“My faith has found a resting place, not in device nor creed.” So goes the hymn, and if taken over-literally, we might agree. Our faith does not rest in a creed, or even in propositions that explain the gospel. Our faith rests upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, which the propositions of the gospel are essential to properly explain. This is partly what the ancient creeds do.
The ancient ecumenical creeds served as bulwarks against error, and rallying calls to orthodoxy. They demarcated the boundaries of the Christian faith, as defined in response to heresies present in those eras. In the early centuries, the heresies were particularly Christological and trinitarian ones, which is why the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds and Formula of Chalcedon focus on the person and nature of Christ and His relationship to the Father and the Spirit.
What is the use of creeds for those of us in the free worship tradition? Several come to mind.
First, in an age of doctrinal vacillation and theological innovation, we can all do with regular reminders of some of the fundamentals of the faith. Granted, the creeds do not exhaustively cover every fundamental tenet of Christianity, but then no creed could. Fundamentals are only properly recognized when the gospel comes under threat in some way. We do not know how many ways the gospel may be denied, and in that sense, the fundamentals are not a bounded set. What the ancient creeds achieve are fairly concise statements of several doctrines fundamental to the faith: trinitarianism, the virgin birth, the deity and humanity of Christ, His crucifixion, resurrection, and return, the reality of future resurrection and judgment, the forgiveness of sins, and the existence of the church. These creeds, given their age, provide us with a fairly impressive sketch of the gospel, unchanged in seventeen centuries. Recited together, they are like a ‘pledge of allegiance’ to the gospel.
Second, in an age of amnesia regarding our Christian heritage, creeds state our solidarity with the saints triumphant. We recognize that the faith once delivered to the saints has been taught to faithful men, who taught others also, until it arrived in our hands. It is not as if the gospel has been in total eclipse until the last two hundred years or so. Creeds promote a “small-c” catholicity: we belong to the universal church – past, present, and future.
Of course, those in the free-church and Baptist traditions have some understandable concerns. Rightly used, creeds cannot be coercive statements which demand assent. They function rather like miniature summaries of Christian belief, to which any gospel-believing Christian could state as a concise statement of his own orthodox beliefs.
Advocates of the Regulative Principle of Worship rightly ask: where are creeds commanded by Scripture by precept or by example for use in worship? Answer: to the degree that creeds function as a form of teaching, they are simply an application, or a circumstance, of the element that is explicitly commanded: the teaching of God’s Word.
Finally, what of some of those difficult statements: “descended into hell”, “baptism for the remission of sins”, “holy catholic church”? These take some explaining, but they are hardly insurmountable obstacles. Even those of us who do not hold to baptismal regeneration can explain the baptism for the remission of sins using Acts 2:37. “Catholic” need not refer to the Roman church, but to the universal church. Catholic transliterates the Greek katholikos, which simply means universal. The phrase ‘descended into hell’ is missing from several ancient copies of the creed (see Wayne Grudem’s discussion of this), but even if we include it, we have Scriptures such as Acts 2:31 and 1 Peter 3:19 to explain this. The question is, is it worth all that explaining?
In my judgment, yes. What is gained in terms of “gospel-literacy”, catholicity, and sense of Christian patrimony is worth the effort. Whether they are read and recited together, or whether they are simply studied as a lesson, I heartily commend recovering some use of the ancient creeds.