Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.
With the rest of the country I anxiously watched the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, but there is one image that I will always remember. It is not the firefight with the ATF agents or even the apocalyptic fire that ended the assault on the compound. It was a short news clip of a woman cult member being escorted into a jail house with a swarm of reporters firing questions. She appealed to the camera, "How can they do this to us? We believe the Bible. Is it a crime to believe the Bible?"
Well, that depends on what you believe the Bible teaches. Everything hinges on how you understand the Bible and on what you profess as biblical truth. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Moslems, and even Branch Davidians all profess to believe the Bible. The real question is: what do they believe the Bible teaches? You see, the slogan "No creed but the Bible" is practically useless. Such a motto fails to provide an adequate means of distinguishing between cultic or heretical groups and the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I understand the motivation for such slogans. There is a real fear that the authority and sufficiency of the Bible itself will be suffocated by mere human creeds and confessions. That danger is very real. Nevertheless, the fact that creeds and confessions may be abused is not a strong enough argument to banish them from the worship and life of the church altogether. They perform a necessary and beneficial service in the life of the church . The crucial service of the creeds in the life and worship of the church is the subject of this essay.
For the sake of clarity, I should note that this little booklet will focus on the two ecumenical creeds that we use in our worship service–the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Some of my comments, especially those on the nature and necessity of creeds, might also be applied to other creedal documents (like the Westminster Confession of Faith), but my intent is to explain the church’s use of these two liturgical creeds.
The Apostles’ Creed was not really written by the Apostles themselves (as legend has it), but was composed very early in the life of the post-Apostolic church. It has been used by the Western Church in one form or another at least since 150 A.D. and very possibly from the time of the Apostles. It is "ecumenical" in that both the Roman Catholic and Reformation churches utilize it as a statement of faith .
The Nicene Creed was composed for the ecumenical (or universal) councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381), both of which were convened to clarify the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the Trinity. The Nicene Creed is in many ways little more than the Apostles’ Creed enlarged to clarify the deity of the Son of God and of the Holy Spirit. With the exception of one clause, both the Eastern and Western Churches have adhered to the Nicene Creed as a preeminent summary of the Christian faith . These two ecumenical creeds have been used in the corporate worship of the church for many centuries. Should we continue this practice? What value is there in continuing to recite these ancient creeds? What are we doing when we recite these creeds in worship? These are the questions that I hope to answer.
The Necessity and Usefulness of Creeds
It might seem overly dramatic to some, but it is nevertheless true–if we are going to be faithful to the Bible itself, we must use "human" creeds. It is not just that creeds are permissible and biblical, but the Bible demands that we publicly express our faith in concise, accurate, and intelligible language–which is precisely what creeds attempt to do. This is an important point. When someone asks you, "What do you believe as a Christian?" you must respond with a summary of what you believe the Word of God teaches. You might say something like this: "That’s a good question. If you have a few minutes I can summarize it for you. I believe the Bible teaches . . ." The words "I believe" (Latin = credo ) come quite spontaneously to your lips. I am not suggesting that you simply quote the Apostles’ Creed to the inquirer–though that is, of course, one acceptable way of summarizing the biblical faith–but my point is that composing creeds is inescapable. Everyone has a creed because everyone has a way of summarizing and expressing what one believes .
The Bible itself demands that we make personal, public confession of our faith (Matt. 10:32-33; 16:13-17; John 6:66-69; Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Tim. 6:13). Genuine faith always seeks public expression in confession and proclamation (Acts 19:18; 2 Cor. 4:13). Genuine faith that is truly a matter of the heart can never remain a secret of the heart. Our Lord said, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). The heart must speak and make public its deepest commitments. The important question is: Will your personal creed be an accurate and faithful summary of the Christian faith?
How can you insure that your personal creed is an accurate reflection of the objective truth taught in the Bible? Keep that question in mind as we turn to the venerable Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney (d. 1898) for wisdom. He makes a very telling point when he reminds us that the Bible commands pastors not just to read the Bible, but to explain what it means in their own words. Consider Dabney’s comments on 2 Timothy 4:2 as he marshals a telling argument for the legitimacy of creeds:
He, as an apostle of Christ, not only permits, but commands, each uninspired pastor to give his human and uninspired expositions of what he believes to be divine truth, that is to say, his creed. If such human creeds when composed by a single teacher and delivered orally, extempore, are proper means of instruction for the church, by the stronger reason must those creeds be proper and scriptural which are the careful, mature, and joint productions of learned and godly pastors, delivered with all the accuracy of written documents. He who would consistently banish creeds must silence all preaching and reduce the teaching of the church to the recital of the exact words of Holy Scripture without note or comment .
Every time a pastor mounts the pulpit to preach, he is explaining to the congregation what he believes the Scriptures teach. He makes statements like, "I believe (credo ) that this passage means. . ." or "We can summarize this portion of Scripture by . . ." Should the congregation reject his extra-biblical explanations and summaries with the slogan "no creed but Christ, no confession but the Bible"? No, of course not. We know the difference between the secondary authority of the pastor’s words of explanation (his credo ) and the primary authority of the Word of God. Similarly, but even more powerfully, the historic creeds provide us with not just one pastor’s credo of what the Bible teaches, but the credo of the ancient, Medieval, and Reformation church! How much more authority than a single pastor’s sermon does the Apostles’ Creed have as a summary of the apostolic faith!
The Authority of the Ecumenical Creeds
It follows, then, that the Apostles’ Creed is invested with all of the authority of almost two millennia of church history. This authority is secondary and derived to be sure. The Bible alone has primary and absolute authority. Nevertheless, secondary, derived authority is real authority. If a child informed his mother, "Mom, I don’t have to obey you because I know that Dad’s word is the primary authority in this house," we would not tolerate such a dismissive posture toward the mother’s authority. The Father may indeed be the head of the household, and as such the principal authority, but that does not imply that the mother has absolutely no authority at all! You can be sure when the father returns in the evening that he will use his principal authority to bolster the derived authority of his wife. The same holds true in any ordered society like the family. A private may not flout the authority of his sergeant with the claim that the captain is the one who is ultimately in charge. Middle-management may not demand exemption from the directives of a vice president simply because he is not the president of the company. Similarly, the authority of an ecumenical creed which has been passed on to us by our forefathers in the faith, constituting as it does the universal tradition of the church, is like the authority of a mother, a sergeant, or a vice-president. It does not have the same authority as the Bible, but that does not mean it has no authority whatsoever.
Moreover, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed have been thoroughly examined and approved by centuries of Christian reflection. The basic elements of the Apostles’ Creed may even have come into existence at the same time as the apostolic Scriptures (compare the Apostles’ Creed with 1 Peter 3:18-22; Col. 2:9-15; and 1 Cor. 15:1ff.). Note how closely the Apostles’ Creed follows Paul’s inspired summary of the Gospel:
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures . . . (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
The apostolic Scriptures manifest on every page a common body of Christian teaching (doctrine), definite in outline and regarded by all the apostles as the possession of no individual but of the church as a whole (1 Cor. 15:1ff.; Eph. 4:5; Phil. 1:27; Titus 1:4; 2 Peter. 1:1; Jude 3). This outline bears a remarkable resemblance to the early creedal summaries of the faith. The substance of the Apostles’ Creed is already found in the earliest known extra-biblical works, such as the Didache (c. 65-100 A.D.) and in the writings of the first generation of post-Apostolic Fathers (for example, Justin Martyr, d. 165 A.D.). Whether or not we can establish the precise dating of the origin of the Apostles’ Creed, it still remains true that virtually every word and phrase of the creed is directly based on the Bible.
Even during the time of the New Testament, this body of Apostolic teaching was beginning to crystallize into a set pattern and arrangement that would later form the basis for the Trinitarian baptismal creeds. The Old and New Testaments contain examples of "mini-creeds" (Ex. 20:1-3; Deut. 6:4; Matt. 16:13-18; Romans 10:8ff.; Acts 22-26; Phil. 2:11; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Tim. 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Heb. 13:15; 1 John 4:15). Short summaries of the content of Christianity, like "Jesus is Lord" or "Jesus has come in the flesh" have their origin in the inspired word of God. They are the forerunners of the early church creeds that we now use. The ecumenical creeds build upon all of this biblical material and also various creedal formulations that originated just one or two generations after the Apostles.
The point is that these creeds have been confessed by the universal church (East and West), with only minor variations, for thousands of years. The lesson for us is powerful: if the Holy Spirit has consistently led the Church to make and affirm these creedal summaries of the faith, then we need to think long and hard before we reject the substance of these creeds (Jn. 16:13). When you recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed in church on Sunday morning, you are verbally joining the venerable communion of saints, ritually confessing your solidarity with the church of all ages.
By reciting the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed we are confessing the universal, historic faith of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. As one early church Father expressed it: "In the universal church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all; for that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘catholic’ or ‘universal’" (Vincent of Lerins, d. 450 A.D.). More than any others, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds meet these stringent requirements. C. E. B. Cranfield’s comments are helpful: "What unites Christians of different traditions, languages, and nations and of different generations and centuries is a more effective and powerful vehicle of such confession than any occasional statement composed by an individual, however gifted, or by any particular denomination or group of Christians" .
Increasingly, however, the ecumenical creeds are being omitted in Evangelical worship services, or replaced with "creeds" composed by others–creeds that cannot by any stretch of the imagination claim to embody the "catholic" or "universal" faith .
These modern statements usually reflect some kind of agenda such as feminism or environmentalism. Sometimes they are just faddish and inferior, but they are almost always dangerous. When they are expressions of some modern social or political agenda, then they can be quite literally heretical. To alter, without biblical support, the orthodox Church’s confession of God is nothing less than heresy. When a pastor or church modifies the historic church’s Scriptural confession of God in order to bring it in line with the spirit of the age, the document is idolatrous. The god confessed is only the projection of modern man’s highest aspirations, not the true and living God who exists independently of fallen man’s imaginary ideals. Consider this actual example:
We believe in God–
who works in the hidden stillness of every dawn;
who beckons us to visit the tomb of our fears so
we might discover the birth of hope;
who sends reoccurring dreams, fragrant flowers,
good friends and bright angels with messages of joy and possibility.
We believe in Jesus, the risen Christ–
who meets us on every path;
who greets us with respect, names, and calms our fears,
and bids us walk and talk as children of the Light;
who is always going before us into our workplace and playspace.
We believe in the Holy Spirit–
who gathers us into community;
who works through the lame and the late,
the wrinkled and the newborn, the hurting and the hopeful;
who nudges our prayers, kindles our longings, and prompts our praise.
This "creed" continues with two more articles: one on the "Easter people" and another on the church . Besides the intolerable banality of the imagery and the idiotic attempt at poetic language, this creed is idolatrous, pure heresy. This new creed is not merely an attempt to update the archaic language of the old creeds or explain some of the more difficult words and phrases; nor is it even an attempt to deal with issues relevant to modern Christianity. Rather, this creed alters the content of the Christian faith. The God confessed has only a superficial resemblance to the biblical God, even though the Trinitarian names are retained. This creed shows no concern whatsoever to attribute to God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit any of the attributes or activities that the Bible emphasizes. Is God creator? Is he almighty? Is Jesus God’s Son? We are left to wonder! Is Jesus true man and true God? Was he really born? Did he die? Does the cross mean anything? What about man’s sin? Is there forgiveness? What does it mean that he is "the risen Christ"? Did this happen in space and time ("the third day") or just in the minds of the disciples? Did he ascend to heaven? Is he coming again? Who knows? This creed certainly doesn’t tell us! And who cares? Let’s all just be happy! The god here confessed is not the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of Christianity who demands our allegiance and promises us salvation from sin in Christ; rather this god has no objective existence–he is fundamentally the projection of a modern congregation’s sentimental thoughts about a higher power.
The Creeds as Doors into the Church
What standard should a church to use to determine what doctrines are essential to the Christian faith? How can we know whether a person’s confession is biblical? Another way to word this question is to ask what kind of personal confession of faith the leaders of the church will require of those who wish to join the church. When the elders interview a candidate for membership, what doctrines must the candidate confess? These are crucial questions today, because many churches require adherence to various idiosyncratic doctrines for membership. Even if you may not be required to confess something so outrageous as the "creed" I just quoted, nevertheless, you may not be admitted into the membership of some churches if you don’t believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. You may be barred from membership in other churches because you don’t agree with that denomination’s mode of baptism or their particular theory of the Lord’s special presence at the Eucharist. Historically, the boundaries of the church have not been drawn so tightly, but history often doesn’t matter much to American Christians. The classical position is that the door into church membership ought to be no narrower (or wider) than the door into heaven. What, then, must a person believe in order to enter into heaven? Answer: He must be able to confess honestly that he trusts "in God the Father Almighty, etc."
The Apostles’ Creed embodies the common faith of Christians everywhere. It is truly an ecumenical creed, in the best sense of that word. An honest commitment to the truths outlined there ought to serve to identify true Christians. When churches and Christians abandon the ancient creeds they open a theological Pandora’s box and let loose a whole host of false doctrines. Worse than that, all sorts of non-essential doctrines are often elevated as tests of orthodoxy . In many independent churches that have strong personalities as leaders, the pet doctrines of the pastor himself are often made to function as boundaries for church fellowship. For example, in the past I have been denied membership in a local Evangelical church simply because I did not agree with the leadership’s view of end times.
This tendency to elevate secondary, non-essential doctrines is greatly diminished in creedal churches. The ecumenical creeds do not include anything about the millennium, the rapture, or the Antichrist, indeed, they contain nothing at all about the interpretation of the book of Revelation! These doctrines are not necessary for salvation; neither should they be made necessary for church membership. The creeds set fort