No Creed but Christ
It might seem odd to people, both in and out of the religious world that there are Christians who oppose Creeds. The English word “creed” derives from the Latin: credo for I believe and credimus for we believe. Many feel that creeds serve a very valuable purpose. In this lesson I want to examine some of the defenses that are put forth among men in defending creeds, creed books and confessions.
They Preserve Unity?
The argument is that creeds served an important role in stabilizing the early Christian church. Initially used to teach beliefs to new converts, they soon served other purposes, such as showing the boundaries between real believers and those who adhered to false teachings. Questions were used to prepare believers for baptism. In addition, the creeds guarded against heresy by clearly stating the church's beliefs. Thus, formal statements of belief were viewed as being necessary to guard the church against error and preserve unity among believers. In fact, this type of reasoning also changed some other things as well. The false doctrine of Gnosticism reached the height of its influence in the second half of the second century yet after that it declined. Unfortunately, this threat to the church moved some professed Christians of the time to make changes to the church that Jesus established. One major change was bringing local congregations under the control of a single “bishop”. “Ignatius of Antioch while on his way to martyrdom at Rome wrote several letters mostly to the churches of Asia Minor, about 115 A.D. His letters show the churches threatened by false doctrines and the resulting division.His solution was to bring all of the congregational life under the authority of one bishop over each church” (Everett Ferguson, Church History; Early and Medieval, p. 11). Of course the problem is that this violates clear passages in Scripture. In the Bible, the terms bishops, elders, overseers or pastors all referred to the same office (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:17,28), and each congregation had a plurality of elders or bishops (not just one) (Philippians 1:1). Finally, this human plan did not work. Apostasy still came upon the church (2 Timothy 4:2-4). The world contains many creeds and a lot of religious error. Jesus’ answer for unity was not greater organizational structure in the church and neither was it creeds and confessions, rather it was belief in the writings of the apostles (John 17:20-21) and the right attitude (Ephesians 4:1-3). The Catholic church has an intense authority structure and many creeds, and such has not produced unity. There is religious division in Catholicism over various essential Catholic doctrines, such as the infallibility of the Catholic hierarchy, celibacy among the clergy, divorce, and the ordination of women. “As for birth control, which was prohibited by Pope Paul VI, the majority of Catholics today ignore the prohibition. This is undeniable” (Tony Coffey, Answers to Questions Catholics Are Asking, p. 121).
They Protect us from Error?
McClintock and Strong note three purposes or categories that creeds tend to represent: 1. To secure the renunciation of Judaism and Paganism, 2. To exclude those from the Church who had made shipwreck of the faith; 3. To promote peace, by obliging Christians differing considerably in non-essentials to form themselves into distinct religious societies (Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Volume 2, p. 559). “The creed provides a test of orthodoxy to be used in such areas where actual authority exists” (Olson, p. 38). “In like manner, a creed saves the Christian community from lawlessness. It provides a thought out norm within which the lines of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are measured” (p. 40). There are a couple of problems with this point of view:
The Bible was written as an all sufficient protection against error (Psalm 119:105; Jude 3).
Creeds did not protect the church from error, in fact, they were composed in the midst of error, and have often been used to spread error, i.e., doctrinal confessions that promote Calvinism.
No creed covers all the doctrinal bases.
There are many creeds that one could believe and yet still be a false teacher. For example, one can be correct about the nature of Christ, or the Godhead, or baptism and still teach error (1 Timothy 4:1-3; Galatians 1:6-9). People need to remember that doctrinal soundness is not found in being right about a single issue or a couple of issues, rather, what a Christian needs to believe is the entire teachings of Christ (James 2:10; 2 John 9). The only creed that can actually sum up everything that the New Testament teaches is the New Testament itself (John 17:17). The false teachers we encounter in the Bible were not necessary wrong about everything the Bible taught, or wrong just about the fundamentals, sometimes they were wrong about just a couple of doctrines (Galatians 5:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:18). One assumption behind creeds is that the Bible is filled with essentials and non-essentials and that man can make a bare minimum list of the doctrines in the Bible that one must believe in order to go to heaven – and everything else is optional. Yet “All Scripture is inspired of God” (2 Timothy 3:16), and everything in it is essential.
“For the record, it should be noted that Olson admits that creeds can be undermined; he said, ‘A creed is not the solution to doctrinal questions nor does it end theological controversies. A creed does not guarantee orthodoxy in any group; it merely publishes what the organization considers to be of sound doctrine. In fact, some church bodies which today would deny the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of the Scriptures, and who classify the Bible story of creation as a myth, have official doctrinal statements which would be acceptable in the most evangelical circles’ (Arnold T. Olson, head of the Evangelical Free Church of America; This We Believe: The Background and Exposition of the Doctrinal Statement of the Evangelical Free Church of America, Free Church Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota: 1961, p. 42). If creeds cannot produce uniformity then we should not introduce such an argument against accepting the Bible as our sole religious standard” (In Defense of Creeds, Roland Worth Jr., Truth Magazine XXII: 31, pp. 506-508, August 10, 1978).
They Make the Issue Clearer?
The Nicaean council came up with this creedal statement: “One Lord, Jesus Christ… very God of very God, begotten not made, consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, by whom all things were made”. History records that this creedal statement did not make the issue surrounding the Deity of Christ any clearer, for: few seemed to know that homoousios (consubstantial) really meant, and debate continued. “Instead of settling the issue the council of Nicaea and its creed fanned the flames of discussion, and the real controversy came in the remainder of the century. In addition to the dogmatic question about the Trinity the issue was complicated by the political aspect of imperial involvement (for the Church had tacitly accepted the right of a Christian emperor to take a guiding hand in ecclesiastical affairs. Constantine’s successors were less cautious than he had been and took a more active hand in church affairs” (Everett Ferguson, Church History, Early and Medieval, p. 42). The mistaken idea regarding creeds is that the Bible is too complicated and needs therefore to be broken down into simple statements the common man can believe, and yet plain verses such as John 1:1 or Hebrews 1:3 are easier to understand than the Nicaean Creed. The mere existence of a Creed is in fact an indictment against God and His word, for the presence of a Creed essentially says that man can explain truth better than the Holy Spirit can (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Ephesians 3:4).
They are Necessary to Work out and Explain the finer points of Theology?
The idea is that as Christianity wrestled with the implications of doctrine, such as the nature of Christ, its developing theology required more complex formulations. We first need to note that “Christian theology” did not develop. The truth is the apostles did not invent and develop theological ideas, rather they simply delivered God’s truth, just as the prophets had in the Old Testament (2 Peter 1:21). For example, there is no development in the New Testament concerning who Jesus is, from the very outset He is clearly referred to by the title “God” (John 1:1). There is equally no development of the doctrine of baptism. From beginning to end (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21), baptism is for believers, and is a burial in water for the purpose of being saved. One example of how creeds do not make anything clearer is that Mclintock and Strong note the Protestant position on the authority of creeds, “The creed may be norma doctrinae (standard of doctrine), but that the Bible alone is norma fidei (rule of faith)” (p. 559). How does that clear things up? The truth is that “the faith” (Jude 3) and the “doctrine” are the same thing (2 John 9).
The Bible is Filled with Early Creedal Statements?
Various writers in the attempt to justify the formation of creeds put together by fallible men have sought to argue that the Bible is filled with early creeds, such as, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Yet the Holy Spirit is not commenting upon a verse here or a collection of verses, neither is the Holy Spirit summing up what the majority of Christians at the time believed, rather, God is simply giving us the truth. No vote was taken, there was no meeting or conference before 1 Timothy 2:5 was spoken. It is simply the Word of God revealed through Paul without any human opinion (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Corinthians 14:37). Thus, this is not some church council decision imbedded in the text of Scripture, rather this verse is inspired of God.
Every One Has a Creed?
“Everyone has a creed of some sort. He has a conviction even if it be that he has no creed!” (Arnold T. Olson, p. 23). It is true that many people adhere to a written or unwritten creed, but we are not talking about what “most people do”, we are asking, “What glorifies God most?” The only creed that the Christian need adhere to is the Word of God. God is not looking for people to come to the right knowledge of a certain creed, but rather to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), and the truth is everything that Jesus taught (John 16:13). Finally, Olson writes, an unwillingness to commit oneself to a creed indicates an unwillingness to be committed. “Through the centuries the very idea of a creed has been under attack. This is an age of emphasis on freedom and freedom from conscience. It is a time when strong convictions are considered reactionary. Theology is taught on a cafeteria basis. 'Here it is, take what you like, leave the rest.' It is a period when men refuse to commit themselves. The example set by the teachers of our universities in refusing to commit themselves through the loyalty oaths is reflected more and more by the graduates in refusing to commit themselves positively to a statement of faith” (p. 17). I agree, ours is an age where people want to pick and choose what to believe, but a human creed or confession of faith is often exactly that, that is, what group of religious people think are the important things to believe in.