Who Needs Creeds When I’ve Got a Bible? – An Excerpt from What Christians Ought to Believe
Many Christians look questionably upon traditional church confessions, proclaiming “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible!”
In today’s excerpt from What Christians Ought to Believe, author Michael F. Bird explains that creeds are not only biblical, but also critical for identifying what scripture says about God, Jesus, salvation, and the life of the age to come.
I used to provide regular supply preaching for a warm and intimate fellowship of Christians in the Free Church tradition. I cheekily smiled to myself whenever I read their bulletin because it always had on it the words, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” The irony, of course, is that those words are not found in the Bible. This delightful group of saints had in fact turned their pious motto into a type of extrabiblical creed. Their genuine concern not to court controversy over creeds led to the formation of their own anticreedal creed as it were.
Hesitation about the value of the ancient creeds for modern Christians is quite understandable. If your only experience of creeds is mindless repetition, if you’ve been exposed to seemingly esoteric debates about technical theological jargon that does not appear relevant to anything, if you’ve ever been confused about how the creeds relate to what the Bible actually says, or if you think that the whole process of writing creeds and confessions just becomes divisive, then you may certainly be excused for some misgivings about creeds.
The problem is that it is no good just to say, “We believe the Bible!” Noble as that might sound, it runs into several problems. The fact is that many groups claim to believe the Bible, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and many more. Yet you cannot help but notice that these groups do not always agree on what the Bible teaches. Most of the time these differences are fairly inconsequential, but other times the differences are absolutely gigantic. Whether we should baptize babies or only believing adults is significant, but is hardly going to shake the foundations of the cosmos. Whether Jesus was an archangel who briefly visited earth or the coequal and coeternal Son of God who was incarnated as a man makes an immense difference, with a whole constellation of things riding on it.
If you do believe the Bible, then sooner or later you have to set out what you think the Bible says. What does the Bible—the entire Bible for that matter—say about God, Jesus, salvation, and the life of the age to come? When you set out the biblical teaching in some formal sense, like in a church doctrinal statement, then you are creating a creed. You are saying: this is what we believe the Bible teaches about X, Y, and Z. You are saying: this is the stuff that really matters. You are declaring: this is where the boundaries of the faith need to be drawn. You are suggesting: this is what brings us together in one faith.
Creeds Are Biblical!
Something we need to remember is that creeds are in fact found in the Bible! There are a number of passages in the Old and New Testaments that have a creedal function. In Deuteronomy, we find the Shema, Israel’s most concise confession of its faith in one God. Hence the words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4–5). These are the words that faithful Jews across the centuries have confessed daily. It was this belief in one God that distinguished the Israelites from pagan polytheists and even to this day marks out Judaism as a monotheistic religion in contrast to many other world religions. The Shema described the essential elements of Israel’s faith in a short and simple summary. The Shema stipulated that Israel’s God was the one and only God, the God of creation and covenant, the God of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who had rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.
Furthermore, the Israelites were to respond to their God principally in love, as love would determine the nature of their faith and obedience to him. As God had loved them, so they in return must love God. No surprise, then, that the Shema was affirmed by both Jesus and Paul and held in tandem with their distinctive beliefs about kingdom, Messiah, and salvation (see Mark 12:29; 1 Cor 8:6). What that means is that Jesus, Paul, and the first Christians were creedal believers simply by virtue of the fact that they were Jewish and lived within the orbit of Jewish beliefs about God, the covenant, and the future.
Given that context, it is perfectly understandable that the early church developed their own creeds to summarize what they believed the God of Israel had done and would yet do in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’s tomb was not long vacated when persons in the early church began to set out summaries of their faith in early creedal statements. Among the first believers were those who composed a short summary of the basic beliefs that were shared by Christians all over the Greco-Roman world.