In Defense of the Catholic Creeds

Theology leads to doxology.  And if the history of the church teaches us anything, we know that our theology is hammered out during times of doctrinal controversy.  Although in our day we tend to think that theology is stuffy and boring and should be left to the  academic theologians, in the past synods and councils were attended by pastors and leaders who had the scars to prove that they were no ivory tower scholars, isolated from the real world.  Many of them were persecuted for their faith in Christ.  It is these same men who summarized the Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed (325) and the Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed (381) before the canon of the Bible was officially received.  And all Christian traditions agree that they got it right.

Yet, some in our day refuse to accept the creeds.  What should we make of this?  Recently, I was reading an article by Westminster Seminary California professor R. Scott Clark entitled, “The Importance of Being More Than Earnest.”  In the article, Clark exhorts congregations to become more doctrinally minded.  One of the ways he suggests churches can do this is to study the ancient creeds of the church.  Interestingly, Clark has a footnote at the end of this sentence that states, “One should be greatly troubled if a church will not use the catholic creeds.”  Although Clark doesn’t specify, the “catholic creeds” are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed.  (Note, the catholic creeds have nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church, although in all fairness it should be known that they do not deny the catholic creeds.)  When I read that footnote, I thought to myself, “I wonder what most Christians would say to that?”

Since I have a number of friends who claim to have, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible,” I have had my share of interaction with this view point.  Below is one such discussion I had over the internet with someone who challenged my position on the use of creeds.  These are only my responses, though I do quote my interlocutor on occasion.  Enjoy:

First Response

Just a few comments: First, I truly appreciate the emphasis the writer places on the Bible.  I agree with him that it is the final authority for faith and practice.  That being said, however, I do have a few reservations about affirming every point in the list Bob [not the person’s real name] makes.  I’m not sure I understand how creeds divide rather than unite.  As believers, our unity is found in what we confess to be true.  Considering that the creeds were formulated during the fires of controversy and were put forth to identify the true Christians and to condemn heresy, I don’t understand how utilizing them is unwise.  They serve to unite us with our Christian brothers and sisters of the past.  They teach us that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and they help us spot heresy; for, as Louis Berkhof noted, “History clearly teaches that, before a Church can really pass judgment on heresies, she must have some official standard or test.”[1]

Now, I realize you might say that our final standard is the Bible, but nothing is accomplished by simply reciting the words of Scripture when it is the words of Scripture themselves that are the issue.  It’s not enough to say, “I just believe the Bible.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to “just believe the Bible.”  The question is: What do you understand Scripture to teach?  In order to answer this question, we must make judgments about what we understand the Bible to teach.  In doing this, we cannot simply cite Scripture.  Rather, as David Yeago notes, we must employ “some particular, contingent verbal and conceptual resources, [since] judgment making is an operation performed with words and concepts.”[2]  That is to say, if it is the words of Scripture that are being debated, we must use extrabiblical language to clarify what we mean. 

Perhaps an illustration would help.  During the Trinitarian controversy in the fourth century, there was a debate about the Christian doxology known as the Gloria Patri.  Christians during their worship services would sing the Gloria Patri, saying, “Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.”  However, the Arians would also sing this and affirm this to be true.  Yet, these same Arians would not sing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”  They would not affirm the complete deity of all three Persons of the Trinity.  So, the Christians changed the words of the doxology to exclude the Arians from their ranks.  This exclusion brought unity to believers.  I realize that the Gloria Patri is not a creed, but I’m using it as an example to reinforce the truth that creeds, like the Gloria Patri, help us know who is with us and who is against us.

Even if you don’t agree with the use of creeds and confessions, you should at least acknowledge the positive role they have played for the early Christians.  After all, many of them were persecuted for the defense of the faith.   Given their historical context, the creeds didn’t bring division, but unity.  This helps us appreciate what our forefathers did.  They outlined orthodoxy based on the church’s worship, the body of doctrine that had been handed down to them, and what all believers confessed.  Notice that I didn’t mention the New Testament.  The Nicene Creed (which all Christians agree is true) was formulated and confessed BEFORE the New Testament was formally acknowledged and the canon was closed.  This should increase our respect for creeds.  Sorry I wrote so much, but I felt I needed to say this.  Since many in the Restoration Movement are quick to say, “No creed but Christ,” I sometimes wonder if they have fully comprehended the complexities of the early church and why creeds were necessary.  Further, I question whether or not they fully appreciate the historical context out of which the New Testament arose.  After all, the Bible didn’t fall out of the sky.

Second Response

Thanks for taking the time to respond.  These discussions are very helpful and healthy for us to have as believers.  And yes, I can tell that you are definitely all about the Bible.  As a Christian within the Reformed tradition, I can very much appreciate your enthusiasm for the Bible to be our supreme authority.  After all, one of the cries of the Reformers was sola Scriptura.  In the same vein, however, one of the tragedies of American Christianity is its misunderstanding and abuse of this Reformation principle.  The Reformers insisted that while the Bible is our only infallible authority, the Bible is not our only authority.  This is true because the Bible itself gives authority to qualified church leaders, namely elders (see Acts 15 and Jerusalem Council).  If you are interested in reading more about this I highly suggest Keith Mathison’s work The Shape of Sola Scriptura.

Let me briefly respond to some of your points.  You say, “if creeds say the same thing the Bible says, they are unnecessary.”  But this is not true if there is a dispute about what the Bible itself actually says.  I think your view would be correct if there was never a dispute about what a particular passage says.  For example, John 3:16 says Jesus is God’s only begotten Son.  The Arians said this meant that Jesus is a created being and did not eternally exist with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, in their view, Jesus was not consubstantial with the Father.  Therefore, the Nicene Creed responded and clarified the biblical position by noting that Jesus was “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”  This response sheds light on what the Bible actually teaches.

As for the Alexander Campbell quote, I’m not sure everything he says is correct.  His point about “sects” adopting creeds is not entirely accurate.  In fact, it was the “sects” who refused to give assent to the creeds.  The universal church put forth the creeds (namely, the Apostles’ and Nicene), and all those who gave assent to them showed themselves to be a part of the true church.  It was the heretical groups that refused to accept the creedal statements.  This has continued unabated in America.  For example, the Unitarian Noah Worchester called upon Christians to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, throw away the creeds and simply study the Bible.  Charles Beecher, a liberal, rejected what he called “creed-power” and called for “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.”  That’s the problem with heretics; they always have a verse.  And they have always misunderstood the true Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura.  They think sola Scriptura does away with all secondary authorities.  For this reason they reject the use of creeds.  However, as Princeton theologian Samel Miller correctly pointed out in 1839, “the most zealous opposers [of creeds] have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.”

I’m also not sure what W. Carl Ketcherside means when he refers to men taking these “simple truths” and pouring them into “creedal moulds.”  What simple truths?  Is he referring to the “simple truth” of the Holy Trinity, or how Christ can be fully God and fully man at the same time?  If he thinks these are “simple truths” that can easily be deduced from Holy Scripture then I must confess that he is smarter than Ignatius, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and others.  One wonders why all these men spent their time reflecting on all these issues.  And when you study church history you come to see that it was all the orthodox theologians who defended the creeds!  If it’s so easy then why was there so much debate in the early church surrounding these issue before creeds were even on the scene.  If only the early church had Alexander Campbell to help them out everything would have been fine!

Yet, I’m not surprised that Alexander Campbell would say the things he did.  He openly confessed that it was his desire to study the Bible as if no one had ever studied it before (there is a quote of him actually making such a statement).  Interestingly enough, Lewis Sperry Chaffer said the exact same thing and he was a dispensationalist.  (I’m not saying dispensationalism is heresy.  However, it should be noted that what most dispensationalists believe today is quite different from what Chaffer taught.) [3]  One wonders how Chaffer and Campbell came to such different views when they were “just studying the Bible.”  The point I’m making is that no one studies the Bible in a vacuum.  Therefore, the Restoration Plea to simply “return to the Scriptures” is superficial and naïve.  Haven’t you realized that all Christian traditions believe they are following the Bible?  What you don’t seem to realize is that all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture!  So when you say, “And as to different interpretations – I simply go back to Scripture!” that means absolutely nothing since your opponent will say the exact same thing!  You come off arrogant, and it’s as if you are saying, “Well, if you were only as smart as I am, then you would have the true understanding of Scripture.”

Your statement that “creeds is when the trouble began, as man began to put their twist on Scripture” is not true.  This doesn’t make sense because it was orthodox believers who wrote the creeds!  The church wrote the creeds because the heretics twisted Scripture.  The heretics were spreading the lies!  This is why it is outrageous to say that creeds divide.  The creeds only divided the true church from the heretics.  If there were no heresies being circulated the church wouldn’t have had to write the creeds.  The creeds UNITED the true believers!

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 30.

[2] David S. Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” Pro Ecclesia 3:2 (1994): 152-164.  See esp. 159.

[3] See e.g., Darrell L. Bock, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,'” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:3 (September 1998): 383-398.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: