Creeds, Confessions and Criticisms
It is customary to speak both of creeds and also of confessions of faith. Both of these are related but there are significant differences.
'Creed' is a wide and general document which shuns anything that implies denominational or sectarian interest. It desires to be a 'summary of universal Christian beliefs'. Put in its most extravagant form it desires to express what has 'always been believed, everywhere and by everyone'. Hence the Apostles' Creed expresses the general agreement in historic Christendom over a limited number of theological issues.
'Confession of faith' is a much more detailed and denominational document explaining the beliefs of Protestants in the church divisions of the Reformation. Hence we have Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist Confessions of Faith. A confession defines the group who confess.
Whatever the differences between the two types of doctrinal assertion they do have this in common: they both focus on doctrine. Not surprisingly, creeds and confessions have had their critics.
Types of Objector
Among the opponents of creeds and confessions are three types of objector who deserve particular note.
1. The Anti-Theology School
We have a tendency to say that this is not a particularly theological age and that estimate is no doubt correct. However, in the last century in his History of England Froude wrote that although 'God gave the gospel it was the father of lies' who invented theology. Those who share Froude's low view of theology are unlikely to have much time for the demand for doctrinal statements of any sort.
2. The Free-Thinkers
It is not surprising to find Rudolf Bultmann, J.A.T. Robinson and Paul Tillich among the great critics of creeds. Such free-thinking 'theologians' had little time for the relevance or validity of doctrinal statement. Tillich could say:
Since no single system of thought can encompass the reality of God, theology can never be final. It must always be in process and correction. God remains above and beyond all formulations in theology, including the formulations of the Bible itself.
Free-thinkers, who are not bound by the Bible, are not going to give much support to any theological definitions of the teaching of the Bible on any issue. Anti-credalism is an essential part of their thinking.
3. The Strict ‘Biblicist'
Within the evangelical churches, opposition to doctrinal statements is more likely to come from the strict 'Biblicist’. Such people are doubtful about the validity of any human formulations of the faith and want to hold the ‘Bible only’ as their creed. To those who claim that ‘we all worship one God, love one Saviour and believe one Bible’ any creedal statement is an inconvenient manmade intrusion.
Some Objections Considered
1. 'We need No Other Creed than the Bible'
At first sight this objection seems powerful and orthodox. We need to acknowledge the measure of truth it contains.
For the only infallible word we possess, and demanding for that reason unreserved and wholehearted commitment, is the Word of God deposited for us in the Scriptures. All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). Whenever any humanly-framed document is accorded the place that Scripture occupies then we have committed the sin of idolatry. So wrote John Murray.
However, the Bible undefined and uninterpreted is the Bible meaning anything and everything, and therefore nothing. Take this statement from a church constitution which the author has seen: 'We believe in baptism as revealed in the New Testament'. Who does not? A Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Baptist, a Jehovah's Witness would all consent, but in consenting would all mean different things.
We need creedal definitions of the teachings of the Bible because, as Bannerman states, without them 'there can be no common understanding ... of one another's faith and consequently no mutual agreement or union as to the holding and profession of it'. Where there is no definition, there is no comprehension.
2. 'Creeds are Not Biblical'
This assertion, although popular, is itself open to question. It is arguable that 'broadly speaking biblical religion has always been creedal' and that 'confession has from the outset been constitutive of Christianity'.
Does not the Old Testament contain the Jewish Creed, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4): 'Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD'? Does not the New Testament set out the confession 'Jesus is Lord' as a confession of faith (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3)? Does not the Apostle define the gospel he preached in doctrinal terms as he defends its truth against Corinthian detractors (1 Corinthians 15:10? Is not the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh a test of orthodoxy (1 John 4:2)? It is worth noting that Dr William Hendriksen lists as one of the reasons why the Pastoral Epistles are important as 'because they answer the question', 'Are creeds of any value?' Are not the 'faithful sayings' confessions of key points of truth?
3. 'Creeds Use Unbiblical Language'
The aim of non-biblical language is to define biblical language. The Bible only has one meaning — God's — but it has many interpretations. Creeds define what men believe God to be saying. To merely quote Scriptures at each other without explaining our understanding does little good. We quote Bannerman again:
The language of Scripture is the best language to express God's mind. But it does not follow from this that it is the best language to express my mind ... With the change in the meaning of language which takes place from age to age — with the different interpretations actually put upon the terms of Scripture by multitudes — with the various and even opposite senses which reason or error or prejudice has made to be associated with its phraseology; the very words of the Bible may not be the best words to declare my mind and belief to another man, so that betwixt him and me there shall be no equivocation or reservation or guile.
It has to be remembered that creeds are but one way of giving the sense of Scripture. To require biblical truth always to be expressed in biblical language would logically require all preaching and teaching to use only the actual words of Scripture.
4. 'Creeds Become More Important than the Bible'
That this can happen we do not doubt, but that it must happen may certainly be contested. Advocates of creeds acknowledge that they 'can only be secondary to Scripture'. The purpose of doctrinal formulations is to give clarity to what is believed and what is denied, but 'this function is ... conceded to the Bible alone, that of binding the conscience.'
5. 'Creeds Focus on Definitions of Christ Rather than On Christ'
Full weight must be given to the fact that the essence of eternal life is knowing God and knowing Christ and not merely knowing about them (John 17:3). However, the Christ who is to be known is not indistinct, any sort of Christ whom men might like to worship. There is a true Christ, who actually existed and made himself known, and 'Christs' who are no more than figments of men's imaginations. The function of doctrinal statements is simply to declare what the Scriptures state about the sort of Christ we are to know, both in relation to his person and work. The doctrinal formulations state what we believe and know about the Christ whom we have come to know and want others to know. Knowledge about a person is all-important for knowledge of a person.
6.'Creeds Focus on Belief Rather than On Experience'
We must recognise the danger of merely basing fellowship on a common set of beliefs without a common experience of God in Christ. James warns us against an orthodoxy which is dead because it is unfruitful (James 2:19). To answer in the orthodox language of the catechism does not prove a man to be a Christian.
There is, however, another danger of which we must also be aware, that is, assuming that true spiritual experience has nothing to do with doctrine. Various people at Corinth claimed that they were speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but only those who confessed the Lordship of Christ, not those who cursed him, were to be accepted as speaking authentically (1 Corinthians 12:1-3).
In the same way, the Apostle John taught the churches to discern between heretics and false teachers not merely by their claimed experience but by their teaching concerning Christ (1 John 4:1-3). The need for an experience of God as well as correct beliefs about God and his Son is emphasised in the Scriptures. Experience of God in Christ is gained by belief in the Son, but the creeds define what is believed about God, his Son and salvation.
7. 'Creeds are Negative'
It is a defective understanding of the history of creeds which argues that they are negative. Those who have studied the history of creeds and confessions remind us that they have four functions historically. Positively they are a summary of truths, an aid to teaching and a tool for worship. Negatively, they refute that teaching which is alien to Scripture. Historically, the positive came first. 'With the development of heretical teaching, however, there was a natural tendency to use the creeds as a test for catholic orthodoxy'. Some modern confessions are entitled 'We Believe' and 'A Faith to Confess', tides which hardly suggest that their primary concern is negative.
8. 'Creeds are Divisive'
From one point of view it must be agreed that creeds are divisive. They divide believers in the creed from dissenters. As a corollary, they are therefore also unifying for those who assent.
Christians ought not to fear being divisive. The gospel is divisive. The Bible is divisive. Of course, Christians have to beware of being unnecessarily divisive. It is not the having of a creed that is wrong but the misuse of the creed to which we subscribe. Schismatic division must be avoided but not all division is schismatic.
9. 'Creeds Doom Theology to Stagnation'
It is true that theology would become stagnant if the creeds and confessions of past ages or the present are set in stone. For some they can be. We, however, must rather take the position as stated by John Murray that:
However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men, we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is a danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings on the other.
The revisers into modern English of the 1689 Confession included a preface in which they questioned four areas in which they believed the Confession needed modification and correction. Here was a proper use of a Confession: the retention of what remains biblically valid, the questioning of what is open to biblical challenge. Creeds, as human documents, are always subject to correction as more light breaks from the Scriptures.
10. 'Creeds Hide the Gospel'
The true role of creeds and confessions is to explain the gospel so that it might be clearly understood. Some of the finest explanations of gospel truth are to be found in the creeds and confessions of the church. Hatred of creeds often arises from a desire to hide the truth, for where there is a lack of clarity there will be confusion. It has been observed that 'the contemporary pluralistic confusion in theology has not been conducive to the writing of new confessions'
The Benefits of Creeds and Confessions
The benefits of creeds and confessions may be briefly stated:
Biblical truths are made clear. 'Creedal formulation is but one way of giving the sense of Scripture in succinct form'.
Unbiblical ideas are refuted. 'Perhaps the most fatal error the church ever encountered was the Arian. The first ecumenical creed was the official answer of the church to that which struck at its foundation'.
The essential unity of faith among Christians declared. We do well to remind ourselves that, 'It is not on the basis of the objective truth revealed in the Bible, but on the basis of the subjective belief of that truth, that the union of two Christians is formed.'
As with everything else, the answer to the misuse of creeds and confessions is not disuse but proper use. In their place, they are an aid to Christianity: to its proclamation and defence. Fair criticisms must be heeded, but detractors need to be refuted. Confusion is not a Christian virtue. Creeds clarify truth and dispel confusion. Creeds help us to enjoy 'the peace of which the truth of God is the bond'.