Addendum 1. David P. Scaer presents a consistent redemptive-historical basis for Christianity that balances the following essay. His "position is that the Spirit is encased in the apostolic witness to Christ's redemptive acts out of which the baptized community of believers has its origin. From this witness to and within this community the Spirit gives the Scriptures. Inspiration has its origins in the Spirit's accompanying Jesus' acts and words. This culminates in Jesus fully giving the Spirit at his crucifixion and resurrection to his apostles from and through whom the New Testament documents possess their inspiration and authority. The Spirit's working on the writers cannot be isolated or divorced from the historical incarnation of the Son of God and his words and deeds, but it is an extension of them as they were witnessed and preserved by his followers who are recognized by their being baptized" (p. 125). "Scriptures derive their authority from [Jesus] through the apostles — not the other way around! The earliest creeds from which our Apostles' Creed evolved were not mere human formulations, but Jesus' own self-understanding that believers at their baptism confronted and responded to in creeds: 'you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Thomas' confession, 'my Lord and my God,' is the foundation of Christian truth. Belief in the God whom Jesus revealed and the confession made at baptism were not disparate things, but they constituted one reality in which the Spirit worked. God can only be known in the one who died for sins and rose again. Just as Jesus' disciples were given the full revelation of God in baptism as Father—Son—Holy Spirit, so the same revelation is given to subsequent baptized generations" (p. 126). "No other moment in the church's life is so specifically trinitarian as baptism and every recitation of the creed is a response to that moment" (p. 127).
Addendum 2. More simply, "... the Ten Commandments are written in the hearts of all men; the Creed, however, no human wisdom can comprehend, but it must be taught by the Holy Ghost alone. The latter doctrine [of the Law], therefore, makes no Christian, for the wrath and displeasure of God abide upon us still, because we cannot keep what God demands of us; but this [namely, the doctrine of faith] brings pure grace, and makes us godly and acceptable to God. For by this knowledge we obtain love and delight in all the
commandments of God, because here we see that God gives Himself entire
to us, with all that He has and is able to do, to aid and direct us in
keeping the Ten Commandments—the Father, all creatures; the Son, His entire work; and the Holy Ghost, all His gifts."
—Martin Luther, Large Catechism
David R. Bickel
Fall 2003; last modified April 2, 2005 until fatal errors corrected February 4, 2012
What I believe
Like the Christians of the early Church,
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and 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, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from where he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy universal Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
This Apostles' Creed in its current form is recited by churches from the three largest branches of Christianity, though with different interpretations of the descent into hell. The creed dates back to the seventh century, so it is a valuable summary of Christian faith. It is based on four first-century records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the earliest of which is probably the Gospel According to Mark, written within about four decades of Jesus' death. (The word gospel means good news.) These highlights from that source document show what the first Christians believed:
|Beginning of the good news||John the Baptist came to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus came from the town of Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan river, then God said to Jesus, "You are my beloved Son."||Mark 1:1-11|
|John was arrested, and Jesus went back to Galilee, the province of Nazareth. He called on his hearers to repent and to believe the good news that the reign of God had finally come.||Mark 1:14-15|
|Jesus conquered moral and natural evil||A man with an evil spirit told Jesus, "Let us alone! What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!" Then Jesus silenced him and cast him out of the man.||Mark 1:21-28|
|Jesus healed many of diseases and cast demons out of people. He would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.||Mark 1:29-34|
|Jesus let many remain in unbelief||Jesus said that only those who had ears could hear the good news of the reign of God. Jesus told his disciples that he spoke figuratively so that they would understand his message, and so that others would not understand and be forgiven.||Mark 4:9-12|
|Jesus did not perform mighty works in the presence of the unbelief of those he grew up with.||Mark 6:1-6|
|Jesus refused to give a sign from heaven on demand.||Mark 8:11-13|
|Jesus only came for sinners||Jesus told a paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven. Some religious leaders who heard him were shocked since they knew that only God could forgive sins. Jesus pointed out that healing a paralyzed man is just as hard as forgiving sins. He then healed the paralyzed man, thereby showing that he also had the power to forgive sins.||Mark 2:1-12|
|Some religious leaders who thought they were righteous criticized Jesus for associating with those considered more sinful. He replied, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."||Mark 2:13-17|
|Suffering must precede glory||After Jesus' disciples told him they believed he was the Messiah, he began to tell them that he must suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, and then be killed and rise from the dead.||Mark 8:17-38|
|Jesus called Peter Satan for suggesting that he would not take the path of suffering and death.|
|Jesus said that his followers must likewise take the path of humiliation and suffering by making Jesus and his message of higher priority than everything else in life. "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." He explained that when he comes in glory with the angels, he will be ashamed of those who were ashamed of him.|
|Jesus warned his disciples that since no one knows when he will suddenly come in glory with the angels, they always need to be ready for that day.||Mark 13:24-37|
|Jesus died in the place of others, to purchase them||When Jesus was having the Passover meal with his disciples, he told them that the wine was his blood, which was poured out for many.||Mark 14:12-25|
|Similarly, he had said, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."||Mark 10:45|
|The religious leaders arrested Jesus and found him guilty of claiming the be the Messiah, the Son of God, and for warning them that they would see him exalted to God's throne and coming with glory.||Mark 14:43-65|
|Although Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, knew of no reason that Jesus deserved the death penalty, he was persuaded to execute Jesus by having him hung on a cross.||Mark 15:6-15|
|Jesus hung on the cross until he died, at which point the curtain in the temple that hid the presence of God was torn. Seeing that, the Roman soldier who guarded Jesus said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"||Mark 15:33-39|
|Burial||With the permission of Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council, buried Jesus in a tomb shortly after he died on Friday. Two of Jesus' other followers, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, saw where he was buried.||Mark 15:42-47|
|Resurrection||The two women returned to the tomb early Sunday morning to find that the large stone, which had served as the door to the tomb, had been rolled away. A young man in a white robe told them, "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you."||Mark 16:1-8|
If these things did not really happen, then Christianity is at best a source of comfort and a system of ethics, without much value for those with other sources of comfort and other systems of ethics. But if these events really occurred in space-time history in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as Mark recorded them, they have profound implications for everyone, even for those who will never believe. In fact, if the ancient Christian faith is objectively true, then whether or not one believes will determine his or her destiny.
Why I believe
Why do I, at the dawn of the third millennium, believe the same message the first Christians believed? Rather than pretend to be unbiased, I will answer this question from a Christian viewpoint. Complete objectivity here is impossible since everyone interprets life through some philosophical framework. For example, those with a naturalistic view of the world assume that miracles and other supernatural events are impossible and must be excluded from any discussions of what is true about the world. Similarly, philosophical agnostics believe that one could not know that God existed, even if he did exist. As a Christian, I do not share such assumptions. Since I want to be honest about my intellectual commitments, I will explain why I believe as I do from a Christian worldview.
I believe the message of Christianity, that the Father forgives sinners only because Jesus died for all, because the Holy Spirit supernaturally reveals its truth through the message itself. Because he wants to forgive everyone's sins, he bears witness of its truth to all who hear it. He invites us to believe the good news that we are forgiven rather than stubbornly refuse to accept his forgiveness. This sounds absurd to those who assume the impossibility of the supernatural, but there is nothing inherently illogical in the concept. If an all-powerful being exists, he can reveal truth by supernatural means, that is, in ways that could not be explained in terms of natural law. Martin Luther put it well:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
As seen above, he did not come to call those who thought they were righteous or wise, but he came to call sinners to repentance. He calls us to repentance and has forgiven our sins. Without the word of God, our selfish hearts would value the things of this life so much that we would be left in willing unbelief of the truth. In a metaphor Jesus used, we would be left deaf to spiritual reality. When teaching in the presence of unbelief, he sometimes said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:9, 23). Those who can hear can perceive a sound that could never be heard by the deaf. In the same way, sinners healed by God of their spiritual deafness can perceive the truth of Jesus' message, whereas those who want to remain deaf cannot.
Just as talking louder will never make a deaf person hear, no amount of evidence
or logical arguments can ever make a stubborn sinner believe the good news of forgiveness
through the Son of God. That is why Jesus did no miracles in the presence
of those who could not believe that a man they knew since his childhood would
be the one God sent to save them. Jesus also refused to produce the evidence
that religious leaders demanded in order to test him, because they were not
humbly seeking the truth. Likewise, while I hope that this essay is helpful,
I know that nothing I say will be enough to convince anyone to regard himself
as a sinner who can only be forgiven through the death of Jesus in his place.
Only God can heal the deaf, and he does so through the message of the Gospel of Mark and other Holy Scripture.
For further reading
Since this brief essay leaves much unanswered, I would like to recommend some books that I have found helpful. I would also be happy to answer what questions I can by email.
In Warranted Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, provides a detailed answer to this common objection to ancient Christianity: even if Christianity were objectively true, there would be no way to know that it is objectively true. In addition, he persuasively argues in the book that none of the following is a valid reason for a an intelligent, well-read Christian to doubt that his or her faith is objectively true:
The Bible is held to be unreliable by most scholars who rule out the possibility of supernatural events.
In view of the large number of religions of the world, some of which appear to be as ancient as Yahwism, many postmodern thinkers believe that no religion should make an exclusive claim to truth.
Many philosophers cannot see why there would be so much suffering and moral evil in the world if God is good and all-powerful.
Plantinga can be difficult to read since he precisely defined his terms and carefully illustrated his points in response to other philosophers. A simpler, less scholarly book on similar topics is Reason to Believe, by Prof. R. C. Sproul.
Those books do not address questions on the relationship between science and Christian faith, such as whether the Genesis account of creation is compatible with evidence that the universe is very old. The journal of the American Scientific Affiliation approaches this and related issues from a wide range of Christian viewpoints.
Arguably the best way to learn about Christianity is to read the source documents themselves. The earliest detailed records of the life of Jesus are now known as the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible. The following reading order is suggested:
John has many teachings and actions of Jesus not recorded in the other three accounts. John highlights Jesus' teaching that all who truly believe that he is the Son of God will have everlasting life since he gave himself as a sacrifice for their sins. John also gave compelling reasons to believe.
Matthew stresses that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David who came to fulfill the prophecies of the Jewish scriptures.
Luke has much in common with Mark and Matthew. This account is actually the first book in a two-part series:
A very informative but hard-to-find book on the nature of Mark, Matthew, and Luke is The Witness of the Synoptic Gospels to Christ, by N. B. Stonehouse. A simpler, more recent overview of the gospel accounts is Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, by C. L. Blomberg. In addition, I wrote an essay on Matthew's and Luke's versions of what Jesus taught.