What separates the Lord’s church from man-made churches?1 There are many factors, but one major factor is the matter of “creeds.” There are many denominational creeds. There is the Baptist Church Manual, the Methodist Book of Discipline, the Catholic Church Catechism, the Lutheran Church Catechism, the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Presbyterian Book of Church Order, the Episcopalian Church Book of Common Prayer, the Christian Science Church Manual, etc. Many denominational members do not even know they have a creed.2 In contrast, New Testament Christians follow the New Testament only; they follow no man-made creeds. We speak where the Bible speaks, we are silent where the Bible is silent. To better help us learn what is wrong with denominational creeds we will ask and answer four questions in this article. We will close with a fifth question relating to the current issue over so-called “creeds” among brethren today.
What Is A Creed?
When one studies the origin of the word “creed,” one finds that it comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe;” from credere, meaning “to trust, believe.” It is interesting to note that the Latin word credo is actually in the Latin Vulgate Bible. A “creed” is simply a statement of what one believes. Webster defines “creed” this way: “1. A brief statement of religious belief; confession of faith. 2. A specific statement of this kind, accepted as authoritative by a church; especially the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed. 3. A statement of belief, principles, or opinions on any subject.”3 G.S.R. Cox defines a creed thus: “A concise formal and authorized statement of important basic points of Christian doctrine.”4 Scholars writing about creeds recognize the inherent authority in creeds.5 Historically, creeds began as statements of belief made by individuals, and moved to statements made by groups. Look at the definitions above again and you will notice that the common thread running through all denominational creeds is their inherent authority. The key to understanding denominational creeds is this: they are an authorized statement composed by a council of men and used as a standard of faith and practice for a religious body.
Many examples of creeds could be given here, but let us briefly examine what scholars call the “three classical creeds”: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The Apostles’ Creed, the authorship and date of origin of which is much debated, was used in one of the first attempts in church history to systematize belief. It took on its present form in the 6th or 7th century. It begins with these words: “I believe in God the Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creed was drawn up by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, completed by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 381 and recognized as an official formula at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. A revised edition appeared in the Second Council of Constantinople in A.D. 553. A further revision is found in the Council of Toledo in A.D. 589. Years after this creed was formulated, the Greek and Latin Church divided, in part, over how this creed should be understood. In particular, the famous “filioque” clause was much debated. The Nicene Creed begins this way: “I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” The Athanasian Creed, the authorship and date of origin of which is uncertain, emphasizes the doctrine of the Trinity. Pronouncements of damnation are made in this creed for those who do not keep it. The Athanasian Creed begins: “Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith: Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. . . .” It ends with these words: “This is the Catholic Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he can not be saved.”
Throughout church history creeds have taken on other forms. In the period of the Protestant Reformation, creeds were called “Confessions.” These statements of belief were usually longer than a creed and more detailed and systematic. They were designed more for reference than for recital. Like creeds, “Confessions” are considered authoritative by those who write them.6 Many “Confessions” have been written through the centuries. For example, the Augsburg Confession (1530) is a two-part creed composed by Melanchthon with the approval of Martin Luther, and primarily written to defend the orthodoxy of Protestantism. It was later endorsed by John Calvin. It is the creed of the Lutheran Church. There is also the Waldensian Declaration of Faith (1532), the First Helvetic Confession (1536), the Geneva Confession (1537), the Gallican Confession (1559), the Thirty-nine Articles (1571), the Canons of Dort (1619), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and so on.7 “Symbols” and “Rule of Faith” are terms that were also used for creeds during the Protestant Reformation.
What is the Function of a Creed?
Creeds were used for different purposes beginning c. 4th Century A.D. First, the baptismal function: a candidate for baptism would recite a creed prior to baptism. Second, the instructional function: a creed was used as a syllabus for catechetical (question and answer) instruction in Christian doctrine. Third, the doctrinal function: the content of a creed was used to denounce heresies and serve as a test of orthodoxy. Fourth, the liturgical function: a creed was used in a worship service with a response from the congregation (recited, or put to song). Fifth, the commendatory function: a creed was used as a proof of identity and a test of fellowship.8 It is clear that creeds have been used by men throughout the centuries as authoritative standards for religious practices, in addition to God’s word and apart from God’s word.
What is Wrong With
All denominational creeds are wrong because they violate the word of God. First, they are not authorized by the New Testament (Col. 3:17). The following examples are not Bible examples of “rudimentary creedal forms” as some scholars suggest: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 26:5-9; John 1:41; Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9.9 Any statement in Scripture is Scripture; not a creedal statement about Scripture. Ironically, it is admitted by scholars that no formal creedal statements are found in the Bible; and yet, they use the Bible to justify their creeds! Second, creeds are wrong because they are written by men, not by God; hence, they are fallible, imperfect, and uninspired by God (Matt.15:1ff; Mark 7:1ff). Third, they impeach the wisdom and word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God’s word is all-sufficient. Creeds, however, contain more or less than God’s word. If they are the same as God’s word, why then do we need them? They are unnecessary. Fourth, they focus on the authority and standard of man’s word, not on the authority and standard of God’s word. They set aside God’s word for man’s word (Matt. 15:1ff; Mark 7:1ff; Col. 2:8, 18-19, 20-23). Creeds are recognized by scholars as an “authoritative statement,” as “standards” and “divisive.”10 Fifth, they teach things, at times, contrary to plain Scripture (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Sixth, they must be revised from year to year. For example, the Nicene Creed, written in A.D. 325 was revised in the 6th, 8th, and 11th centuries. Seventh, they keep the religious world divided (John 17:20). A Baptist Church Manual produces a Baptist, nothing else; a Methodist Book of Discipline produces a Methodist, nothing else; and so on. Lastly, creeds will not be used as the standard of judgment in the last day (John 12:48; Rev. 20:11-15).
What Is Our Standard of
The standard of authority in the Lord’s church has always been God’s word. We are under the New Testament Scriptures today; nothing more, nothing less. Read and study carefully the following passages which show that the New Testament is our standard of authority today: Matthew 17:5; 28:19-20; John 12:48; 14:6, 26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15; 17:20; Acts 2:42; 3:22-26; 6:7; 13:8; Romans 6:17; 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 14:37; 15:1-2; Galatians 1:6-9, 23; 3:23; Ephesians 1:10; 2:19-20; 3:1-11; 4:5; Philippians 2:16; Colossians 2:2-3, 7-10, 18-19; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Timothy 4:6; 5:8; 6:3-4, 10, 21; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2:2; 3:14-17; 4:3-4; Titus 1:9, 13; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2:3-4; 8:6-13; 9:9-16; 2 Peter 1:3-4; 2 John 9-11; 3 John 3-4; Jude 3; and Revelation 20:11-14.
One Bible passage is enough to show that the New Testament is our final authority for all that we believe and practice. But consider the large number of passages listed above which demonstrate this point. The evidence is overwhelming and clear. The New Testament, and the New Testament alone, is our standard of authority. All denominational creeds are wrong!
What Is the Current Issue Over “Creeds”?
Before closing this article it would be good to briefly examine the current issue over so-called “creeds” among brethren today. Is it true that recently some brethren have been guilty of writing “creeds” similar to those found in the denominations? There are two reasons why we are hearing about “creeds” among us.
First, some brethren mistakenly say that we have “creeds” among us. They do this because they misunderstand that certain types of Bible teaching are authorized and expedient. For example, in the early to mid 1990s some brethren were concerned about “creedal tendencies” among us. This concern is appreciated, but we must distinguish between a classical, denominational creed that is an authoritative standard, and our expedient practices of teaching the word of God. Are authorized teaching expediencies to be thrown out simply because to someone they have the appearance of a creed? No.
What if a document that a brother writes contains less than the entire New Testament, is that a creed? No. Any teaching on God’s word that focuses on something less than the whole of truth may have a purpose in mind. We should allow brethren to focus on certain issues and discuss them in writing. We should not require brethren to teach all of God’s word (from Genesis to Revelation) every time they speak or write. The brethren who are concerned that others are writing “creeds,” have themselves taught and focused on doctrines that are only part of God’s word. (This author knows of no one who teaches by starting at Genesis and going to Revelation, discussing every verse, every time he speaks or writes.) We are told that all the New Testament should be used as a standard for orthodoxy. Amen! But, we are not told how that can be done in an expedient way as we teach from day to day. If one Christian wants to know what another Christian believes on the subject of divorce, must he discuss the entire New Testament lest he be guilty of making a “creed”? Do brethren who are concerned about “creeds” today, teach every verse in the Bible, every time they say or write something? If not, then why would not what they say or write be a “creed” by their own definition? We all understand that when we address one or a few doctrines in writing, there are many other doctrines in God’s word that are also important.
Is a document a brother writes intended to be used as a standard of orthodoxy? No. A classical, denominational creed is authoritative and is used as a standard of faith and practice (refer to the definitions above again).11 However, the New Testament is our final authority, not anything that we might say or write about it. Our teaching methods (spoken or written words) alone have no inherent authority and they should be rejected if they become authoritative or do not conform to New Testament teaching. The documents we write do not determine the boundaries of fellowship or the soundness of brethren, the New Testament does. Our documents simply teach the truth that is found in the Bible.
Is ones’ expedient method of teaching a binding, authoritative standard? No. If someone asks the question, “Do you believe baptism is for remission of sins?”, the question itself is not authoritative. The answer to the question simply tells what a person believes about baptism. The New Testament is authoritative, not the question. The same is true for all questions related to the Bible, documents we write, bulletin articles, tracts, Bible class workbooks, sermon outlines, etc. The words we say and the documents we write are not authoritative.
It would be helpful to remember a few things as we close this point. First, we already have a creed, the New Testament. We do not make a creed when we teach the New Testament in spoken or written form. If one threw away all the words brethren have spoken or written about the Bible (tracts, bulletins, papers, commentaries, etc.), he would still have a divine creed, the New Testament. The same cannot be said of classical, denominational creeds. Second, let us remember that what one says or writes about God’s word should never supplant God’s word; it should never undermine the all-sufficiency of the Scriptures. Third, remember that one does not have to believe what a brother says or writes; he has to believe the New Testament. Fourth, one or more individuals, or one local church cannot control the brotherhood by what they say or write. One or more individuals may teach God’s word (verbally or in writing) anytime, anywhere. However, no individual has authoritative control over the brotherhood in what he says or writes. Fifth, asking questions and writing documents is an expedient way to teach God’s word, get information and clarify issues. It is an expedient way to clarify what someone believes about the Bible and clarify an issue at hand; nothing more. Sixth, let no one, erroneously label as a “creed,” such legitimate Bible teaching as brethren exercise today.
A second reason why we are hearing about “creeds” among brethren is because some brethren do not want error exposed. If some brethren do not like a document that exposes a particular error, it is easy for them to call the document a “creed” in order to detract from its usefulness. They know that brethren generally reject “creeds” (those of the denominations), and so, if they call a particular document a “creed,” then brethren will reject it. Apparently, if one labels a particular document a “creed” long enough and loud enough, some will believe it. This is similar to how some prejudicially use the word “tradition” or “judge.” Some “tradition” (e.g. Catholic tradition) is wrong, but not all tradition is wrong (2 Thess. 2:15). Some “judging” is wrong (e.g. hypocritical judging), but not all judging is wrong (Matt. 7:1-5; John 7:24). Yes, some writings are creedal and are wrong, but not all writings of brethren are creeds. Think about this for a minute. When a brother writes about “creeds” today,12 is he writing a creed about “creeds”? If not, why not? Why is his writing not a creed, but the document he is writing about is a “creed”? Using the reasoning of some today, the very article you are reading which denounces creeds would be a “creed”! Dear reader, if you disagree with what another brother writes, do not call his document a “creed,” but simply answer what he writes with the word of God. Calling a document a “creed,” does not make it so. Do not be deceived into thinking a document written by a brother is “creed” just because it has been called such.
Here are a few questions asked and answered that may help us to resolve this issue over so-called “creeds” among us: (1) Is it wrong to believe something? No. Is it wrong to say what you believe? No. See Acts 8:37; 27:25; 2 Corinthians 4:13; 2 Timothy 1:12. (2) Is it wrong to write down on paper what you believe? No. See Acts 15:23-29. (3) Is it wrong to teach what the Bible says in spoken or written form? No. See 1 Timothy 3:2; 4:11; 6:2; 2 Timothy 2:2, 24; Hebrews 5:12 (this is our generic authority for teachers to teach using spoken or written words). (4) Is it wrong to use authorized expediencies to teach the word of God? No. The generic authority to teach God’s word allows for expediencies to teach it using such things as tracts, Bible class workbooks, tapes, filmstrips, charts, bulletins articles, periodical papers, commentaries, Roy Cogdill’s New Testament Church, sermon outlines, etc. Why are we hearing about “creeds” among us today, when the expediencies just mentioned have never been charged with being “creedal”?13 If any one of the above listed expediencies ever becomes an authoritative standard for God’s people, then it becomes a denominational-type creed and must be rejected. (5) Is it wrong for elders to watch over the local church using oral or written questions, oral or written teaching? No. See Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-3 (this is generic authority for elders to watch over the flock using oral or written words).
No, brethren, we do not have “creeds” among us today like the denominations have. We have no creed, but Christ. We all recognize the wrong of denominational creeds, and we all deplore and denounce denominational creeds. They are man-made, authoritative standards and they are all contrary to the word of God. Our one and only standard of authority is the New Testament. May God help us to hold fast solely to the New Testament.
1 The basic contents of this article can be found in outline form in the Sermon Outline section of truthmagazine.com.
2 The author of this article has collected several creed books over the years and uses them in personal work studies. Many prospects are surprised when shown the creed book that identifies the church they attend.
3 Webster’s New World Dictionary 346.
4 “Creeds,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J.D. Douglas, Editor, 270.
5 “Symbolics,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Samuel Macauley Jackson, Editor, 11:199.
6 “Confessions of Faith,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, Editor, 262-266.
7 “Creeds and Confessions,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, G.W. Bromiley, Editor, 1:810-812.
8 “Creeds and Confessions,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, G.W. Bromiley, Editor, 1:807; “Creed, Creeds,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, M.C. Tenney, Editor, 1:1025-1026.
9 “Creed, Creeds,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, Editor, 283.
10 “Creed, Creeds,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, M.C. Tenney, Editor, 1025-1026.
11 The Presbyterian-Reformed position on creeds is very interesting and puzzling. They believe that their creeds are authoritative, but they also believe that Bible is authoritative. To alleviate the tension between the two, it is said that Reformed Christians are “relatively bound” to follow their creeds and “relatively free” to reject them. Their position here is confusing at best. But of course, this is the problem one finds himself in when he assigns authority to creeds. See Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 20-31.
12 Ed Harrell recently wrote about “clumsy efforts to creedalize.” The entire content of his manuscript can be viewed on truthmagazine.com.
13 Years ago there were some brethren who would not use Bible class literature because they thought it to be uninspired literature and the “creeds” of men.