The Church in the Nicene Creed

 
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Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table. We discuss issues of God and culture, and our topic today is the Nicene Creed. We’re working through a series on the Nicene Creed, going through different affirmations that are a part of it.

My guest is Michael Svigel, who teaches in the Systematic Theology Department here at Dallas Theological Seminary, and I am Darrell Bock, executive director for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have to take a big breath to say all that at one time.

Michael Svigel
You do too much.
Darrell Bock
That’s exactly right. And our topic is the line in the creed that says, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, and I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” But before we do that, let’s talk a little bit about the creed itself.

The Nicene Creed exists in two forms. Most people probably don’t even realize that, so tell us a little bit about that.

Michael Svigel
Sure. The Nicene Creed proper comes from out of the Council of Nicaea in 325 where the primary foe was Arianism. Some may remember Arius was the guy from Alexandria who said Jesus was not eternal God like the Father, but a created being or the first created being. He had a beginning. And the Council of Nicaea decisively rejected that.

And then the controversy was how do we now articulate best what we mean about the Son and the deity of the Son and how that distinguishes him from the Father? They settled with this language on the Son is of the same essence as the Father, but he’s a distinct person. So the strong emphasis at Nicaea was the deity of the Son.

Out of that came this creed, this confession, probably based on an earlier baptismal confession of a local church, possibly Jerusalem’s, which was Trinitarian – that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in structure, which all of the baptismal confessions were because you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And they agreed to this language.

Between 325 at the Council of Nicaea and 381 at the next council, Constantinople, it was decades of controversy, a resurgence of Arianism and fighting and trying to come up with better ways of understanding the language. Needless to say, when the dust settled, a second council was called in 381 to finally put this to rest, and out of that comes a little bit more robust, fuller confession, a fuller creed that all of them accepted. That’s called – this is a mouthful – the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

Darrell Bock
Wow.
Michael Svigel
I think that’s 11 syllables. When we say the Nicene Creed, generally what we mean is that longer form that is an affirmation and clarification of Nicaea. So that’s a long answer for a good, short question, but it gives you a little bit of the background on what we’re talking about.
Darrell Bock
So we ended up with the short version, the Nicene Creed, for reasons that are obvious.
Michael Svigel
Yeah, it’s much easier than saying “Niceno-Constantinopolitan.” I’ve proposed we call it the Ni-Con, but that sounds like some sort of sci-fi convention.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. So just recite it. Is that the line?
Michael Svigel
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
Of course the structure of the creed, just an overview before we dive into this particular part, is that, as you mentioned, there’s a reference to the One God, the Father Almighty; there’s the reference to the One Lord, Jesus Christ; and then there’s a lot of detail on the Son.
Michael Svigel
Right. It’s very much focused on Christ’s person and his work, his redemptive work.
Darrell Bock
That’s right, because that’s where the real controversy was. And then there’s a confession of the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit, and then we’ve got the mention of the one Catholic Church, baptism, and then it wraps up with a belief in the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come.
Michael Svigel
Correct. It’s a grand narrative of the creation and redemption story.
Darrell Bock
A pristine statement of the core orthodoxy in many ways. Okay, well, let’s start off with this section that we’re zeroing in on today. It says, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” So there are three key terms here, it seems to me: holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Let’s go through those one at a time, and then there’s a term that’s missing that some people might normally connect with some of these terms. So we’ll come back and get that one when we come back around the lap after we’ve lapped on these terms. So holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Michael Svigel
At the very beginning it says “the one church.” Very few people have a problem with that, and it’s gonna draw us to Ephesians, where Paul talks about one faith, one baptism. The holiness of the church, of course you just look around frankly in the New Testament itself and you see, well, what do we mean by “holiness of the church”? The church has always been fraught with doctrinal as well as practical problems.

So I think that that signals to us that what we are confessing about the holiness of the church is a theological ideal that we are to be striving for, on the one hand. It is also, if I can use the term, eschatological, that is, an ultimate – this is what God is leading us toward, the eventual perfect santification of the church, right?

Darrell Bock
This where it’s gonna land.
Michael Svigel
So the church is in the process of being made holy in light of the fact – in light of the work that Christ has done in declaring it holy, setting us apart, but also ultimately we will be perfect and holy, this Ephesians 5, the bride adorned.

So I think that kind of enables us and frees us to read all of these things. Though the unity of the church, the oneness, the holiness of the church, the catholicity and the apostolicity, in these age these are going to be experienced imperfectly, but it doesn’t relieve us from striving for holiness and unity and all of these things. So I just want to set up the context of that there. I see these things as ideals to be strived for.

The big problem is, most people don’t have a problem with striving for the holiness of the church or the unity of the church, even though those two tend to work against each other sometimes. The problem sometimes I encounter is confessing that the church is catholic, because almost instantly Protestants and especially evangelicals will think, “Wait a second, is this the Roman Catholic Church, capital R, capital C?”

In fact, some variations of the creed and certain articulations of it have replaced “catholic” with “Christian,” “one Christian church.” And so I think we need to kind of back up and define what did “catholic” mean in the 4th century? It doesn’t mean precisely what we mean when we hear “catholic.”

Darrell Bock
Before we do that, let me go back to “holy” just for a second. That is, the idea of holiness is the idea of being set apart, of being sanctified, of not being common, if I can say it that way. Part of that, I tell people when you think about the gospel, think about it from an Old Testament perspective for a second.

So I’ve got an object that’s unclean, okay? If it’s an unclean object, then an unclean object couldn’t go to the temple to worship God, an unclean person. So you did a washing or a sacrifice in order to be rendered clean, and the point wasn’t just to be rendered clean. The point was now you were set apart. You were a cleansed vessel, washed, if you will, and that allowed you to have face-to-face contact with God in the temple.

In the New Testament, that gets heightened because not only do they have face-to-face contact with God in the context of the temple, but now the spirit is able to indwell this cleansed vessel and set it apart. The church is a community of such folk.

Michael Svigel
Right. It’s why they’re called the communion of the saints. It’s the community of the saints, those who are set apart. I would say even something that’s common is made holy, set apart for holy use. There’s that cleansing but also that appointing to a holy priesthood of some sort. So I would say that’s also wrapped up in this whole idea of holiness, but we are called also to a life that’s supposed to reflect that holiness. Of course we’re not gonna reflect it perfectly.
Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Michael Svigel
It doesn’t change the fact that we have been set apart. To kind of foreshadow where we’re going to be going, the rite that sets you apart and makes you holy in that sense is the rite of baptism related to the Old Testament washings, which we’ll get to.
Darrell Bock
Right, exactly. We’re setting the table. You can see why these two things were set next to each other.
Michael Svigel
Close to each other. They’re both related to the church and to what that means before that.
Darrell Bock
And to the activity of what the product of the gospel is, and the product of the gospel is in part – we sometimes think the gospel is about getting saved or getting to heaven or whatever like that. But actually there is a – and I mean this in the deep sense of the word. There is a communion that results as a result of the gospel. There’s a reconnecting with God that results as a result of this.

The effect of that presence is a sanctifying effect. It’s a holiness effect. It’s an enabling effect. That means that God is now present and engaged with the person in a way that didn’t exist previously to that exchange.

Michael Svigel
Right. Sometimes people will fly through these creeds and say, “Well, this is all about just belief. This is all just about faith. What about the practice?” It’s wrapped up in that whole idea of holiness, being set apart. That’s under the article of the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and life-giver. The life-giver was not just, “I’m imparting to you eternal life,” it’s, “I am working in you in this new life of holiness.” We’re not left to ourselves. That whole part is related to the sanctified life.
Darrell Bock
It’s a good point to bring up because I sometimes complain about these creeds, and my complaint about these creeds is that in the midst of confessing these truths, which certainly are there and eternal and have a direction and take us, there isn’t that much explicitly said about how we live. It’s understandable. They’re dealing with controversies about what it is that people thought about these different areas, on the one hand.

But I do think there’s a risk, a little bit, of creating a blind spot, and that is that in the midst of making this confession and saying, “This is what I believe,” it’s like there’s this whole other area of how I live which these confessions are pushing towards, but don’t develop in the way that the language does of the creeds themselves.

Michael Svigel
Probably not surprisingly, what a holy life looked like, a life of repentance looked like, was not generally in controversy among – you put Arius and Athanasius in the same room, they’re gonna disagree clearly on who Christ is, but generally they’re not disagreeing on what the Christian way of life was. So this is not an area of controversy.

But also it’s important what you said earlier that, look, these creeds are pointing us toward this communion, this community of the saints. You take the creed out of that, then of course you’re stuck with just a bunch of doctrines that you believe when in fact in the original context, they understood that this was a community of faith living as Christ lived. So they understood the connection. It’s just sometimes in our modern world we see these as bullet-point doctrines to believe.

Darrell Bock
Again, because part of the point of the creed was to get people to confess things that the community holds and particularly on controversial points. So it would be understandable that the attention would be there.

Still, I do think that one of the – I don’t know quite what the word is. One of the tensions I guess in thinking creed-ily or in talking creed-ily is, “Okay, I have this idea in my head,” but if it’s not transferring out, then it isn’t taking you where the creed is actually designed to take you.

Michael Svigel
Right, which we’ll get to when we talk about baptism, because that’s implied there.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so that’s holy. We’re gonna beat these to a pulp, okay?
Michael Svigel
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
Okay, catholic. Now this is a word that most people actually probably have very little idea what it actually means. So let’s start there.
Michael Svigel
“Catholic,” it is a Christian word. It’s Christianese, and it first appears in Christian literature in the year 110, roughly 110, with Ignatius of Antioch. He uses the term to refer to the church thought of as a whole as opposed to the church local. So I’m a member of a church. That’s my local church with its local leadership and ministry. But I acknowledge that we’re not the only church in the world.”
Darrell Bock
It’s connected.
Michael Svigel
It’s connected. I think of it in terms of, “This is my nuclear family, and I have an extended family that reaches all the way from Australia to Alaska to Europe to Africa.” So we’re all part of one extended family.

I think if we think in those terms, it starts to make sense that in the New Testament we have this concept of the church is bigger than just the local church. It’s connected by this common way of life, this common belief in Christ. But what they lacked was a single term to describe that without causing confusion.

So Ignatius of Antioch around 110 used this term “catholic,” which means literally the church thought of according to the whole, thought of in its entirety globally.

Darrell Bock
Universal, yeah.
Michael Svigel
The universal church, universal not in the invisible, mystical sense, but thought of globally, the broad extent. As you progress through history, it’s thought of in terms of the church not only globally, but also throughout time. And so we’re united in some way through our confession and our way of life and our union with Christ to all of the saints throughout history. So there’s this sense of the catholicity or the wholeness of the church.

So I think when we realize what the term means, what it originally meant, it relieves a lot of the stress. We should have no problem confessing and striving then for that sense of wholeness.

Darrell Bock
So if I were to paraphrase what we’ve said so far, I believe in one, set-apart, universal community, and now we’ve got the word “apostolic.”
Michael Svigel
“Apostolic” relates to Paul’s teaching in the New Testament where he says, “Look, the church is founded or rests or built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
Darrell Bock
And the picture there is of building a temple.
Michael Svigel
Right, exactly. It’s the foundation. You cannot relay the foundation. You’re dealing at a time in the 4th century controversies where many of these groups are building a new foundation. We would say, “Look, clearly ‘apostolic’ implies that we are building our foundation on the apostolic teaching, which we find in the apostolic writings.’ ”

And when they say “apostolic,” they are also including the prophets, the inspired scriptures, but also they are saying, “Look, there is an apostolic way of reading these texts as well.” The Arians, the false teachers, were using the same Bible, but coming to conclusions that really nobody had held before. They were novel interpretations.

And so there is a sense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints, the Bible given to the church, and our doctrines and our practices need to conform to this apostolic foundation as well as the lifestyle. There are things that the church has taught from the beginning all the way to today, “This is right. This is wrong,” and that’s also part of that apostolic faith that’s passed down.

Darrell Bock
The interesting thing is that if you think about this, the canon and the recognition of the canon is coming to its fullest expression and its complete expression during the same time, at the Nicaea’s naming the 27 books of the New Testament right in the midst of this period. I think it’s 357, if I’m not mistaken. They wrote an Easter Letter, and we get the list of the 27 books of the New Testament.

And I tell people that in the midst of this period that we’re talking about, really from the events of Jesus until we get to this time when the New Testament is identified, that at different periods and different times people had exposure to different parts of the New Testament. One of the reasons you get these creeds I’m assuming is most people – I don’t know what the literacy rates are in the 4th century, but when we talk about the 1st century, the literacy rates are tending to be pretty small in terms of people who could actually read and write and that kind of thing. Most of what they processed, they processed orally.

Michael Svigel
Even if they could read and write, access to a library of writings is not –
Darrell Bock
Not common at all, exactly. So it’s churches that have these Bibles. It’s not people walking – the Bible church image of the person walking on a Sunday morning with their Bible tightly tucked under there – that’s not going on. So these creeds are designed I would take it not only as statements of what the church believes, but also as teaching tools, if I can say it that way.
Michael Svigel
Absolutely, yeah. So if you’re interested in the faith and you’re being drawn by the Spirit into this, they’re going to introduce you to it not by throwing a Gideon Bible at you and telling you to read the Gospel of John. They’re going to tell you, “We believe in God, one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven of earth.”

Pretty simple concept, but that means you reject your many gods. “We believe in Jesus Christ is the only Son, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” And so it’s a way of initiating them into what we believe and walking them through that.

In fact, then when they are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, they actually know what that means. When they hear the words “Father” and “Son” and “Spirit,” they’ve been taught through these confessions, this baptismal confession or creed. And that’s what “creed” means. Credo means “I believe.” It’s the first word of the confession. You’re exactly right.

Let’s say they do have access to Old and New Testament writings. Now they also have this background. They can read it the way it was meant to be read.

Darrell Bock
With this lens.
Michael Svigel
With this basic lens to understand that, “We don’t read it this way. We don’t read it that way. We read it apostolically.”
Darrell Bock
Now that’s a question I haven’t asked or even thought to ask before –
Michael Svigel
Which can be dangerous.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, that’s right. So were these creeds memorized by people? What catechetical role did they have?
Michael Svigel
Sometimes they were memorized. The records that we have, the earliest records of a baptismal initiation taking place, is they would be asked and they would respond affirmatively, kind of like when you’re getting married: “Do you take so and so?”

You don’t repeat all that back, but they would say, “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible?”

And they would say, “I believe, credo.” And then they would immerse them.

And then they would ask them the next line: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ,” et cetera.

“I believe,” and they would immerse them a second time. All the way into the Medieval Period there was a threefold immersion oftentimes associated with each article of the confession.

Darrell Bock
Each article of the person – of the confession of God.
Michael Svigel
Yeah, and they called it one baptism, three immersions, and it was their way of also through action confessing the triune nature.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. And then this section that we’re in now, I take it would that wrap up the third part or was that an addendum?
Michael Svigel
No, it was the third part. There was usually something about –under the article of the Holy Spirit, there was something about the holy catholic church, the community of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body, life everlasting, the Apostles’ Creed. That language was filled in and expanded upon to some degree then.
Darrell Bock
Back to apostolic now, so the term “apostolic” has to do with this rootage really that we’re talking about that comes out of the earliest generation. It’s trying to prevent any innovations from coming in later that don’t have its roots in the 1st century generation that had actually walked with Jesus or those were associated with those who walked with Jesus.
Michael Svigel
Yeah, and I love that term ’cause I use that image myself. The “apostolic” relates to the roots. Make sure you’re plugged into that original teaching. The tree and the branches and the growth would relate to the idea of the catholicity. It’s growing north, south, east, west, but it’s all one tree.

Now the Baptists may be over here and the Methodists over here and the Anglicans over here on the branches, but we all have the same apostolic root and therefore are part of the same catholic church.

Darrell Bock
Usually when people hear “catholic,” they think Roman Catholic. But those two things don’t entirely always belong together. So let’s talk about the Roman side of this. What makes a catholic church a Roman Catholic church?
Michael Svigel
We’ve all read the New Testament, the Book of Acts, and you have a church in Rome that is planted. Paul writes a letter to it, and it becomes a major hub for missions then in the West. More or less, you could draw a line through the center of Europe, and everything to the west of that, including Gaul, or France; and the British Isles; western North Africa; what is the predominantly Latin-speaking West, was a result of the planting of churches by the Church of Rome principally. And so you see that they’re very active in planting these daughter churches, and there’s a connection there.

As you move forward, the term “catholic” I said referred to the church as a whole, but sometimes they would refer to the Catholic Church at Alexandria or the Catholic Church at Antioch or the Catholic Church. That is, the church that belongs to the big family in the macrocosm. So this local church, part of the big church. And so the term “Roman Catholic Church” would simply mean the catholic church in Rome, that chapter of that global church.

What happens, though, is because of this unity of the church and its mission and the daughter churches in the West and the Latin-speaking, a very close network and association with the church in Rome, they began to develop their own distinct identity as the Western or the Catholic Church in the West. The Eastern Church was speaking Greek primarily, and so you have linguistic differences. You have some doctrinal differences that eventually develop.

But also if you realize something, the Roman Church, if you think about the apostolic churches, churches actually founded by apostles, there are dozens of them in the East in the 1st century, more than dozens. In the West, it was Rome. It was maybe a couple others. And then from Rome, a lot of these others were daughter churches.

So as the East and the West began to drift apart politically, geographically, culturally, theologically, the West consolidates around Rome and has this distinct Western, Latin identity, especially around the bishop of Rome, who was at one time just the bishop of a local church like our local pastor might be, but he was the bishop of Rome, the big church, eventually being called the papa, pope.

Darrell Bock
The original megachurch.
Michael Svigel
The original megachurch – it’s a good analogy – conceiving itself as, “These are all our campuses and our daughter churches.” Originally there’s nothing insidious in it, but as politics gets mixed in and power and some wealth, you can see where that kind of a system can turn into a sort of maybe dictatorship kind of idea where the pope has absolute control and authority.

As the East and the West split officially in 1054, they condemn each other, adding a line in fact, one word, to the Constantinopolitan Creed under the article of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic Church added a word. They split, and so now the Western Roman Catholic Church under the pope perceived itself as the remnant, the one true church. Everybody else is apostatized. And so that’s where you get this idea that the Roman Catholic Church is the catholic church.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so we’re way down the road.
Michael Svigel
Long story. Now we’re into the Late Medieval Period.
Darrell Bock
Of course most people when they think of Roman Catholicism think about the unity that exists around the pope, around the bishop of Rome. The interesting thing about that is that those tugs between churches goes back. I know in the research that I did when I was working on the missing gospels issue that there was a discussion where Corinth pushed back against Rome when Rome attempted to inject itself into a controversy. Corinth wrote back and basically said, “This is not your business. This is our business.”

And so this tension between was there – “Yeah, we’re all equal, but is there one church that speaks for all of us,” is something that lingered for a long time.

Michael Svigel
Correct, and that goes back. You start to hear hints of that and suggestions of that already in the 2nd century.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. That’s what I’m alluding to.
Michael Svigel
The Roman Church is asserting some things and then backing off, getting pushback and then backing off. But also you have to understand Rome was the capital of the empire for some time until Constantinople was founded. Then it was a very, very large church even in the 1st century, and a very wealthy church with a lot of power, a lot of influence. It could throw its weight around, and it tried to, which is human nature.

We do it today. Big churches tend to throw their weight around a bit more and want to speak for the evangelical community oftentimes, whether you want them to speak for you or not, right?

Darrell Bock
That’s right, exactly.
Michael Svigel
It’s understandable. It’s more of a slow, gradual, natural, understandable progression than something insidious that was necessarily …
Darrell Bock
I mentioned to you in the break that we had that my son at St. John’s took a course on the history of the church, and the book that they had him read was by Hans Küng, and it was about the history of the Roman Catholic Church. He’s very purposeful. His history is built around the emergence of the dominant episcopate, if I can say it that way, and the idea of the pope.

His premise was that you don’t really get the Roman Catholic Church in the sense that we tend to think about it today until you’re in the 6th, 7th century when you get the pope, the papal figure I guess Leo the Great and company, who really begin to coalesce some of this power.

Michael Svigel
It’s interesting. The ecumenical councils that we’re talking about here in Nicaea, Constantinople, and then several others, Ephesus, Chalcedon, the Western Church, the popes never showed up for that. Bishops from all over would show up and the pope would send some messengers because they would have their own meeting, settle their own thing, write up something, and send it on. That would represent as a bloc the whole Western Church.

That does something for the perception of the unity, and then later on they could say, “Look, we’ve always been the same. We’ve always held true to orthodoxy.” There’s some interesting social-political phenomena.

Darrell Bock
So these creeds that we’re talking about, which have managed not only to exist in the history obviously of the Roman Catholic Church but also have managed to be a part of the Protestant tradition, to some degree predate what we’re talking about here when we say Roman Catholic.
Michael Svigel
Yes. So when the creed says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” you have to understand this is bishops and representatives from churches as far east as Assyria to Rome to North Africa. This is not just the Roman Catholic Church asserting this. This is all the church everywhere.
Darrell Bock
And when you think about where these councils were held: Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Hippo –
Michael Svigel
Ephesus. All of these are in Asia Minor, the ecumenical ones anyway.
Darrell Bock
They run the gamut in terms of locations.
Michael Svigel
And there’s local councils going on as well with more local authority like Hippo and Carthage and Rome.
Darrell Bock
It is a catholic exercise in the original sense of the term. Okay, I think we’ve gone through that part of the confession, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” It’s kind of fun to go through these and think through what’s really in them.

The second part is, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” Now this is interesting for a whole series of reasons because most people when they think “baptism” and they think “Bible,” they might think of John the Baptist’s baptism. We’re not talking about that, are we?

Michael Svigel
Not in the 4th century we’re not.
Darrell Bock
We’re talking about the rite that someone undertakes to publicly declare their confession of the Trinitarian God.
Michael Svigel
So it’s doing several things. It’s initiating them into the church. What we talked about earlier in the last segment was the washing that took the common vessel or even the unclean vessel and made it holy for holy purposes, that you’re now part of the community. This is why it’s under that article talking about the church.
Darrell Bock
Right. This is worth mentioning. The picture is of a permanent washing. It’s a not –
Michael Svigel
A one-time washing.
Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Michael Svigel
Like Jesus said, “Look, you just need your feet washed. You’ve been cleansed.” That image is a one-time washing, which aligns with our theology that there’s a one-time conversion. It’s not an over and over constant …
Darrell Bock
So that’s why it’s one baptism.
Michael Svigel
Yeah. There is a strong emphasis at this time in the 4th century on the one. We get hung up on the baptism or forgiveness of sins. Really, their emphasis, if they were to read it out loud, they’d be saying, “one baptism,” because to re-baptize someone was to say there was something wrong with the first baptism.

That usually was reserved for cults or sects or people who broke away from the true church. Heretics would re-baptize. That was saying something, that you rejected the orthodox faith in some way. So there was a real strong – to this day a strong reluctance in these traditional liturgical churches to re-baptize.

Darrell Bock
Now I’m a New Testament guy, so I can’t leave the baptism of John completely alone here. But it’s really a different exercise. Its background gets much discussed, but there were washings in Judaism. At least at some point around the time of John, there was the issue of proselytes who might be baptized, that kind of thing, again, to symbolically show this change of relationship.
Michael Svigel
I know there’s some discussion on the proselyte baptism, and there’s some debate there. But if there was such a thing, you’re talking about a gentile who is going through a ritual washing and now is coming in as an Israelite, someone under the covenant.
Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Michael Svigel
You’ve got a major conversion of that person’s identity.
Darrell Bock
John the Baptist’s baptism is not that.
Michael Svigel
That’s right, ’cause he’s baptizing Jews.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. This is an eschatological preparation for the arrival of the promise of God whereas Christian baptism isn’t anticipating anything. It’s actually an act that declares the fulfillment of something.
Michael Svigel
Sure. But there is a connection, especially at the credal language here where it says “one baptism for the remission of sins.” I have a lot of students that – because for sure we don’t confess that pouring water on somebody or dipping somebody is going to forgive their sins. There’s not a one-to-one mechanical correspondence there. So they’ll balk at that. They’re like, “I like everything else in that creed except that line.”

And I’m like, “Well, that line is actually a Bible verse.” It does come from the Bible’s own description of John’s baptism, the function of that minus the “of repentance.” John’s baptism is described when he’s going around preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism was associated very closely to repentance, and that was a turning away from a sinful lifestyle, like you said, in preparation for the eschatological kingdom, the coming kingdom. But you were at that time then aligning yourself with that which was coming, right?

So I think in that sense it’s very similar in that the Christian who was being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is turning away from this life of sin and this old identity, as we mentioned with the making holy, and aligning themselves with community of the saints, the Messiah. And there is an eschatological aspect to that as well.

So you’re right. It’s not the same exact baptism, but there is a sense of, “We are turning away and being disconnected from our life of sin and entering into a life of holiness,” which is what I think that text means by the forgiveness of sins. It’s a forgiveness in the sense of you were a sinner, now you’re a saint, and you’re living the life of the saint.

Darrell Bock
In the context of John, you’re anticipating the arrival of something, whereas in Christian baptism you’re acknowledging that it has come and that you are now identifying with it. You’re participating in it. You’re a part of the story in many ways.
Michael Svigel
And this is why Paul I think uses this language of new creation already, anyone who is in Christ, a new creation. This is eschatological language right now.
Darrell Bock
Or born again.
Michael Svigel
Born again.
Darrell Bock
Same idea.
Michael Svigel
It’s new covenant/new creation kind of language, exactly right. So there is a connection between John the Baptist and the Christian baptism, which is why I think – so is that text saying that anybody who gets drops of water on them from this magic water baptism automatically has forgiveness? No, it’s much more complicated than that, and it relates to this turning from this lifestyle and these beliefs and entering into this communion of the saints.
Darrell Bock
There’s a passage – I’m gonna see if I can get it up here – in 1 Peter that I think is actually – whenever we get into these conversations with people, this is a passage that I love to turn to because I think it’s so clear what’s going on here when we think about baptism. It’s 1 Peter 3:21.

It says, “And this prefigured baptism – ” It’s the picture of being rescued out of the flood. “And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you – ” And then I love this little side mark. “Not the washing off of physical dirt, but the pledge of a good conscience to God.” What makes baptism significant is not the rite, but the attitude that goes into the rite.

Michael Svigel
Yeah, and I love that. What translation is that?
Darrell Bock
That’s the NET.
Michael Svigel
It’s a great translation. There’s different ways of translating that, but it’s saying baptism itself is a – this is pledge or vow language. You are committing to live a certain way. It’s the baptism of repentance, and the idea is – and I think the imagery there is just as the floods washed away the sinful world and delivered Noah and his family in this new world to start over, in our personal lives baptism is doing the same thing. It’s washing away our old life, and now we who are in Christ, all things have become new. There’s this restarting of the life as a life of holiness.
Darrell Bock
And without getting too technical or too denominational, that’s why it’s important that the person participating in the rite understands what’s going on in the rite that they are participating.
Michael Svigel
In our tradition. Now to be fair, those who were baptized an infant, they always follow it up with catechesis and confirmation. So there is this sense that they are aware of what they’ve been baptized into. We should reverse that I think in my tradition, and we prepare for and then baptize. But, yeah.
Darrell Bock
The point here, to get back to the point you were making, is it’s not that this rite is a magical thing. It’s actually representative of something far more profound that’s already taken place.
Michael Svigel
Correct. Let me just read a great – Basil of Caesarea from around the same time as the Council of Constantinople puts it this way, the relationship between faith and baptism. I can’t get through one of these without reading one of the church fathers, very short.

“Faith is perfected through baptism, baptism is established through faith, and both are completed by the same names, for as we believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, so are we also baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. First comes the confession, introducing us to salvation, and baptism follows, setting the seal upon our ascent.”

I think that’s a great way of putting the two together without conflating the two and saying baptism itself automatically saves apart from confession.

Darrell Bock
And the other thing that’s going on here that we shouldn’t miss is that in the midst of saying it’s one baptism for the remission of sins is to ask the question, well, what is the remission of sins for? In other words, what is it?

So if you come to Romans 6, for example, where the issue of baptism and the picture of washing appears also in Paul, the point that’s being made there is that the water baptism itself actually pictures this transaction of what forgiveness of sins get you. It doesn’t just get you pardon.

Michael Svigel
Get out of hell free.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. But it also cleanses you so that the Spirit can come in and indwell you, and you become a participant in the new covenant promise to which the Bible was always driving.
Michael Svigel
You are then for the rest of your Christian life living out your baptism. You are living in this communion of the saints, having been set apart through baptism. Baptism does that. It isn’t nothing. I liken it to a marriage ceremony. Marriage doesn’t put you in love with your spouse or generate in you this sort of commitment.

It is an outward sign, but we place a very strong emphasis on that sign and the vows that occur there. We don’t ask someone, “Are you committed to your spouse? Do you love your spouse?” We ask, “Are you married? Have you been through the ceremony?”

So we have to be careful that we don’t end up in one of two extremes separating our faith and our confession and our conviction from the water baptism so much that we neglect baptism. But we also have to make sure we don’t conflate the two and collapse the two and think, “All you need to do is be baptized and you’re fine.” Those are extremes.

Darrell Bock
If you remember what it is the sign of and also what forgiveness of sins is about – I say to the students regularly, “You’ve gotta ask the question what forgiveness of sins is for.”
Michael Svigel
You are saved unto something.
Darrell Bock
Exactly right. God is taking you somewhere in that journey. You’re not just checking a box. You’re actually entering into a relationship in which God is providing the capability and the enablement for that relationship.
Michael Svigel
Even the Greek word for forgiveness, a release from. Yeah, we’re released from the guilt of sin, but I think – it may be my doing a play on the words. Maybe there is something essentially contained in that. But it also is a release from the lifestyle of sin, we say. You are being released from the guilt and the power of the sin and the power of the devil and the darkness and the destruction that goes with that. When you through baptism enter into this new covenant community, you are now in a community of life and light and sanctification and the body working together to encourage you to a life of good works.
Darrell Bock
Luke 4 pictures it as a liberation. It’s a release. It’s captives being released. It’s chains coming off.
Michael Svigel
So I think we need a fuller understanding of what baptism and forgiveness really means. Read in that light, we should all be on board with that.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. And I think the other thing that it shows is that, if I can say it this way, Christianity and the gospel is about – it’s not just about the cross, it’s about where the cross takes us. I like to think about the cross as a hub out of which the gospel emerges.

And so when Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God to salvation, he’s talking about the capability that comes out of this work that Jesus has done.

Michael Svigel
Exactly, and this is why baptism, we don’t leave people under the water. It’s a baptism associated with the death as well as the resurrection. We need to emphasize that Christ died for our sins, he rose from the dead, and we are following him in that in our faith and trust into the new life.
Darrell Bock
In fact, I actually visualize this for people when I teach and preach on it. I say, “Now imagine, and I’m gonna be Baptist for a second, I am immersing you.” We only deal with forgiveness of sins and we don’t deal with the new life on the other end. Look at the picture. You go into the water, and you stay there. Since you’re not a fish, that’s not gonna work.

That’s the picture, which also explains – although we’re not gonna develop this now. We’re gonna do that in a separate podcast. It explains why the resurrection is on the other end of the mention of the baptism in the creed, ’cause it’s a natural sequence that we’re talking about in the life to come.

Well, this has been a pretty interesting journey I think through a very small portion of the creed. It almost gets treated like an addendum to the creed when people think about it.

Michael Svigel
It’s very dense and important.
Darrell Bock
It is. Yeah, there’s a lot going on there, and there’s a lot to contemplate as we think about our membership to a much larger community, not just nationally or denominationally, but literally across time, the entirety of what the church is.
Michael Svigel
Yeah, and it should challenge how seriously we take our personal commitment to our local church and our ministry there.
Darrell Bock
As well as to people who belong to other churches and other communities.
Michael Svigel
We realize we’re involved in something bigger than ourselves.
Darrell Bock
It’s transnational. Of course the other side of it is thinking through the baptism side of it, which is this picture of this wonderful cleansing that we’ve experienced, once for all, that also allows the Spirit to indwell us, sets us apart, so that we’re able to serve God with our lives and in the context of our well-being.
Michael Svigel
Sets us on that trajectory of a life of discipleship.
Darrell Bock
Exactly right. Well, Michael, I appreciate you coming in and helping us negotiate our way through this portion of the creed and a little bit of the history. It’s a fascinating journey, and we hope you’re enjoying this walk through the Nicene Creed and that you will join us again soon on The Table. We thank you for being a part of our broadcast.

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