A Study of the Doctrines of the Church of God

Part One

by Jared L. Olar

  Even a brief survey of the history of Christianity can show that the subject  of doctrine has always been controversial in the Church of God.  Indeed,  in the past several years, this topic has certainly become a volatile one  for many current and former members of my church fellowship, the Worldwide  Church of God.  We have always cared deeply about correct doctrine (``orthodoxy''),  and for a good while we assumed that we had the best understanding, compared  to other Christian fellowships, of Christian doctrine.  However, in recent  years many of us have had to reconsider several important doctrinal issues.   Even more, some sincerely wonder what role doctrine ought to play in the  experience of the Church of God, as well as in the experience of individual  believers.  Many are concerned that their church fellowship might be or actually  is unclear, confused, or inconsistent in its doctrines.  They want to know  what can be done-what they themselves can do-to help their church locally and Christianity in general navigate the way through what often seem like doctrinal morasses.

  In the hopes that I can be of assistance to Christians like myself, who have a background in the Worldwide Church of God or similar Sabbatarian Christian  fellowships, I would like to direct our attention toward something that we  in my church have formerly deliberately neglected.  I am referring to the  Creed.  Given the historical background of churches like mine-even now  my church does not seem very comfortable with the word``creed''-I expect that many of my readers could react negatively to these word of mine, but I would beg the readers' indulgence.  Not all that long ago, I had no interest at all in studying the various extant Christian creeds.  Even more, I saw no advantage whatsoever in my own church's development of a formal ``Statement  of Beliefs'' (really just a euphemism for ``creed'' or ``confession of faith'').   Since that time I have come to change my mind.  I am now convinced that Christian fellowships do best when they codify, collect, or develop formal creeds or confessions of faith.  (For clarity, allow me to explain that the English word creed was derived from the Latin credo, meaning ``I believe.'')

  When Christians, whether individually or collectively, find themselves confronted  by doctrinal questions and confusion, the best medicine that could be prescribed  has always involved a ``Back to Basics'' therapy.  The advantage of studying  creeds, especially the earliest Christian creeds, is that such study centers  attention upon the central truths of Christianity.  The issues that matter  most are the doctrines which first came to be codified in the ancient creeds.   If one wishes to sort out any particular point of doctrine, one must put  first things first.  To use a metaphor which our late Pastor General Herbert  Armstrong often used, we Christians need to focus primarily on the Trunk of the Tree.  As we investigate Branches and Twigs of true doctrine, we need  to try not to get hung up on them.

  In this and succeeding articles I will examine and discuss fundamental Christian  doctrines.  The method I have chosen for this study is to place special focus  on the current and former teachings of the Worldwide Church of God.  But I will relate these teachings to one of the earliest Christian creeds or confessions of faith, the one mistakenly called the Apostles' Creed .  I choose this particular creed for the following four reasons:  because of its antiquity; because of its general acceptance by almost every sort of Christian; because each of the doctrines listed in this creed come directly from the teachings of the original apostles; and because of its simplicity.  In fact, many later creeds are visibly based upon the Apostles' Creed.

Let me also say that, while I will always strive for fairness, balance, and an open mind, all the same I will not shy away from controversy. Nor should one be troubled at heart if he does not hold the same doctrinal position as other Christians-even if one's doctrinal understanding might place one in a clear minority. In my opinion, if your goal is to avoid controversy or disagreement at all costs, then Christianity is probably not the religion for you. Disagreements and conflicts over doctrine, when handled in a Christian manner, do not necessarily lead to the sins of schism and heresy. One's own salvation, or the health of a church fellowship, need not be endangered by an open, honest, forthright, and respectful dialogue.

The Origin of the Apostles' Creed:

First, I should make clear that, contrary to legend, the twelve apostles had nothing directly to do with the creed that bears their name. However, I believe that a far better and certainly accurate name for this creed would be the Apostolic Creed (in Latin it is known as the Symbolum Apostolicum ). In any event, scholars of church history have determined that the earliest Christian creeds of which we have any definite knowledge developed over the course of the second and third centuries A.D. About a century ago, Philip Schaff wrote what is even today an indispensable study of Christian creeds. His three-volume work, The Creeds of Christendom,traces the evolution of the creeds from the days of the first apostles up to modern times. In this series, we will resort to those three volumes more than once.

In his study, Dr. Schaff pointed to the Shema in Deut. 6:4 as the source of the custom of ceremonially confessing the true faith. He then showed how the apostles Peter, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Paul made confessions of their faith in Jesus, calling Him both Messiah and God. Quotes from various Church Fathers of the second to fourth centuries-such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius, or Cyril of Jerusalem-offer us striking evidence of the development of the first creeds. In many instances, whole phrases and clauses from the writings of these Church Fathers entered into the creeds.

The impetus for the formulation of creeds was a simple and natural one. In later centuries, grand Oecumenical Councils would craft official creeds theoretically binding upon all professing Christians as tests of true Christianity. But in these earliest times we see no church-wide set creeds.Instead, we find evidence of local ``baptismal creeds.'' Local bishops would interview baptismal candidates by asking them whether they believed in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The candidates would be expected to respond in the affirmative, ``Yes, I believe....'' Over the course of time, this recitation of an informal creed just prior to one's baptism gave rise to the recitation of a formal creed during the Eucharist. Seeing that the Eucharist is in part a repeated confirmation of a believer's baptismal covenant, I believe that the Eucharistic recitation of one's confession of faith originally made at baptism is a very fitting tradition.

A Closer Look at the Apostles' Creed:

By the end of the fourth century, the so-called Apostles' Creed had reached a form essentially identical to its modern form. In later centuries, a few clauses were inserted, so that it reached the form it has at present. An important late stage was the invention of the myth that the twelve apostles each contributed a section of the creed under the inspiration of the holy Spirit. For this reason, the six original doctrinal headings were recast into a new framework of twelve arbitrarily divided clauses. I will here show the older form of the Apostles' Creed alongside the modern version, using the earlier framework of six doctrinal headings:

I believe in God the Father Almighty; I believe in God the Father Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ His only-begotten And in Jesus Christ His only-begotten
Son, our Lord, who was born of Son, our Lord; who was conceived
the holy Spirit and the virgin by the holy Spirit; born of the virgin
Mary, crucified under Pontius Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate;
Pilate and buried, the third day was crucified, dead, and buried; He
rose again from the dead, descended into Hell; the third day He
ascended into heaven, and sits rose from the dead; He ascended
at the right hand of the Father, into heaven, and sits at the right hand
whence He shall come to judge of God the Father Almighty, whence
the living and the dead; He shall come to judge the living and

the dead;
And in the holy Spirit; And in the holy Spirit;
The holy Church; The holy catholic Church, the communion

of saints;
The remission of sins; The remission of sins;
And the resurrection of the flesh. The resurrection of the flesh, and life


  The most noteworthy additions to this creed were the two clauses on Christ's descent into Hell and the communion of the saints.  The significance of these two additions will be discussed in upcoming installments of this series.  During the course of this study, it will be my pleasure to demonstrate that each and every one of these doctrines is authentically orthodox and of apostolic origin.

One other detail worth mentioning is that the six doctrinal headings have been regarded by some as properly only three doctrinal headings. In that presentation, the last three doctrines-Church, remission of sins, and Resurrection-are elaborations upon the doctrine of the holy Spirit. Certainly these three doctrines are in part derived from and dependent upon the doctrine of the holy Spirit, but they may in the very same way be linked and subordinated to the doctrines of the Father and the Son. Therefore I favor the above arrangement of this creed.

However, if I might be forgiven the audacity, I would suggest yet another form of presentation for this creed. I say that in fact the Apostles' Creed should be subdivided into neither twelve, six, nor three clauses or headings. Rather, I say there are seven doctrinal headings in this creed.

  The seventh doctrine is none other than the very last word, `` Amen.   ''  A mere profession of faith in a list of abstract theological principles  is hardly an authentic Christianity.  In order for it to mean anything at  all, we need to say, ``Amen''-``So be it,'' ``I agree to make this a reality  in my life.''  Those six doctrinal headings are important truths given to  us by God.  But that little word ``amen'' is what we give back to God in response to His grace-our assent, our submission, our obedience.  That constitutes  a whole other doctrine-the commitment to put it into practice-without which  none of the preceding articles of the creed will make any difference at all.  If a professing Christian were to recite such a creed without living a life  of ``amen,'' he might as well be talking into the air.

A Comparison of Creeds:

  One of the things I shall explain in this series is that creeds and denominational  confessions of faith are important not only for what they declare, but also  for what they deny, or what they omit altogether.  For instance, in the Apostles'  Creed we find no explicit affirmation of several important orthodox theological  and christological dogmas.  However, those doctrinal elements came to be included in a credal outline which was identical to that used for the Apostles' Creed.  Thus was formed the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, more commonly though less accurately called the Nicene Creed.

As I intend to demonstrate in this series, the Apostles' Creed is significant because it represents the faith of virtually every professing Christian on earth. The Nicene Creed, however, is significant because it represents the faith of doctrinally orthodox Christians. I will here show the older form of the Apostles' Creed alongside the Nicene Creed, to demonstrate the dependence of the latter on the former:

I believe in God the Father Almighty; I believe in one God.

The Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and

earth, and of all things visible and

And in Jesus Christ His only-begotten And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-
Son, our Lord, begotten Son of God. Born of the

Father before all ages. God of God;

Light of Light; true God of true God.

Begotten not made; of one being

with the Father; by Whom all things

were made. Who for us men, and for

our salvation, came down from
who was born of the holy Spirit heaven. And was made flesh, by the
and the virgin Mary, holy Spirit, of the virgin Mary: and

was made man. He was also
crucified under Pontius Pilate and crucified for us, suffered under
buried, the third day rose again Pontius Pilate and was buried. And
from the dead, on the third day He rose again

according to the Scriptures. And
ascended into heaven, and sits ascending into heaven, He sits at
at the right hand of the Father, the right hand of the Father. And He
whence He shall come to judge shall come again in glory to judge
the living and the dead; the living and the dead; and of His

kingdom there shall be no end.
And in the holy Spirit; And I believe in the holy Spirit, Lord and

Giver of life, Who proceeds from

the Father [and from the Son]. Who

together with the Father and the Son

is no less adored, and glorified: Who

spoke by the Prophets.
The holy Church; And I believe in one, holy, catholic and

apostolic Church
The remission of sins; I confess one Baptism for the remission of sins.
And the resurrection of the flesh. And I look for the resurrection of the dead.

And the life of the world to come.

  It should be evident that the form and outline of these two creeds is identical.   The first had developed by the fourth century, while the second took shape  in the next few centuries following the Constantinian Revolution.  The clause  ``and from the Son'' which I have bracketed is the infamous Filioque  , the source of a doctrinal and political controversy which has riven Christendom  for over a millennium.  Its significance will be discussed in an upcoming  installment.

Is Reciting the Creed a ``Vain Repetition''?

With this introductory survey of the Creed, we have in fact had a short glimpse of the development of Christian doctrine and belief. I hope that it can also begin to shed light upon the doctrinal development of my own church, the Worldwide Church of God. I have alluded to a longstanding uneasiness that my church has had with both the concept of formal creeds as well as the custom of a liturgical recitation of a creed. The reason for our objection to a recitation of a creed is that our worship culture has always been decidedly ``Low Church'' or non-ceremonial. But we refused to compile our doctrines and beliefs because we took the Bible as the only creed we needed. In time, however, we came to see the practical value in preparing a convenient list of our beliefs.

All the same, even today our leaders are careful to explain that our church's  ``Statement of Beliefs'' is, as they have sometimes called it, ``a living  document'' and certainly not ``a closed creed.''  However, the phrase ``statement  of beliefs'' is in fact nothing other than a very good definition of ``creed''-the  terms are synonymous.  Furthermore, as we have seen by this preliminary investigation,  creeds are not and have never been ``closed.''  Change may come slowly to  the orthodox creeds of Christendom, but it does come even to them.  We should  not feel the slightest hesitation in using the word ``creed'' to refer to  our ``Statement of Beliefs.''  At the very least, we would have fewer syllables! 

Nor do we need to fear that the liturgical confession of a creed is contrary to God's intent for His People, as we once assumed. Formerly, we interpreted Matt. 6:7 to mean that it was wrong to offer written and formal prayers-all prayers had to be spontaneous and extemporaneous. We claimed that Jesus never intended the Lord's Prayer to be repeated verbatim during a liturgical worship service, because to do so would supposedly be to utter ``vain repetitions.'' In the same way, group recitation of a creed during worship services would have been a ``vain repetition.''

But evidence from the Apostolic and early Post-Apostolic Ages indicates that the earliest Christians did in fact recite the Lord's Prayer during the Eucharist (as seen in the Didache). They did not see such behavior as ``vain repetitions,'' because they knew that what Jesus had in mind in Matt. 6:7 were the bizarre chants and mantras of the pagans, not the pious prayers of the House of Judah. Pagan chants were literally ``vain repetitions''-``meaningless babbling''-deliberately intended to be drawn-out sounds with no meaning. Jesus forbade that sort of thing-He wants His followers to use real words when they pray, not magical incantations and mantras.

Another thing to consider is that the Jewishness of early Christianity would have made it completely natural for the early Church of God to have engaged in liturgical recitation of set prayers and local creeds. Jesus' disciples, all being Jews, would have seen nothing peculiar or offensive in that kind of worship. They were all familiar with practices such as the ceremonial repetition of the Shema, or the formal recitation of set prayers over meals.

The fact is, early Christian worship was far more ``High Church,'' liturgical, and ceremonial than we in my church ever wanted to believe. In our traditional insistence upon following the teachings of the Bible, we rejected customs not explicitly to be found in the biblical text. Of course, it is not only unnecessary-not to mention undesirable-but it is simply impossible for a Christian fellowship to rely only upon the Bible in order to determine liturgical standards. Practices such as liturgical confession of a creed are certainly not necessary in authentic Christian worship, but neither are they forbidden, as we in the Worldwide Church of God once claimed.

Disagreeing With People Who Agree With You:

It is my hope that this study might help to further the spirit of toleration and understanding among Christians who share a similar background to my own. The reason that I make this suggestion is because my church's founding leader Herbert Armstrong, differing with most other Christians on so many points, would not have objected to a single word of the older form of the Apostles' Creed. But even more important, he would have objected only to certain of the Nicene Creed's clauses pertaining to the doctrine of the holy Spirit-every other element of this fundamentally orthodox creed was a part of his own doctrinal system. I am impressed by this demonstration of the essential unity of Christian believers, even within the context of marked doctrinal and liturgical disunity. As we investigate the many ways we Christians disagree, it is important to keep in mind how much we agree on the most important and basic issues.

To be continued...

Some Points to Ponder

  from the book Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit, Howard Clark  Kee and Irwin J. Borowsky, editors; Continuum, New York, 1996.

   ``Observance of Torah was not necessarily a bad thing in Paul's eyes so  long as a person recognizes the primary source of salvation.  In fact, some  scholars are now persuaded that Paul likely favored the continuation of Torah  practice among Jewish Christians.  And should a Gentile Christian freely decide  to undertake Torah observance, there is nothing in Pauline teaching, as now  interpreted, to suggest that such a person would be endangering their faith  or salvation.  Hence, the traditional contrast between Judaism as a religion  of law and Christianity as a religion of freedom/grace is profoundly simplistic.''  

  John Pawlikowski,  Professor at the Catholic Theological Union of  Social Ethics, Chicago, Illinois

  It is now becoming increasingly apparent to biblical scholars that the lack of a deep immersion into the spirit and content of the Hebrew Scriptures leaves  the contemporary Christian with a truncated version of Jesus' message.In effect, what remains is an emasculated version of biblical spirituality.''   

Robert J. Daly, Jesuit priest and Professor at the Catholic Theological Union of Social Ethics, Chicago, Illinois

Part Two


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