A Plea For Creeds
Rev. Ron Hanko
(slightly modified from an article in the
British Reformed Journal, issue no. 21, January-March 1998)
Creed or Chaos
There is an essay by a well-known British author of
this century entitled, "Creed or Chaos."1
While not agreeing with much of the content of the essay, the title very
nicely describes the urgency of having and using the historic creeds of
the church. We are convinced that the only alternative to creeds is
ecclesiastical chaos. History has proved that, especially in this
century. In refusing to have creeds or in moving away from her creeds
the church has exposed herself to the chaos that the floods and winds of
doctrinal change, spiritual ignorance, and worldliness bring.
Some have begun to realize this and to return to the
creeds, and for this we are profoundly thankful. Others, however,
continue to neglect and despise the creeds, and it is to them especially
that this article is addressed in the hope they will reconsider and see
both the biblical basis and the need for creeds in the church.
It is that biblical basis that we hope to establish
first of all. Then we wish also to address some of the objections that
are raised against creeds. Finally, having established and defended the
necessity of creeds, we wish to point out some of the specific uses of
creeds in the church, for unless the creeds are known and used, having
them is of no value.
Confessing Our Faith
In order to see that the use of creeds is biblical,
we must remember that "creed" is from a Latin word which means, "I
believe." That tells us what creeds are. They are an expression of the
faith that lives in the hearts of God's people. In the creeds,
believers, usually as a body, tell the world what they believe the Word
of God teaches. Creeds, then, do not exist apart from Scripture or over
against it, but are simply a confession of what believers find in the
Word of God. And what they find in the Word of God, they confess.
In having creeds, therefore, believers are only doing
what the Word of God itself commands them to do—confessing their faith.
For this reason the creeds are often called "confessions." So it is here
first of all, in the fact that creeds are confessions, that we find a
biblical basis for having them.
There are any number of passages that command
believers to confess their faith. In
Matthew 10:32, Jesus makes this very necessary when He says:
"Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess
also before my Father which is in heaven."
Romans 10:9-10 connect our confessing Christ with salvation: "If
thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in
thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth
confession is made unto salvation."
In confessing their faith in creeds believers are
only doing in unison what Nathanael did when he said, "Rabbi, thou art
the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel" (John
1:49), or what Peter did when he said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son
of the living God" (Matt.
16:16). In recording their confession they are only doing what
Scripture itself does in recording such confessions as these.
That they are required by Scripture to make a common
confession is also clear. In
Romans 15:6, the Apostle Paul prays that the members of the church
in Rome might "with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." In
I Corinthians 1:10 the Word of God commands believers that they all
"speak the same thing." Not only that, but in the context (v. 2) they
are commanded to do this "with all that in every place call upon the
name of Jesus Christ our Lord." This, as far as we are able to see, can
only be done by way of creeds.2
This is exactly the way in which creeds are justified
by those who have written them. In the preface to his "Confession,"
for example, John Knox says, "For we are most certainly persuaded that
whosoever denies Christ Jesus, or is ashamed of Him, in the presence of
men, shall be denied before the Father, and before His holy angels."3
It is really impossible to be without creeds. Every
believer believes something about what the Word of God teaches. And
insofar as that faith is precious to him he confesses it. He really
cannot do otherwise, if he loves Christ and loves the Word. Everyone and
every church has a creed whether it is written down or not. Even in
those churches that reject creeds there is a creed which has there as
much force and authority as the written creeds do in churches that have
Likewise, those who use the slogan, "No creed but
Christ," will very quickly be found to have quite an extensive "creed"
or belief, not only about Christ. Ask them, for example, which Christ
they confess—the Christ of the liberals who is only an example to
believers and who did not shed His blood for their sins, the Christ of
the Mormons or of the Jews or of the Romish church. Thankfully, you will
find that their creeds includes a great deal of sound biblical teaching
about Christ and His work.
You also find that their creed, their belief,
includes much more than a confession of Christ. Though they have no
written creeds and say "No creed but Christ," they do not really hold to
what they say. Try, for example, to teach the biblical doctrines of
election or of limited atonement in many such churches. You will be
politely but firmly told, "We do not believe that here," that is,
"It is not part of our creed." Or, ask to have an infant baptized
in most such churches, and you will be shown the door. "We do not
believe," you will hear as you leave, "in infant baptism."
The Work of the Spirit in the Church
The second way of demonstrating the necessity and
importance of creeds is by way of reference to the promise of Jesus in
John 16:13: "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will
guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but
whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you
things to come." This promise of Jesus is fulfilled as the Holy Spirit
gives God's people the ability to understand the Word of God.
The creeds are one of the fruits of that work of the
Spirit. To deny the usefulness of creeds and their place in the church
is to deny that the Spirit of truth has worked in the church of the
past, or at least to deny that His work has any relevance for the church
today. By so doing the church today cuts herself off from the church of
the past, denying the fundamental unity of the church in all ages. This
is one of the great weaknesses of the church today, that she has no ties
to the church of the past—does not know the history and lessons of the
past, nor the battles the church has fought, nor God's faithfulness to
His church through all the ages. She tries to stand completely on her
own against the forces of evil, instead of seeing herself as part of
that great "army with banners" that is "fair as the moon, clear as the
sun" (Song 6:10).
Not only that, but by cutting herself off from the church of past, the
church today says in effect that every generation must start all over in
its searching of the Scriptures and pursuit of the truth. Thus she sets
herself an impossible task—a task that is either set aside as too great
so that there is little knowledge of the truth in the church, or which
leaves her no time for other things.
This is well-stated by the Presbyterian author, G. I.
The Bible contains a great wealth of information.
It isn't easy to master it all—in fact, no one has ever mastered it
completely. It would therefore be foolish for us to try to do it on
our own, starting from scratch. We would be ignoring all the study
of the Word of God that other people have done down through the
centuries. That is exactly why we have creeds. They are the product
of many centuries of Bible study by a great company of believers.
They are a kind of spiritual "road map" of the teaching of the
Bible, already worked out an proved by others before us. And, after
all, isn't this exactly what Jesus promised? When he was about to
finish his work on earth, he made this promise to his disciples: "When
He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth"
16:13). And Christ kept his promise. When the Day of Pentecost
came, he sent his Spirit to dwell in his people. The Holy Spirit was
poured out—not on individuals, each by himself, but on the whole
body of Christian believers together (Acts
2). And from that time until this, he has been giving his church
an understanding of the Scriptures. It is no wonder that the church
expressed itself from very early times through creeds.
And right here we see one of the most important
things about a creed that is true to the Bible—it remains true down
through the ages. It does not need to be changed again and again,
with each generation, because it deals with things that are
unchanging. Thus, an accurate creed binds the generations together.
It reminds us that the church of Jesus Christ is not confined to one
age, just as it is not confined to any one place. In other words,
there is a unity in what Christians have believed, right down
through the ages. Just think of it: when we confess our faith
together ... we join with all those believers who have gone before
us. Does not this demonstrate that there is indeed just one Lord and
one true faith?4
The Importance of Doctrine
The third line of reasoning in defence of creeds
makes reference to
II Timothy 3:16-17, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,
and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for
instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect,
thoroughly furnished unto all good works." It is the reference to
doctrine that is important here.
Strictly speaking, Scripture is not doctrine (the
exposition of the truths of Scripture in their relation to one
another). This is implied in
II Timothy 3:16 in that Scripture is said to be profitable for
doctrine. And we should notice, too, that doctrine is the first
thing that Scripture is profitable for. Creeds are doctrine. They take
all the passages of Scripture regarding a certain teaching and put them
together into a statement of that doctrine and then show also how that
doctrine relates to others. They are, doctrinally, a "setting in order
of those things which are most surely believed among us" (Luke 1:1). Now
it ought to be evident to everyone that a good part of the opposition to
creeds is rooted in the fact that doctrine is very unpopular today. In
II Timothy 3:16-17 there is neither teaching of nor interest in
doctrine any more, and so the creeds, which are statements of doctrine
are either despised or set aside.
If Scripture is profitable for doctrine, then the
church does right in setting forth doctrine in her creeds. If doctrine
is as important as the Word indicates, then the church ought to have
such doctrinal statements.
Objections to Creeds
Some of the objections that are raised against creeds
we have already dealt with, but there are other, more important
objections, as well. Some say that having creeds denies the unique
authority of Scripture, and that the creeds, in fact, take us away from
Scripture and lead to the neglect of Scripture in the church. Others say
that creeds cause division in the church of Christ, even that they are
the primary cause of division between Christians. Both of these
objections are easily answered.
As far as the authority of Scripture is concerned,
the creeds when properly used neither push aside the authority of
Scripture nor draw Christians away from Scripture. Rather, they point to
the Scriptures and serve as a kind of "map" of the teaching of the Word.
This they do especially by the numerous references to Scripture that are
found in most creeds. No doubt there are a few who attach too much
authority to the creeds, but the creeds themselves claim that Scripture
is the only authority and show it is by referring to it.
From that point of view they do the same thing that
the preaching does - they compel believers to search the Scriptures to
see if the things taught in them are true (cf.
Acts 17:11). Like a map they even show where to begin in searching
the Scriptures. Indeed, in our experience, it is in those churches that
do not have or use creeds, where there is appalling ignorance of the
teaching of Scripture. People sit for years in such churches and never
seem to learn anything.
That creeds cause division in the church is another
red herring. The creeds do not cause the divisions that do exist in the
church, but only recognize those that are already there. In fact,
insofar as the creeds do teach the truth of Scripture (and we have the
promise of Jesus in
John 16:13 that they do, though not perfectly), the creeds instead
of causing division promote unity. It is, of course, the truth that
brings unity. We learn that from
Amos 3:3: "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" We learn
it also from
Ephesians 4:15-16: "But speaking the truth in love, may grow
up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the
whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint
supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every
part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying [i.e., building up]
of itself in love." The existing divisions, therefore, are not caused by
creeds but by a failure to know and submit to the truth. It is the lie
that divides, not the truth.
The Usefulness of Creeds
That brings us to speak of the usefulness of creeds,
since the very first and one of the more important uses is what might be
called their constitutional or unifying use. The creeds of a church are
her "banner displayed because of the truth" (Ps.
60:4), and serve as a rallying point for all those who make the same
confession of the truth. Thus, the creeds of the Reformed churches are
sometimes referred to as the Three Forms of Unity.
Closely related is the apologetic use of the creeds.
Apologetics is the defence of the truth of the gospel (the "answer" in
I Peter 3:15 is the Greek word "apology"). This apologetic use of
the creeds follows from the fact that most creeds were written in
defence of the truth of God's Word. They are the "answer" that the
church has given to those who have denied her hope. They were not
written in some ivory tower but on the battlefield of faith. And, the
errors they address are still around today. There is nothing new under
the sun. So too the Scripture passages they reference help us find a
biblical answer when we must stand in defence of the faith.
Then there is also what could be called their
juridical use, that is, they are useful in settling and avoiding
disputes. They are useful in settling disputes because they show what
Scripture teaches, bringing together the teaching of all Scripture on a
certain matter. They are useful in avoiding disputes because they set
forth the things that are important, thus steering clear of "foolish and
unlearned questions" that gender strife (II
Very important is the catechetical use of the creeds.
By this we mean that they are used to teach the truth to children and to
new converts. They are useful in this respect because they teach the
doctrines of Scripture. Anyone who has done any teaching knows that it
is almost impossible to learn anything unless the teaching is systematic
and carefully arranged in its logical relations. This the creeds do,
especially the catechisms which were designed for teaching both young
The creeds can even be used pastorally. They are not cold, abstract
statements, but warm, practical expositions of the truth and can be used
to direct the attention of those who are in need of pastoral counsel to
the Word of God. A good example is the application of the doctrine of
predestination in the Canons of Dordt I:13:
The sense and certainty of this election afford
to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation
before him, for adoring the depth of his mercies, for cleansing
themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him,
who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration
of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness
in the observance of the divine commands, or from sinking men in
carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the
usual effects of rash presumption, or of idle and wanton trifling
with the grace of election, in those who refuse to walk in the ways
of the elect.
Several other uses of lesser importance are the
homiletical and the liturgical. Some churches, by way of insuring that
the whole counsel of God is preached in the church (Acts
20:27), follow in the preaching at least one service each Lord's
Day, the teaching of a particular creed. In this way all the doctrines
of the faith are set forth in the church and the people of God well
grounded in the truth. This is the homiletical (having to do with sermon
making) use. In other churches the creeds, usually the shorter creeds
like the Apostle's or Nicene Creeds are recited as part of the worship
of the church. In this way believers make mutual confession of their
faith in obedience to Christ's command in
There are, we believe, other uses of the creeds as
well, but these are the most important. What needs to be emphasised,
however, is that the creeds are of value ONLY if they are used. If they
are just matters of the church archives and are left to gather dust in
the church, there is no profit at all in having them. Nevertheless, it
is necessary to have and use them, as we have shown. The alternative is
ecclesiastical chaos, the kind of chaos that is destroying the church
today, making her witness ineffective and troubling the lives of her
Jeremiah 6:16, the Lord himself says: "Stand ye in the ways, and
see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein,
and ye shall find rest for your souls." The church today says, "We will
not walk therein." Thus, she has no rest, for she has no old ways.
1Dorothy Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World
3John Knox, The History of the Reformation in
Scotland (Fleming H. Revell, 1905), p. 342.
4G.I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism
(Presbyterian and Reformed, 1993), p. 3.