No Creed but Christ?

Rev. Miersma is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of New Zealand.

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. 

Matthew 10:32

Today there are, as in the past there have been, those who oppose the use of creeds in the church of Jesus Christ. Their familiar cry is, "No creed but Christ." It is their claim that creeds are but the work of men, while the Scriptures are God's infallible Word. Therefore, according to them, one should turn from creeds to the use of the Bible alone, for it is in the Bible that Jesus Christ is revealed to us. Thus, there is no need for a creed. It is even argued that creeds are detrimental to the church. Many arguments are set forth in defense of this position; In the course of this article we will look at some of these arguments and try to answer them. 

We believe that the church of Christ has always been a creedal church. That can be seen in the history of the church prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and certainly it is seen in the church immediately after the Reformation. In light of this we believe that creeds are indispensable for the church of today. By maintaining the creeds the church of today faithfully preserves the heritage of the truth as passed on to herby the church of the past, particularly the church of the Reformation. 

In dealing here with this subject (setting forth the idea of the creed, presenting the arguments against the creeds, and demonstrating the value and importance of creeds), this writer is indebted to Herman Hoeksema, whose notes on this subject were given and taught in the seminary of our churches. 

There are three names associated with the idea of a creed, which, when defined, give us the meaning of the word creed. The first name is symbol. A symbol is really a sign. For example, a flag or a banner is a sign by which one nation is everywhere distinguished from other nations. Witness the many different flags at the Olympic games, each representing a different country. Thus, a symbol is a sign representing the faith of the church in general over against all the world, or of a particular church over against all other churches. In the seminary the course in which one studies the creeds is in fact called Symbols.

The second name is confession. Literally it means "to speak with" or "to say the same thing as." By this word the church indicates that she expresses her faith in unison with one another and with her head, Jesus Christ. Individual members in a church are members of that particular church because they say the same thing as the other members do. The church in turn joins a federation of churches or a denomination because the church says the same thing as do the others. And each church not only says the same thing as the others, but the same thing as Christ, the same thing as the Holy Scriptures.

The third name associated with the idea of a creed is, of course, the name creed itself. This word is derived from the Latin credere, which means "to believe." The word creed expresses that its content is the object of the faith of the church. The Heidelberg Catechism is a creed the contents of which we believe. It is, therefore, the object of our faith. 

In combining the idea of the three words just given we can arrive at a definition of creed. A creed is a statement by a church or a group of churches containing a declaration of what such a church or group of churches believes to be the truth of the Word of God as it is developed organically in the church and as it is officially adopted by the church. This definition covers different kinds of creeds. There are creeds that express the whole of Christian doctrine, such as the Belgic or the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Canons of Dordrecht are an example of a creed that expresses only a part of the Christian doctrine, their purpose being to combat the error of Arminianism by pointing out the error and setting forth the positive truth over against that error. The above confessions or creeds are examples of longer creeds, but there are short creeds as well, such as the Apostolic Creed. Another type of creed is termed minor or lesser, such as the forms for the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper. 

As to the origin of creeds, we can say in general that the church has never been without a confession, for it is simply impossible for the church not to confess the truth. What the church says and lives is her perpetual confession. In fact, a church without a confession is a contradiction in terms. Even to say "No creed but Christ" is in itself a creed, for they believe they need to creed. A church without belief ceases to be a church, for it is spiritually impossible to be neutral concerning Christ, and practically impossible as well. To confess Christ is a command of Christ to the church. (Cf. Matt. 10:32, 33Matt. 16:16-18; Rom. 10:9, 10). 

Moving from the general to the particular we see that the truth of the Word of God is reflected in the consciousness of the church organically. This is accomplished, not in any individual apart from the whole of the church, but in the church as organism. This operation is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word, all of which is in harmony with the promise of Christ to the church. Before Christ's death on the cross He comforted the disciples in promising that He would return, and that He would do so in such a way that He would be with them forever. This coming was in the Spirit of truth, by which Spirit Christ Himself would be with them forever. The same Spirit that gave us the Scriptures also lives in the hearts of God's people and causes them to appropriate and understand the truth. That truth, then, becomes definitely formulated in the mind of the church. Often this takes place when the truth is attacked or when the church is persecuted, forcing the church to define sharply the truth over against error. Then, when the time is ripe, that formulation is set forth officially by the church in a brief statement called a symbol, confession, or creed. 

The authority of a creed so set forth is none other than the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. This means that the authority of creeds is not inherent, but derivative. They only express what Scripture already expresses. As a result, to be bound by creeds is to be bound by the Scriptures. This implies several things. In the first place, the permanent criterion is Scripture, with nothing ever coming in the place of Scripture. Secondly, the creeds are never placed on a par with Scripture, but are always subject to Scripture. Further, the church must live out of the Scriptures as guided by the creeds. Thus, the authority of the creeds is the authority of Scripture. Creeds are not infallible, but they are an expression of what the church believes the Scriptures to say. And because creeds state what God Himself has spoken through Christ, they possess an authority which is not their own, but Scripture's. 

This is why the Reformed approach to Scripture has always been a creedal approach. A non-creedal church (if that is even a possibility) goes directly to Scripture. This is always the approach of the heretic, who appeals to isolated passages of Scripture in support of his own pet doctrines. But this is a method which is contrary to the Reformed faith. The creedal approach to Scripture looks at the Scriptures as a unity. And, as Christ has promised, the Spirit of truth leads the church into the truth. Knowing this, one does not isolate certain texts, taking them out of their own context and out of the context of the whole of Scripture. By taking texts out of context, one can prove anything, no matter how absurd. Basically it is a question of what is taught from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, because Scripture is its own interpreter. Treating Scripture as a unity, the church discovers the current teaching of the Word of God, and sets it forth in her creeds. The creeds, then, lead us into an understanding of the unity of the truth as found in Scripture as a whole. Therefore, the creeds are not superior to Scripture, but are the means, the way, by which we go to the Word of God. In the Word we find our hiding place, our rest, our peace, the joy of salvation. But going via the creeds, we recognize the work of the Spirit of truth, the unity of God's Word, the one faith of the church of all ages. 

What we have just written can be demonstrated in the history of the church. While Christ was yet on earth, one of the first confessions was heard. In Matthew 16:16Peter is recorded as confessing, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. Later, in Acts 8:37, Philip hears the Ethiopian eunuch confess, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In the early church there was the Apostles' Creed, with which we are all familiar. Added to this are what are called the ecumenical creeds, such as the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian. Then there is the period following the sixteenth century Reformation. As the Reformation spread from country to country, each area formulated its own creed in harmony with time and circumstances. Our own Three Forms of Unity are among them. 

However, there have always been those who have raised various arguments against the creeds. It is argued that creeds supersede the Bible as a standard of faith. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is so complete that it needs no human addition, and so easily understood that it requires no human explanation. In response to the above argument, we can posit that no Protestant ever professed his creed to have an authority equal to or greater than the authority of the Scriptures. Such objections are raised generally in ignorance of Scripture and its doctrine. We too believe in the sufficiency of the Scriptures, but the above argument carries no weight when used in opposition to creeds. It is a denial of the historic-organic development of the church in the world, and of the continuous guidance of the Holy Spirit in that historical organism of the body of Christ. It is a sin to set aside the fruit of this guidance of the Holy Spirit in the past. The church has the calling to confess her faith in the midst of the world. Her creed or confession is a summary of what she believes the Scriptures teach. Scripture is not a system of truth, nor a compendium of faith, but it is the divinely given source from which the church derives both: the system and the compendium. 

A second argument is that creeds force and bind the conscience. One may say, What right has any church, or body of churches, to impose a creed on me, or dictate to me what I shall believe?" In reply, we can certainly agree that the Word of God is the only power that is binding upon the conscience and heart of man. But it is equally true that the members of a church or group of churches have the right to agree and declare how they understand the Scriptures. If one agrees with them he is free to join, and if he disagrees he is free either not to join, or to leave if he is already a member. Nobody is forcing his conscience. 

It is also alleged that creeds promote discord and strife, create divisions. Just look at all the different denominations, each one separated from the other by a wall of separation, the creed. These must be broken down in order for there to be unity. In refutation, we notice that creeds do not create divisions or distinctions, but merely express existing distinctions. Does one really believe that the removal of creeds actually would make possible the worshiping together of the Reformed with the Arminian, or with the Roman Catholic? The removal of creeds to the point that all could agree would so water down the truth that there would be virtually nothing left of it. 

A fourth objection to creeds is that they impede the development of the truth. It is said that one is tempted to rest on a creed, and to say that it is the last word, with no need for further development. In order to have development, one must have free discussion; but creeds limit discussion and do not give free rein to discussion of truth. In response, we can point out that the fault of lethargy lies not in the creed, but in the members of the church, who no longer are living their confessions, but regard their creeds as so many papers in the archives. A belief that the creeds are too narrow is based on an erroneous conception of the organic development of the truth. What creeds do is narrow the discussion to the Scriptures, which are the fountain of all truth. The church develops in one age on the basis of the work in the past. There is organic continuity from Pentecost to today. 

The church of today stands on the shoulders of the church in the past. Having seen what creeds are, and having looked at and answered objections to the creeds, we must yet state positively the value and importance of creeds. We begin by declaring that they are the means by which the church as a whole can express her faith over against all the world, or by which a denomination of churches can express her faith over against all other churches. To be faithful to her calling, the church does this over against the world of unbelief and over against the apostate church. 

Creeds are also a means to unite us with the church of the past. The unity of the whole church is a unity of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. As this same truth is confessed throughout all time, it is this truth which binds the church of all ages together into the one body of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the child of God there is great comfort in this; for the truth may be despised and rejected and the company of the faithful grow smaller, but the confessions assure us that we stand in a noble company of mighty warriors and faithful men and women such as the Augustines, the Calvins the Luthers, etc. 

In addition, creeds serve as a basis for further development. It is spiritually irresponsible to turn our backs upon the truth, and to seek out new inventions which deny the creedal heritage which our God has given us. Ever it is our calling to develop the truth. But we do that on the basis of the confessions. Development is truly possible only when we have both feet firmly planted in our creedal heritage. 

To this can be added the fact that creeds are the testimony of the fulfillment of the promise of Christ to be with us always, even unto the end of the world. In this truth as given by the Spirit, Christ Himself abides with us. Therefore, the creeds must be in the hearts and on the lips of the people of God as a living confession. Consciously, explicitly, and continuously they must be brought to the attention of God's people. Thus, they are preached from our pulpits and are taught in the catechism rooms; they form the theological basis for our schools in the instruction of our covenant children; and they are studied in our homes so that both parents and children know them, love them, and are thankful for them. In summary, they must be a living part of all the life of the people of God in all their calling. 

It is not difficult to see, then, that, creeds are also a strong defense of the truth against heresy. Many if not most of the creeds were written in defense of the truth against heresy of one kind or another. A heretic hates creeds because he must take them down point by point in order to get at the precious truth. 

Our creeds serve to preserve the unity of the saints among ourselves, not just with the church of the past. But not only do creeds serve to unite us with the church of the past and among ourselves in the present. They are also an excellent means to transmit the heritage of the truth to the generations that follow. 

From what we have just seen, it certainly will do neither us nor our fellow saints any good to be critical of the creeds. Instead of being critical of them it is time to go back to them and study them in the light of the Word of God. In them is expresses the eternal truth of the Scriptures, the glory which no man will ever fully comprehend. A faithful, prayerful study of the creeds in the light of the Word will lead the church into an ever deeper understanding of the mysteries of the kingdom of God as taught in the Word. May God grand us in these latter days the grace always to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints," the faith as set forth so eloquently in our confessions.