In Defense of Creeds
Roland Worth, Jr.
Very few people will take the time and effort to defend the existence of humanly composed creeds. A notable exception is Arnold T. Olson, head of the Evangelical Free Church of America. In his book, This We Believe: The Background and Exposition of the Doctrinal Statement of the Evangelical Free Church of America, he defends at length the right of churches to have such creeds (Free Church Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota: 1961). Although he lumps his arguments under only a few major headings, it will help in a study of them if we break them down into smaller units of thought.
The first thing that is notable about his defense of creeds is that nowhere does he cite book, chapter, and verse authorizing a church to adopt such creeds. It has been said (and it continues to need to be repeated in the future) that to have a creed and to fully believe in the authority of the Bible is a contradiction in terms. If a creed says less than the Bible it is an act of sacrilege against the Divine Author of the Scriptures; if it says more than the Bible it is an act of insubordination and rebellion against being confined to that which the Spirit has revealed; if the creed is identical with the Bible there is no need to have it at all.
However if a substantial body of people want something they will soon find a justification for it. Their reasoning may be far fetched but they will still be able to find something, somewhere to hang their position upon. So it is not surprising that though there is no legislative authority given to the church by the Bible, that men have invented rationales by which to defend the existence of their creeds. We will. quote those of Mr. Olson at length so that there can be no question that we have given him a fair hearing.
1. 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).
None of us would deny that spiritual cowardliness is present in some opposers of creeds. However the reasons we oppose creeds are at least three in number: (a) They divert attention from reliance on the Bible; (b) Due to their long usage, they become a center of loyalty in competition with the Bible and thereby make needed doctrinal change impossible; (c) They are wrong if they contain anything different (either more or less) than the Bible and not needed if they contain the same. If for us to deny the need for creeds indicates a lack of spiritual commitment, what does it indicate that Paul, Peter, and none of the other apostles who ever wrote or endorsed a creed? Are we to attribute to them doctrinal cowardliness? Of course not! Then let us not simplistically dismiss opposition to creeds today with such a charge. Let us hear the charge leveled only against those to whom it is genuinely applicable.
2. Everyone has a creed even if he doesn't call it by that name. "Everyone has a creed of some sort. He has a conviction even if it be that he has no creed!" (p. 23). So what? There are things that I believe in very firmly, but that is not the question at issue. That question is by what right do I prepare and bind on others that which I hold to be true. If I can convince them through scripture that I am right then they have the moral obligation to accept what their mind tells them is the truth. But creeds do not reply on the power of argument to bind others. They demand blind loyalty, period. They cannot argue. They cannot defend. They cannot repent if they err. Men can. So the fact that we all have things we believe in does not prove that such beliefs should be placed in writing and bound on others as a test of fellowship.
3. The mere statement of belief in the scriptures does not produce conformity as to what is believed. "Even among those who agree as to the fact that the Bible, the Old and New Testament, is the Word of God, there is wide disagreement as to what the Bible teaches. There was, for example, a wide difference in the understanding of the atonement among our founders in spite of the fact that they 'accepted the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, as the Word of God.' While, as the history states, the leaders also accepted the Bible as the final authority on all matters of doctrine, they were anything but dogmatically agreed on many of the doctrines that are taken for granted today" (p. 26).
First of all, the existence of a creed only allows us to authoritatively know what that creed teaches. But just because a creed teaches something does absolutely nothing to prove that the Scriptures teach the same thing. Book, chapter, and verse have to be cited for that and that can be done without the existence of a creed.
Second of all, just because a creed teaches something does not mean that everyone who swears loyalty to it will really believe it. People can (and do)! "interpret" their way around creeds just like they do scripture. So how in the world can we contend that scripture is "inadequate" because people can find excuses to avoid accepting the clear Will of God?
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 classify the Bible story of creation as a myth have official doctrinal statements which would be acceptable in the most evangelical circles" (p. 42). If creeds cannot produce uniformity then we should not introduce such an argument against accepting the Bible as our sole religious standard!
4. The Bible itself contains doctrinal summaries. Olson cites four passages (p 26). 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:13; 2 Tim. 2:5-6; 1 Tim. 3:16. First of all, none of these contain even half of what we find in creeds! 1 Cor. 8:6 only deals with the legitimacy of monotheism and how that all things were created by Christ. 1 Cor. 12:13 only deals with the fact that all are baptized into one body. 1 Tim. 2:5-6 only deals with the facts that there is one God, one mediator (Jesus), and how that Jesus became a ransom for us. 1 Tim. 3:16 gives a brief summary of Christ's life and conquest that sounds more like a Psalm that a creed! Neither of the passages from Timothy mention how we are saved. The second passage from Timothy does not even mention God the Father. Look at what all these passages lack! None of them would satisfy men as a creed today! So it is completely preposterous to appeal to them as precedents for our having creeds. Furthermore, these Biblical statements were written by inspiration. Is the creed of Mr. Olson's church or that of any church? Of course not! Only through following what is inspired can we be certain that we are doing right.
These few passages from the Bible are not a creed; the entire Bible (taken together) constitutes our creed. And that should be our only creed! For therein we hear God speaking. In human creeds we only hear the voice of human beings speak, with all the prejudices and biases that go with it.
5. "The creed provides a confession of faith" (p. 33). Doesn't the Bible do the same? Is that which is written by inspiration an inferior confession of faith to those of purely human composition?
6. The church was founded on a confession. In reference to Matt. 16:16-18, Olson comments, "The church is built on the foundation of a confessed faith in Jesus Christ. This is often overlooked" (p. 33). Firstly, this was not a written creed that men were expected to swear loyalty to. Second, inspiration was involved. Of Peter's confession, Christ said, "Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which art in heaven" (v. 17). Can Mr. Olson claim inspiration for his creed? If he can (and if he can make the claim stick), he would have a valid parallel. Thirdly, this was not what we today know as a creed: It deals only with Christ's relationship to the Father, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Do you know of any denominational creed that consists only of a reference to Christ's supernaturalness?
7. "The creed provides a summary of the teachings of the scripture" (p. 34). But an uninspired men describe God's will as well as inspired writers? Can uninspired men be sure that they are writing a creed that accurately reflects what God would want in such a creed? To which of the creed writers has He spoken in the soft stillness of the night? Is God so ignorant that He could not perceive that men need a creed while men such as Mr. Olson can? However you cut it, it comes down to a reflection on the knowledge and competence of God Himself. If creeds were one-half as vital as denominationalists make them out to be, it would have been a supreme act of incompetence on His part not to have revealed such a creed in the apostolic writings.
8. Christ provides, in essence, an example of what creed writers do. "While the Bible is the `complete revelation of God's will for the salvation of men,' this revelation does not suddenly appear in a capsule form at a given point in the Scriptures. The revelation is a progressive one throughout the entire book. A creed, without going into great detail, including chapters and verses, presents the sum total of that revelation. None other than Christ Himself set the example in using this form of teaching truth. When asked which of the commandments was the most important, He replied by giving a summary of the entire teaching of the law and the prophets: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' (Matthew 22:37-38)" (p. 34-35).
Look at the differences between this and the creeds of today: (a) Jesus spoke by inspiration of the Spirit; creed writers do not. (b) Jesus did not turn to Levi, tell him to put the "creed" in writing, and order the apostles to "sign on the dotted line or get lost." Christ taught authoritatively and it was because of His authority that men accepted His teaching, not because it was reduced to a written form. (c) Can you name one group around today that would consider Christ's "creed" summary sufficient as a creed? Clearly what men mean by "creeds" is different from anything Christ's example would justify!
9. "The creed provides a common testimony as to the official position of the church on the doctrines in question " (p. 35). "Having been prepared by a duly elected group of representatives of the churches and studied, discussed, and adopted by the chosen delegates of the churches in democratic assembly, the creed is authoritative in character" (p. 35). Humbug. Any religious claim (whether it be in an article like mine or in a creed) is authoritative only to the extent that it faithfully and fully echoes the teaching of Scripture. Nothing can be genuinely authoritative in the field of religion that is not identical with scriptural teaching.
Whether a creed is democratically adopted is not the basis issue. Democracies have been known to be wrong! The real issue is twofold: (a) Does the creed accurately reflect what the Bible teaches? (b) By what Biblical authority does any church adopt a creed instead of relying on the Scriptures alone? Democratic majorities have been wrong; the masses have erred time and again. (And if you do not think they have erred just ask anybody who votes for the loser in a race for public office!) "Democracy" is no substitute for Divine authority.
10. "The creed provides a test of orthodoxy to be used in such areas where actual authority exists" (p. 38). But by what right is any human product a proper ground on which to determine orthodoxy? God has warned that our ways are not His ways (Isa. 55:8-9). Why in the world do we believe that our religious concepts are an exception to this principle?
One writer quoted by Olson comments. "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). However Olson himself admits that the existence of creeds does not assure that members and leaders will accept the doctrines contained therein (quoted in section three above). A creed no more will save the believer from heresy than the Bible will. Anything can and will be perverted by those unwilling to accept it.
We have surveyed the arguments introduced by a denominational President in defense of having creeds. We have found his arguments inconsistent with admissions that he makes. In other cases we have found that the texts he introduces would never be accepted by any church today as an adequate creedal statement. In short, his evidence does not establish the propriety of having humanly prepared creeds.
Creeds are always dangerous. They become an authority that is appealed to and in practice easily becomes a substitute for scripture. Ask a denominational leader what he believes and more likely than not he will cite his creed. People have enough obstacles in the way of faith in the Bible without religious leaders writing creeds that will divert their thought away from what should be the center of their attention.
Truth Magazine XXII: 31, pp. 506-508