As far as Christianity goes, the listeners of this podcast are fairly diverse. We have people from many different denominations, some would not claim a denominational affiliation, some have very different spiritual backgrounds. Some are new Christians. Some have been Christians for a long period of time.
And so, when we talk about a topic like creeds, many of you, and myself included, are going to approach this from many different directions. So for instance, just to give you a little bit of my background to give you some context here: I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, a very traditional, typical if you will, Southern Baptist Church. We never recited a creed. We never read a creed. I never knew what a creed was in the church I grew up at (which is a shame as we’ll get to).
Some of you have, for every Sunday that you can remember, recited the Apostle’s Creed in church. Some others of you may be uncomfortable with creeds. You may think that they’re an addition to scripture, that we don’t need them. And some of others of you my just not know what they are, and so I think we’ve got people that span the whole gamut here that listen to this podcast.
So, I have a modest goal today. I want to cover what creeds are and some thoughts on how they’ve gotten to the place where they have in society and thought today in the church and how we should approach using them, if we should, as Christians.
Now, what is a creed? That’s a question we should answer first off. The word creed in English comes from a Latin word which simply means “I believe.” A creed is a statement of belief. It is saying these are the things I, or more accurately, the things we, as a community of faith believe.
So, Christians have been writing creeds for almost the entire time there have been Christians. And in fact, one of the most popular and famous creeds is the Nicene Creed, and this came out of the Council of Nicaea which took place in 325 A.D., and it was added to later in 381 at the Council of Constantinople.
And so what we kind of quote and refer to oftentimes as the Nicene Creed is actually the creed that’s a combination of Nicaea and Constantinople, and this is how it starts. This may sound familiar to you. It says, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of all light, very God of very God, begotten and not made.” And it goes on and on to say different things about Jesus and the Holy Spirit and about the kingdom and about the church and things like this.
Now, some of you may not have ever heard of that before as a statement of belief, but you very well may have heard it in a song. There have been several songs in the last few years that have come out that are basically a rendition of the creed put to music and melody and rhythm, and I think this is awesome. This is taking beliefs that the church has affirmed since the beginning and putting them in a way that’s easier to remember. It’s much easier for us to remember things when they have melody and rhyme and meter.
You very well may have sung a large part of the Nicene Creed, maybe the Apostle’s Creed in church or in your car going down the road and not realized you were singing a creed. There’s a song actually called I Believe, and it’s basically singing a creed, which is pretty cool.
All of this to say: creeds take us all the way back to the very infancy of Christianity when very early on in the church people were affirming the same things we believe today. Beliefs like: there’s one God who’s the maker of heaven and earth. There’s one Son who’s fully God, that there’s the Spirit who is fully God. That Jesus was crucified and buried and rose again and ascended to heaven, that He’s coming again, that there’s one church that’s been sanctified by his blood. All of these types of things were affirmed in the creed, and they’re still the things the believing church believes today.
So that’s just a little bit of history. There have been multiple creeds. There have been multiple, what you might call confessions which are more detailed than creeds, but these are a way of helping people understand what we understand scripture to say.
Let me say that again. Creeds are a statement of what we believe scripture to be saying. They shouldn’t be adding to scripture or anything like that. They’re simply a way of putting into different words our understanding or interpretation of what scripture says. And for that reason, a creed should never be viewed as authoritative in and of itself.
There are people who will actually quote a creed sometimes before they’ll quote scripture. I understand often what’s happening. It’s a shorthand to saying “this is my understanding of scripture, which is the authority, is the same as the creed,” and so they’ll quote the creed. But I think over time what actually happens here is that people begin to view the creed as a de facto authority. I’m not picking on the Presbyterians here, I promise, but many Presbyterians hold to something called the Westminster Confession of Faith, and it’s more detailed than a creed. It’s a confession. It spells out lots of things in very fine detail. There’s a ton of thought and intentionality that has gone into this very old confession.
But often, when people are writing or citing what they believe, they’ll cite the confession instead of scripture.
Now, like I said, I think this is a shorthand way of saying what the creed says is what I understand scripture to be saying, so scripture is the authority, but nonetheless, I think we have to be careful when we talk and when we write and communicate that it is clear that scripture is the authority and not the creed.
And for that reason, creeds have historically been viewed as what makes someone orthodox, or said differently, if you hold to what the creed says, because that’s what we understand scripture to be saying, you are orthodox / you hold correct Biblical beliefs. People often don’t take kindly to you disagreeing with the creeds, and I think this is something that should be taken on very lightly, but just to clarify, the issue should not be that someone disagrees with the creed. The issue should be if you disagree with scripture. So make a scriptural argument. Don’t make an argument based on a creed. I think creeds are helpful, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, but when we compare understandings of Christianity and God and salvation and these things like this, let’s build our views directly from scripture and make sure we can support what we affirm in a creed with what scripture says.
So that’s kind of a corrective to what I see sometimes when people have used creeds a lot, but there are some of us who are uncomfortable maybe with creeds due to our upbringing. Like I mentioned, we never recited a creed when I was growing up. I grew up Southern Baptist, and in many circles, there’s this pervasive way of thinking in Southern Baptist life and just in evangelicalism today that does not like creeds or maybe even know about them. But it has not always been this way. In the 1700s and 1800s, Baptists were big on creeds. They were big on saying, “What do you understand scripture to say? We understand it to be reflected in this creed or this confession. Do you hold to this?” Now the creed or the confession wasn’t an authority in and of itself. It was simply their way of explaining what they understand scripture to be saying.
But this viewpoint has largely fallen by the wayside in many circles, and I think it’s to our detriment. What’s really interesting to me is for us to take a brief snapshot of the history of one of our seminaries. You’re probably thinking, “more history? We just talked about dates and Nicaea and stuff like that.” Yes, a little more history to make my point.
The first Southern Baptist Seminary started in the 1800s, when James Montgomery Boyce started the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and one of his three initial principles that he founded it on was that there needed to be a creed or a doctrinal statement that people who taught there would affirm. If you didn’t affirm this, you couldn’t teach there, and this was really important to him.
Now, over the years, as you progress through the 1800s, you get into the 1900s, the creed of Southern Seminary stopped being affirmed and held to by the people who taught there, and the seminary really dipped into liberalism where the Bible wasn’t necessarily the word of God, where Jesus wasn’t necessarily raised from the dead. These were beliefs that were held by faculty members at a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Why? Well one, it was a departure from biblical orthodoxy, and that’s unquestionable, but it was because also the creed wasn’t held to and affirmed. Now remember, a creed has a authority only in as much as it’s correct with scripture, but it’s easy for someone to say today, “Well I believe scripture. I hold that the Bible is an authority.” Yeah, but the question is what do they understand it to be saying.
And this kind of takes us back to our topic from last week. Is there even a Biblical point of view on a topic? Well, there is, but there are obviously multiple interpretations, and a creed is a way of saying, “This is my interpretation.”
So, someone may say, “I hold the Bible to be an authority.” But then they’ll say, “Marriage could be two women together.” Well, if we spelled out our understanding of marriage in a creed, we could ask the person, “Do you agree that marriage is between one man and one woman?” And we might cite Matthew 19 and etc. And they would have to say no if they held the belief I just mentioned.
So a creed is a way of understanding and comparing beliefs, but Southern Seminary stopped holding to their creed, and it slid into liberalism.
Now, I think it’s a remarkable story that the seminar recovered by the grace of God, and by Albert Mohler coming in and returning to holding to that initial confession and requiring people who were going to teach there to hold to biblically orthodox beliefs as were understood and explained in the creed of Southern Seminary called The Abstract of Principles.
So, the creed, in and of itself doesn’t add to scripture, but what it does is show how people understand scripture to function and what it means, and so they’re helpful in that way.
I also think creeds are helpful to recite in corporate worship together. Now there are a couple creeds I have some small issues with which puts me in a minority, and I’m not going to focus on those here, but nonetheless, I think in principle, creeds can be helpful because what we’re doing when we’re reciting a creed together in church on Sunday is we are the amassed and gathered body of Christ in a local setting who, in some ways, are joining arms with what the saints of God have believed and recited throughout the centuries, and we can find comfort and strength and confidence in that to know that when we recite that there is one God who created everything. There is one son who was created and rose from the dead. This isn’t something new. That even though I may struggle with those truths in my heart in doubt throughout the week, you know what? I’m standing with 500, 75, whatever number of people in reciting this together. There’s strength in that.
But then we also recall, you know what? This creed was written in the 300s, and people have been affirming these same things publicly without change for hundreds and thousands of years, and that’s an awesome thing. So I think creeds have a place in public worship, in private worship, and in just understanding what the church has believed.
Now, one other point though when we come to creeds. They’re a product of their time. Just like anything that’s ever written, it’s a product of its time. It’s responding to concerns of the day. So some of these creeds were written to respond to new heresies, false ideas about God and the Bible that arose at that time. They might also be using terms or concepts in ways we don’t use them today.
So for instance, the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus descended into hell, and some churches may not read that because they think Jesus did not go to hell, but when that was written, hell did not refer to this place of fiery punishment we think of today. It simply was referring to the grave, to the place where all dead people go regardless of if they’re righteous or not righteous, and so we see that, and that sticks out to us as something that sounds very odd, and it should if it means what we understand it to mean today. However, when the creed was written, it didn’t mean that.
Another thing in creeds you’ll often see is “we believe in the holy Catholic and Apostolic church,” and you’re thinking, “I’m a Protestant. I can’t say that.” Well, here’s the thing, catholic means universal, and when these creeds were written in the 300s, the Catholic Church as it exists today with its sacramental system and its priesthood and its sacrifice of the mass and Pope and all of that did not exist in that time. So this is another word, catholic, that didn’t refer what we think it refers to today.
So, I hope this has been a helpful little primer on creeds. They’re simply statements of belief, and we should view them as authoritative only in as much as we can support what they say from scripture. They are not authorities in and of themselves, they’re simply reflections of understandings of scripture.
Some of us could stand to use them more than we do and not be as weary of them as perhaps we are due to our upbringing or denominational context. Others of us may want to evaluate how much we think about what the creed says as opposed to how much we think about what scripture says.
And so I can’t speak specifically to any circumstance there, but what I can say is we should always support our beliefs from scripture. If you can’t defend a belief or a doctrine or any point in theology to me from scripture, and we only go to a creed or some other source, then you don’t hold the sola scriptura, the view that scripture is the highest authority on matters of faith and practice for the church because it’s the only inspired collection of works that the church has. If you’re citing some other manmade authority, then you’re doing that over and above scripture when it comes to theology and doctrine. So, we need to be very careful there that we don’t bind people’s consciences because of a creed over and above what scripture says.
So this has been a little different episode today. I do hope it’s helpful for you to understand that Christians have believed and affirmed the same things we affirm today throughout the centuries, and yes, in some ways, creeds do draw lines. They do exclude people, but those people should be excluded not because they don’t agree with the creed, but because they disagree with scripture. I think that’s an important qualification.
People often say, “Well Christianity is about inclusion.” Well, it’s about inclusion around Christ, around truth. The Bible constantly makes lines and excludes people who affirm and believe false things. Just look at the process of church discipline that happens in 1 Corinthians 5. Look at the people who are constantly corrected by Paul, the people he tells to basically go castrate themselves because they believe and teach the wrong things (Galatians 5:12).
So Christians are line-drawing people. We want everyone to be able to come and repent and believe the Gospel, but at the same time, we have to be extremely clear about what the lines are and what the gospel is and what Christ actually requires. We do people no favors when we sacrifice our commitment to truth in the effort to include people.
So we can love and affirm truth all at the same time, even if society says we can’t. Well, I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.