Question: How come the ecumenical creeds don’t say anything about the life of Jesus between his birth and his death?
Frank answers: For the general reader: The ecumenical creeds in Western Christianity are the Nicene Creed (shared also with the Eastern Orthodox Churches), the Apostles’ Creed, the so-called Athanasian Creed, and some might include the great hymn Te Deum laudamus (“We praise you, O God”).
The simple answer to the question is that the creeds address issues that were controverted in church history and state what is essential to our salvation. Certainly aspects of the life of Jesus were controverted. Gnostic gospels (like the gospels of Thomas, Peter, and, more recently, Judas) presented a somewhat different story of Jesus than the canonical gospels. But the story of Jesus was settled by canonizing the gospels that we have in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Including these four gospels in the biblical canon means the Church regards them as reliable. The same ecumenical councils that worked on and finalized the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed (in 325, 381) also worked on and finalized the biblical canon. As far as what was important about Jesus “for us and for our salvation,” all three ecumenical Creeds focus on the incarnation in the Virgin Mary, the human birth of the Son of God, his suffering and death, resurrection and ascension, and promise to come again.
The fact that the creeds don’t say anything about the ministry of Jesus could lead some Christians to think that it is unimportant, or even draw wrong conclusions about Jesus’s ministry. We’ve all heard ideas about the significance of Jesus: that he was a spiritual teacher, a great prophet, an apocalyptic revolutionary. These are ideas about the man Jesus of Nazareth that are divorced from what the Creed emphasizes: his virgin birth, cross, resurrection, and ascension. So what’s the connection between Jesus’s ministry and teachings, as told in the gospels, and his birth and death, resurrection and ascension?
In the light of the wild variety of ideas coming from New Testament scholars, especially those who participated in the Jesus Seminar, maybe we need something in the creeds like, “He was baptized by John and inaugurated the kingdom of God” (although no one on their own should add anything to an ecumenical text!). This would bring into Christian consciousness the main thing about the teachings of Jesus in the parables and the miraculous signs he performed such as the healings and exorcisms. He was inaugurating the kingdom of God and pushing back the powers that resisted it. But by not focusing on Jesus’ teachings and miracles the creeds are saying that it’s not enough to regard Jesus as a sage and a wonder worker. There were plenty of those in the Old Testament. What’s different about Jesus?
Well, quite simply, as the creeds state, Jesus was not only “true man” but also “true God.” So when the gospels tell the story of Jesus inaugurating the kingdom of God, they are really saying that God has come among us in Jesus the Christ to inaugurate his kingdom. “His kingdom will have no end,” declares the Nicene Creed.
The gospels are also about prophecy fulfillment. They show that in Jesus the messianic King of Israel has come to his people and has opened his kingdom to all believers. How is this connected with Jesus’ birth and death? Well, wasn’t he born in Bethlehem of the house and lineage of David? Didn’t Pontius Pilate affix on the cross the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”? How is this related to the resurrection and ascension? Isn’t the resurrection the story of his arising from death and hell in triumph? Isn’t the ascension about his enthronement in heaven? The creed affirms the royal aspects of the One who taught about the kingdom of God, advanced it in his healings and exorcisms, and inaugurated it in his death and resurrection. The Creeds emphasize what is most important about the life and work of Jesus in the Gospels. The Gospels and the Creeds need to be held together by us as they were in the ecumenical councils.
Pastor Frank Senn
Note: Since the important thing in the Gospels and the Creeds is what Jesus did “for us and for our salvation,” I have chosen two Native American (Crow) paintings of Jesus’ birth and death. This gospel message is received by all people who make it their own by means of their cultural expressions.