“I believe in God”
Exodus 29:1-7, I Cor. 8:1-6, Mark 12:28-34
It has been noticed that the Apostle’s Creed uses an economy of words. It does not waste anything. It says what it has to say with all the precision it can muster. This is particularly true about the first phrase. There is so much it could say about God. But the creed limits itself to one brief sentence; “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
But if it is OK with you, I want to explore only one word as we begin. “I believe in GOD….”
It is this word that makes all the other words possible and meaningful. If there is no God, then nothing in the creed, and nothing in the Christian Faith makes much sense. “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
So let us look at the first part of the creed, “I believe in God.”
Note what this says. “I believe in God.” That means that we choose not to be Atheists.
Now I must confess I have a great sympathy for Atheism. I was one for 6 years. In the light of too much emphasis upon supernaturalism where the world is described as being filled with angels and demons, ghosts and spirits, vampires and werewolves, tooth fairies & Santa Claus, and where Satan and God are described as waging eternal war, some of us are prepared to throw up our hands on the whole thing, and cancel everything supernatural, and settle for a world where only the physical is real.
The great philosopher Socrates was executed on the charge of being an atheist. He despised the descriptions of the Greek Gods of Homer, thinking it better to get rid of the whole bunch and be an atheist. Many recent atheists prefer No-God to the God of Islam, or Fundamentalism, or romanticism, or liberalism or competing religions.
Since the 2nd World War Atheism has been on the increase. Most of it is due to a growing despair about the world as it is. The question that has haunted many is, “If God exists and evil exists, and God does not choose to stop it, then there is only two possibilities: either God cannot stop it or chooses not to stop it. He is either impotent or evil. Best explanation: there is no God.
But the church has disagreed with this option. It is our deepest conviction that God is.
But there is a second alternative between God and No-God. It is called Agnosticism.
The agnostic says, “We do not know whether God exists or not, we simply cannot tell. There is not enough evidence. It is like the question, “Do flying saucers exist?” There is not enough evidence to include the matter in our equations. We will function without God, in the same way we function without taking flying saucers into account.”
Now, again I must confess that I have a great sympathy for Agnosticism. Sometimes the best answer to a question is “I don’t know!” The Agnostic can be profoundly honest in a time of excessive credulity. Some in our culture can believe anything. Sometimes that drives some of us to believe in nothing.
But Agnostics come in two versions: one healthy, one not so healthy
The first one is the Open-minded agnostic who is ready to look at new evidence. The question about whether God exists haunts them. They look for evidence, explore the universe, and conclude with some sadness, “We do no know, we wish we did.”
The second kind is the Closed-minded agnostic who closes off the question fairly quickly. They do not want to know the answer. But their response is a result of sloth, not diligent search. They seem to say, “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Not interested!” and they settle for ignorance instead of investigation! That is sad.
The church disagrees with this option too. It remains our deepest conviction that God is and that He is knowable.
Have you noticed that the word used in the creed is “God” in the singular, and not “gods” in the plural. Israel and the church are convinced that there is only one God, not many. We have chosen not to be Polytheists.
And here is one of the great controversies of the church with its world, when the church articulated this creed. In the use of the single word “GOD” they are offering a rebuttal of all Greek & Roman and Oriental paganism. The ancient world teemed with deities. Mount Olympus was crowded with Gods. Valhalla had more than its share. The ancient Near East had patron gods for almost every conceivable function. Help in childbirth? There is a god for such moments. Safety in war time? A different God is the head of that department. A good crop Wanted? Check out one of the fertility Gods. Crossing a river. Bring an offering for the river god. If one god doesn’t give you satisfaction, check out the competition. And if one god is a good thing, maybe two or three might be even better.
Each nation, tribe and clan had its particular favorites. Mountain sides were landscaped with temples and shrines to various supernatural powers. Worshippers of these many Gods, during the course of a morning’s activities, might go to worship at several of the shrines, depending on what they needed for the day.
Paul can refer to an altar to the Unknown God on Mar’s hill, in Athens. The ancients were afraid that they might forget one of the gods, so just in case some god felt slighted, an altar to the Unknown God had been established. No god need feel excluded in that ancient world.
But in the face of the majority vote of their age, the church said, “There is only One God.”
By the way, the church knew that it could not prove that there was a God. The evidence from science would always be ambivalent. Nor could they prove that there was only One God and not many. Many have tried to list the “proofs” for the existence of God, but they always test out to be rather flimsy. These debates always seem to be tied.
So the Church uses the word “We Believe”. We cannot prove it, but we believe in God, and believe in one God.
But after saying that we sometimes get a bit stupid.
There are some in the church who seem to infer that there are really two gods. One called “God” and one called “the devil.” That is called dualism. Did you notice that the devil doesn’t even get a line in the creed?
Medieval theology and Modern Christian fiction often portray God and the devil look like two characters from the World Wrestling Federation. Down the centuries these two characters wrestle with each other, trying to get dominance, neither able to pin the other, until just before the bell goes to end history. It is then that God defeats the infernal enemy, and he is destroyed, and God comes out the winner. Not so! The Satan was defeated in Genesis Chapter 3, defeated at the cross, and defeated every day since by those who choose to do God’s will.
There is only One God, and the devil, whatever it is, is not worthy of being listened to.
But one final word needs to be spoken to correct the bad theology of some within the church. They often seem to infer that we worship three gods, called Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They seem to talk as though God were a committee of three who share the work load between them
The church says, ‘scuse me, but you have misunderstood. We do believe in the Trinity, but, be very careful here. Heresy lurks close by on this one. Whatever we do with the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they are never to be considered other than One God in perfect unity on every issue.
Later on I want to explain what we mean by “The Trinity”, but note, that the Apostles Creed does not use that word. It is more interested in the One-ness of God, rather than the three-ness of God. Later in Christian history, when new heresies arise, the church will give emphasis to the complexity that exists within God, but it is not in this creed, and we are not to bother ourselves about it just yet, till we have explored the bigger issues of what it means to think like a Christian.
In conclusion, let me try to draw some practical conclusions.
When the church says, “We believe in God” it is not merely an academic exercise in the competition of ideas. It is not an attempt to cancel all other so-called-gods so our God can come out the winner.
Believing in God has practical implications.
- It means that when everything is going bad, we will not move towards pessimism or despair – because we believe in God and God makes good things come out of bad things.
- It means that when illness strikes, we will not fear, – because we believe in God, who wastes nothing of our sufferings, and in return provides something better.
- It means that when family, friends, and leaders disappoint us, we will not surrender to anger, – because we believe in God, whom we have accepted as our best family, best friend and our only leader.
- It means that when death looks us in the face, we will not fear, For God is with us, and he gets the last and best word.
David as always, you are so very thorough in your teaching and line of thought! Thoroughly have enjoyed the first two writings in this series! Thank you David. Stephen