How much do we value and honour our past? What can we learn from it? There is the expression, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ Do we believe it? How many of us know that October 31 is the 500th anniversary of Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the little church in Wittenberg? A spark that started the fire that became the great conflagration known as The Reformation.
One reason history is important is simply because it led to the present. Here is my brief plug for at least a rudimentary grasp of church history. A look at a couple of historic creeds as aids to discernment. The reason for the creeds is that many of the beliefs we hold to be true as evangelicals as more implicit than explicit in the scriptures. An example is the Trinity. There is no verse that clearly states the Father, Son and Spirit are eternally three beings in one God. The Athanasian Creed highlights this truth, among many others. So reflect on the two ancient creeds below that have shaped and informed our present.
The Apostles Creed (4th century, this was not written by the early apostles, it is a summary of what they taught)
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Athanasian Creed (6th Century)
Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith.
Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.
What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has.
The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated.
The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable.
The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal.
And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being.
So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.
Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty.
Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being.
Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God.
Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord.
Yet there are not three lords; there is but one Lord.
Just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually as both God and Lord, so catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords.
The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone.
The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone.
The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Accordingly there is one Father, not three fathers; there is one Son, not three sons; there is one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits.
Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.
So in everything, as was said earlier, we must worship their trinity in their unity and their unity in their trinity.
Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity.
But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation
of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully.
Now this is the true faith: That we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and human, equally.
He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity.
Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one.
He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself.
He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person.
For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and human.
He suffered for our salvation; he descended to hell; he arose from the dead; he ascended to heaven; he is seated at the Father’s right hand; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
At his coming all people will arise bodily and give an accounting of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life, and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.
This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.
In applying the creeds as discernment tools think of church history from the Reformation forward. While there have been disputes over the form of baptism, the role of spiritual gifts or the sacraments, all of these positons can be subsumed under these creeds. As someone who believes in and practices spiritual gifts such as prophetic words/words of knowledge, I can disagree with the cessationist understanding of scripture (and I strongly do. ‘A man with an experience has no mercy for a man with an argument.’), yet still find common ground with cessationist believers in these creeds.
So while there are many things we can divide over, we can find a major source of unity in understanding our shared history and perhaps come to a shared future in focusing on the truths in these creeds and honour those who struggled to define and articulate these truths while defending the historic church against a variety of heresies.
As a side note, the term catholic means ‘universal’ or ‘all embracing’ and in the context of this creeds refers to the universal church rooted in the doctrine of the early apostles not the Roman Catholic church. My own experience is that while I have found true believers in the Roman Catholic church, in researching Roman Catholic doctrine there are many teachings that are not only not supported by scripture, they are often taught in direct opposition to scripture. Another reason to know something of church history.
So, leave that aside and meditate on the creeds above and the implications in our walk with Jesus.