Over the past two years, while pastoring at Tauranga Central Baptist Church, I have had the privilege of baptising seven teenagers and young adults. I have struggled with the question of the amount and type of teaching that should take place before believers are baptised, especially those who have not been raised in church-going families.
I recently read some letters by Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the great missionary to Asia. Before baptising new believers, he made sure that they were exposed to the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. This caused me to begin memorising, meditating on and studying the Apostles’ Creed. My main textbook was a series of lectures on the creed given by Karl Barth (Dogmatics in Outline) to German theology students at the end of 1945 when their country was in ruins. This book profoundly impacted my understanding of the importance and power of passing on this specific teaching (the Creed) of the early church to a lost and hopeless generation.
My study resulted in calling together nine young people (aged fourteen to thirty-two) for a two day pre/post baptism camp before our next baptism service. Five of the nine had been baptised already and two were due to be baptised. Also on the camp were three parents (including myself) and five grandparents. The goal of the camp was to learn and understand the Apostles’ Creed.
The Apostles’ Creed is traditionally divided into twelve statements (equal to the number of apostles). It is the oldest and simplest of the early church creeds and has been translated from the original Latin into many languages.
We started with four inter-generational groups who were given the task of miming out each line of the Creed (English translation). Putting the statement in bodily gestures gave both memory and understanding as well as much hilarity. Questions and discussion rose naturally in the small groups as well as in the larger group as we allowed each group to lead us through the Creed prompted by their mime. For me, the major highlight of the exercise was seeing the freedom of inter-generational sharing around these deep theological truths. This was enhanced by the Catholic background of four of the participants. Another highlight was that two of the young people had very limited reading skills but were not handicapped as this was a totally oral exercise.
On the next day we took a four hour hike through the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park from Whakamarama to Ngamuwahine. Along the route I had hidden the twelve statements of the Creed (this time in Latin). The young people hurried to be the first to locate the next statement helped by clues like, “under large rock at other side of next river crossing.” As a group, they then translated each Latin word based on their miming from the day before. Once again, spontaneous questions and discussion broke out. I managed to chant the Latin with the group chorusing the English translation after each phrase. We must have been quite a sight for the armed deer stalkers we kept encountering. Our New Zealand bush is a fantastic classroom to build lifelong spiritual and intellectual foundations!
The next day’s Sunday baptism service had for me, and I hope for all of those who had been on the camp, a deeper richness when these words were spoken: "We baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Our focus was not on the believer, but on who and what they were believing in.
Shortly after our camp I was visiting a young man who claimed that he wanted to be baptised, even though he had not really made a personal commitment. I shared the Apostles’ Creed over several visits resulting in him saying that he did not believe in the virgin birth and wasn’t sure about hell. As he walked me to the door he suddenly said, “But I want to believe. What can I do?” When I suggested that he pray for help he made a beautiful spontaneous prayer committing himself to Jesus, stating what he struggled with and trusting in God’s grace.
I have copied out the Apostles' Creed below in both English and Latin. I think the Latin is important for three reasons. Firstly, it emphasises both the international basis and the age of the church dating right back to the Roman empire. This is critical in a culture where faith is portrayed as a present time, individual experience. Secondly, it avoids any misunderstanding through translation. Finally, it is not that difficult to comprehend as most of the Latin words are related to English words and it is a good tool for meditation as we think about the meaning of each word.
Some modern Protestants struggle with a couple of points in the Creed, especially point seven about Jesus descending into hell and point nine using the words "Catholic church." Whatever we understand or don’t understand about hell, the use of the creed allows us to discuss it during discipleship. I like to advise people to read C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Great Divorce, which uses the subject of heaven and hell to help us to understand what grace is really about. Belief means trust, not total understanding. The use of the word Catholic reminds us that there is only one true church; not Baptist, not Roman Catholic, not any particular denomination. Catholic in this context simply means universal. Baptism is a public statement of our commitment to following Jesus, not our commitment to a particular denomination.
My experience in using the Apostles' Creed is that it forces me to stick to and cover all the basics. It does not require any pamphlet, video or emotional hype and I carry it with me wherever I go. Maybe it’s time for more of us to get back to the Creed.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried;
passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,
He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead.
descendit ad inferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Almighty Father.
ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Patris omnipotentis,
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
Inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
Sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Mark is an educator/linguist currently freelancing from Tauranga.
Photo Credit: Pearl/lightstock.com