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The Use of Creeds

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series

"Some Things To Consider Including in Your Worship"

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 “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.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (M.A.T.) and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

10 Responses to The Use of Creeds

  1. I don’t think you are dealing very well with the problem the regulative principle poses for the use of creeds. I can understand singing a creed, because that’s obedience to teaching in song. I can understand employing a creed in a sermon, because there’s what you say about teaching. But reciting or reading a creed in worship seems to me another thing: it elevates it to the status of an element.

    I’m in a Presbyterian church where they do that. I read along. I love creeds. But I’m not sure it is something I would be able to do were I in charge (and I’m not interested in being in charge). I would have no way to answer to God for why I implemented it as an item in his worship. Do you see what I mean? If the regulative principle doesn’t make us cautious (I honestly detect no caution in your paragraph), are we really for it? If you aren’t fine. But I don’t see how what you said overcomes anythng. We might as well hold up paintings by Raphael in worship because they teach us. You can do that in a sermon, you can hand out a painting that comments on the text, but you don’t just hold it up in the middle of a service because it teaches, do you? Now, let us all look upon this profound commentary on the transfiguration for ten minutes . . .

    If I’m missing something, let me know. I’m willing to be instructed. But I think the regulative principle suffers from not being taken seriously.

  2. Hey, Joel! I’m curious how you see this as a separate element. How does the recitation of a creed differ from singing one? If we took a creed and set it to music, would you object less?

    Thanks for the interaction!

  3. Scott,

    Joel seems to explain his rationale. He says that isolating a creed as a separate recitation is what seemingly makes it a separate element. One can sing a creed, for it is teaching via song. One can teach a creed, but to recite it together, he says, “elevates to the status of an element.” That’s the distinction. When recited, It becomes creed as credal element; when taught or sung, it is creed as circumstance.

  4. I think that’s really an unnecessary distinction, especially considering the cultural context of both the OT and NT. They would have never distinguished between “reciting” and “singing.” In fact, I highly doubt any “recitations” (of Scripture, poetry, or creeds) would have been performed in any manner besides chanting.

    I’m just not convinced it is a separate element, but I agree this is a conversation well worth happening, and would welcome correction.

  5. Joel,

    I want to try to answer your question. First, I would observe that hearing a creed is hearing the Word, a ministry of the Word. A painting is not a ministry of the Word. (Any sermon illustration using a painting by Raphael would of necessity be different from holding it up and begging the faithful to meditate upon it, for words would be used during the sermon to make the illustration’s point.)

    Second, and more importantly, we likely have creeds in the Scriptures themselves, which suggests that we have apostolic authority to use creeds that expand and clarify those creeds today. Possible “creeds” can be found in Rom 1:2-5; 10:9; 1 Cor 15:3-5; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Cor 8:6; 2 Cor 13:14; and Eph 4:4-6. Such rules of faith were being cited and re-summarized in the earliest centuries after Christ.

    Finally, the New Testament suggests that some kind of confession being made at baptisms, which again, if true, provides apostolic authorization for us to do so ourselves.

    In all these cases, I would add, the evidence does not seem absolutely conclusive. I wonder if we might conclude that the recitation of creeds in corporate worship is authorized, but not necessary. But that might undo everything I just said. If we have apostolic authority, we must recite creeds (though we do not have instruction on how often). That’s part of the point of the RPW. It not only defines what we may do, but dictates what we must do.

  6. That’s a bit more carefully put. I’ve had these arguments from our pastor here. I’m not convinced, but I understand the other side. I don’t think the argument about the word holds water and the argument about the picture does. You’re collapsing the difference between recitation of a creed and preaching, and that I don’t think is correct.

    That things were being done in the earliest centuries after Christ is nothing to do with the regulative principle–the principle drives us back to what Scripture commands, which is even less than what it describes.

    But my concern is not whether or not anybody uses creeds–not in what I stated above. I’m not persuaded and I’m not looking for a conversation on that here. My concern is how lightly the objections of the regulative principle are brushed aside. It would be a tool for its enemies if we were to use it loosely to establish what we prefer. The whole point of the Regulative Principle is the opposite: to train us to be cautious, to do only what we have been commanded by God to do, to learn to see the beauty and excellence not of what we have made up, but what he’s required of us. To love and do only that. The way the objection was met above seemed to me to deny the spirit of the Regulative Principle, rather than honor it. Does that help us, whether or not we agree on creeds, who hold to it?

  7. Hey, Joel. It is from within a fierce desire to protect the regulative principle that I write, and I appreciate and resonate with your conservative caution, so that’s why I’m thankful for this dialog. If I am convinced (or even if i have doubts) that (a) creeds are a unique element and/or (b) that creeds are not prescribed in Scripture, then I will reject them without hesitation.

    However, as I mentioned above, you still have not explained why a creed is an element different from singing. They are the same element in my view. How does a meter and rhyme scheme and a melody added to a creed constitute an acceptable element while a creed divorced from those does not? Especially, as I mentioned above, that in the original context of Scripture (which I agree, of course, is the regulative standard), all public recitations, including Scripture readings, would have been sung.

    So I really would like to know, what persuades you to distinguish a spoken creed from a sung creed as a separate element? Would you be comfortable, for example, with a sung version of The Apostles’ Creed?

    I guess I should also clarify, are you psalmody only? If so, I guess I understand your objection a bit more, though I would still disagree with it.

  8. Joel,

    I’m coming into this late – didn’t get the email notifications.

    I agree that with disingenuous wrangling, nearly anything can be construed as a circumstance of the prescribed element. We may as well hold to the Normative Principle then.

    What we are dealing with here is the question of how to limit the possible ways an element could be applied. This applies equally to calls to worship, benedictions, doxologies, etc.

    I don’t want to give a trite response to what deserves an extended defence. My summarised answer would be: I look to positive prescriptions and example, and then to evidence in the apostolic writings themselves. Since the apostolic letters were to be read in the churches, they often contain within them creedal statements. Ryan has listed some, and I would add Philippians 2:6-8, and some of Paul’s ‘faithful sayings’. In this, and in Paul’s reference to Timothy’s public confession (1 Tim 6:12) an I find Scripture giving sanction to corporate professions of commonly held truth.

    Is this a conservative or cautious enough application of the RPW? To answer that, we’d need to agree on the criteria for something to qualify as a genuine application of a prescribed element.

  9. I’m glad for that second paragraph. That’s what I’m talking about.

    As for that last: yes, we would. That is the more careful way.

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