As any poker player knows (and I am not a poker player--I tend to steer clear of competitions where the victor takes home a bracelet), the hand is over when all the cards have been dealt, all the bets have been called, the players' cards are turned over and they reveal who has won the pot.
The image of that poker moment came to mind in a discussion I once had with some church members about the role and value of ecclesial creeds for the Christian life, especially when it comes to meaningful theological exchange between two professing believers. I remembered a friend who resides in a church tradition that rejects any notion of creeds. He saw creeds as man's conscious or unconscious attempts to bend Scripture to suit his own desires. Indulging another metaphor, I assured my friend that, although the historic creeds of the church are not infallible, they provide a deep theological stream of carefully articulated doctrines that have contributed through the years to unity, health and honesty in the church. I told him he was in the current of that stream whenever he claims that God is triune, that Christ is divine, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, or when he claims any other orthodox tenet of belief. And I warned him that to claim "No creed but the Bible" would, itself, be creedal, but, by comparison to the historical creedal stream of the church, his would be but a shallow and muddy ditch. It would be to show only some of his cards. It would identify the basis for what he believes, but it would not reveal what his beliefs are.
Creeds help us lay our theological cards on the table for all to see. They differentiate our hand from the hands of others around the theological table. They tell all who would look at our cards not only that our beliefs are grounded in the Bible, but that "these are the truths revealed in the Scriptures as the Word of God." They tether our confession of Scripture to the content of Scripture. They do not leave anyone wondering what we mean when we claim the Bible is God's very Word. Indeed, many through the ages, and even today, who call for creedal revisions deploy words like "inspiration" and "atonement" only to inject those words with unorthodox content. Poker, then, has an advantage over some of the theological hands being played today. In poker what the cards are and what they mean cannot be subverted.
At least two lessons are ready for the taking: First, holding to the enduring creeds that present the truths of Holy Scripture is akin to holding a royal flush. Second, should anyone entice us to abandon the historic creeds of the church, we should remember The Gambler's adage, "You've got to know when to hold'em...and when to walk away."
Rev. Dr. R. Carlton Wynne is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics. He has served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, and has co-edited with Derek Thomas Zeal for Godliness: Devotional Meditations on Calvin's Institutes.
*This post is a slightly adapted version of a post originally published at Reformation21 on October 2, 2010.