Last Sunday, we began to explore the Apostles’ Creed, that text we have been saying together as part of our worship week by week for about the last ten years. We noted that it is a summary of many of the most important doctrines of the church, and that its short, simple form was probably intended to be a useful way of remembering the core beliefs of the church. We will look at these in more detail in the coming weeks but, as we begin to delve more deeply, it is important to remember that, despite the first word, ‘I’, the Apostles’ Creed is not necessarily a statement of personal belief, but a statement of the belief of the church, and it certainly should not be seen as a test.
Before we move on, I want to say a bit more about that. And to do that, I need to be straight with you. I could not be a part of a congregation which required members to sign up to a set of beliefs. My whole ministry has been conducted on the premise that we are a group of people who sense that there is something about Jesus of Nazareth which is compelling. So compelling, in fact that we are prepared to devote time and efforts to finding out more; so compelling, in fact, that, having found out more, we want to make what he said and how he lived and what he did the main guide for our life. That’s why we come together to worship and learn and explore.
Finding our lives animated by what we know of Jesus and how we relate to him, we cannot and must not erect any barriers. Many churches do, of course. Alison was telling me of a conversation she had had with a youth delegate at the General Assembly, who told her he had been asked to leave the Free Church because of some of his views. While I find that horrifying, I rejoice that he hasn’t just left the church altogether, but has found a new home in the Church of Scotland. But churches which act that way tend to be ruled by fear. A congregation which loves will always welcome, and will welcome questions and different points of view. It will not require unthinking assent but will promote conversation about even the most central aspects of faith. And it will never say – this is right and that is wrong. At most, it will say – historically, this is what the Church has taught, and ask how we respond to it today. It is through exploration that individual faith deepens, not through requiring absolute adherence to specific teaching and particular interpretations. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
But first, what of the origin of the Apostles’ Creed? Where did it come from? I’m sorry to say – nobody knows. It is first referred to in a letter, probably from Ambrose of Milan, in about 390 AD. But there are traces of very similar, but more ancient texts going back to about 180 AD. The form in which we know it dates from the late seventh century. Because it is possible to break it down into twelve articles or clauses, the tradition grew up that each of the twelve Apostles contributed one article each, hence the name. That tradition is clearly nonsense but what it is is a summary of the teachings of Jesus as handed down by the Apostles. Its picks up words and phrases from the gospels and other New Testament writing, which is one of the reasons why, so often, when we say it in a service, a particular word or phrase will resonate with something we have already been thinking about.
The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, is much more easily dated. It was written in 325 AD at the First Ecumenical Council, when bishops from across the church gathered, not in Nicaea, but in Constantinople. They gathered to try to decide on what was orthodox faith. Having been involved in writing many church documents, I cannot imagine that the process then was any different from how it is now. Strong personalities would have sought to dominate. Compromises would have been reached. Votes would probably have been taken. Some would have left satisfied, others disappointed. You can see why I am so reluctant to say these documents must be adhered to in every part. They are human, and though ancient, still provisional, but nonetheless useful.
And whatever their origins, they remain above all, a gift to the church, a gift which is used and cherished in most of the major denominations and confessional families of churches to this day. A gift which expresses, briefly and memorably, what the church, not as individuals, but collectively, to the best of its ability, understands to be the core of the faith.
I say ‘understands’, rather than ‘believes’, and I do that quite deliberately because, in conclusion, I want to address the second word of the creed – ‘believe’. In everyday language, when we say we believe someone, it means we accept that they are telling the truth. It is a judgement. The proof is not necessarily available, but what evidence there is points to that conclusion. In the Church, the idea of believing has been understood, misunderstood some might say, as the act of giving intellectual assent to a series of propositions. Take, for example, the proposition that God exists. You can’t prove it, but you can choose to believe it or not. But if you limit your understanding of belief to that, then the ability or otherwise to say the Creed does become a kind of test, a way of thinking I have tried hard to refute. Rather than that connotation, the word ‘believe’ at the beginning of the Creeds carries much more of the meaning of placing trust and confidence in something. Understanding the word ‘believe’ in that way transforms, for example, the first article of the Creed from, ‘I accept that God exists’, to ‘I put my trust in God. I place my confidence in the one who made heaven and earth.’
Week by week, therefore, rather than assenting to a series of propositions, when we say that Creed we are reaffirming our trust in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in the other articles the Creed contains. We reaffirm our trust, because in the business of day-to-day living, faith gets tested and challenged. Week by week, through the saying of the Creed, we are given a choice to affirm to ourselves and to each other again, whatever has happened and whatever may happen, I will try to trust God; together we will put our trust in God. They are ancient words, of uncertain origin, but each week we can make them our own and find our faith strengthened through them.
It has taken us two weeks to get to the end of the second word, but believe me, trust me, we will speed up. Next week we will start to explore what the Creeds say about God as three persons in whom we put our trust.
 My wife, minister of Northesk Church, Musselburgh, Convener of the Church of Scotland’s Ecumenical Relations Committee and a commissioner at the recent General Assembly.