The Theology of the Ancient Creeds Part 1: Creedal Christianity
Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips (Hos. 14:2).
Words, Words, Words
Christianity is a religion of words. God used words to create and order the universe (Gen. 1). God used words to communicate with Adam. He put His words into the mouths of the prophets (2 Sam. 23:2; Jer. 1:9). In the New Testament, the risen Christ spoke to Saul of Tarsus with words — Aramaic words that used normal Aramaic grammar and syntax (Acts 26:14). The Bible itself is a book of words.
Because man is the image of God, he also uses words. He uses words to communicate information about himself, about his world, and about God. Man is sinful and fallible, so his words may be accurate or inaccurate, true or false. If a man speaks about God and his words describe God as He is, then his words are true. Those who believe the words are right in their beliefs; those who reject the words are wrong. If those who believe the true words write them down, then they have composed a creed.
Confession through Creeds
The Latin word credo means, "I believe." A creed is statement of faith. Everyone believes something, and therefore everyone has a creed — at least in principle. Some creeds are unwritten, but they are no less powerful for that. Many religious groups that claim to be creedless in fact have very stringent unwritten creeds. The church of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, has a long history of writing down what she believes.
One of the first creeds of the church was, "Jesus is Lord" (Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 12:3) — short and to the point. Over against Judaism, this confession identified Jesus of Nazareth as Jehovah, the eternal Lord of hosts. Over against the faith of the Roman Empire, this confession declared Jesus to be the true world-Emperor, the source of all authority and law. This creed did what all good creeds should do: it drew a clear line between the faith and its enemies. Centuries later, the Apostles' Creed drew just such line between the true faith and Gnosticism, and the Nicene Creed did the same with respect to Arian rationalism. Of course, the Gnostics and the Arians were not happy with the creeds. Those who are the targets of the creeds rarely are. They usually denounce them as unbiblical, rationalistic, and unloving.
Words v. Mysticism
Some enemies of the faith, however, oppose the creeds of the church, not so much for what they say, but because they say anything at all. The mystic, for example, finds creeds as such offensive. He wants to reach out and touch the face of the Infinite. He wants an immediate experience of God, whoever he, she, or it may be. But the mystic has no desire for words from God or words about God. Words would limit his freedom of thought and experience; they would make demands upon his will; they would shut him up to perspectives and beliefs that he did not create. Words from God would mean that there is a fixed reality "out there" to which his mind and will must conform. The mystic uses words because he must. He may allow words a place as hints or springboards to truth. He may even delight in his own babble about his spiritual encounters. But he cannot accept words as accurate descriptions of truth. Truth, for him, must be bigger than any words. The mystic, therefore, cannot tolerate creeds. He sees in them the death of truth — that is, the death of his freedom to enjoy his experiences and label them GOD.
Obviously Christianity is not mysticism, though there is within it that which is mystical or mysterious. Christianity insists on words, and it insists that the words mean what they say. When Scripture says that Ark of the Covenant was two and a half cubits long, it means that the Ark was two and a half cubits long (Ex. 25:10). When it says the LORD made heaven and earth in six days, it means that He made heaven and earth in six days (Ex. 20:11). And when it says Christ rose again the third day, it means that on the third day Christ stopped being dead (1 Cor. 15:4). The propositions of Scripture carry meaning; they tell us true things about reality. They tell us true things about the living God. The Athenians might be content with an unknown and unknowable God, but Paul was ready to declare that God to them (Acts 17:23): he would describe their unknown God with human words.
Strangely enough, some have argued that we may only use God's own words when we talk about the faith. Words like "Trinity" and "Incarnation" must give way to the recitation of relevant texts. At first this may sound reasonable and reverent. Who wants man's words when we have God's? Who wants to inject man-made terms into a discussion of the eternal Deity? But consider. When someone says, "Do not use man's words," must we not answer, "Then please be silent: you have just used man's words — your own in fact — and by your own rule we may not listen to you"? Everyone who discusses Scripture uses his own words: that's what discussion means. The alternative would be that we recite the words of Scripture back and forth to one another without explanation or comment. Theology would descend into word magic: the theologian would be allowed to do nothing but intone the sacred syllables with superstitious accuracy; any comments or thoughts about their meaning or application would be sacrilege, a distortion of God's self-revelation. This kind of foolishness belongs to occult religion, not to Biblical Christianity.
Because God's words do tell us the truth, because they do accurately communicate the way things are, their message can be recast in different words. "The Word was made flesh" and "The eternal Son of God . . . took upon Himself the very nature of man" are both accurate descriptions of the Incarnation. The first sentence is Scripture; the second comes from the Heidelberg Catechism. Both tell the truth about the same divine act. If a thing is true, then any words that accurately report it are true, and we ought to believe them. Who said the words first is irrelevant. The issue is simply, Are the words true?
Furthermore, God has placed human words in the church. He has established a preaching ministry (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Cor. 1:21). The minister of the gospel summarizes and explains God's words using his own. This is what God has charged him to do (1 Tim. 4:6, 11, 13-16; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). The pastor's words are human and uninspired, yet he speaks with authority and divine approval. Yes, he may err. And creeds may err. But errant pastors and creeds do not do away with the office of pastor or the legitimacy of creeds.
Like godly pastors and teachers, the creeds confront us with the word of God. A pastor, however, is one man. The creeds come from dozens or hundreds of godly men and have received the approbation of ten thousands upon ten thousands more. In other words, in the creeds we have hundreds of thousands of godly pastors and teachers declaring God's words to us. Shall we ignore those men because they are human? Or shall we not remember that the same Bible that speaks so clearly to us today has spoken just as clearly to the saints of the past? (1 Cor. 14:36; Jer. 6:16). Paul calls the church, "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Whose understanding of Scripture shall we believe then, that of the church or that of the religious innovator or cultist?
Traditionally, the church has used her creeds in worship as a means of confessing Christ and swearing covenant fealty to Him. Many Christians today are uncomfortable with this practice. They believe that only those words that come immediately from one's heart can be pleasing to God. Spontaneity equals sincerity; the repetition of words written by dead men must breed cold and empty formality.
God, however, gave Israel a set and lengthy liturgy for their worship at the feast of Firstfruits (Deut. 26:3-11). He told the men of Israel, "Say these words," not, "Say something along these lines." The whole book of Psalms is a collection of set prayers designed to be chanted or sung. (For that matter, all songs involve words set by someone else.) In the New Testament, Jesus composed a prayer and said not only, "After this manner therefore pray ye," but also, "When ye pray, say . . ." (Luke 11:2). There is nothing in Scripture that says that all the words we speak before God must be spontaneous or original with us. To be sure, spontaneous prayer can be a good thing, especially in private devotions or emergency situations. Peter's "Lord, save me" is the classic example here (Matt. 14:30). But when we stand in the presence of God in formal worship, we need to watch our mouths (Ecc. 5:1-3). There is much to be said for words that have been carefully thought out.1 The issue, again, is not who said them first, but whether or not we mean them now. Spontaneous words may reflect our passion and enthusiasm; they may also reflect our rashness and our ignorance of sound doctrine. At the very least they limit the number persons praying or confessing at the same time to one. The set words of the ancient creeds allow the saints to confess their faith in Christ accurately and in unison.
Creeds are inescapable. The man who says, "I believe . . ." and then finishes the sentence has expressed a creed. "I don't believe in creeds" is a creed. "No creed but Christ" is a creed. The issue is never creeds versus no creeds; the issue is always, Whose creed? Christians to be Christians must confess Christ. And while at times we must certainly make that confession in words that reflect our current circumstances, there is nevertheless great value in confessing Christ in words hoary with age — words that are the property of the church catholic and that belong not merely to our time, but to all times.
1. I once asked the young men in my class to compose non-traditional marriage vows off the top of their heads. Only one succeeded. He came up with something like, "Hey, babe, you . . . me . . . tcht." The young ladies in my class were not impressed.
Topics: Theology, Creeds, Church History, Church, The