Over past few months I have visited a few times with a friend of mine who is a New Testament scholar.
(I guess I’m not sure there’s a list of qualifications out there by which someone is designated a “scholar,” but this guy has his PhD in New Testament from a good and well known school, so I’m going to say he counts.) In our discussions, he has used the phrase “distilling things down into a doctrine,” by which he means that our study of the Scriptures leads us, as individuals or as a group, to formulate a summary consensus of what we believe the Scriptures to be saying. Based on our interpretation of the Scriptures, influenced by tradition, reason, and experience, we make statements of what we believe to be true about God, humanity, salvation, etc. We take a plethora of information and summarize it in a statement of belief, a “doctrine.”
This is typical of churches today, most of which will have a statement of belief listed somewhere on their website, but perhaps the first attempt at a Christian doctrinal statement is found in what is known as the “Apostles’ Creed.” Although the nature of its origin is open to speculation (apparently it came from what was called the “Old Roman Creed,” which was used as early as second century) it seems to be one of the oldest summations of Christian belief. (Click here for a good article on it, or just google it and see what you find.)
Over the years it was influenced by other creeds and tweaked a bit, but even the versions today seem fairly consistent with earlier copies. Here’s a version from the Common Worship services of the Church of England:
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,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and 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.
I don’t know what first stands out to you, but obviously it is much less comprehensive than most churches’ statement of belief, at least the churches I’ve been a part of. (Although there are a few churches out there who simply use the Apostles’ Creed as their statement of belief.)
Secondly, while there is debate over the phrase “descended to the dead,” (some versions have “into hell” rather than “to the dead”), and while we could discuss what it means that Jesus will judge the living and the dead, there is nothing in the Apostles’ Creed that would go against the idea that God will ultimately redeem everyone. “The forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” seem listed as statements of certain truth, not as ideas that can be rejected. The author “believes in” these things but doesn’t say anything about those who don’t believe in these things, as though he is simply making a statement about what God has done. There is no attempt to qualify who is in and who is out, no statement trying to convince anyone of anything. It’s almost just an announcement of the good news . . . but isn’t that evangelism exactly?
In an article on two early Christian creeds, Christianity Today promotes a 9-week course called “A Closer Look at the Creeds” and says that the course “attempts to examine the basic doctrines declared in these creeds. It covers how to address God; the virgin birth; an examination of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; his role as judge; the role of the Trinity; the role of the church; the forgiveness of sins; and eternal life.” Again, nothing here against ultimate redemption, no attempt at who’s in or out.
So, in this early summation of Christian belief, and even in our study of it, we don’t see anything that would prohibit a belief in ultimate redemption. That seems noteworthy. That seems likes good news.
Really good news, really.
Even more noteworthy, however, is another early summation of Christian belief, something called the “Nicene Creed.” We’ll consider it next time . . . and then we’ll talk about its editor, a guy named Gregory of Nyssa.