Theology 101

When Words are Worth More than a Picture

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I read an article a while ago that has stuck with me. The author described how, during a conversation with several people, he was asked, “What do you believe?” By his own admission, he struggled to come up with just the right words to describe his faith, and by the time he had something, the moment had passed.

You may have been in a similar situation; I know that I certainly have.  Yet my answer was almost automatic:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. 

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.

Now that may have been more than the questioner was looking for, but it does describe what I believe and what orthodox Christians have believed for over two millennia. (This is the old English version that I memorized as a child and the one I still use—I just like to say “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” A modern English version can be found here.)

In the small, rural south Florida Presbyterian church where I grew up, the Apostles’ Creed was an integral part of our worship service.  Every Sunday, the pastor asked us, “Christian, what do you believe?” And we responded with the Creed. By the time I was five, I knew it by heart—quite an accomplishment for someone so dyslexic that I still have trouble with the order of the alphabet.

The Apostles’ Creed has helped the followers of Christ over the centuries focus on a particular core of beliefs refined from the teachings of the Bible. Historically embraced by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions, “the creed represents the most compelling and formidable statement of Christian doctrine in history,” writes Dr. Albert R. Mohler: 

The church needs to clearly define Christianity in biblical terms, which the Apostles’ Creed succinctly provides to us. The Apostles’ Creed is the most historical and universal summary of the Christian faith in the entire history of the church. It instructs, guides, defends, and enshrines the most important question of all: “What must I do to be saved?”

In our current Christian culture, pragmatic preaching and moralistic therapeutic deism threaten to replace the word of God and the gospel of Christ. Our new worship services have no place for repetitive liturgy—we don’t need creeds, we just need Jesus. Yet we struggle to articulate what it is we believe.

In the Great Commission, Jesus tells his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” As part of their call to follow this commission, the early church developed the Apostles’ Creed as a guide for the church’s three foundational activities:

  • To evangelize—to tell the world the good news of what the church believed;
  • To catechize—to teach new believers what is necessary to live the Christian life; and 
  • To defend—to guard the faith against heresies and false doctrines. 

Today, we need the Apostles’ Creed more than ever, but in our current church culture, there is a tendency to reject words for an emotional experience. Far too often, we see performance-driven worship use imagery to draw us into a higher emotional state. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” after all. 

But there are times where we need words more than we need pictures. As radio newsman Paul Harvey once said:

You say one picture is worth a thousand words? Well, let’s see about that. You give me one thousand words and I’ll give you the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm; and the Hippocratic Oath; and a sonnet by Shakespeare; and the Preamble to the Constitution; and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address; and I’ll still have enough words left over for just about all of the Boy Scout oath. And I wouldn’t trade you those things for any picture on earth.

Christian, what do you believe?

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