Christianity 101 The Theology of the Ancient Creeds: Part 8: The Forgotten Articles
When I ask incoming freshmen to list the cardinal doctrines of the faith, there are two they never seem to remember. The Trinity, salvation by faith, the infallibility of Scripture — these they get. They know we must believe that Jesus is God and that He died and rose again. They sometimes remember to mention the Second Coming. What does not occur to them are the creedal doctrines of the holy catholic church and the general Resurrection. I suspect that my students are only too typical of the twenty-first century Christian.
What Is Man?
Here’s another question: What makes man different from the animals? Most children, indeed most adults, will say without blinking: “Man has a soul.” This is incorrect. In fact, Scripture says that animals have, or are, souls. Genesis 1:20 speaks of “the moving creature that hath life,” and the word for life is nephesh, a soul (cf. footnote 1). Furthermore, Ecclesiastes speaks of the “spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth” in contrast to the spirit of man that returns to God (3:21). To be sure, there is a qualitative difference between the spirit of a man and that of the beast; but the mere possession of a soul of some sort is not what Genesis makes the watershed between man and beast. Oddly enough, most people seem to misread or misremember what Genesis actually says about the human soul. Here is the text:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Gen. 2:7)
Notice what Scripture does not say. It does not say that God formed man’s body of the dust, although that would be true enough. It does not say that God formed a body of dust and then placed a soul within it. The text says that God formed man out of dust, from material, chemical substance, and that God then animated the man, made him a “living soul.”1 The implications of this are profound.
Consider this misreading of the Genesis account written by a generally competent storyteller.
Inside of man’s body God put a living soul.
When you love your mother, is it her hands or feet that you love? No, it is something inside of your mother that you love, something that you cannot exactly see or touch. It is her soul that you love ….
Suppose that in an accident you should lose your arm. Would you be gone when your arm is gone? No, you would still be here. Suppose you were to lose your sight and become blind. Would you be gone if your sight were gone? No, though your sight would be gone, you would still be here.2
And if you should lose your head? It is as a physical being that man interacts with this physical world and with those in it. Destroy man’s body and he will be gone … from this world, that is. And do we really want to teach our little children that they don’t love the mother that they can see and touch and hug? The anthropology that Mrs. Vos is describing here is not that of Scripture. It is closer to Neoplatonism or gnosticism.
So, what does make man different from the animals? According to Scripture, man is the image of God.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Gen. 1:26-28).
Each of us bears the image of God differently, yet we each bear it truly. Sin has corrupted that image, but not effaced it (Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9). In Christ that image is restored (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Now, God’s first instructions to man connect his existence as God’s image with his role in the physical creation. It was as the image of God that man was to fill the world, exercise dominion over the lesser creatures, and subdue the earth. In other words, man’s humanity is tied to his existence and labors in this world. His separation from this world is unnatural: it is called death.
The Global Community
God’s first words to Adam and Eve spoke directly to man’s sensual and biological nature. Those words amounted to “have children, have children, have children.” Obviously, God wanted the earth full of people. It takes a large population to run a planet, of course, but God was after more than numbers. Hermits, even billions of them, cannot build a civilization or society. But God’s command aimed at just that: a global community.
God is a community. He is One and Many, a social Being. Therefore, He intends His image for community. It was not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). But the family was only a starting point. Mankind was to spread out across the globe, and in the process, families would join in forming larger communities, all united and interrelated by their love for God and their dedication to the divine mandate. And when at last the earth was full, then the glory would begin.3 These were God’s original expressed and implied intentions for His creation. And these were the intentions Satan sought to thwart in Paradise.
The Glory of God in Redemption
Did Satan succeed? We must say, No. God is still intent on building a global community, a peculiar people who will inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5). This was the promise to Abraham and to David (Gen. 12:3; Rom. 4:13; Ps. 2; 72). This is the clear intent of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20). This is what John saw in the final chapters of the Apocalypse (Rev. 21-22). Indeed, this is the gospel: the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14). The kingdom of heaven has come (Mt. 3; 13).
The Fall, then, did not force God to abandon the goals He had set before mankind; it did, however, place His methods of accomplishing those goals far beyond the reach of human imagination (1 Cor. 2:9).5 Because of the Fall, God now glorifies Himself not merely in creation, but in the much more glorious theme of redemption (buying back the fallen world) through Jesus Christ.6 But we must be clear: the goal of redemption is not the rejection of man or the earth; rather, it is the salvation and restoration of both (Rom. 8): it is the restitution of all things (Ac. 3:21).
The Holy Catholic Church
Some things have changed, however. Normal reproduction has failed us. The flesh produces only flesh (Jn. 3:3-8). The family is fallen and needs redemption. The community that God is creating is not the family, though it includes families. Nor is it a political kingdom, though it will guide and embrace political kingdoms (Rev. 21:24-26; 22:2). Jesus is building a new kind of global community: He calls it His church. He said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:13-19).7
It seems strange that a Christian should actually need to commend the church to other Christians. But that is where we have come. Satan has been busy. So let’s look carefully at some of the things that God says about the New Testament church.
First, the church preaches the gospel. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, by preaching (Rom. 10:17). But preachers, Paul argues, must be sent (vv. 14-15). Sent by whom? By the church. The church is to ordain and commission gospel preachers. Preacher or missionary is not an office a man may take to himself. While the Holy Spirit can use any of us to bring the message of the gospel to a lost soul,8 it is in the context of the ordained preaching and teaching ministry of the church that God works out the salvation9 of His people (1 Cor. 1:18-21; Eph. 4:11-16).
Second, God adds “such as should be saved” to the church (Acts 2:47). We must think of more than the invisible church here. On the day of Pentecost, those who were saved were added to the visible church by baptism and immediately joined in its life and worship (v. 41ff). We read in Hebrews that we are not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (10:25); rather we are to submit to those who have the rule over us (13:17). Christians are to be members of churches.
Third, the church is an organic, Spirit-filled creation. She is the body of Christ. When Paul uses that image in Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12, it is the visible church he has in mind, the church with officers, ordinances, and formal assemblies. Certainly, he speaks to the life of the church beyond those assemblies, but not apart from their pervading influence. It is in the context of the visible church that Christ is growing His body into full maturity (Eph. 4:11-12). To speak pointedly, we do not cut off, say, a finger and leave it on a shelf with the hopes it will live and thrive. Life exists only in the body.
Fourth, it is in the worship of the church that Christ meets with His people and communicates to them His resurrection life. He is present in the preaching of the word and the sacraments (1 Cor. 14:25; 10:16; Rev. 3:20). He is present in the judicial actions of His officers (Mt. 18:15–20). He is present in His members (1 Cor. 12). To walk away from the church is to walk away from Jesus Christ.
The Westminster Confession speaks of the visible church as “the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (XXV:ii). “Ordinary possibility,” the Confession says. Yes, there are exceptions, from the thief on the cross forward.10 But they are exceptions. God normally saves His people in and through the visible church. We may not willfully separate ourselves from it. The Belgic Confession says this:
We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is an assembly of the saved, and apart from which there is no salvation, that no one, of whatever estate and quality he may be, has any right to withdraw himself to live separate from it, but that all together are obligated to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church … (XXVIII).
The church is the Lamb’s wife (Rev. 21:9), the body of Christ (Col. 1:18), the temple of the Spirit (Eph. 2:21–22), the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The church is the holy city, the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), the very thing Abraham was looking for (Heb. 11:10). God will not dispense with her; God will not forget her.
The doctrine of the church, therefore, implies the doctrine of the Resurrection. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Mt. 22:32). Christ will raise His church to life (1 Cor. 15; 1 Thes. 4:13-18). The gates of hell (hades) will not prevail against her.
This was the gospel from the beginning. The first promise of grace in Genesis pointed to the Resurrection (Gen. 3:15). Crushing the serpent’s head, overturning the effects of the Fall, must involve the destruction of sin and death; it must mean resurrection. Eve would be the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20). A spiritual or figurative resurrection will not answer the goal of God in creation or in redemption. God made man of the dust of the ground, and that dust He must raise to glory. No body, no complete man — and Satan wins. It really is that simple.
When history is over, the rational creation will behold a saved world; that is, they will see a church that has inherited the earth. And then the Resurrection will translate that victory into eternal glory: the King and His bride will live happily ever after.
Without the church, without the Resurrection, Satan wins. Or put differently, if we do not insist on “the holy catholic church” and “the Resurrection of the body,” we miss the whole point of what God is doing. We end up with a different gospel. And in our generation, some have done just that. May we not be among them.
1. Later in Scripture the words for soul acquire other meanings so that Christ can sharply distinguish soul from body (Mt. 10:28). But the older meaning is still at times valid. When Scripture tells us that on the day of Pentecost three thousand souls were added to the church, we are to understand three thousand persons, not three thousand disembodied spirits (Ac. 2:41).
2. Catherine Vos, The Child’s Story Bible: Old Testament, Genesis to Ruth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984 rpt.), 20.
3. It is odd how many commentators assume that if Adam had passed his probation, he would have immediately received a glorified body and been taken into heaven. God’s command assumes just the opposite. Adam and his children would have remained on earth, working at their task, until it was complete. Complete glorification lay at the end of the road. Along these lines, see Ransom’s discussion with the Adam of Venus in C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, ch. 17.
4. According to Paul, the promise, “In thee shall nations be blessed,” was the gospel (Gal. 3:8).
5. Tolkien pursues this theme in The Silmarillion with regard to the adversary’s fall: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 17.
6. In Scripture, the Kinsman-Redeemer freed the bride from slavery and redeemed her lands as well. See Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation (np: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), 137–139.
7. Christ does not make this promise to the family or the State.
8. That is, a lost person.
9. Not only their calling and conversion, but their sanctification and perseverance: “In the language of the New Testament salvation is a thing of the past, a thing of the present, and a thing of the future … It is important to observe this, because we are thus taught that ‘salvation’ involves a moral condition which must have begun already, though it will receive its final accomplishment hereafter. Godliness, righteousness, is life, is salvation.” —Lightfoot quoted in Geoffrey B. Wilson 1 Corinthians: A Digest of Reformed Comment (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 26f.
10. The Westminster Confession says of baptism: “Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated” (XXVIII: v).
Topics: Church History, Church, The, Creeds, Theology