Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism Christian Essentials Bellingham: Lexham , 2018, 147pp.; 21.58 AUD hardcover; $7.80 AUD kindle
Expositions of the Apostles’ Creed are a dime a dozen in theological literature. It is almost easier to list of who hasn’t written one, than who has. I can think of works by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Caspar Olevianus, William Perkins, Adolf von Harnack (I wouldn’t recommend his!), Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Helmut Thielicke, William Barclay, J.I. Packer, Alister McGrath, R.C. Sproul, Cornelis Venema and Michael Bird. I’m sure the list is five times as long.
The Heidelberg Catechism devotes 35 of 129 questions to an exposition of the Creed. Even the Westminster Confession and Catechisms retain traces of the Creed in their wording and structure, despite the Assembly’s resistance to the forms of the ancient creeds.
The profusion of works is no reason to stop the practice. As are commentary on and teaching from Scripture, exposition of the Creed is a basic task for the teachers of the church. Every preacher should work through it from time to time; and maybe every theologian should write on it.
It is wonderful, then, to see a new volume on the Apostles’ Creed from Ben Myers, who I consider Australia’s foremost theological writer (with equal emphasis on the adjective and noun). Ben thinks theologically with depth and insight; and writes with charm and grace. His prose is elegant and engaging, illuminating profound truths with light touches. Both style and substance make this book a delight. (Though if you object to icons as illustration, don’t by the book — maybe get the audio version!).
Myers offers a chapter of a few pages on each part of the Apostles’ Creed. The part may be a word: “I”, “believe” and “Amen”; or a phrase. Each of the twenty-two chapters is a rich study in theological exegesis, leading the reader through the significance of the section for the early church, its basis in Scripture and application to the life and mission of disciples of Christ. Most chapters introduce thoughts from the teachers of the early church; the most quoted authors are Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Irenaeus, Isaac the Syrian and Origen. (Marcion scores a few mentions, but only with disapproval!).
Myers understands the function of the creed clearly. It is instructive, guiding disciples to know the substance of the Christian faith, the gospel; to enable them to meditate on Scripture with benefit and to live faithfully. “The creed was never intended as a substitute for the four Gospels but only as a guide to the faithful reading of them.” It is also sacramental — it is the “solemn pledge of allegiance”, by which we become Christians (and by which we remain so). Confession is the beginning (Rom 10:9), the continuation (1 Cor 12:3; Col 2:6) and the end (Php 2:11) of the Christian life. I’d also add that the Creed has a defining (or disciplinary) role, it sets the primary boundaries for faithful Christian belief and teaching. All of this is good reason to keep saying and studying the Creed.
Myers writes as a contemporary Christian. He acknowledges and often focusses on the points of criticism from a post-Christian culture and areas of difficulties for 21st century believers. In just a page or so, he deals eloquently with the problem of God’s ‘might’; questions about calling God “the Father”; the strangeness of the virgin birth; the importance of history and the reality of doubt. None of the discussions can be comprehensive, but each points in the right direction in a stimulating and satisfying way.
Each chapter offers gems that are worth pondering. Here are a few of my favourites.
- Creeds are more important than mission statements and far more counter-cultural.
- When we confess “I believer”, the “I” is the body of Christ, through the ages.
- God does not compete with powers of creation: “God’s power is their source, the reason why they exist at all. God’s power is what sustains and nourishes the power of creatures”.
- “The real centerpiece of the Apostles’ Creed is not a doctrine but a name … Everything else in the creed radiates like the spokes of a wheel from that hub: personal attachment to Jesus; total allegiance to him”.
- The virgin birth is the fulfillment of the long series of births to women who can’t conceive, which form the turning points in the biblical story
- “The problem with getting yourself crucified wasn’t just that it would kill you but that it would humiliate you at the same time”.
- The ascension is not about Jesus’ absence, but his “sovereign presence throughout creation”.
- The communion of the saints is first about our communion with Christ, without denying our communion with each other.
- Eternal life is to be embraced in the love of God — “You cannot make life better just by increasing its quantity”.
The Apostles’ Creed offers ‘mere Christianity’, it does not belong exclusively to any of the later theological traditions, though they should be an exposition of it. Myers has chosen well to use the teachers of the early church as the main voices. If you are looking for all the distinctives of Reformed evangelical theology, you won’t find those here. Why would you expect them to?
There are, however, two points where it seems to me Myers excludes classical Reformed theology unnecessarily. In his discussion of providence, he gives a wonderful account of God’s sustaining sovereignty, then says this is not “controlling”. He seems to offer a choice between ‘divine control’ and ‘human freedom’. Of course, much depends on what one means by ‘control’ and ‘freedom’. Clarifying that takes far more space than is available in this volume. Nevertheless, I would say God’s power is sustaining and determining; not in antithesis to human choice and responsibility but working in, with and through (as well as above and below and beyond) our freedom.
Second, Myers stresses that Christ shared in all that is human — including death — so that we may share in all that is his. He comments that “the idea here is not so much substitution as mutual participation: God and humanity are perfectly united in the person of Jesus so that each partakes of all that belongs to the other.” I think this is a good way to express the view of Jesus death in the early church teachers, and a nice summary of totality of the New Testament material which offers a wider account of the work of Christ than can be comprehended in an exclusively ‘substitutionary’ approach.
Yet, I’d want to insist that substitution is tucked into “mutual participation”. We share in all that is Christ’s, but there are some things which would have been ours, which are not, because he has taken them instead. He died the death we deserve, so we don’t have to. This is implied in Myer’s discussion of the descent into hell. Christ has a full experience of death, “he embraces our humanity at the point of its total collapse into nonbeing. Because he shares our nature he is able to fall with us into death; because he is the Son of God he is able to fill death with his presence so that the grave becomes a source of life.” Yet those who share in him do not find death to be “the point … total collapse into nonbeing”; it turns out to be the door to fuller communion with God. We now encounter death filled with life; because Christ knew the full reality of death. That is why Christians “play with death and despise it”. It is also the logic of substitution — him for me.
For my money, Myers could make the wonderful positive points, without excluding these parts of the Reformed tradition.
Although I have taken some effort to explain these points, they do not detract from my enjoyment of the book. This book is worth far more than it will cost you. It is a quick read, but worth slowing down for. A chapter a day for three weeks, with Bible open and pen in hand would be the right way to digest it. It would make a wonderful basis for family devotions, for families with older kids, or none. It would easily be a great basis for small group discussion. If you are a preacher, let it provoke you with new ways to explain the depth and relevance of the Christian faith. If you say the Apostles’ Creed regularly in worship (please do) — you’ll find a hosts of light touches which will help people appreciate and enjoy it.