During a conversation with the Jewish theologian Nicodemus about spiritual rebirth and the kingdom of God, Jesus uttered the most well-known and widely quoted words in history: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3.16).
The phrase “whoever believes” indicates that faith is a personal act — an individual response to the initiative of God in reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. For this reason, evangelicals emphasize the importance of a personal faith in a personal Savior. However, in their zeal to promote a dynamic personal relationship with Christ, evangelicals sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture: that personal faith is predicated on corporate faith — the faith of generations.
It is ‘the faith of the Church’ that gives ‘my faith’ context and credibility. The New Testament writer Jude referred to “our common salvation” and exhorted believers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude v.3). “The faith” is the apostolic teaching given believers in the earliest days of the church (Acts 2.42), which formed the foundation of Christian belief and practice (Eph 2.20). The phrase “once for all” indicates something that is timeless and eternal — the absolute, unchanging, all-encompassing truth as revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 4.21).
Sometimes referred to as “the sacred deposit of the faith” (depositum fidei), this apostolic teaching was passed on from generation to generation both orally and in writing (Matt 28.18-20; Mark 16.15,20; 2 Tim 2.2). Peter, for example, committed the teaching of the Lord to parchment in order that future generations of believers may have a reliable record of his words (2 Pet 1.15).
Private interpretations and personal revelations
Warning of the imminent rise of false teachers and the introduction of destructive heresies, Peter declared: “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation or origin” (2 Pet 1.20). When an individual or a group believes that they are the recipients of a special revelation of God, or the custodians of a unique and exclusive understanding of truth, they are in the embryonic stages of deception.
The Greek word haireseis, translated ‘heresy’, comes from haireomai, meaning ‘to choose’. In Greek literature it came to denote diversity of belief and the subsequent dissension and disunity that arose from such disputes. In Peter’s letter, the word signifies teaching that diverges from the mainstream, orthodox apostolic tradition — in other words, religious sects or personality cults, which, as Peter indicates, are often characterized by exploitative and immoral practices on the part of the leaders (2 Pet 2.3, 18).
Peter’s chief concern was to see the believers firmly established in the truth as encapsulated in the words of the Old
Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles (2 Pet 1.12; 3.2). Similarly, Paul exhorted Timothy to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1.13), for “the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine … and will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim 4.3-4).
But this begs the question: What constitutes ‘sound doctrine’, ‘the teaching of the apostles’, and ‘the faith of the Church’? There are allusions in Paul’s letters to certain formulae that were used in the early church to summarize the essential elements of the Christian faith. For example, Romans 10.9: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And again in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” And finally, 1 Timothy 3.16: “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on the world, received up in glory.”
One of the earliest statements of the Christian faith is ‘The Apostles’ Creed’, from the Latin word credo, meaning ‘I believe’. The Book of Common Worship (2000) renders the Creed as follows:
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.
The first reference to Symbolum Apostolicum (Symbol or Creed of the Apostles) is in a letter, probably written by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, to Pope Siricius in about 390 A.D. “Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled.” The Creed to which Ambrose referred was a simpler and abbreviated version of what we now know as ‘The Apostles’ Creed’, which some scholars believe was already circulating in written form by the late 2nd century. The longer version of ‘The Apostles’ Creed’ seems to have originated in France and Spain in the second half of the 5th century, first appearing in written form between 710 and 724 in De singulis libris canonicis scarapsus (Excerpt from Individual Canonical Books) by Saint Pirminius.
The more detailed and comprehensive ‘Nicene Creed’ was adopted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and later amended at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The purpose of the Council and indeed, the Creed, was to resolve the controversy over the divinity of Jesus Christ (Arianism). Thus the Creed of 325 explicitly affirms the co-essential divinity of the Son, whilst the amended version of 381 speaks of the Holy Spirit being worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son.
As a Pentecostal believer, I cannot overstate how deeply I was impacted the first time I stood in an historic denominational church and recited ‘The Apostles’ Creed’ in unison with hundreds of other worshipers. It seemed as though we were a mighty choir glorifying God with one mind and one mouth, rather than a bunch of individuals all doing our own thing in the name of free expression (Rom 15.6). But more than that, I felt as though I was joined to a long line of believers stretching all the way back to the earliest days of the Christian Church. There was an awareness of the continuum of God’s purpose: that He who had begun a good work on the Day of Pentecost, was still doing the same work some two thousand years later! And with that came a sense of gratitude and humility — gratitude to the heroes and martyrs who had paved the way for me to stand there, and humility, knowing that the faith I cherished had been passed on to me as a sacred trust.
The faith of generations
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we pray, “Lord, look not on our sins, but on the faith of Your Church.” That prayer constantly reminds me that ‘my faith’ is part of a bigger picture. As the Catechism states, “Whoever says ‘I believe’ is [really] saying, ‘I pledge myself to what we believe.’” In other words, no one ‘believes’ in isolation.
Writing to his protégé Timothy, the apostle Paul said, “I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also. Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you …” (2 Tim 1.5-6). Indeed, the heritage of faith is generational.
My grandfather, Reginald Price, was born in 1901 and was converted to Christ at a Salvation Army ‘open-air’ meeting in Bendigo, Victoria, in 1920. He eventually went home to be with Jesus in 1986. A few years before he died, I felt the Lord tell me to take my grandfather back to Bendigo to the very spot where he first heard the gospel some sixty years earlier. We made the 3 hour journey by car, and eventually located the street corner where the Salvation Army had conducted their evangelistic outreach. As we stood there, we wept and thanked God for His faithfulness in saving us from our sins. And as I tried to recreate the scene of my grandfather’s conversion, I realized that my faith was a product of his obedience all those years ago.
As I write these words, I have a photograph of my grandfather on my desk, staring at me with his familiar penetrating gaze. Every time I look at that photograph, it calls me to account. It’s as though my grandfather is saying, “What are you doing with the heritage of faith that I entrusted to you? I laid the foundation; now you must build on it.”
And it’s in moments like these that I realize that I am not alone. I am not the first, nor will I be the last. I am simply a link in the chain of God’s covenantal history, a thread in the tapestry of the faith of the Church.