A Good Creed Seldom Goes Unpunished

Article by   January 2008

On the issue of creeds, the evangelical world often seems absolutely divided into two broad camps: There are those who are so passionately committed to a particularly narrow view of scripture's sufficiency that they not only deny the need for creeds and confessions but regard them as actually wrong, an illegitimate attempt to supplement scripture or to narrow the Christian faith in doctrinal or cultural ways beyond the limits set by scripture itself. Then there are those whose view of creeds and confessions is so high that any other theological statement, and sometimes even the Bible itself, seems to be of secondary importance. Neither group, I believe, really does the creeds justice.

I am very suspicious of both approaches. While I share the concern of the first group to safeguard the uniqueness of scripture and to avoid imposing my own cultural preferences and tastes on someone else under the guise of gospel truth, I have a sneaking suspicion that the cry of `No creed but the Bible!' has often meant rather `I have my creed, but I'm not going to tell you what it is so that you can't know what it is and thus cannot criticize it or me for holding it.' Such is often the case with those evangelicals who reject creeds but have very definite views on the legitimacy of the consumption of alcohol and the nature of the end-times, for example. In practice, they effectively allow for no hypothetical distinction between what the Bible says and their own, or their church's, interpretation of the same. Thus, they render themselves immune to any criticism. Further, as soon as they use words such as `Trinity' or even consult a commentary, they reveal that what they say about their relationship to tradition and what they actually do in practice with tradition are in conflict.

I also share the underlying concerns of the second group for a high view of the church and of her public statements, and also for an honest acknowledgment of the indebtedness of Protestantism to tradition, albeit not in the same sense as Rome would understand. Yet the second group too is susceptible to criticism. In a strange way, their problem is similar to that of the first group: a radical identification of what the church says with what scripture says in a way that makes criticism of church teaching in light of scripture well-nigh impossible.

For what it is worth, I occupy something of a middle ground between the two groups (isn't it strange how most of us always think we represent a happy, biblical medium between two extremes??? Ho hum. Humour me just this once). I certainly regard scripture as uniquely authoritative and divinely inspired; but I also appreciate the help which the insights of others over the centuries gives me into scripture's meaning and application; I also delight to identify myself with Christians through the ages who have worshipped the same God; and in this context I place a special premium on creeds and confessions for two very important reasons. First, the church is more than just a collection of individuals; it is the community of those united to Christ and the community of the Word and sacraments, and as such has a special place in God's redemptive plan. Thus, I take much more seriously the consensus declarations of the church (problematic as that now is, given the diversity of denominations) than the individual statements of particular theologians.

Second, the consensus nature of creeds and confessions is particularly attractive and important. The fact that most creeds and confessions were formulated partly in response to political pressure is often seen as bad thing, but I am not so sure that such is inevitably the case. Each year as I teach in the councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon, students express concern at the sleazy political chicanery that lies in the background to these events; yet the fact that a creed is formulated in such situations does not make its teaching of necessity less biblically coherent, any more than my total depravity inevitably undermines my occasional attempts to preach God's word; and, on the positive side, it does mean that such creeds are no more exclusive than they have to be. Yes, they clearly rule out of bounds particular positions; but they are designed to keep as many on board as possible, and this ecumenicity of theological and ecclesiastical intention was arguably reinforced on many occasions by political expediency.

Given this, that creeds and confessions have, historically, almost always been documents aimed at consensus, two further points must be made. First, I am persuaded that such documents, particularly the early church creeds, should be understood in a broadly negative fashion. Scholars do disagree on this point, but it seems to me to make sense of, say, the Nicene Creed if we understand it as essentially setting up boundaries which exclude certain positions. In effect, it tells you what you cannot say about God without you consequently failing to make sense of scripture's teaching. Thus, it leaves open a space for theological reflection, exploration, and even disagreement. The difference between this and understanding the creed as a positive statement of what you must believe is subtle but very significant. This way underscores consensus and inclusion; the latter focuses on precise agreement and exclusion. The same people may be included and excluded under both understandings, but I would still argue that the former is more appropriately modest and charitable and a lot less likely to lead to the usurpation of biblical authority.

The second point arising from the consensus nature of creeds and confessions is that they generally focus on the very core elements of the faith which command general agreement on both content and importance within the given constituency. Of course, they do vary in depth and complexity: the Nicene Creed covers less ground than the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord, and I have argued on an earlier occasion in this very column for the fact that Christian theology requires a certain complexity of doctrinal elaboration and structure in order for any individual doctrine to enjoy long-term stability. But even if one takes the Westminster Confession as an example of an elaborate doctrinal statement, it is hard to imagine many Christians with any doctrinal bent querying the topics that are covered: God, scripture, Christology, salvation, ethics, ecclesiology, sacraments, relation of church to society etc. Almost all Christians - Arminian and Calvinist, Protestant and Catholic, Western and Eastern -- would agree that these subjects are important and that all churches need to identify their position with respect to them.

In short, I regard creeds as important because they are documents approved by the church, or at least by particular churches, and thus have more status than the writings of any individual Christian; they generally represent in intention a desire to reflect consensus among Christians; their negative, boundary-setting thrust means that they leave room for discussion, disagreement and thoughtful theologizing, albeit within churchly limits; and they essentially focus on the real core doctrines. In sum, I might say that they give those of us who adhere to them a place to stand both doctrinally and historically, and thus to lay our views open for appropriate public scrutiny and challenge.

This leads me to my final observation: some of the second group I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, the high church party, hold so vigorously to the ecclesiastical nature of creeds that they find the whole idea of other statements of faith, of the kind that are now so common in our transdenominational age, to be at best irrelevant, at worst a phenomenon which undermines the importance of the church. This latter criticism is significant: ecclesiology is at such a premium today, we certainly do not want to add to the forces which undermine it. Indeed, it would be ironically self-defeating, for example, if the Cambridge Declaration of ACE served not to strengthen confessional evangelicalism but rather to wound it and then to help in its demise.

I see the point of such arguments. Such statements are not ecclesiastically sanctioned documents, and by their very transdenominational nature they marginalize through silence or agreeing to differ many matters of vital ecclesiological significance - baptism and the Lord's Supper, for example. But it seems to me that two things need to be borne in mind. First, there are precedents for this even within the strongly confessional tradition of Reformed Orthodoxy. The Helvetic Consensus Formula of 1675 was drawn up by the Reformed specifically to address issues raised by teachers at the Academy of Saumur, specifically a reconstruction of the divine decrees and atonement theory commonly known as Amyraldianism, after the French theologian, Moyse Amyraut, and also the denial of the antiquity of the Masoretic vowel points of the Hebrew Bible. It was not a church creed, but it served the purpose of allowing various churches and schools to identify themselves as protesting specific issues in their day and age. Thus, even the high ecclesiology of the Reformed faith is not averse to short-term tactical declarations of this kind.

Second, ecclesiastical creeds and confessions are built to last. As a result, they touch as little as possible on the local particulars of any given time or place. Of course, they bear the stamp of their age as do all documents; but the fact that Nicea still resonates over 1600 years on, and Westminster over 350 years on, would seem good enough evidence that they are not so marked by the era in which they were produced as to have lost all of their relevance as the original framers passed into glory. But the church always lives in a particular time and place, and must always respond to the issues of the age. As a result, occasional documents, creed-like in form but much more modest and local in terms of their purpose, are extremely useful. On the one hand, such documents are ecclesiastical safety valves which prevent the need for constantly adding to the existing creeds and, almost by definition, making those creeds less catholic and more exclusive; on the other hand, they allow the church to speak directly on the issues of the day which are most pressing, be they matters of justification, public morality or whatever. Yes, it is true that their often interdenominational nature could weaken ecclesiology; but that is only going to happen if churches make the category mistake of confusing such with proper creeds and confessions. The problem lies not in the statements themselves but in the fact that so many who use them have had no solid teaching on the nature of the church and thus cannot make the basic distinction necessary to avoid the problem.

Creeds and confessions will, I suspect, continue to suffer at the hands of friend and foe alike. The latter will always dismiss them as encroaching on scripture's authority; the former will continue to make them narrower and functionally more important than they were ever intended. But on this issue I believe there is a middle way, which gives peculiar but subordinate status to such documents, and which also sees a place for occasional, transdenominational statements as well. The church must never compromise the unique authority of the Bible, must always focus on the basic essentials which cross time and space, but must also speak thoughtfully, to the here and now. Historic creeds and contemporary declarations thus both have their part to play in making the church's voice a relevant voice. Until we realize that, I fear that a good creed will seldom go unpunished.

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