At the close of the important seventh Lord’s Day the Catechism introduces the object or contents of the Christian’s faith, which then, in subsequent chapters it expounds in detail. In Question and Answer 22 it briefly defines that which “is necessary for a Christian to believe” as “All things promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic undoubted Christian faith briefly teach us.” And in answer to Question 23 it quotes the so-called Apostles’ Creed.
It draws our attention that the Catechism defines the object of saving faith, not as “the Word of God,” nor as “all that God has revealed to us in his Word,” as was stated in Answer 21, nor even as “all things contained in the holy gospel,” but very definitely as “all things promised us in the gospel.” The promises of the gospel, therefore, are the object of saving faith, according to the Catechism. The question arises: how must this be understood? It is possible, of course, to take this expression in a perfectly sound sense. In that case it does not intend to exclude the rest of the Word of God in any sense of the word from the object of saving faith, but merely intends to emphasize that to true faith, as saving faith, that embraces Christ and all His benefits, the holy gospel is the gospel of the promise, the euangelion of the epangelia, and the promises of God, therefore, stand in the foreground. Or one could express it in this way: just as in Scripture the entire Word of God is sometimes called law, or law and prophets, or testimonies, statutes, precepts, etc., so it may also be designated by the term the holy gospel, and the heart of that gospel are the promises of God realized in Christ; and saving faith naturally looks upon the Word of God especially from the viewpoint of its being the gospel of Christ, the good tidings concerning the promise of God. But it is also quite possible to offer a different interpretation of the statement in Answer 22. The promises of the gospel may be taken in the strict sense, as referring to only part of the Word of God. The meaning of the answer then would be that, while faith in general holds for truth and assents to all that is revealed in the Scriptures, saving faith appropriates particularly the promises of the gospel.
The former interpretation must undoubtedly be considered as conveying the truth, regardless now of the question whether it was the intention of the authors of the Catechism to express this meaning. Saving faith is assured of and relies on the entire Word of God as revealed in the Scriptures, and it does not have the promises of the gospel only for its object. All that the Scriptures teach concerning God and creation, man and sin, Christ and salvation, the Holy Spirit and sanctification, the Church and means of grace, the coming of Christ and things eternal, is included in what is necessary for a Christian to believe. That this is true, is evident even from the fact that the Catechism refers to the Apostles’ Creed as the brief expression of the object of saving faith. For in that catholic confession the Church does not declare itself with regard to the promises of the gospel only, but speaks concerning all the main doctrines of Scripture. And, therefore, when the Catechism here answers to the question what is necessary for the Christian to believe, “All things promised us in the gospel,” we will have to take the statement in the broadest sense, so that it includes all the knowledge of God, His Will and precepts, and the whole counsel concerning our salvation and all things as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
When we insist on this we assume the stand that agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism does not necessarily always imply agreement with the meaning and interpretation of its authors. For Ursinus in his explanation of the Catechism makes it quite plain that he intended to convey the sense set forth in the second interpretation mentioned above. As we explained in a previous chapter, in the answer to question 21 he distinguished between the knowledge of faith in general, which holds for truth all that God has revealed in the holy Scriptures, and saving or justifying faith, consisting in a hearty and assured confidence that the blessings of salvation are freely given me of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits. That this presentation of the authors’ meaning in answer 21 was correct, is corroborated by Ursinus’ own commentary on the answer to question 22. Writes he: “After our treatment of the subject of faith, the question now follows concerning the contents of what must be believed or the object of faith. Faith in general, as became evident from our description of it, embraces the entire Word of God, and assents to it fully. But justifying faith in particular respects the promises of the gospel or the preaching of grace through Christ. The gospel is therefore particularly the object of justifying faith. For this reason the gospel is also called the doctrine of those things which are to be believed, in distinction from the law which is the doctrine of those things that must be done,” p. 155. Here Ursinus makes it very plain that, according to him, the whole Word of God is the object of the knowledge of faith in general, while justifying or saving faith deals exclusively with the promises of the gospel. And these distinctions are, in our opinion, untenable. Faith is one. And that one faith is both a true spiritual knowledge and a hearty confidence. And it has for its object the one and entire Word of God, revealing the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. And the knowledge of this Word of God is briefly expressed in “the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith.”
A word must here be said about these “articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith, generally known as the Apostles’ Creed. Its exact origin is unknown. The tradition that gave rise to its name, as if the apostles themselves were the authors of this confession, must be rejected as false. For not only is there no shred of evidence for this tradition, nor even for the contention that this symbol in its present form existed in the time of the apostles, but it did not belong to the proper calling of the apostles as such to prepare confessions of faith for the Church. Their proper task it was to lay the foundation of the Church, other than which no man can lay, and their infallible writings belong to the Canon of the Scriptures. The confession of the Church is based on their word. This does not mean that there can be any serious objection to maintain the name by which these articles of our faith are universally known. But the name expresses that the contents of this confession are truly apostolic, in fact they are almost verbally taken from the New Testament Scriptures. It is, however, one of the most ancient symbols of the Church. And even though in its present form it cannot be traced farther back than the sixth or fifth century of our era, parts of it date from the immediate post-apostolic time. It was not composed at once in its present form. The general opinion is that it gradually developed from the instruction that was given by the church to catechumens before their being baptized, and from the confession they were required to make at baptism. Writes Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 1, p. 16ff.: “As to the origin of the Apostles’ Creed, it no doubt gradually grew out of the confession of Peter,, which furnished its nucleus (the article on Jesus Christ), and out of the baptismal formula, which determined the Trinitarian order and arrangement. It cannot be traced to an individual author. It is the product of the Western Catholic Church (as the Nicene Creed is that of the Eastern Church) within the first four centuries. It is not of primary, apostolic, but of secondary, ecclesiastical inspiration. It is not a Word of God to men, but a word of men to God, in response to his revelation. It was originally and essentially a baptismal confession growing out of the inner life and practical needs of Christianity. It was explained to the catechumens at the last stage of their preparation, professed by them at baptism, often repeated with the Lord’s Prayer, for private devotion, and afterwards introduced into public service. It was called by the ante-Nicene fathers ‘the rule of faith,’ ‘the rule of truth,’ ‘the apostolic tradition,’ ‘the apostolic preaching,’ afterwards ‘the symbol of faith.’ But this baptismal creed was at first not precisely the same. It assumed different shapes and forms in different congregations. Some were longer, some shorter; some declarative, some interrogative in the form of questions and answers. Each of the larger churches adapted the nucleus of the apostolic faith to its peculiar circumstances and-wants; but they all agreed in the essential articles of faith, in the general order of arrangement on the basis of the baptismal formula, and the prominence given to Christ’s death and resurrection. . . .
“The most complete or most popular forms of the baptismal creed in use from that time in the West were those of the churches of Rome, Aquileja, Milan, Ravenna, Carthage, and Hippo. They differ but little. Among these again, the Roman formula gradually gained the acceptance in the West for its intrinsic excellence, and on account of the commanding position of the Church of Rome. We know the Latin text from Rufinus (390) and the Greek from Marcellas of Ancyra (336-341). The Greek text is usually regarded as a translation, but is probably older than the Latin, and may date from the second century, when the Greek language prevailed in the Roman congregation.
“The Roman creed was gradually enlarged by several clauses from older or contemporaneous forms, viz., the article ‘descended into Hades’ (taken from the creed of Aquileja), the predicate ‘catholic’ or ‘general’ in the article on the Church (borrowed from Oriental creeds), ‘the communion of saints’ (from Gallican sources), and the concluding ‘life everlasting’ (probably from the symbols of the churches of Ravenna and Antioch). These additional clauses were no doubt part of the general faith, since they are taught in the Scriptures, but they were first expressed in local creeds, and it was some time before they found a place in the authorized formula.
If we regard, then, the present text of the Apostles’ Creed as a complete whole, we can hardly trace it beyond the sixth, certainly not beyond the close of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin Church was not completed till the eighth century, or about the time when the bishops of Rome strenuously endeavored to conform the liturgies of the Western churches to the Roman order. But if we look at the several articles of the Creed separately, they are all of Nicene or ante-Nicene origin, while its kernel goes back to the apostolic age. All the facts and doctrines which it contains are in entire agreement with the New Testament. And this is true even of those articles which have been most assailed in recent times, as the supernatural conception of our Lord (cf.; ), the descent into Hades (Comp. ; ; ), and the resurrection of the body ( ff, and other places).”
There is something charming in the simple beauty of the structure and contents of this creed of the whole Christian Church. It is very brief, yet quite comprehensive, giving expression to all the main truths of revelation that are “necessary for a Christian to believe.” Its form is wholly positive, not controversial: in it the Church professes her faith, apparently without considering the possibility of its being gainsaid, or the necessity of defending the truth over against heretics. It is a declaration of the historical facts of the gospel, rather than an abstract statement of doctrines. It professes faith in the triune God, yet it does not expressly mention the trinity, far less declare any specific doctrine concerning the relation of the Persons of the trinity to the divine Essence. All the salient, doctrine of Christology are professed in this Credo, the divinity of Christ, His virgin birth, the humiliation and exaltation of our Lord, and His expected return, but they are all stated simply as so many facts of the gospel, without as much as suggesting their dogmatic implications. And the same is true of the articles concerning the Holy Spirit, the Church and the benefits of Christ’s work such as the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and everlasting life. Schaff truly gives the following evaluation of this creed: “It is net a logical statement of abstract doctrines, but a profession of living facts and saving truths. It is a liturgical poem and an act of worship. Like the Lord’s Prayer, it loses none of its charm and effect by frequent use, although, by vain and thoughtless repetition, it may be made a martyr and an empty form of words. It is intelligible and edifying to a child, and fresh and rich to the profoundest Christian scholar, who, as he advances in age, delights to go back to primitive foundations and first principles. It has the fragrance of antiquity and the inestimable weight of universal consent. It is a bond of union between all ages and sections of Christendom. It can never be superseded for popular use in church and school.” (Creeds of Christendom, 1, p. 15). Indeed, one can conceive of the wish that this Credo of our catholic undoubted Christian faith might have proved sufficient for all times, and that the Church of Christ in the world could have remained united on its basis!
However, as the Church developed and advanced in the knowledge of the truth a brief statement of the object of faith like the Apostles’ Creed must needs prove inadequate as a bond of union; and it would be quite impossible for the Church of today to turn the clock of history back, and return to this ancient creed as the sole basis of agreement for the whole church in the world. For, first of all, many doctrines whose maintenance is quite essential to the Church on earth, are not even mentioned in this symbol. The fundamentalists of our time may, in this respect, be satisfied with the declaration of the Apostles’ Creed, for the four truths on which they lay emphasis as essential to Christianity, the virgin birth of the Savior, vicarious atonement, the resurrection of Christ, and His return for judgment, are at least mentioned here, although this can hardly be said of the doctrine of substitutional atonement. But they are in error when they think that the defense of these general doctrines is sufficient to safeguard the faith of the Church over against the attack of the enemy. They may be compared to a certain extent to a gardener that weeds his vegetable plot, but is satisfied by pulling off the tops of the weeds, leaving their roots in the soil. There are fundamental doctrines without whose maintenance even truths such as the vicarious atonement of our Lord cannot be successfully defended. The great doctrines of sovereign predestination, with election and reprobation, of sin and grace, of preservation and perseverance, are not even mentioned in the Apostolic Confession. And yet it is quite essential that they be defined in the standards of the Church of today.
But, in the second place, such a summary and factual statement of the great truths of the gospel as is contained in the Apostles’ Creed can hardly be considered adequate as a clear and unambiguous expression of the faith of the Church. And this is especially true in our times. It is a well-known fact that those that seek to undermine the foundation of the truth upon which the Church is built, and to introduce false doctrines, hardly ever reveal their evil intention by openly declaring their opposition to the doctrines as they have been formulated by the Church in the past. On the contrary, they prefer to employ the very same terms the Church has always used to express her faith, although they give them a new and entirely strange content. If they mean to deprive the Church of the truth of .sovereign grace, and to introduce the false doctrine of free will, they employ the Scriptural terms of predestination, election, and reprobation nonetheless; only they declare that God has chosen them that believe, and rejected those that remain in their unbelief. Or they speak of a “double track” and insist that, while they firmly believe in the truth of absolute predestination, they also hold the very opposite, viz. that God will all men to be saved. And thus they do with regard to every fundamental truth of the Bible. Even present day modernism, though it rejects and opposes all the fundamental doctrines of historical Christendom, is often very efficient in the employment of practically all the terms used to express the object of the Christian faith. They, too, speak of Christ as the Son of God, but in their mouth the term is completely emptied of its true significance so that it does not express at all the essential divinity of the Savior. And they love to speak of the kingdom of God and its righteousness, while they refer to a kingdom of mere man, and of this world. And so we might go on. It shows, that as the Church advances in the knowledge of the truth, it will not only need a more elaborate confession to express its faith positively, but it must also more definitely and fully define its doctrines, lest they be open to the attack of gainsayers because of their ambiguity. And, therefore, though the Apostles’ Creed will certainly always remain the basis of unity for all that understand its declarations in their historic and biblical sense, it cannot possibly serve as the sole basis of unity for the Church in the world. And for this reason, the Heidelberg Catechism proceeds from the correct standpoint, when it does, indeed, declare that these articles contain all that is necessary for a Christian to believe, but at the same time offers a rather elaborate exposition of these articles in the chapters that follow.