In Defense of Creedalism
Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
We live in a non-creedal age. By and large conservative Christians diminish the importance of creeds and confessions of faith. As a matter of fact, many non-creedalists do not simply dismiss creeds as unimportant for maintaining biblical Christianity, they decry them as positively antithetical to it. Such a position is not simply “non-creedal,” but rather “anti-creedal.”
Many factors are at work generating this anti-creedal sentiment today. Among these we may list the following: 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. But at the forefront of the widespread fundamentalist disapprobation of creeds is the fear that the framing of creeds undermines the sufficiency of Scripture. The cry “no creed but the Bible” appears to re-assert the primacy of the Bible in religious affairs in such a way as to totally discredit creedalism.
In one book leveling a critical assault on creedalism we find the following statement: “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 fundamentalist circles. The fundamentalist view of creeds is important for two reasons. Fundamentalism is not only one of the dominant forces in American Christianity today, but is also the spiritual blood-sister of Reformed Christianity. Consequently, conservative Reformed Christians ought to 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 introduce two particular aspects of creedalism: (1) The relation of creed to Scripture, and (2) The function of creeds in Christianity.
At the very outset of the discussion it is imperative to recognize that creedal standards are not independent assertions of truth. Nor are they truth claims on a par with Scripture. Creeds are derived from and subordinate to the Bible. The Bible is the only source and standard of Christian truth since it is the infallible, inerrant Word of the Living God.
Understanding the original meaning of the word “creed” may be helpful for dispelling some anti-creedal concerns. The English word creed is derived from the Latin credo, which simply means: “I believe.” A creed, then, is a statement of faith. As such, a creed 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 creeds¾albeit, brief ones. Anyone who thinks of God in a particular way has “encreeded” a view of God, whether or not he reduces this “creed” to writing. Surely this in no way diminishes the primacy or the centrality of the Bible.
Furthermore, some argue that a creed reduces the authority of the Bible by implying its inadequacy. They ask why we need a creed if we have the Bible. If such a concern were valid, we could argue with equal force that a minister’s sermonic exposition of Christ’s words implies that Christ’s 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.” (WCF 1:4)
“The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion arc 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.” (WCF 1:10)
Furthermore, at WCF 31:3 the Confession speaks of the subordinate authority of all ecclesiastical creeds. Such creedal formulations 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.
Certainly no law in Scripture explicitly commands “Thou shalt frame creeds.” Nevertheless, the impetus and mandate for creeds derives from good and necessary inferences deduced from Scripture. We can demonstrate this in a variety of ways, three of which will suffice for our 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 publicly defining the exact identity of that to which the Christian is witness. Obviously reciting the entire Scripture record at a given opportunity of witness is not possible. 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. 10:10). Hence, the necessity of a creed in defining the content of belief.
Second, mini-creeds are preserved in the biblical record of apostolic Christianity itself. The very seeds of a full-blown creedalism are sown in the apostolic era via terse statements of faith which are widely employed. Perhaps the most familiar of these rudimentary creeds is the recurring one embedded in such texts as Acts 10:36; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; and Philippians 2:11: “Jesus is Lord.” This eminently important statement embodies—“encreeds,” if you will—a particular way of viewing Jesus Christ. It is fundamentally necessary to hold as one’s credo: “I believe Jesus is Lord.”
Third, within the biblical record we find early ecclesiastical assemblies re-casting already known truths to ensure their accurate preservation and transmission. Acts 15 is the locus classicus in this regard. There the Church restates “justification by faith” in response to a Christian-Pharisaic pressure demanding the circumcision of Gentile converts (cf. Acts 15:1).
After noting several such situations in Scripture, nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Bannerman observes: “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 recasting the doctrines of Scripture in a new mold, and exhibiting or explaining it afresh under forms of language and expression more precisely fitted to meet and counteract the error of the times.”
Thus the concept of creedalism is a Scriptural one that in no way diminishes the authority of Scripture or implies its inadequacy.
The above study intimates a variety of creedal functions. The following enumeration and explication of six important functions of creeds will focus on their specifically ecclesiastical functions. Broader socio-cultural implications flow forth from creedalism, but these are beyond the purview of the present study (see: R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order).
First, creeds serve as a basis for ecclesiastical fellowship and labor. Whenever two walk together they must be agreed (Amos 3:3) for a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matt 12.25). Community labors 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 Church 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 Five Point Calvinist will simply never be allowed in its ministry.
Ironically, non-creedalism possesses inherent dangers in that in principle such a position allows almost any doctrine into a church. The anti-creedal quotations in the third paragraph of this study are pious sounding and widely representative of many churches. Unfortunately, the statements are drawn 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 the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s adoption of the same principle (no creed) and the same authority (the Bible), they are unacceptable to orthodox churches. Obviously there is more to orthodoxy than the claim “no creed but the Bible.” And once you go beyond “no creed but the Bible” to probe one’s faith you are thereby establishing a creed, a statement of faith.
Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney aptly comments: “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 cooperation must be adopted, by which those who believe they are truly agreed may stand and work together.” Churches absolutely must provide a formal, public affirmation of their faith so 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. Obviously the sheer volume of the Bible (1,189 chapters containing 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, God commands his people in the Old Testament Shema (Deut 6:4-25) and in the New Testament Great Commission (Matt. 28.19-20) to teach the Bible’s truth to others. This teaching process necessarily deals with fundamental, selected truths at first --- truths such as outlined and organized in a creed.
A growing understanding of the Bible comes only through reading it, systematizing it, studying it, hearing it expounded, and applying it. Nineteenth century Presbyterian theologian A. A. Hodge notes in his defense of creeds: ‘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 a brief expository summation of the teachings of the Bible is acceptable to evangelical Christians, 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 more carefully compiled by several minds. Once a church encourages public teaching of the Word or publishes literature explaining it, that church 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 their accepting 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 a creed of sorts exists.
If a church has any interpretation at all of any part of the Bible that must be held by its officers, then ipso facto it has a creed—even if it is unwritten. But an unwritten creed serving 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. Then appeal can be made to this standard in situations where men are either debarred from entering the ministry or from joining a church, or are forcibly relinquished of their duties or membership on a charge of heresy.
A news article appearing in the November 21, 1980, issue of Christianity Today documents in a slightly different setting the danger of the disavowal of creedal discipline. The article reports 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 notes in passing: “Faculty are not required to sign a doctrinal statement, mostly because of long-standing opposition to creeds.” 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. That immutable faith must be preserved from generation to generation. Creeds that are true to Scripture admirably serve to tie generations of believers together by laying down a specific set of fundamental truths.
The Scriptures carefully instruct the Church to preserve the faith. Hebrews 13:9 warns: “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings.” Paul instructs two early church leaders in this vein. To Timothy he writes: “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). He urges Titus carefully 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 still remains 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; we all must build on the past labors of godly predecessors. The interpreter or group of exegetes who agree with the historic, orthodox interpretations of the past and who find themselves in the mainstream of Christian thought are not suspect. Rather, the one who presents novel deviations from historic Christendom deserves careful scrutiny. Creeds help to preserve the essential core of true Christian faith from generation to generation.
The Apostle Paul expresses his fear that some within the Corinthian church are 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 remarks 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.”
Fifth, creeds offer a witness to the truth to those outside the Church. In many ways the Church is to be the “light of the world” (Matt 5.14). Various methods are available by which to carry the light of the truth into the world. The framing of a well-composed creed is one significant means.
Basically the question which outsiders ask the Church is: “What do you believe?” Non-creedal churches reply: “We believe the Bible.” 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 more searching question: “What do you believe the Bible teaches?”
Creeds witness to the truth to those outside the bounds of the covenant community by: (1) clearly outlining and explicating the fundamental assertions of Christianity; (2) seriously warning against misbelief; (3) vigorously defending the truth from corruptions; (4) boldly witnessing to the unity and order of the Christian system; (5) carefully demonstrating the continuity and immutability of the historic Christian faith; (6) publicly demonstrating the rational, objective content of Christian truth (as against mis-perceptions 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 obviously relates 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. Cults have been called “the unpaid bills of the Church.” Creeds guard against cultic aberrations by clearly providing a proper interpretation of essential truths. The more clearly, systematically, and concisely truth is stated, the less likely people are to stray from it in the fog of deception.
Maintaining 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 John provides 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 early Church: docetism taught that Christ was really not a material person, but only seemed (Gk.: dokeo) to have a material body. We could cite numerous references 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 the internal buffetings from within, creeds are crucial defensive instruments. As Bannerman aptly observes: “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.”
We can produce a strong biblical case in defense of creedalism. Creeds are invaluable instruments of Christian education and discipline. They in no way diminish the authority of Scripture. The decline in creedalism today in conservative Christian circles is lamentable. Anti-creedalism represents not only a literary and historical loss to society and culture, but a spiritual tragedy and doctrinal danger to the Church.
Reformed Christians need to be trained in creedal theology 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:
Sessions should distribute the Westminster Standards to all of their congregational families urging their study. The Christian Education program of local congregations should include the catechizing of children and youth as an on-going function of the church. New member classes should be offered to those seeking membership within Reformed churches. These classes should at least briefly introduce and review the Westminster Standards. 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.
May the Lord bless us to know what we believe so that we might declare it to others. May we as orthodox, Bible-believing Christians regain an appreciation for the biblical and historic utility of creeds.