In Defense of Creedalism
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is a non-creedal age: by and large conservative Christendom diminishes the importance of creedal symbols. As a matter of fact, many non-creedalists do not simply dismiss creeds as unimportant to the maintenance of Biblical Christianity, they deem them to be positively antithetical to it. Such a position would better be termed ‘anti-creedal’.
Probably many factors are at work forming this preponderance of anti-creedal sentiment today. Among these are: an increasing permeation of society with a relativistic, existential concern for the moment; a loss of a sense of the significance of history; a democratic concern for non-coercion and individual freedom of belief; a pervasive tendency to simplification; as well as other considerations. Probably at the forefront of the widespread fundamentalist disapprobation is the fear that the framing of creeds necessarily undermines the sufficiency of Scripture. The cry ‘no creed but the Bible’ is felt to be a call to re-assert the primacy of the Bible in religious affairs in such a way as to totally discredit creedalism.
In one book which levels a critical assault on creedalism the following statement is made: ‘To arrive at truth we must dismiss religious prejudices from heart to mind. We must let God speak for himself. . . To let God be true means to let God have the say as to what is the truth that sets men free. It means to accept his word, the Bible, as the truth. Our appeal is to the Bible for truth’. The same writer spurns creeds as ‘man-made traditions’, ‘the precepts of men’, and ‘opinions’.
These sentiments well represent many anti-creedalists, especially those within fundamentalism, whose view of creedalism is important because fundamentalism is one of the dominant forces in American Christianity today and the spiritual blood-sister of Reformed Christianity. Consequently it is crucial that conservative Presbyterians have a proper understanding of the status and role of creeds in order to defend the Biblical integrity of their faith. This brief study will give introductory consideration to two particular aspects of creedalism: (1) the relation of creed to Scripture, and (2) the function of creeds.
THE RELATION OF CREED TO SCRIPTURE
It is imperative to recognize at the outset that creedal standards are not independent assertions of truth. They are derived from and subordinate to the Bible as the only source and standard of Christian truth, the infallible, inerrant Word of the Living God.
Actually the word ‘creed’ itself needs to be understood in order to dispel such a concern as is resident in anti-creedal circles. The English word creed is derived from the Latin credo, which simply means I believe. A creed, then, is a statement of faith. And as such it no more diminishes the authority of God’s Word than do statements such as ‘I believe in God’ or ‘I believe in the resurrection of Christ’. As a matter of fact, such statements are creeds, albeit, brief ones.
Anyone who thinks of God in a particular way has ‘encreeded’ a view of God, whether or not this ‘creed’ is put in writing. Surely it cannot be averred that this in any way diminishes the primacy or the centrality of the Bible. Furthermore, if it be argued that a creed reduces the authority of the Bible by implying its inadequacy, then it can be argued with equal force that for a minister to give an exposition of the words of Christ, for instance, likewise carries with it the implication that His words are inadequate as they stand. Such is patently false.
Those who fault Presbyterian subscription to the Westminster Standards (or the subscription of Congregationalists and Baptists to closely related Standards) should be made to realize that the Westminster Confession is self-consciously derived from and subordinate to the Bible. It not only amply demonstrates and vigorously maintains its utter dependence upon Scripture in its opening chapter, but it allows — in fact, encourages!—appeal from itself to its authority, the Bible. Witness paragraphs four and ten from its initial chapter: ‘The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God’. ‘The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture’. Furthermore, at WCF 31.3 mention is made of the actions of church bodies (such as in the framing of creeds) and their relative authority. Such actions are to be heeded only ‘if consonant with the Word of God’. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith, as a proper creed, actually vouchsafes the supreme, unparalleled authority of Scripture.
Although it is true that there is no law in Scripture that explicitly commands ‘Thou shalt frame creeds’, nevertheless, creedalism receives its impetus and mandate from good and necessary inferences deduced from Scripture. This can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. Three of these will suffice for the present purpose.
First, the Biblical call for a public affirmation of faith serves as the prime impetus to creedalism. The essence of Christian duty is to be a witness [Acts 1.8]. This requires a public definition of the exact identity of that to which the Christian is witness. Obviously it is not possible to recite the entire Scriptural record at a given opportunity of witness. Furthermore, only God can look into the hearts of individuals to ascertain their innermost faith [1 Sam 16.7; Luke 16.15]. Thus for others to know of an individual’s personal faith it is necessary to put it into words. ‘With the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation’ [Rom 10.101. Hence, the necessity of a creed which defines the content of belief.
Second, as might be expected in light of the foregoing, mini-creeds are preserved in the Biblical record of apostolic Christianity itself. The very seeds of a full-blown creedalism were sown in the apostolic era via terse statements of faith which were widely employed. Perhaps the most familiar of these rudimentary creeds is the recurring one embedded in such texts as Romans 10.9; 1 Corinthians 12.3; and Philippians 2.11: ‘Jesus is Lord’. This eminently important statement embodied — ‘encreeded’, if you will — a particular way of viewing Jesus Christ. It was fundamentally necessary to hold as one’s credo: ‘I believe Jesus is Lord’.
Third, within the Biblical record is found evidence of early ecclesiastical assemblies re-casting already known truths so as to ensure their accurate preservation and transmission. Acts 15 is the locus classicus in this regard. There the Church was called upon to restate ‘justification by faith’ in response to a Christian-Pharisaic pressure to demand the circumcision of Gentile converts [cf. Acts 15.1]. After noting several such situations in Scripture, 19th-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Bannerman observed: ‘Such, within the age of inspiration itself, are the remarkable examples we have of the necessity, growing out of the circumstances of the Church and its members, that arose at different times for re-casting the doctrines of Scripture in a new mould, and exhibiting or explaining it afresh under forms of language and expression more precisely fitted to meet and counteract the error of the times.”1
Thus it can be clearly demonstrated that the concept of creedalism is a Scriptural one, and that it cannot be construed as to be in any way implying or encouraging the diminution of Scripture in terms of its adequacy or authority.
THE FUNCTION OP CREEDS
Contained within the above study are intimations of the variety of functions of creeds. The following enumeration and explication of six important functions of creeds will focus on their specifically ecclesiastical functions. There are also broader socio-cultural implications that flow forth from creedalism. But these are beyond the purview of the present study.
First, creeds serve as a basis for ecclesiastical fellowship and labour. It is important that when two walk together they be agreed [Amos 3.3], for a ‘house divided against itself cannot stand’ [Matt 12.25]. Community labours are better performed and ‘body life’ is more consistently maintained within that church which possesses a homogeneity of faith. And it is imperative that the particular content of that fundamental faith be known, as in a written creed.
Non-creedal fundamentalism is both internally inconsistent at the theoretical level and seriously endangered at the practical level. Its theoretical inconsistency is manifest in the internal contradiction of the very statement, ‘no creed but the Bible’. This statement itself is a creed. It says, in effect, ‘I believe (credo) in no creed’. That is, ‘My creed is that there be no creed’. Furthermore, this theoretical position is not amenable to practice. Even the notoriously anti-creedal Churches of Christ denomination requires some sort of implied statement of belief from persons seeking positions of authority in its fellowship. A paedo-baptist, or a Calvinist will simply never be found in its ministry.
That non-creedalism possesses inherent danger is evident in that in principle such a position allows almost any doctrine into a church. The quotation contained in the second paragraph of this study, despite its pious sound and its widely representative character, is a citation from Let God Be True, a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The essence of the citation could well be reduced to: ‘No creed but the Bible’. Yet despite their subscription to the same principle and the same authority (the Bible), Jehovah’s Witnesses are deemed unacceptable to orthodox churches. Obviously there is more to orthodoxy than the claim ‘no creed but the Bible’.
Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney aptly commented a century ago: ‘As man’s mind is notoriously fallible, and professed Christians who claim to hold the Scriptures, as they understand them, differ from each other notoriously, some platform for union and co-operation must be adopted, by which those who believe they are truly agreed may stand and work together’.2 It is absolutely essential that churches provide a formal, public affirmation of their faith, so that their members and prospective members may know exactly where they stand. This is the function of a creed.
Second, creeds serve as tools of Christian education. It should be obvious that the sheer volume of the Bible (1189 chapters of over 773,000 words) forbids its full comprehension in a moment and by every Christian — or even by one supremely gifted believer in an entire lifetime. Nevertheless, the Church is commanded in the Old Testament Shema [Deut 6.4-25] and the New Testament Great Commission [Matt 28.19-20] to teach the Bible’s truth to others. This teaching process will necessarily deal with fundamental, selected truths at first, truths such as are outlined and organized in a creed.
A growing understanding of the Scriptures comes only through reading it, systematizing it, studying it, hearing it expounded, and applying it. Presbyterian theologian A. A. Hodge noted in defence of creeds in this regard: ‘While . . . the Scriptures are from God, the understanding of them belongs to the part of men. Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of the Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scripture teaches upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system.’
In short, creeds are simply expository distillations of Scripture. They summarily state the most basic themes of Scripture in order to facilitate education in them. If it be agreed that a brief expository summation of the teachings of the Bible can be given, then creeds are legitimatized in that they fulfil that precise function. In this respect, creeds differ from doctrinal sermons only in being more exact and being carefully compiled by several minds. Once a church encourages public teaching of the Word or publishes literature explaining it, it has in fact made a creedal statement.
Third, creeds provide an objective, concrete standard of church discipline. As noted previously, any church having officers or teachers must require that they accept the standard of belief of that church. The position ‘No creed but the Bible’ cannot and does not serve as a standard in any church. The fact that cultists are debarred from service in orthodox churches illustrates that a creed of sorts exists.
If a particular church has any interpretation at all of any part of the Bible which must be held by its officers then, ipso facto, it has a creed—even if it is unwritten. But an unwritten creed which serves as a standard of discipline in such circumstances is both dishonest and dangerous. Surely it is far more open and honest to have a stable, clearly worded, publicly recognizable standard of belief to which appeal can be made in situations where men are either debarred from entering the ministry or joining a church, or are forcibly relinquished of their duties or membership on a charge of heresy.
A recent news article appearing in the November 21, 1980 issue of Christianity Today documented in a slightly different setting the danger of the disavowel of creedal discipline. It was reported that a particular church-related college had been embroiled in a controversy over a certain teacher’s instruction in a human sexuality course. The reporter perceptively noted in passing: ‘Faculty are not required to sign a doctrinal statement, mostly because of long-standing opposition to “creedalism”.’ The absence of subscription to a creed was a factor complicating the adjudication of that controversy. The voluntary subscription to a creedal standard is an effective tool of church discipline which enhances doctrinal purity by reducing equivocation on fundamental issues.
Fourth, creeds help to preserve the orthodox Christian faith in the ongoing Church. Jude 3 exhorts Christians: ‘Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you earnestly contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’
The system of faith incorporated in the Scriptures, embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ, and revealed in finality by the apostles, is ‘once for all delivered’. It is unchanging and unchangeable. It is that immutable faith which must be preserved from generation to generation. Creeds true to Scripture admirably serve to tie generations of believers together by laying down a specific set of fundamental truths.
The Scriptures are careful to instruct the Church to preserve the faith. Hebrews 13.9 warns: ‘Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings’. Paul gives instruction to two early church leaders in this vein. To Timothy he wrote: ‘Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus’ [2 Tim 1.13]. Titus was urged to be careful to see that an overseer ‘hold fast the faithful word which is in accord with the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict’ [Tit 1.9].
Although the special, direct revelation of God ceased and the corpus of Scripture was finalized in the first century, it was still necessary for the continuing Church to interpret and apply the completed revelation. The interpretation and application of Scripture is a process, not an act. It has required the involvement of many devout men working through many centuries to systematize, compile, and disseminate the fundamental truths of Scripture. The fact that the truth of Scripture is of no ‘private interpretation’ is a foundational principle of creedal theology. No interpreter of Scripture works alone. All must build on the past labours of godly predecessors. It is not the interpreters or groups of exegetes who agree with the historic, orthodox interpretations of the past and who find themselves in the mainstream of Christian thought who are suspect. Rather it is those who present novel deviations from historic Christendom who deserve careful scrutiny. Creeds help to preserve the essential core of true Christian faith from generation to generation.
The Apostle Paul expressed his fear that some within the Corinthian church were in danger of being ‘led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ’ by subtle craftiness [2 Cor 11.3]. The same concern must provoke the Church today to guard the central elements of Christian truth from distortion. In terms of a creed’s function in this regard, A. A. Hodge remarked that the real question is not, as often pretended, ‘between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the individual objector.’3
Fifth, creeds offer a witness to the truth to those outside the Church. There are many senses in which the Church is to be the ‘light of the world’ [Matt 5.14]. There are just as many methods by which it is to carry the light of the truth into the world. The framing of a well-composed creed is one significant way.
Basically the question which outsiders must put to the Church is: ‘What do you believe?’ Non-creedal churches reply, ‘We believe the Bible’. The creedal churches respond further, ‘We believe the Bible, and we have written out exactly what it is that we believe the Bible teaches, which is . . . The primary question, ‘What do you believe?’ (to which the proper response is ‘the Bible’) must be followed up by the searching question: ‘What do you believe the Bible teaches?’
Creeds witness to the truth to those outside the bounds of the covenant community by: clearly outlining and explicating the fundamental assertions of Christianity, seriously warning against misbelief, vigorously defending the truth from corruptions, witnessing to the unity and order of the Christian system, demonstrating the continuity and immutability of the historic Christian faith, showing the rational, objective content of Christian truth (as against misperceptions such as a belief that Christian faith is a mystic, blind leap), and so on.
Sixth, creeds provide a standard by which to judge new teachings arising within the Church. This function is obviously closely related to ideas embodied in several of the above-mentioned functions. But its usefulness in an age prone to cultism deserves separate and especial emphasis. ‘Christian’ cults are a particularly dangerous phenomenon in that they proselytize by appeal to Scripture. A creed is helpful in guarding against cultic aberrations in that it clearly provides a proper interpretation of essential truths. The more clearly, systematically, and concisely truth is stated, the less likely are people to be found straying from it in the fog of deception.
The maintenance of a standard of truth in the Church is in keeping with apostolic example. 1 John 4.1 warns: ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they be of God’. Immediately following this is a specific test point or standard of judgment (creed): ‘Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God’. This credo was formulated in response to a particular error infecting the Church and which threatened to be a growing movement now known as docetism. Numerous references could be cited following the pattern of 1 John 4 [e.g., Gal 1.8, 9; 2 John 10; Rev 2.2; etc.].
Because of the relentless assaults on the Church from without and also the internal buffetings, creeds are crucial defensive instruments. As Bannerman aptly observed: ‘Had the adoption of confessions and creeds not been a duty laid upon the Church by a regard to her own members, it would have been a necessity laid upon the Church by a regard to those not her members, but her enemies.’4
In conclusion, a strong Biblical case can be made in defence of creedalism. Creeds are invaluable instruments of Christian education and discipline and in no way do they diminish the authority of Scripture. The decline in creedalism today in conservative Christian circles is to be lamented. It is not only a literary and historical loss but a spiritual tragedy.
Reformed Christians need to be trained in creedal theology so as to bolster the historic Christian faith against the assaults of relativistic, existential, liberal, and cultic theologies current at this time. Reformed churches could curb the decline of creedalism within their own ranks and within American Christianity in general by several simple actions: (1) Sessions should see that the Westminster Standards are distributed to all of their congregational families and they should urge them to study them. (2) The Christian Education programme of local congregations should include the catechizing of children and youth as an on-going function of the church. (3) (New Members). Classes for starters should be offered to those seeking membership within Reformed churches. These classes should at least briefly introduce and review Westminster Standards. (4) Ministers and Sunday-school teachers should be encouraged to expound the Standards in a systematic way and to illustrate their lessons by reference to the Confessional documents.