By Peter Amsterdam
June 2, 2020
(Points for this article were taken from The Creed, by Luke Timothy Johnson.1)
Having covered God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the creed moves on to the last four vital Christian beliefs. It states:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
In the fourth century, when the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was written, what we today know as denominations did not exist, and the church was basically united as one. In time, there were splits within the church, most notably the split between the eastern and western church. Later in history, the Protestant Reformation caused division between the Catholic Church and the various forms of Protestantism. In addressing the topic of the church, the creed is not focused on any particular denomination, but rather on the church as the body of believers, sometimes referred to as the “body of Christ.”2 It points out that God doesn’t only work in the lives of individuals, but also through communities of believers.
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.3
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.4
While there are various ways that believers understand the word one in this sentence, there are two ways that it is most commonly understood. Some see it as the church making the claim to having replaced Israel as “God’s elect people,” that the church as a whole comprises the one church.
The second way to understand it is that the church is one because it lives a life of unity as portrayed in the book of Acts.
The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.5
All who believed were together and had all things in common.6
The apostle Paul expressed the idea of the oneness of the church when writing to the Ephesians. He exhorted them to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.7
Within that unity, Paul also pointed out that there is diversity. Not everyone has the same role to play within the church.
Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.8
He also wrote that there are differences of spiritual gifts within the body of believers.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.9
While the apostle Paul understood the church to be one, he also encouraged diversity in the way that believers practice their faith. He spoke of diversity in matters of diet and even the observance of special days, when an individual’s conscience leads them to such diversity.
Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.10
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.11
The oneness, or unity, that the apostle Paul wrote about isn’t uniformity, but rather the idea that Christians agree on the essentials of the faith, and when it comes to nonessentials, there is freedom; and Christians are to be charitable when there are differing opinions as to the nonessentials.
In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to be holy, for I am holy.12 The New Testament carries on the idea of holiness in believers, both as individuals and in the character of the Christian community, the church.
The Greek word hagiasmos is translated as both holiness and sanctification.
This is the will of God, your sanctification … that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor.13
God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.14
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.15
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.16
As Christians we are called to be holy, and as the body of Christ, the church is also called to be holy, to be different from the world while living in the world.
As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.17
When the creed speaks of one holy catholic and apostolic church, it is not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but rather to the full body of believers, no matter what their denomination. The Greek word translated as catholic means “throughout the whole.” Thus the church exists everywhere, rather than in one place. Catholicity also implies inclusiveness. While in practice all Christian churches aren’t inclusive, the ideal is that the Christian church should embrace differences among believers.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.18
Luke Timothy Johnson explains:
The church’s catholicity must embrace cultural differences. The church cannot be simply a European church or an American church: In Christ there can be no Asian or African, American or European.19
The apostle Paul wrote:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. … if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ.20
Stating that the church is apostolic means that it is to be identified as the church of the apostles. The church, meaning all believers, should pattern their lives after the apostles—in their faithfulness to sharing the message of salvation as well as in their teachings and morals. One of the main attributes of the apostles was that though they were men who made their fair share of mistakes, they were faithful to follow what Jesus taught them by means of the Holy Spirit.
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.21
Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.22
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.23
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.24
The church in every age should be measured by the standard of the apostolic age, by gauging their obedience to the writings of the New Testament. Christians should look to the New Testament as the guide to their lifestyle, their generosity, kindness, love, care for the poor, and sharing the message of the gospel.
Baptism is one of the sacraments which is recognized throughout most of Protestantism; the other being Communion, or Holy Eucharist. Roman Catholics baptize infants in order to free them from “original sin” which they are considered to be born with. Some Protestant denominations also practice infant baptism, not to free them from “original sin,” but rather as a sign of the “covenant of grace” and as a means of entering into the church.
In Protestant understanding, the forgiveness of sin occurs when someone accepts Jesus as their Savior, when they become “born again.” Many Protestant denominations conduct baptisms after a person has been “saved” and they have had time to receive some basic training in Christian beliefs. Once they have sufficient understanding of the faith, they are baptized in the church as a sign that they are now believers.
In this last statement, the creed moves away from the phrases we believe and we affirm, stating we look forward to, which expresses the expectation and anticipation of Christian believers. Having earlier stated that Jesus will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and that His kingdom will never end, the creed moves on to the hope which pertains to believers.
In each of the Synoptic Gospels,25 Jesus speaks of the resurrection of the dead.
Those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead … cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.26
In the Gospel of John, we read:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.27
Throughout the Epistles of Paul, the resurrection of the dead is proclaimed.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. … The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.28
Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.29
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.30
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.31
Throughout the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, statements of belief about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, baptism, the resurrection, and the world to come reflect the teachings of Scripture. The creed condenses the major doctrines of Christianity into a short, easy-to-recite document. Many church congregations recite it regularly as both an affirmation of faith and a reminder of their beliefs. It can also be beneficial for individuals to recite it from time to time. I’ve added a copy of it to the material I read at the beginning of each month, so that I can regularly review these essential beliefs.
(This article concludes the series The Creed.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 The Creed—What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
2 Romans 7:4; 1 Corinthians 10:16, 12:27; Ephesians 4:12.
3 Romans 12:4–5.
4 1 Corinthians 12:27.
5 Acts 4:32.
6 Acts 2:44.
7 Ephesians 4:3–6.
8 Ephesians 4:7, 11–12.
9 1 Corinthians 12:4–11.
10 Romans 14:3.
11 Romans 14:5–6.
12 Leviticus 11:44.
13 1 Thessalonians 4:3–4.
14 1 Thessalonians 4:7.
15 1 Thessalonians 3:12–13.
16 Ephesians 5:25–27.
17 1 Peter 1:15.
18 Galatians 3:28.
19 Johnson, The Creed, 270.
20 2 Corinthians 5:16–20.
21 Acts 4:31.
22 Acts 6:3.
23 Acts 9:31.
24 Acts 16:6.
25 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
26 Luke 20:35–36. See also Mark 12:24–26, Matthew 22:30–32.
27 John 5:25–29.
28 1 Thessalonians 4:13–16.
29 1 Corinthians 15:20–23.
30 Revelation 20:6.
31 2 Timothy 2:11–12.