A few years ago, a group of out-of-town American Vision supporters wanted to visit the church my wife and I attend and then have us over for dinner at a friend’s house. We often repeat the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed during the service as our Credo — “I believe.”
We don’t know who composed the Apostles’ Creed or when it was written. Some historians place the writing around the 4th or 5th centuries. We know the history of the Nicene Creed and its authors. “The Nicene Creed, also called the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, is a statement of the orthodox faith of the early Christian church in opposition to certain heresies, especially Arianism…. In its present form this creed goes back partially to the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) with additions by the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). It was accepted in its present form at the Council of Chalcedon in 451….”
Both Creeds include the phrase “holy catholic church.” At lunch, one of the visitors was troubled by the phrase “holy catholic church.” In fact, they had never heard of the Apostles’ Creed. Baptists and Presbyterians are familiar with Creeds and Confessions. They are a theological mainstay and recognized as baseline measurements of orthodoxy. In addition to these two creeds (and their differences: descent into hell [AC] and resurrection of the body [AC]/resurrection of the dead [NC]), there are Confessions of Faith that are more complete. Congregational Baptists subscribe to the 1689 Confession of Faith and Presbyterians and related Reformed Denominations (e.g., Church of Scotland) subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1647–1648) as their “subordinate standard.”
As I mentioned, the visitors were not familiar with the Apostle’s Creed. I explained to them that “holy Catholic Church” did not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic means “general.” For example, some Bible translations label the seven epistles of James, Peter (2), John (3), and Jude as “Catholic Epistles” because their audience is not specifically identified when compared to Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, etc. “Eusebius of Caesarea (Historia Ecclesiastica 2.23.25, in the early 4th century AD) was the first person to list these seven letters as ‘the Epistles called Catholic’ or Catholic Epistles.” Today, they are described as the General Epistles.
When it was first published three and a half decades ago, Paradise Restored helped to precipitate a massive paradigm shift in the Evangelical and Reformed world from abject pessimism to unabashed optimism. The reasons are simple enough: this classic work is forthrightly Biblical. It is masterfully written. It is pungently clear. And it is powerfully persuasive.Buy Now
The use of “catholic” in the Apostle’s Creed means “universal.” You can see the change in the Westminster Confession of Faith where the historic text in 25:4 reads “This catholic church” while the revised modern version reads “this universal church.” The result of the question about the use of the word “catholic” in the Apostle’s Creed reminded me that there are millions of Christians who are not familiar with the historic Creeds or Confessions.
On the topic of Eschatology, both creeds state that Jesus will return to judge “the quick and the dead.” The word “quick” means “living.” The metal mercury is also known as “Quicksilver” because of its mobility at room temperature. The phrase appears in the 1941 film All That Money Can Buy (also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster) at the seating of a jury for the trial to determine if the devil (Mr. Scratch) gets the soul of Jabez Stone:
Mr. Scratch: You shall have your trial, Mr. Webster. But I’m sure you’ll agree, this is hardly the case for an ordinary jury.
Daniel Webster: Let it be the quick or the dead, so long as it is an American judge and an American jury!
Mr. Scratch: “The quick or the dead!” You have said it.
The devil seats a jury of twelve dead scoundrels, robbers, murderers, and the traitor Benedict Arnold.
Daniel Webster: A jury of the damned.
Mr. Scratch: Dastards, liars, traitors, knaves. Your suggestion, Mr. Webster — “the quick or the dead.”
Daniel Webster: This is outrageous, I asked for a fair trial…
Mr. Scratch: Americans, all.
But back to the Creeds and Confessions on the topic of eschatology. Other than a future judgment of the living and the dead and the resurrection of the body/dead, and that God’s “kingdom will have no end … and the life of the world to come,” little else is said about eschatology even though there is much more on the topic in the Bible.
The following are two representative examples of other confessional statements where most of the content deals with the consummation and little else in between:
Scots Confession (1560)
We believe that the same Lord Jesus shall visibly return for this Last Judgment as he was seen to ascend. And then, we firmly believe, the time of refreshing and restitution of all things shall come, so that those who from the beginning have suffered violence, injury, and wrong, for righteousness' sake, shall inherit that blessed immortality promised them from the beginning.
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
But Christ will come again to claim his own, and by his coming to destroy the Antichrist, and to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:31). For the dead will rise again (I Thess. 4:14 ff.), and those who on that day (which is unknown to all creatures [Mark 13:32]) will be alive will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye,” and all the faithful will be caught up to meet Christ in the air, so that then they may enter with him into the blessed dwelling-places to live forever (I Cor. 15:51f.). But the unbelievers and ungodly will descend with the devils into hell to burn forever and never to be redeemed from torments (Matt. 25:46).
Gordon Clark writes:
The [Westminster Confession of Faith] has very little to say on Christ’s return. Its last chapter [Chap. 32] gives a relatively full account of the judgment, but only in the last few phrases of Section III is Christ’s return mentioned at all. Yet it would seem that there is more material in the New Testament on this subject than on the identification of the Pope as the antichrist [Chap 25:6]. Historically this lack of balance is understandable; but theologically it is unfortunate. Because the struggle with Rome centered on justification by faith and the sole authority of the Bible, the order of events concomitant with the second advent was not a matter of discussion.
We need to keep Clark’s point in mind that the Protestant Reformation concentrated on the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. “For Martin Luther, the Catholic Church was nothing more or less than Babylon—‘it would be no wonder,’ he wrote in 1520, ‘if God would rain fire and brimstone from heaven and sink Rome into the abyss, as He did Sodom and Gomorrah of old’—and the pope the Antichrist. ‘If he is not,’ Luther exclaimed, ‘then somebody tell me who is!’” Five-hundred years of Protestant anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric concerning prophecy could fill a small library. It taints a great deal of the prophetic material found in the New Testament.
For centuries the Papacy was the unanimous antichrist candidate. The papal system was identified as “both the ‘man of sin’ and the Babylonian whore of which Scripture speaks (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 19). In the conviction of the sixteenth-century Protestants, Rome was the great anti-Christ, and so firmly did this belief become established that it was not until the nineteenth century that it was seriously questioned by evangelicals.”
Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Melanchton, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Tyndale, Bradford, Hooper, Latimer, Cranmer, Wesley, Bengel, and nearly all Protestant denominations tagged the papacy as the antichrist, the Man of Sin, and the Beast(s) of Revelation 13. Chapter 25, section 6, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, concluded in its original formulation that “There is no other Head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ, nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof, but is that antichrist, the man of sin, and Son of Perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” Similar wording can be found in The Savoy Declaration of the Congregational Church, the Baptist Confession of 1689, and in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742).
Because of the Papal emphasis, the post-Reformation Confessions viewed almost all New Testament prophetic texts as a reference to the Papacy since it was the theological enemy of their day as well as the governing and theological governing body of the Roman Catholic Church. That’s why there is almost no discussion of the New Testament’s emphasis on the judgment on Jerusalem, the real subject of what John meant by “antichrists” (1 John 2:18–22; 4:3; 2 John 7), Paul’s “man of sin/lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2), and Revelation’s “great harlot” (Rev. 17–18). Who was “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:7)? Jesus told us who (scribes and pharisees: Matt. 23:1–3) and when (their generation: 23:36):
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your fathers. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape the sentence of hell? Because of this, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and others you will flog in your synagogues and persecute in town after town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all these things will come upon this generation (Matt. 23:29–36).
For a comprehensive study of this passage, see my book Wars and Rumors of Wars.
The thing of it is, most of the Reformers and many who worked on the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms missed the boat. John Lightfoot (1602–1675) is a noted exception. See his four-volume work Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae: Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations upon the Gospels, the Acts, Some Chapters of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and the First Epistle to the Corinthians.
In The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary by Johannes G. Vos, the editor, G.I. Williamson, responded to Vos’s commentary on Question 56: “How is Christ to be exalted in his coming again to judge the world?” Vos argues that the signs in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24) are indicators that “the second coming of Christ is approaching.” Williams adds the following note:
Much as I regret the necessity to disagree with Dr. Vos at this point, I consider it my duty to do so. I believe the text quoted above [Matt. 24:33] refers strictly and only to events that were certain to take place in the first century, in the time of the apostles. Jesus was speaking to living persons. When he said, “ye shall see all these things,” he meant those people to whom he was speaking.”
While the Creeds and Confessions take us so far on the topic of eschatology, so many of the proof texts used to support their arguments are misplaced.
Wars and Rumors of Wars
Skeptics read the Olivet Discourse in the right way, but come to the wrong conclusion. Christian futurists read it the wrong way and come to a different wrong conclusion. Jesus predicted that He would return within the time period of that generation alone. Unfortunately, too many Christians are giving the wrong answer when skeptics claim Jesus was mistaken. Everything Jesus said would happen before that generation passed away did happen.Buy Now
Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1965), pages 268–273.
Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 19.
Samuel J. Cassels, Christ and Antichrist or Jesus of Nazareth Proved to be the Messiah and the Papacy Proved to be the Antichrist (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1846) and Christopher Hill, Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 1–40.
Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 41.
Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G.I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 124.