We live in a time that resists formulas of any kind. This poses a challenge for those of us who have been nurtured in our faith by creedal communities. By that I mean that the standard for admitting someone into fellowship is primarily based on agreement with a set of theological statements. Most churches have a statement of faith (ours certainly does) that attempt to define the essential, non-negotiable points of agreement that unite their particular congregation.
I love creeds. In seminary I was tasked on a few occasions to craft statements of faith and found the exercise thrilling and engaging. The process of looking through all that Scripture has to say on various topics and themes is one that has nourished my soul over the years. My background of being raised in the Evangelical Free Church gave me an early respect for challenging any statement of faith with the question “Where stands it written?” It presented Scripture, rather than the creed, as the final authority on matters of faith. In this post (which is long overdue) I will explore one of the dangers of creeds, which is that in practice they often usurp that proper place of Scripture in a way that cuts us off from the life-giving ministry of the Word. In a future post (and I promise it will not take four months this time) I will explore the reality that even when this danger is avoided, creeds are at best one half of the standard we should use in defining our fellowships. But for now…
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of should and of spirit, of joints and of marrow and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” - Hebrews 4:12-13
I recently preached on Hebrews 3:1-4:13 (listen here) and gave the context of this well-known verse as being the necessary means to enter God’s saving rest. The image is one of yielding ourselves to the sword in the hand of a gladiatorial opponent. The word is not in our hands, but in His, and there are things we must allow him to cut out, remove, and put to death by it. If we retain control of the sword, this cannot be done. I have become aware that creeds are one way that we attempt to retain control of the sword.
Our creeds are always the product of bringing our questions about God, life, culture and ourselves to the text of Scripture and expressing the answers we find therein. Creeds therefore must necessarily change over time because the questions we are asking change. Note that I am not suggesting that truth changes over time. Truth is fixed and eternal. Our expression of truth must constantly adjust as our understanding develops, grows and matures based on the questions we ask. We see this dynamic at work throughout Scripture itself as well as the history of the church as faithful saints bring their questions to God and receive fresh understandings of his nature. For instance:
Each of these questions opened a dialogue and a process that was rarely straightforward and was frequently fraught with tension. Creeds give expression to what is reached at the end of such a process but do not give room for a real dialogue to take place. They often serve to shut down discussion rather than to foster inquiry. It is telling that in very few instances when Jesus was asked questions did he answer them directly. Frequently he responded by asking a question himself! Indeed, even his teaching in parables is designed to provoke questions rather than to answer them.
It is worth thinking about how we approach Scripture, especially when we listen to those who teach us. We should consider: “Am I evaluating what is being taught based on its faithfulness to the text or based on its faithfulness to a particular statement of faith?” I find that often we are engaged in the latter activity. Instead of repeatedly submitting our creeds to the scrutiny of Scripture, we close ourselves off to what Scripture might be saying because of an acceptance of previously drafted statements.
Creeds also serve to limit our spiritual life by reducing faithfulness to an agreement on the particular points of doctrine our community has thought to be most important. I reflected recently on this idea and had to confess that our eternal destiny is not based on precisely correct theology any more than it is based on perfectly pure works. Right thinking is no more meritorious to secure salvation than right doing. What saves us is fidelity to the person and work of Jesus Christ the Nazarene and nothing else. All good theology is but a reflection on the wonder of the Son of God and the redemption He provides. I realized that I will never understand Him and His salvation perfectly and at any given moment I am guilty of any number of heretical opinions about Him. Yet He loves me and I love Him, of that I am certain. And so I strive every day to grow in my knowledge of Him and my appreciation of His work through Scripture and prayer, bringing my questions and trusting Him to guide me into truth. Creeds become useful tools in that process but hopefully never usurp the place of Jesus, His Spirit and His Word as my source of Truth.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.