformers did not feel the same hesitancy for the term “catholic church”. For them the term was not something that belonged to the Roman church in distinction to the other churches. In fact, in all of the Reformed catechisms, the Apostles’ Creed (along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments) was the bulk of the content. I know that in many Protestant traditions, children presented for confirmation memorize and recite the Apostles’ Creed.

So that term was not controversial. But what does it mean then? What did the Reformers understand it to mean? More importantly, what did the early church understand it to mean?

It is important to first point out that the term catholic means “universal”, or more properly, “according to the whole”. So when we say catholic church, what we really mean is universal church, or the church according to the whole. But of course, the question becomes, what does that mean?

Turriten, in his third volume of Elenctic Theology, has a very helpful discussion on this term. He identifies three things “catholic church” is meant to convey:

First, the term catholic church means that the true church embraces all true believers from all times and places, not just a specific locale or time. Turretin explains:

First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers, in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived from the beginning of the world or will live unto the end. In this sense, “the whole family of God is said “to be named in heaven and on earth” (Eph 3:15)…Thus Augustine expresses it on Ps 62: “His whole church, which is diffused everywhere, is his body, of which he is also the Head; however, not only believers of this present time, but also they who were before, and who will be after us even to the end of the world” (Volume 3, p 30)

Catholic properly denotes the assembly of all believers in all places in all times. Hence the term universal: The catholic, universal church is the company of the elect, whether on heaven or on earth. It is the church of all believers in all places for all times.

Secondly, the term catholic church denotes its embrace of all peoples, ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc, in contrast to the Old Testament church which only embraced believers that belonged to the Jewish nation. Turretin explains:

[The catholic church belongs any and all persons], without distinction from every kind, order and state of men. For there is no distinction either to Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Rom 10:12), but in every nationa, he that fears him is accepted by him (Acts 10:35). “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11) (p 31)

The church welcomes all without ethnic or class or racial distinction. This was a massive issue during the times of the apostles. Paul spilled much ink over the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. No longer was the church simply within the boundaries of Israel. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, the church embraces all peoples, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor.

Lastly, the church is called catholic in terms of its doctrinal teaching. Churches which teach the whole of apostolic doctrine, with all of its non-negotiables can be called catholic. It teaches and transmits the apostolic doctrine in totality. In contrast, churches who do not teach the whole truth, or who teach what is error, are not thus “catholic”. Turretin explains:

The catholic church is frequently so called by the [early church] fathers with respect to doctrine because it holds and defends the orthodox catholic doctrine; “the whole of which she truthfully holds,” as Augustine says… Vincent of Lerins clearly sets this forth. “In the catholic church itself great care is to be taken that it holds what is believed everywhere, always and by all; for this is truly and properly catholic: which the very force of the name and reason declare, which truly universally comprehends all things”…In this sense, there can be many catholic church; nay, all particular orthodox churches are catholic, as they are often called (p 31)

Meaning, all churches who teach “what is believed everywhere, always and by all” are said to be catholic.

 

Praying to God as Father

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Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!

 

Lord’s Supper: Truly Seeing

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When Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord and ate of the fruit, it says in the Genesis account that their “eyes were opened”. Their eyes were opened to their own sin and shame. We know this, because they immediately tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This of course did not resolve the problem, because what they had seen was a spiritual shame, a separation from God’s very life. 

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, sees a parallel between this “seeing” of sin and shame, and the episode of the Emmaus road in Luke 24. After his resurrection, Christ met with two of his disciples on the Emmaus road, and that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vs 16). They could not see Christ as he was; it was only after Christ ate with them that they could see. 

Luke goes on to say that Jesus “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs 30-31). Ratzinger sees this, first, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and second, as a parallel to the “eating” and “seeing” in the Genesis account of the fall. 

Ratzinger explains:

[A]t the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.

The Lord’s Supper then is a “reverse seeing” from shame and sin, to redemption and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is meant reverse the effect of the fall: to open our eyes and unite us to life itself, the risen Lord.

The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.

The Importance of the Creeds

(Above, early fathers of the church: Bishops Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Jerome of Italy, and Augustine of Hippo)

My church says the Apostles’ Creed every week. We all say it together. We all affirm the truths communicated therein. But why say the creed? Why recite it? Why even affirm it? Why is an old creed important anyways?

Allister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, explains the large importance of the early creeds:

The English word “creed” derives from the Latin word credo, “I believe”, with which the Apostles’ Creed — probably the most familiar of the creeds — begins: “I believe in God…” It has come to refer to a statement of faith, summarizing the main points of Christian belief, which is common to all Christians. For this reason, the term “creed” is never applied to statements of faith associated with specific denominations. These latter are often referred to as “confessions”. A “confession” pertains to a denomination, and includes specific beliefs and emphases relating to that denomination; a “creed” pertains to the entire Christian church, and includes nothing more and nothing less than a statement of beliefs which every Christian ought to be able to accept and be bound by. A “creed” has come to be recognized as a concise, formal, and universally accepted and authorized statement of the main points of Christian faith. (p 29)

A “creed”, historically and within the early church, is that which every Christian needs to believe in order to be considered Christian. Confessions, which emerged later, are documents which highlight specific beliefs to a denomination, rather than the entire church.

McGrath explains how the creeds functioned in the early church:

The patristic period saw two creeds coming to be treated with particular authority and respect throughout the church (Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds). The stimulus to their development appears to have been the felt need to provide a convenient summary of Christian faith suitable for public occasions, of which perhaps the most important was baptism. The early church tended to baptize its converts on Easter Day, using the period of Lent as a time of preparation and instruction for this moment of public declaration of faith and commitment. An essential requirement was that each convert who wished to be baptized should declare his or her public faith. It seems that creeds began to emerge as a uniform declaration of faith which converts could use on such occasions. (ibid)

So then, in order to be baptized into the church, you were bound to publicly affirm the historic creeds. If you could not affirm the creeds, you could not be called a Christian! This was the importance of the creeds.

The importance of the creeds still continues today. To be Christian, you must be affirm the truths found in the creeds! If we are looking at the Apostles’ Creed, Christ’s death and resurrection, the virgin birth, the resurrection of the dead; these are truths which must be affirmed to be called Christian. If we are looking at the Nicene Creed, the Trinity, divinity of Christ, etc, must be affirmed to be called Christian.

Unfortunately, many look to these creeds as mere denominational confessions that can be accepted or rejected. Actually, and historically, these are not optional! They were formulated ecumenically, by the church at that time, as universal statements about Christianity.

Within this rubric, we know that Mormons could not be considered Christians — they deny the divinity of Christ. However, there are many other churches which we could also not consider Christian: Oneness churches — those who deny the Trinity — can not legitimately be called Christian. Liberal churches who deny the resurrection, cannot be called Christian, etc. The list could go on.

With this in mind, let us affirm with the early church fathers, the truths of the historic creeds.

 Why the Virgin Birth?

One of the more peculiar teachings of the Christian faith, affirmed throughout all of the creeds, is the fact that Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Meaning, Mary had not had any relations before she gave birth to Christ.

Both Matthew and Luke agree on this fact. In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will birth a child. Mary, not being married, rightly asks: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). Gabriel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God” (v. 35).

Matthew’s account is similar. He adds the detail the her virginal birth is in fulfillment of prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23).

There is not much more information about the virgin birth in the epistles. Some say that Paul alludes to it in Galatians 4:4, or that John references Mary in Revelation 13. But there are not really any more details about this. It is simply stated in the gospel accounts.

Many have speculated, with such scarce reference in the New Testament, what is the purpose of the virgin birth? Or, to say it another way: did Mary have to be a virgin to give birth to Christ? Was there some necessity to it? Did the virginal birth, as some presume, in some way preserve the divinity of Christ? Or preserve the sinlessness of Christ?

Frederick Bruner has an interesting examination of the doctrine in his commentary on Matthew, Christbook. His estimation is that the reason for the virgin cannot be found in preserving Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. He aptly points out:

If the first Adam — whoever he was — came into being without two human parents and yet was truly human, why could not Jesus the last Adam be without a single human parent and still be truly human? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14) (pp 39)

In other words, Jesus could come into the world in really any way he wanted, and be fully God and fully man, sinless. God, after all, is omnipotent!

So then, why the virginal birth? Bruner cites Karl Barth, saying:

The virgin birth teaches an immensely important doctrinal truth: that in human salvation “the initiative is wholly with God”. The doctrine of the virgin birth, in a striking metaphor, stands “on guard” before the door of the mystery of Jesus’ divinely wrought salvation — only God can work salvation, and this is exactly what the Christmas stories’ virgin birth teaches with a dramatic eloquence. (pp 40)

In other words, the incarnation of Christ is a complete work of God. Because she was a virgin, Mary was merely a recipient of God’s grace. Man had nothing to do with it.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, agrees with this. He says:

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above. (pp 278)

Because of this, Ratzinger concludes that Mary herself is an image of the church. He says:

As the true “daughter of Zion”, Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love — through grace.

I think that Bruner and Ratzinger both get to the bottom of the doctrine of the virginal birth: it is an action of grace. A unilateral action of God in which man is passive, having nothing to contribute. All is grace!

He Descended into Hell?

Our church recites the Apostles’ Creed every other week. It’s a beautiful, ancient creed. I love its Trinitarian formula: God the Father is maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ, the begotten-Son, is redeemer. The Holy Spirit brings the saints together into one holy catholic church.

As beautiful and ancient as it is, many people are thrown off by one line which comes under the office of the Son. It says that after Christ had died and was buried, that “He descended into hell”.

Jesus descended into hell? What does that mean?

What usually comes to mind here is Christ dying and then going to the fires of hell to be further tormented by the devil. This imagery would reasonably detract many people. Is this what the creed really means by “he descended into hell”?

In this post I want to lay out the common historic understandings of this line. I will look at three views: The Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Roman Catholic view:

First, the Reformed churches have historically rejected any notion that Christ went to hell after his death and during his three days in the grave. Rather, the Reformed churches pose that Christ’s descent into hell refers to the anguish he experienced on the cross. Christ, being separated from the Father, bearing the sins of the world, experienced eternal torment for mankind on the cross.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, says it this way:

Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?

That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell

Christ has experienced hell that I might not. And of course this is true.

The Luther church, however, would disagree with this understanding of the creed. The Lutherans understand Christ’s descent into hell under the rubric of his victory over satan and demons.

Lutheran Henry Jacobs, in his Summary of Christian Doctrine, questions 39-43, says that “the Reformed Church regards ‘the descent into hell’ as a part of the humiliation; the Lutheran Church, as we shall see, regards it the first grade of the State of Exaltation”.

Jacobs classifies Christ’s descent into hell as part of his exaltation (i.e. victory over sin and death) as opposed to his humiliation (i.e. experience of wrath and the cross). How can this be so? Jacobs brings in 1 Peter 3:18-19 as proof that when Christ descended into hell, it was not to suffer, but rather to pronounce victory over the demonic spirits.

1 Peter 3:18-19 says,

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison

Jacobs explains:

We simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with sublime and acute thoughts, as to how this occurred. (Formula of Concord, 643)

So, during the three days in the grave, Christ descended into hell to “destroy the power of hell”. This was on the basis that Christ had defeated sin and death.

The Roman Catholic church differs only slightly from the Lutheran position. The Catholic catechism says:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (632-33)

The Catholic church affirms with the Lutherans that Jesus went into hell, or Sheol, or the realm of the dead, however one sees it. But he went there “not…to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just”. Meaning, Jesus went to release the Old Testament saints into the beatific vision. According to this view, the Old Testament faithful could not enter into the divine vision until justice had been satisfied — the cross did just that. And so Jesus went to Sheol to preach victory and to release the faithful to heaven.

The Catholic church provides 1 Peter 4:6 as proof of this: “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.

The catechism says:

The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

It is important to note that the Lutheran church doesn’t deny that Christ released the faithful into the divine presence. Henry Jacobs explains that “we may regard it probable that the proclamation of victory announced to one class to their terror was made to another class, to their joy and triumph.” However, he prefaces that “we dare not think of those who departed in faith as until then ‘in prison.'” In other words, the Old Testaments saints may have been freed into the beatific vision, however, they were not in “prison” (1 Pet 3:19) as the demonic spirits were.

So these are the three main interpretations of Christ’s descent into hell. While I do affirm the Reformed position, that Christ experienced hell on the cross, I must admit that that position has weaknesses. What about Peter’s description of Christ’s descent? What about “preaching to the dead”? For this reason, I also affirm that Christ did descend into Sheol, or hell, to pronounce his victory over sin and death. This pronouncement, I presume, both condemned the demonic spirits, and redeemed the Old Testament saints. It was the last phase of Christ’s mission, after which he was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father.