PMT 2014-018b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is the second in a mini-series on the function of creeds in Christianity.
Third, creeds provide an objective, concrete standard of church discipline
As noted previously any church having officers or teachers must require their accepting the standard of belief of that church. The position “no creed but the Bible” cannot and does not serve as a standard in any church. The fact that cultists are debarred from service in orthodox churches illustrates a creed of sorts exists.
If a church has any interpretation at all of any part of the Bible that must be held by its officers, then ipso facto it has a creed — even if it is unwritten. But an unwritten creed serving as a standard of discipline in such circumstances is both dishonest and dangerous. Surely it is far more open and honest to have a stable, clearly worded, publicly recognizable standard of belief. Then appeal can be made to this standard in situations where men are either debarred from entering the ministry or from joining a church, or are forcibly relinquished of their duties or membership on a charge of heresy.
Faith of Our Fathers (DVDs by Ken Gentry)
Explains the point of creeds for those not familiar with their rationale. Also defends their biblical warrant and practical usefulness.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
A news article appearing a few years ago in Christianity Today magazine documents in a slightly different setting the danger of the disavowal of creedal discipline. The article reports that a particular church-related college had been embroiled in a controversy over a certain teacher’s instruction in a human sexuality course. The reporter perceptively notes in passing: “Faculty are not required to sign a doctrinal statement, mostly because of long-standing opposition to creeds.” The absence of subscription to a creed was a factor complicating the adjudication of that controversy. The voluntary subscription to a creedal standard is an effective tool of church discipline which enhances doctrinal purity by reducing equivocation on fundamental issues.
Fourth, creeds help to preserve the orthodox Christian faith in the ongoing Church
Jude 3 exhorts Christians: “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you earnestly contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
The system of faith incorporated in the Scriptures, embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ, and revealed in finality by the apostles is “once for all delivered.” It is unchanging and unchangeable. That immutable faith must be preserved from generation to generation. Creeds that are true to Scripture admirably serve to tie generations of believers together by laying down a specific set of fundamental truths.
The Scriptures carefully instruct the Church to preserve the faith. Hebrews 13:9 warns:
“Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings.” Paul instructs two early church leaders in this vein. To Timothy he writes: “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). He urges Titus carefully to see that an overseer “hold fast the faithful word which is in accord with the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Tit. 1:9).
Although the special, direct revelation of God ceased and the corpus of Scripture was finalized in the first century, it still remains necessary for the continuing Church to interpret and apply the completed revelation. The interpretation and application of Scripture is a process, not an act. It has required the involvement of many devout men working through many centuries to systematize, compile, and disseminate the fundamental truths of Scripture.
The fact that the truth of Scripture is of no “private interpretation” is a foundational principle of creedal theology. No interpreter of Scripture works alone; we all must build on the past labors of godly predecessors. The interpreter or group of exegetes who agree with the historic, orthodox interpretations of the past and who find themselves in the mainstream of Christian thought are not suspect. Rather, the one who presents novel deviations from historic Christendom deserves careful scrutiny. Creeds help to preserve the essential core of true Christian faith from generation to generation.
The Apostle Paul expresses his fear that some within the Corinthian church are in danger of being “led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” by subtle craftiness (2 Cor. 11:3). The same concern must provoke the Church today to guard the central elements of Christian truth from distortion. In terms of a creed’s function in this regard, A. A. Hodge remarks that the real question is not, as often pretended, “between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the individual objector.”
Dr. Gentry, again I agree with your stance on Creeds. However, I believe there is a silver lining here that is causing a contradiction in your assessment. It sounds like you want your cake and eat it too. Under the banner of Sola Scriptura, creeds serve as historic documents pointing to what certain groups (small or large) believed in a given historical era. Period. You mentioned that any “novel” idea outside of “historic Christendom” is to be suspect. This is both logical and correlates with proper scholarly ethics. But, under Sola Scriptura, a novel idea can possibly be correct and supersede all previous “creeds” regardless of how long it has been held (Martin Luther, anyone????). This is made obvious by Calvin who made the Eucharist symbolic only (from his interpretation of Scripture) and any Church Historian worth his salt can verify that such a stance was almost entirely unheard of before Calvin. Now most Protestants believe the elements of communion are purely symbolic and we participate out of obedience only. This is a case in point where an interpretation centuries later has undermined what “historic Christendom” has preserved. All to say that such a thing is completely acceptable under “Sola Scriptura”. Again, as I mentioned before, I am Eastern Orthodox so we will likely always disagree on this issue, but I enjoyed your article.
My argument focuses on the historic ecumenical creeds, not more narrow “confessions” and so forth. None of the three main ecumenical creeds speak about the nature of the presence of Christ in the eucharist. Consequently, this is not a creedal issue. However, I would not argue that the creeds are infallible. My main point is that they represent the historic, corporate, public, universal, systematic Christian faith that has existed from the first century. It could be theoretically possible that the creeds are mistaken (they are not found in the infallible Scriptures), but we must nevertheless hold that the creeds are useful instruments in succinctly presenting the historic Christian truth claims. Which means that anyone or any group coming up with a new construction would naturally have to prove their argument from Scripture and would until then be suspect.
Valid. The particular example I gave of the Eucharist is not part of the Creeds. It is a UNIVERSAL witness of the Church Fathers, both East and West (which is convincing enough for myself), but since this article is about Creeds, I will grant that matters not in this discussion.