Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “Being Made Holy”

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In his Large Catechism, Luther says that he “cannot give a better title” or summary to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed “Being Made Holy” (LC, 2.35). He goes on to explain that the entire third article is nothing more than an explanation of how a Christian is made holy.

This is confusing at first, because nowhere in the third article does it mention the Christian being made holy. In fact, most people, when they read the third part of the creed, perceive it as a sort of appendix to the main parts of the creed. The first part is about God the Father as creator, the second is about God the Son as redeemer, and the third adds along with the Holy Spirit a long laundry list of descriptors:

[And] I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic (Christian) church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Whenever I first became acquainted with the Creed, I thought whoever wrote the creed must’ve felt the obligation to cram the rest in.

Luther explains quite conclusively that this is not at all true. What is actually the case, is that everything included in the third article is placed underneath the Holy Spirit because those are things that properly the work of the Holy Spirit! Who makes me part of the catholic church? Who enjoins me to the communion of the saints? Who applies the forgiveness of sins? So on… The answer is quite simply: it is the Spirit who makes these things a reality in the life of the Christian.

Luther explains:

In [this article is] expressed and portrayed the Holy Spirit and his work, which is that he makes us holy… The Holy Spirit effects our being made holy through the following: the community of the saints or Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. That is, he first leads us into his holy community, placing us in the church’s lap, where he preaches to us and brings us to Christ (LC, 2.35-37)

In other words, while we might say it is the work of Christ to accomplish our salvation, it is the work of the Spirit to apply that work to us. And he does this by picking us up out of our state of sin and death, and bringing us into the community of saints and setting Christ before us in word and sacrament. He applies Christ’s work to us through the church. The common trinitarian framework is thus: the Father elects us unto salvation, the Son accomplishes our salvation, and the Spirit effects our salvation.

Luther explains it this way:

The work [of Christ] is finished and completed; Christ has acquired and won the treasure for us by his sufferings, death, and resurrection, etc. But if the work remained hidden so that no one knew of it, it would have been all in vain, all lost. In order that this treasure might not remain buried but be put to use and enjoyed, God has cause the Word to be published and proclaimed, in which he has given the Holy Spirit to offer and apply to us this treasure, this redemption. Therefore being made holy is nothing else than bringing us to the Lord Christ to receive this blessing, to which we could not have come by ourselves (LC, 2.38-39)

The Holy Spirit, by way of the church in its proclamation, “brings us to Christ” and applies his blessings to us. Luther therefore calls the church

…the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God, which the Holy Spirit reveals and proclaims, through which he illuminates and inflames hearts so that they grasp and accept it, cling to it, persevere in it (LC, 2.42).

The church is effective in its ministry as mother principally because the Holy Spirit causes her to be effective in her preaching. The Spirit illumines, enlivens, and causes believers to accept the gospel and cling to it. Thus, Luther proclaims, “outside the Christian community,…where there is no gospel, there is also no forgiveness, and hence there can be no holiness” (LC 2.56). And why? Because the Spirit is the worker of the Christian community, making the proclamation of the gospel and effective ministry.

How might we summarize the third article then? Luther rightly says it: “being made holy”.

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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!

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.

 

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.