Book Review:J.I. Packer’s Affirming the Apostles’ Creed

J.I. Packer is one of the most eminent writers and theologians in the Anglican world.  His claim to fame was sealed by his being defrocked by Michael Ingham, the revisionist Bishop of New Westminster whose sanctioning of same-sex blessings predates the American’s ordination of V. Gene Robinson.   It’s one of those things that, if he never did anything else, it’s enough for one life.

But he has done many other things, and one of those is the little book Affirming the Apostles’ Creed.  It’s a step-by-step voyage through the Creed, a statement of faith that on the surface seems universal but in fact has suffered from some neglect, and not only from the revisionist part of the Anglican/Episcopal world, either.

To begin with, the Apostles’ Creed isn’t recited as much as one would think for such a basic statement of faith.  In the traditional Anglican prayer books, it was featured in Morning and Evening Prayer, with the longer and more detailed Nicene Creed (which was not, in reality, formulated at either Council of Nicea) taking pride of place in the Holy Communion, as it does in the Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Missae.  Although that division is not set in stone, making Holy Communion the “default” celebration in TEC didn’t do this Creed’s currency any benefit.

Beyond that is a more yawning chasm: most Evangelical churches don’t even include the Apostles’ Creed as part of their basic declaration of faith.  It’s not technically necessary for millions of Christians to know it, let alone believe it.

Packer–who is definitely from Anglicanism’s Evangelical wing–has furnished an interesting resource to remedy the latter problem.  Affirming the Apostles’ Creed begins with an overview of how the creed came into being, and from there addresses and illuminates each point of the Creed.  His approach is deliberately simple; he tries (with considerable success) to detail the background of the various parts of the Creed.  There’s a fine line between simplification and insulting the reader’s intelligence, and Packer does an admirable job in walking that line.  His exposition of the theology/doctrine behind each phrase actually clarifies what the Creed expresses.  Each chapter has at the end verse references for further Bible study and questions for thought and discussion, so the book is aimed not only for personal reading but group study, either for new converts (more about that later,) or even a confirmation class.

Let me make some observations about some points he makes that may be of more interest to those outside the Anglican world than inside.

First, many Evangelicals have been bothered by the phrase, “the Holy Catholic Church.”  While reviewing both sides of the issue, Packer gives the classic Protestant Anglican reply to this, namely that this phrase refers to “the one worldwide fellowship of believing people whose Head is Christ.”  This has been standard Anglican issue for a long time, although it’s not to the Anglo-Catholics’ taste.

Second, his attitude towards the Charismatic Renewal is, to say the least, ambivalent.  One the one hand, he tells us the following:

The only sure signs are that the Christ of the Bible is acknowledged, trusted, loved for his grace, and served for his glory and that believers actually turn form sin to the life of holiness that is Christ’s image in his people…These are the criteria by which we must judge, for instance, the modern “charismatic renewal” and Christian Science (reaching, perhaps, different verdicts in the two cases.)

On the other hand he has this statement which deserves wider currency:

The evangelical theology of revival, first spelled out in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the present-day emergence of “charismatic renewal” on a worldwide scale remind us of something that Roman Catholic and Protestant disputers, in their concentration on doctrinal truth, tended to miss–namely, that the church must always be open to the immediacy fo the Spirit’s Lordship and that disorderly vigor in a congregation is infinitely preferable to a correct and tidy deadness.

Third, at the start of the book he depreciates evangelistic approaches such as the “Roman Road” type (which is similar but not identical to this)  and presents the Apostles’ Creed as superior for this purpose.  That deserves a better treatment than he gives it.

It’s true that the “Roman Road” approach (and the more elaborate approach such as one sees in Evangelism Explosion) work best in a society where most people have a Christian background.  It’s worth noting, however, the only people who think that this method of presenting the Gospel to be the “end all” for the Christian are those who have a theology of conversion and perseverance of, say, the Southern Baptists.  That’s a distinction that Packer fails to make; he criticises the method without really exploring the theology underlying the idea.

Beyond that, it’s becoming evident that, in a non-Christian society–be it a secular one or dominated by another religion such as Islam–that follow-up and discipleship are as critical a part of the process as basic evangelism.  Packer admits as much by evoking the history of Roman Empire Christianity with its cathecumenate.  The discipleship process is integral to the evangelistic one, and it is here that the Apostles’ Creed, because of its simplicity and conciseness, is potentially a useful part of the process.

With all this and more, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed is an excellent introduction and elucidation of this, Christianity’s most foundation declaration of faith.

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