In Defense Of Creedalism

Thanks to Gary Johnson for forwarding to me a recent essay by Roger Olson, who is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. In that essay, “Against Creedalism: Why I Am A ‘Confessing Christian’ But Not A Creedal Christian” he characterizes “creedalism” this way:

One reason I am a moderate Baptist is to avoid creedalism. Let me define that—as it is meant by my fellow moderate Baptists (and some others). To me, to us, “creedalism” is the elevation of some extra-biblical statement of belief to a status equal with Scripture itself—authoritative beyond doubt, mental reservation, question or revision. And church leadership, if not membership, depends on some act of expressing uncritical agreement with, loyalty and allegiance to an extra-biblical doctrinal statement.

Olson’s account of “creedalism” deserves a response not because it is especially helpful or even coherent but because it represents the way many Christians think about creeds and how to relate to them. The second great problem with this account of “creedalism” is that it borders on caricature. Which confessing Protestants actually place their creed above Scripture? Consider the historic, confessional Reformed churches. We confess that God’s Word is the supreme and final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. E.g., in Belgic Confession (1561) chapter 7 we confess:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house.

To suggest that the Reformed churches place the Belgic Confession (a creed) above Scripture itself is to suggest that we are hypocrites, that we contradict our confession. It is possible. Perhaps it has happened but I am hard pressed to understand why, in the absence of an abundance of evidence, Christians assume that the use of creeds necessarily contradicts sola scriptura. We confess that the Belgic Confession is subordinate to the Word of God. We confess what we do because (quia) we believe it to be biblical. Should the Belgic be found to be out of accord with God’s Word, the Belgic should be revised. For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. More recently, Carl Trueman has published a defense of “creedalism” but he defines creedalism rather differently than Olson does.

Our English word creed comes from the Latin verb credo,  “I believe.” Anyone who says, “I believe” has a creed.

The History of Creeds
One reason why creeds are unavoidable is that we have always had them. Arguably, there are proto-creedal statements in Scripture itself. Deuteronomy 6:4 comes to mind: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” This was recited in the synagogues and in the apostolic Christian churches. The New Testament alludes at least three times to the Shema, in Romans 3:30, Galatians 3:20, and most clearly in James 2:19: “You believe that God is one, you do well. And the demons believe and shudder.” The church in Jerusalem, in the 40s and 50s AD recited Deuteronomy 6:4 as a creed against the prevailing polytheism both in Egypt and in the Greco-Roman world. The Apostle Paul uses creedal formulae in the pastoral epistles when says, “this is a faithful saying…” (1 Tim 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim 2:11). The clearest example of creedal language in the New Testament may be 1 Timothy 3:16:

And confessedly great is the mystery of godliness:
Manifested in the flesh,
Vindicated by the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.

Paul himself uses the adverb “confessedly” (ὁμολογουμένως) to introduce what seem plainly to be articles of faith. Each line begins with a verb referring to the history of salvation. He moves from the incarnation, to the resurrection, to the ministry of the church, and to his ascension. To those Christians who regularly recite the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed in worship the rhythm is most familiar.

The earliest post-apostolic Christians followed this pattern by speaking of the “rule of faith” (regula fidei). We find examples not only of the fathers speaking about a rule of faith but we find them sketching the outlines of what that rule was (e.g., Irenaeus and Tertullian). The Apostles’ Creed, confessed by all Christians in all times and places, grew organically out of the “rule of faith” sketched by Irenaeus et al. In the 4th and 5th centuries the church’s response to heresy was to gather to confess the faith against that error. We did so at Nicea (325 AD), against at Constantinople (381 AD), in the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), and in the Athanasian Creed. Confessing the faith formally, briefly, is in the DNA of the Christian faith.

The Function of Creeds
One of the more pernicious and persistent mischaracterizations of the nature and function of creeds is to suggest that they do more than they do. They are agreed, public declarations of what the church understands Scripture to teach. When I became a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America I subscribed (literally signed my name underneath) the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. In subscribing them, however, I pledged my allegiance to God’s Word as the norm without a norm. In Romanism, the Scriptures are normed by the church. In some varieties of Pentecostalism and Charismatic piety, the Scriptures are normed by private revelations. In popular evangelical practice, the Scriptures are normed by religious experience. In the Reformed churches, however, nothing norms the Scriptures. Every truth claim, every doctrine, every practice, and our piety, is subject to God’s inerrant, infallible, immutable, perspicuous Word.

When the Apostles confessed the faith, the post-apostolic church gathered to confess the faith, they never imagined that they were placing a human document above Scripture. They were articulating what the church understood Scripture to teach. They knew as we know that against error (e.g., the so-called “Open Theism” doctrine) it is not enough to recite Scripture. As soon as the orthodox quote “For I Yahweh do not change” (Mal 3:6), the heterodox will quote Genesis 6:6, “And Yahweh repented…”. Thus, in lieu of dueling quotations (biblicism), the church confesses what Scripture teaches.

This way, since the apostolic church and throughout the early post-apostolic church and in the confessional Reformation churches, we have held each other accountable to an objective account of the Christian faith. Even the Anabaptists, with whom Olson sympathizes regularly confessed their faith in the 16th and 17th centuries. To be sure, their relationship to those documents was sometimes different than the Reformed relationship to creeds—some historians of the Anabaptist traditions argue that those documents bind only those persons who signed them—nevertheless, even the Anabaptists are creedal in some way.

The Necessity of Creeds
The congregation that says, “No creed but Christ” has a creed. It is an impoverished and inadequate creed but a creed they have. It is impoverished because, unlike 1 Timothy 3:16 and the ancient ecumenical creeds, it does not reflect on the objective person and work of Christ nor of the church’s reception of that work nor of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Olson’s article does something like this when he describes himself as a “confessing” Christian. A confessing Christian confesses something. Whatever else that is, it is a creed. Thus, Olson is a creedal Christian. What is in question is what he believes.

It is no secret what Reformed and Lutheran Christians believe. The Reformed confess our faith publicly in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards. The Lutherans confess their faith in the Book of Concord.

We confess our faith in these ways not only in imitation of the biblical pattern sketched above but in obedience to Scripture. After all, our Lord himself said, “So everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess him before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:32). Confessing and creeds are logically inevitable. Creeds are the ancient, universal practice of the church. Creedal formulae are found throughout Scripture itself. Creeds are biblical.

We should all agree with Olson that no Christian should put a creed above Scripture. We confess against that very thing.

10 comments

  1. This is a wonderful article. I grew up in a Church of Christ which denounced creeds. I was taught exactly what Olson has said in your quotation of him. As I matured into adulthood I began to see how erroneous and logically inconsistent it was to assert that the use of creeds meant that a church had departed from the doctrine of Scripture alone and was in essence “adding to” the Word. I came to inevitably understand that even though my church didn’t have a creed printed in a bulletin, we still had one – an oral one. The difference was, instead of having a clear statement of the doctrines and beliefs of our church, each individual had his own nuanced view that wasn’t checked or challenged against a definite standard. Much division has resulted from this.

    Thanks for your faithful ministry and God bless you.

  2. The ancient, ecumenical creeds were written in defense against the heresies that threatened the early church and to provide a concise and reliable statement of what is revealed in Scripture. As there is nothing new under the sun, many of the challenges that have recently been raised by the doctrinal revisionists have already been addressed, and declared to be false by those who formulated the creeds. They are a litmus test for error. Christians should memorize them and compare any “new” teaching to the standards set forth in the creeds. In most cases, the novelty turns out to be an old, false teaching.

  3. This has always been Olson’s m.o. He is a caricaturist and he misrepresents. He hates Reformed theology. You’ve clearly demonstrated he doesn’t even know the definition of “creed” thus making himself look even more ignorant and his screed meaningless.

  4. You mention 3 allusions to the Shema found in the NT. And a fourth is the direct quotation of it made by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31, terming it the greatest commandment of all.
    Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.
    And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
    This ultimate commandment has an effect like none other in the conscience, for we all are forced to confess how exceedingly far short we fall from living it. It drives us, impels us, to the grace in Christ.

  5. It seemed to me that Olson’s main issue was not the use of creeds (or confessions) but with subscription. His anecdote about the heresy found in the doctrinal statement reveals that his issue is with constraining people to an extra biblical document with the threat of unemployment, excommunication, etc rather with the document itself.

    I see you already have material on subscription (which I plan on reading) but as I’m relatively new to confessional reformed Christianity I have questions about the extent of subscription to an extra biblical document. Perhaps you could address the proper and improper use of subscription (if you haven’t already, else where😄)?

  6. I agree fully. I was brought up in the pentecostal-charismatic system in Kenya and when I became a believer about 5 years ago, it took me about 2-3 months to see the errors of the system. Took me about 2 years to understand the doctrines of Grace. Now a reformed baptist (1689 LBCF). Thank you for your beneficial piece. #SDG

  7. Yes to all of the above. I just finished reading a copy of D.G. Hart’s “The Lost Soul of American Protestantism” that I received at Christmas. An excellent piece of journalism that I’d urge everyone to read, the reason being that it covers the history in colonial American up to the present time citing the influence of rivals (that were instigated by pietism). It was the itinerant revivalist preachers who threw away the creeds and insisted on a bible-only method of conversion. Coming from a background in confessional Lutheranism (up until about 10 years ago) I had not realized the methods behind the madness that is now the free-wheeling mess loosely called evangelicalism.

    Having said that, I view creeds and confessions as similar to the legal system. If you go to a notary public and he/she stamps your form with a seal it signifies that “you are who you say you are” – a fine line maybe, but it’s not saying the same thing as flatly as “you are who you are.” In a similar manner, if you are summoned to witness to something before a court of law you will be “sworn in.” This “swearing in” is a formality that makes it a legally official record that you will be telling the court exactly what you saw or know about specific details of a crime. If it is later found that you, in fact, knew something more about the events than what you told the court, you may be held in contempt and face penalties.

    I suppose one could do the same thing with ordination candidates by simply asking them if they believe that everything contained in the bible to be true, that they believe what it says, and that they promise to preach the word accordingly. The problem is that there are fine points of disagreement between what different passages of scripture tell us or command us to do. Reformed congregants do not view the elements in the Lord’s Supper the same way confessional Lutherans view them (who knows how the mainline Lutherans view them). Nor do either of those communions view the elements the same way Roman Catholics view them. In other words, just because someone swears to uphold and preach what the scriptures have to say does not mean that he will do so in a manner in keeping with a particular communion’s traditional interpretation.

    Hence, the creeds. If a pastoral candidate is to be ordained in a confessional Lutheran church, he must agree to everything written in the Book of Concord. If it is later found that he is preaching and teaching something different than what the confessions contained there have to say, he may be taken to task by the elders and, if he does not cease and desist, he may be asked to resign. The creeds and confessions are a good vehicle to bind churches and communions together and unify them.

  8. In your response to Olson, you asserted he regarded creed Alison as being above scripture. Actually, he said they were viewed as status on par with scripture, that is, equal to scripture. I think there is a difference there. Nevertheless, we do need to be careful, as the creeds themselves state, not to give unquestioning loyalty to what man, even godly men, have written. As it is mentioned in James, we all stumble in many ways. Unfortunately, whenever a dispute arises in the church, all to often we turn to the confession or creed first rather than the scriptures first, thus giving the impression of a much higher status of the confessions themselves. I think all too often we shoot ourselves in the foot in our defenses.

  9. The creeds and confessions represent the collective understanding of the most wise and godly leaders and teachers that God has given to the Church. These confessions have stood up to challenges in the Church for centuries and been proven to be faithful to Scripture. For that reason it would seem to be most wise for us to first look to the confessions when disputes arise. They show us how godly leaders have settled issues in the past and their judgments are likely to apply to our situation also. If we think otherwise, we ought to be prepared to bring the issue before the Church, and be prepared to show from Scripture how the confession is wrong. As several commenters have already said, the confessions define what the Church has determined to be the standard for sound doctrine. Therefore anyone who disagrees must prove it before the Church. The confession or creed is to be accepted, not my personal interpretation or the personal interpretation of anyone else. If someone wants to bring error into the Church, we have a test by which to judge it. I think it is very reassuring that in doctrinal questions we have tried, tested, and true standards for the theology, piety, and practice of our Reformed churches.

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