Confessions, creeds or statements of faith vary in quality and precision. Read through the three very statements listed below about God ordered from the most simple to the longest and most complex. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each. Which do you like the best and why?
- We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
- There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is God manifested in flesh. He is both God and man.
- For we have been taught from the first, to believe in one God, the God of the Universe, the Frame and Preserver of all things both intellectual and sensible. And in One Son of God, only-begotten, who existed before all ages, and was with the Father who had begotten Him, by whom all things were made, both visible and invisible, who in the last days according to the good pleasure of the Father came down; and has taken flesh of the Virgin, and jointly fulfilled all His Father’s will, and suffered and risen again, and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and comes again to judge quick and dead, and remains King and God until all ages.
Now that you’ve read through them, could you subscribe to all three without reservations or would you change something? Don’t gloss over this question. These statements define belief, so take the time to confirm your agreement.
Let’s walk through each. The first states that a believe in God as the Father, His Son Jesus and the Holy Ghost. It is a simple and straightforward listing of the three members of the Godhead. Do you think this adequately defines the nature and relationship of God or are more words required to clarify the meaning? As you think about that question, consider that this statement comes from the Articles of Faith of the The Church of Latter Day Saints. The Mormon view of God holds that Jesus was literally the son of God (i.e., spirit child and not eternal) and only became God through obedience to his father. The Mormon view of the Holy Ghost/Spirit is too complicated to cover here, but needless to say it’s not orthodox. Also notice that there ‘one’ is conspicuously missing. This is because the LDS church doesn’t believe in one God, but in many gods. So we have a simple statement with ill-defined words leading to Mormon’s reading on thing into them and Christians reading another. Strike one for orthodox confessions.
If you were surprised by the first, go back and read the second more carefully. Do you see the heresy in this one? The statement is very clear that there’s one God and it also outlines a belief in the Father, Son and Spirit, but we now have the opposite issue. Where the LDS church holds to many gods in many persons, the United (Oneness) Pentecostal church holds to one God in one person. Notice that the one God reveals Himself in the Father, Son and Spirit. They believe that the same person is taking different forms or rather manifesting Himself in different ways including in the person of Jesus. What appears orthodox at first blush turns out to be non-Trinitarian and therefore rejected by the Church.
The third statement is the most verbose. It also sparked one of the most significant controversies in church history and to the Nicene Creed in 325. This is the (first) Arian Creed. Though difficult to detect in the language, Arians believed that Jesus was not eternal or of the same exact nature as the Father, and therefore that He was subservient. This issue lies in the nature of the Arian understanding of begotten, which they equated with being made (i.e., there was a time when Jesus didn’t exist). They attempt to obscure this point in the use of Biblical language without ever defining its meaning. The Nicene Creed seeks to clarify this point by stating that Jesus is “eternally begotten…not made, of one being with the Father…”. Sometimes we need to be clear about what is not true as much as what is true. The Gospel of Jesus Christ statement does a nice job of this through the use of affirmation and denials.
In summary, when defining faith, words matter – both those excluded and the meaning of those included. This point is well explained by John Piper in his summary of the lessons from the life of Athanasius:
Athanasius’ experience was critically illuminating to something I have come to see over the years, especially in liberally minded baptistic and pietistic traditions, namely, that the slogan, “the Bible is our only creed” is often used as a cloak to conceal the fact that Bible language is used to affirm falsehood. This is what Athanasius encountered so insidiously at the Council of Nicaea. The Arians affirmed biblical sentences….
R. P. C. Hanson explained the process like this: “Theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” The Arians railed against the unbiblical language being forced on them. They tried to seize the biblical high ground and claim to be the truly biblical people—the pietists, the simple Bible-believers—because they wanted to stay with biblical language only—and by it smuggle in their non-biblical meanings.
But Athanasius saw through this “post-modern,”post-conservative,” “post-propositional” strategy and saved for us not just Bible words, but Bible truth. May God grant us the discernment of Athanasius for our day. Very precious things are at stake