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From Sola Scriptura to Liturgy

Do creeds and the supremacy of Scripture inherently conflict?
Many Christians—including us Baptists—believe that holding to the doctrine of sola Scriptura carries with it a necessary opposition to liturgy, such as reciting creeds, following the liturgical year, and reading from a lectionary.

After all, if the Bible doesn’t tell us that we need to do these things, what justification could there be? Although I would never make anyone or any church adopt these practices in their personal or church life, I would like to demonstrate that holding to sola Scriptura does not necessarily imply any opposition to these liturgical components. In fact, I will try to demonstrate the following three items: 1) that the New Testament gospel—that is, the gospel as it is related in the New Testament—is virtually identical to the Apostles’ Creed; 2) that the liturgical year can be understood as a walk-through of the Apostles’ Creed; and 3) that the lectionary is a complementary tool to the liturgical year for choosing suitable texts for each Sunday’s theme. That is, these “non-biblical” elements are three ways of reinforcing our understanding of the gospel, and thus justifies their use, both at a personal as well as at a church level.1

THE NEW TESTAMENT GOSPEL

The gospel2—like any other message—can be recounted briefly or in a more extended fashion. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of an accordion: it can open and close according to the intentions and purposes of the musician, thereby hiding and making visible certain “unnecessary” parts, but it always continues to be the same accordion. Thus it is with the gospel: it can be summarized very briefly—like Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4—or it take up entire books of the Bible—such as Romans, for example—or even the Bible itself (we won’t even talk about the secondary literature on the topic!).

For the sake of this article, I will avoid these two extremes, and open the accordion halfway, such that all of the essential elements of the gospel are present, but without making visible all of its nuances and details. To achieve this end, the most logical thing to do is to gather all of the New Testament texts that speak—directly or indirectly—of the gospel, compare them with each other, and see which topics repeatedly occur. Other scholars, such as C. H. Dodd and Donald Selby for example, have already done the hard work, and we can simply reap the benefits of their labor. There are some 65 texts that speak about the gospel. For those who are interested, in the following paragraph I provide the biblical references; for those who aren’t, they can skip it without fear of getting lost.

When we compare these 65 texts with each other, we see the following six themes appear frequently: 1) Old Testament prophecies, or the Creator God in general; 2) the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus; 3) by virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God as Lord, Christ, and Son of God; 4) the Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ’s current power and glory; 5) Jesus will return as Judge and Savior; 6) a call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of salvation. What we have in these six themes, therefore, is a general and basic outline of the gospel in its totality.

Before continuing further, and as a half-parenthetical thought, I would like to call the readers’ attention to the fact that the New Testament gospel was a Trinitarian message: it began with the Father as Creator, it focused on the Son as the Redeemer, and it finished with the Spirit as the Giver of life. Unfortunately, various Protestant denominations tend to focus on one member of the Trinity at the cost of the other two, and thus distort the fullness of the gospel message. It is essential that we recover the Trinitarian shape of the gospel in our churches today.

THE NEW TESTAMENT GOSPEL AND THE APOSTLES’ CREED

Perhaps not all of the readers know the Apostles’ Creed, and so I will reproduce it here:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”3

various Protestant denominations tend to focus on one member of the Trinity at the cost of the other two, and thus distort the fullness of the Gospel message.

Now for the interesting part. When we compare the New Testament gospel with the Apostles’ Creed, we can see an incredible overlap between the two. Just as there were six basic themes to the gospel that we saw above, the Apostles’ Creed can be divided into six corresponding topics: 1) The gospel begins with Old Testament prophecies or the Creator God in general, and the Apostles’ Creed beings with the phrase: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” 2) The gospel continues with the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the Apostles’ Creed also continues with the phrase: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.” 3) The gospel continues with the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, and the Apostles’ Creed continues likewise with the phrase: “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” 4) The gospel continues with the second coming of Jesus as Judge and Savior, and the Apostles’ Creed also contains the phrase: “and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” 5) The gospel continues with the Holy Spirit and his presence in the Church, and the Apostles’ Creed also contains the phrase: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.” 6) Finally, the gospel ends with a call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and of the promise of salvation, and the Apostles’ Creed also ends with the phrase “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

I think it is easy to see that there is a comprehensive correspondence between the New Testament gospel and the Apostles’ Creed. All of the elements found in the first also appear in the second, and there is nothing left over in either of them. As John Calvin said of the Apostles’ Creed in §20 of his 1537 Catechism: “It contains no human doctrine. On the contrary it is a collection of very certain testimonies of the Scripture.”4 That is, one is completely justified in claiming that the Apostles’ Creed is a systematic summary of the New Testament gospel, which is its primary contribution to the church: to summarize, systematize, and reinforce the content of the gospel in its totality.

THE NEW TESTAMENT GOSPEL AND THE LITURGICAL YEAR

Once again, perhaps not all of the readers know the liturgical year, so I provide here a brief outline of its “backbone,” from Advent (Nov/Dec) to Pentecost (May/June). The liturgical year beings with the season of Advent in which God is preparing his people for the arrival of his Son, our Savior. Then follows the Christmas season in which the Son is born, and his identity is made known: Jesus. Then comes Epiphany in which Jesus is recognized by the Magi, baptized, and begins his public ministry. Epiphany reaches its climax in the tenth week with the celebration of the Transfiguration. After this comes Lent, in which Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and his inevitable death. Lent reaches its climax—actually its own season—in the seventh week with Holy Week. Then follows Easter season in which Jesus is raised from the dead, prepares his disciples for the coming of the Spirit, and the formation of the Church. (Many traditions also celebrate Holy Trinity the following week, but this functions more as a theological appendix to the rest of the liturgical year.)

It contains no human doctrine. On the contrary it is a collection of very certain testimonies of the Scripture.
John Calvin

Once again, I hope the readers can see the impressive correspondence between the New Testament gospel and the liturgical year. 1) The gospel begins with Old Testament prophecies or the Creator God in general, and the liturgical year beings with Advent in which God is preparing his people for the arrival of his Son, our Savior. 2) The gospel continues with the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the liturgical year continues with Epiphany and Lent in which we celebrate the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus, with his resurrection awaiting us in the following season. 3) The gospel continues with the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, and the liturgical year also continues with Easter season in which we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. 4) The gospel continues with the second coming of Jesus as Judge and Savior. There is no parallel with the liturgical year at this point, but there are some parallels in two important components that churches celebrate weekly: the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (“may your Kingdom come”) and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (“you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”). 5) The gospel continues with the Holy Spirit and his presence in the Church, and the liturgical year continues with Pentecost in which we celebrate the coming of the Spirit and the formation of the Church. 6) Finally, the gospel ends with a call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of salvation. Once again, there is no parallel with the liturgical year at this point, but every Sunday the Church should be calling people to repentance and faith, and offering them forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, and the promise of salvation.

In this case, the overlap between the New Testament gospel is not as direct, but it is still quite impressive. Therefore, I would like to suggest that the liturgical year is a tool that churches can use to deepen their awareness of the various gospel themes. Leaving aside for the moment the idea of the liturgical year, let’s imagine a pastor who is deeply committed to sola Scriptura and who begins a series of messages on the gospel that begins in November and ends in June. In this series, he speaks of the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, of the birth of Christ, his teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Spirit. This is a very believable scenario, isn’t it? If this is easy for us to think about, what can be said against the liturgical year? Allow me to repeat that my intention is not to force anyone to adopt the liturgical year for their church, but rather to demonstrate that the concept is not against sola Scriptura.

THE NEW TESTAMENT GOSPEL AND THE LECTIONARY

Briefly, a lectionary is a selection of texts chosen from the Bible which are read publicly during the church service and which complement the liturgical year. Thus, for example, during Advent season, texts that speak about God’s promise to send his Messiah are read; during Epiphany, texts about how Jesus wants us to live are read; during Lent, texts of repentance are read, etc. That is, the liturgical year and its accompanying lectionary go hand-in-hand, and if previously we have succeeded in justifying the presence of the liturgical year, then we have succeeded in justifying the lectionary as well.

At any rate, it is a shame that so many Baptist churches have stopped reading the Bible during the church service, and thus people can live for years —perhaps even their entire lives— without listening to some parts of the Bible. Just as expository preaching is a way of displaying all of the contents of a single book, a good lectionary displays a large part of all the contents of the Bible.

In summary, I have tried to show that the New Testament gospel has some six fundamental themes, and that these are present in the Apostles’ Creed, the liturgical year, and the lectionary. Therefore, what we have in these “liturgical” components can be understood as tools to help us deepen our awareness of the various gospel themes. I have said, and will say again, that the goal I have is not to force any person, church, or denomination to incorporate these elements into their personal or church life, but rather to counter the erroneous conception that these elements are not “biblical.” We all need help in remembering the gospel, and these elements can offer us a good place to start.5


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Center for Baptist Renewal March 24, 2020. Used with permission.


1. This article is a translation of a work I originally published in Spanish at casareinayvalera.com. It has been modified only slightly in a few places.

2. Much of what is found in sections 2 and 3 have been explained more in depth in my “The Apostolic Kerygma and the Apostles’ Creed: A Study in Compatibility,” SVTQ 62 no 4 (2018): 373-381. Of the 65 texts referenced in this section, 15 are direct texts — Acts 2:4–40; 3:12–26; 4:8–12; 5:20–42; 7:2–60; 10:34–43; 13:16–41, 46; 14:15–17; 16:31; 17:22–31; 22:1–21; 24:10–21; 26:2–27; Rom 1:1–6; 1 Cor 15:1–11. The other 50 are indirect texts: Acts 4:1–2, 24–30, 33–35; 5:42; 6:12–14; 8:5, 12, 31–37; 9:19–22; 11:20; 14:21–23; 15:7–11, 13–21; 17:2–3, 7; 18:5, 28; 19:4, 8, 26; 20:18–35; 23:6; 24:24–25; 25:19; 28:17–28; Rom 1:16; 2:16; 10:8–9, 17; 15:19; 16:25–26; 1 Cor 1:17–18, 23–24; 2:2–5; 2 Cor 1:18–19; 4:4–14; 5:11–21; Gal 2:14–21; 3:1, 8–12; Eph 3:8–12; 6:19; Phil 1:18; Col 1:4–5, 21–23; 2:6–15; 1 Thess 1:5, 9–10; 2:13–15; 1 Tim 3:16; 2 Tim 1:8, 12; 2:2–13; Tit 1:1–3; 1 Pet 1:10–12.

3. From the English Language Liturgical Consultation; available on Wikipedia.

4. Translation from volume 1 of James Dennison (ed.), Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 371.

5. This article is a translation of a work I originally published in Spanish at casareinayvalera.com. It has been modified only slightly in a few places.

About the Author

Andrew Messmer and his wife Lindsey serve in Madrid, Spain with their children Sofia, Lucas, Zoe, and Eva. They focus on church planting and theological education. Learn more about their ministry.

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