In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis makes a famous analogy comparing the universal church and church denominations to a large home with many different rooms:
“I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.” (Mere Christianity, Preface p. XV)
How Big is the House?
Following Lewis’ analogy leads us to ask a couple of major questions: to accommodate the world’s Christians, how big would the house be? How many different rooms would there be? The World Encyclopedia of Christianity recently put the number of denominations in the world at over 33,000. This seems like a significant number; you may think, “my town has five churches, how could that many exist?” But that number doesn’t seem as outrageous when you consider there are over 2 billion Christians meeting in over 3.4 million churches every week.
This should make us feel small and should put our internecine battles into context. This is not a call to abandon that which makes us distinct or to dull the call to pursue truth. But it means that American Christians make up 9% of the worshipping church any given week. It means that American Baptists (the largest Protestant denomination) do not account for 1% of the church today. It means that amongst all of the theological distinctives in all of the various languages, any one group should be careful thinking their distinctions have cornered the market.
And, it might help highlight the great gift that is the Apostles’ Creed. This early and straightforward church confession was the topic of the first season of the 1517 podcast, the Soul of Christianity. It is also the theme for this year at the annual Here We Still Stand Conference.
Of all the creeds in Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed is the most widely confessed. While the Nicene Creed is undoubtedly popular (many churches confess it on Sundays when the Eucharist is celebrated), it has been fiddled with and debated. Not enough to make it at all dubious, but enough to mean it has less of a consensus than the Apostles’ Creed.
The Apostles’ Creed can be broken down in various ways, whether by its 12 lines or into a Trintarian model: I believe in God the Father almighty/I Believe in Jesus Christ his only son/I believe in the Holy Spirit. You can also see the work of the triune God outlined in the three sections of the creeds as they relate to creation/redemption/the life of the church. The creed is, however, not Scripture, and thus we can question it in a way we do not Holy Writ.
Some Notes to Consider:
Holy Catholic Church?
While there aren’t variants of theological significance in the creed, you may have seen some churches get bashful around confessing something that is “catholic.” Some will tell you that “Catholic” means “Universal” (this is true) and some have ditched “Catholic” for “Christian” (I get it, but you’ve lost the original meaning with that one).
It’s a hangover from the King James version and early modern English and German cognates. Geist (German for “spirit”) becomes “Ghost” (until Casper ruins that one) and then “Spirit.” We are talking about the third person of the trinity.
Descent into where?!
We confess that when Jesus died, he really died. Where was he? 1 Peter suggests it was here that he proclaimed to those “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-20). Once again, here we run into a translation issue. We think of the land of the dead, apart from Jesus, as “hell” but the ancient church had various categories including Hades, Sheol, and Gehenna. The creed states that Jesus went to Hades, which is better understood as “the place of the dead” and not “the place of judgment,” which is Gehenna. Ultimately, the descent is good news for those to whom Jesus preached. If redemption was finished on the cross, whatever happened after that is part of Jesus’ triumph over the powers that could not hold him down.
The Faith We Share
This Trinitarian confession that summarizes Christianity for those in the house of faith continues to be the bond which links Christians across the globe and throughout time. But it is also helpful as a model for how we might talk about the faith in general without falling into denominational peculiarities when they are unnecessary. In this case, the Apostles Creed represents the faith we share, as in share with others, no matter what room they find themselves in.
Who is God? What did God do in the person of Jesus, and how are we connected to the benefits of the Resurrection? This is what the creed is concerned about and what creates Christians and unity amongst the same.