Part 2: Confessing Creeds and Renewing Evangelicalism
The historic creeds are indispensable for the following reasons:
1. Authentic spiritual authority. The creeds serve as an antidote for Christians who have imbibed the spirit of individualism and skepticism leading to their rejection of authoritative proclamation of the gospel. However, these Christians end up following the latest fashion in spirituality when they are bereft of firm foundations of faith. No single individual has the credibility or competence to challenge prevailing social opinions. It is wise for the church to secure the counsel of many experts as any individual leader is limited in theological expertise and tends to focus on his idiosyncratic interests. Hence, creeds as products of collective wisdom have greater authority than any individual opinion and serve as judicious and authoritative statements for public declaration of the faith of the church. The purpose of a creed is not to debate the minutiae of theological exegesis but to synthesize a grand overview of Christian truths which the church commends to wider society as an alternative and better vision of life than what wider society can offer.
More importantly, theologians have traditionally formulated their creeds as concise statements that are assessable to Christian laypersons, and useful for catechism and Christian education. Precisely, because the historic creeds are the result of consultation and careful deliberation, they have survived the fads and fashions of social-cultural change and continue to speak pertinently to ongoing theological controversies over the ages.
2. Historical concreteness vs theoretical speculation. The goal of the early universal creeds was the preliminary and negative task of refuting doctrinal errors and heresies. Thus, Athanasius likened the Nicene Creed to ‘a signpost against all heresies’. The Nicene Creed was formulated to exclude the heresy of Arianism which denies the deity of Christ and the trinity, and the Reformed creeds were drafted to emphasize the sovereignty of God and justification by faith against legalistic religion. Likewise, the Chicago Declaration on Biblical Inerrancy is an evangelical rejoinder to modern skepticism and rationalism which question the infallible authority and entire trustworthiness of the Bible. Familiarity with the creeds and theological confessions should alert us to heresies when they reemerge in our generation.
C.S. Lewis observes that it is our natural tendency is to commit “chronological snobbery” which is, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”. Naturally, we are quick to detect failings of the past but are blind the shortcomings of our age. The only palliative that can cure us of doctrinal ‘blindspots’ is to expose our minds to exemplary theological writings of the past. Likewise, contemporary Christians need to learn from the creeds as they provide valuable insights into how the church has wrestled with and addressed hard questions of faith. Failure to learn from the creeds results in unnecessary reinventing the wheel in doctrinal formulation, and a bad reinvention at that. Nevertheless, this does not absolve every new generation of believers the task of thinking anew and expressing afresh the meaning and significance of Christian faith.
3. Affirming the core tenets of faith. The purpose of a creed is to build consensus among Christians. First, consensus has to be founded on a common authority and hence a creed should begin with acknowledgment of the primacy of scripture. Second, consensus is achieved only if the covenant parties focus on the essentials. Hence, the creeds repeatedly emphasize the core doctrines like the unity and trinity of God, the humanity and deity of Jesus, the atonement work of Christ and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in faith and salvation. The creeds distill the essentials from the non-essentials, what have been continuously affirmed by the universal church throughout history. Of course, the creeds do vary in depth and complexity. Third, consensus is real and effective if it is ratified in a solemn bond. Hence, a creed serves as a public statement of the faith of the Christian community. To accept the creeds is to affirm that Christian doctrine is not a matter of individual judgment, but the fruit of collective deliberation and final verdict of the Christian community.
On the converse side, every affirmation of truth is also a rejection of error and a delineation of the boundaries of faith which theological reflection may not transgress without distorting the truth of revelation. Significantly, the clarity of boundaries creates space for discussion, disagreement and thoughtful theologizing. Consider for example, the declaration of the Chalcedonian Creed on the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhood, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same [consisting of a rational soul and a body; homoousious [consubstantial/coessential] with the Father as to his Godhead, and the Same homoousious [consubstantial/coessential] with us as to his manhood…One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, made know to us in two natures [which exists] without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and [both] concurring into one Person [prosopon] and one Subsistence [hypostasis], not parted or divided into two persons [prosopa], but one and the same Son and Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Chalcedon creed is satisfied just to affirm that Jesus is perfect in Godhead and in manhood, that he is truly God and truly man without specifying how this happened in the one Person Jesus Christ. The creed affirms the two perfect natures of Christ and leaves it to each generation to explore the relationship between the two natures (within the limits spelled out by the creed), using whatever appropriate metaphysical categories and cultural thought forms of the times. Indeed, the creeds as official declarations of the church lay out its doctrines for open discussion and public scrutiny.
4. Criteria for commitment, membership and mutual accountability in the community of faith.
Truth separates those who believe and those who do not. Paul warned the church that heresies will arise and threaten the doctrinal unity and purity of the church, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom 16:17). Paul’s mandate to the church is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1Tim 6:20).
The creeds or “rule of faith” (Irenaeus) provide an indispensable tool to the church to identify, critique, correct and if necessary reject heresies. To be sure, it should be emphasized that the creeds, unlike the Bible, do not lay claim to the status of immutable and infallible truth. The creeds have ministerial rather than magisterial function – they elaborate and clarify the teaching of the Bible even as they submit their teaching to the final and unique authority of the Bible. The creeds are not above criticism, but they should be regarded with utmost respect and given careful consideration.
5. In conclusion, an evangelical movement that confesses the Lordship of Christ based on the Bible and the creeds feels secure about its sense of identity and mission so that it will not be distracted or perturbed by passing winds of doctrines and heresies. As such, creeds serve as invaluable anchors of evangelical belief and witness. It is fitting to end with a challenge from The Chicago Call: An Appeal to Evangelicals (1977),
We deplore two opposite excesses: a creedal church that merely recites a faith inherited from the past, and a creedless church that languishes in a doctrinal vacuum.
We affirm the abiding value of the great ecumenical creeds and the reformation confessions. Since such statements are historically and culturally conditioned, however, the church today needs to express its faith afresh, without defecting from the truths apprehended in the past. We need to articulate our witness against the idolatries and fresh ideologies of our days.
Therefore we affirm the need in our time for a confessing church that will boldly witness to its faith before the world, even under the threat of persecution. In every age, the church must state its faith over and against heresy and paganism. What is needed is a vibrant confession that excludes as well as includes, therefore aiming to purify faith and practice. Confessional authority is limited by and derived from the authority of Scripture, which alone remains ultimately and permanently normative. Nevertheless, as the common insight of those who have been illuminated by the Holy Spirit and seek to be the voice of the ‘holy catholic church’, a confession should serve as a guide for interpretation of Scripture.
David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from 1730s to 1980s. Routledge 1989
Harold O.J. Brown. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson 1998.
Andreas Kostenberger & Michael Kruger. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. Crossway 2010.
Carl Trueman. The Creedal Imperative. Crossway 2012.