Thursday, December 15, 2011
My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the use of creeds:
Q: Why do some churches say creeds during their worship services? Isn’t believing in these creeds a way of adding onto the Bible? If a church requires adherence to any document other than the Bible, isn’t that against the Reformation principle of “Scripture Alone” that protestants claim to believe?
There are many forms of creeds found throughout Christianity. The three that are almost-universally accepted, and which many churches speak publically as a part of public worship are the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is typically associated with Baptism and with the prayer offices of the Church. The Nicene Creed is typically associated with the Lord’s Supper, and the Athanasian Creed, the longest and most complicated of the three, is traditionally said on occasions specifically associated with the doctrine of the Trinity, such as the first Sunday after Pentecost.
During the first 400 years after Jesus ascended into heaven, representatives from all of Christianity met seven times in response to false teachings that had arisen. They gathered in council to evaluate these new teachings and responded by formulating statements of what was true, based on the writings of the Apostles, which we know as the New Testament. These three creeds are the result of the councils mentioned above, and from that point until the founding of the United States over 1300 years later, they were considered the standard for Christian orthodoxy. If anyone agreed with these creeds, even if they disputed other teachings of the Church, they were considered within the scope of Christianity, and if anyone disagreed with elements of these creeds, they were considered outside the scope of Christianity.
This is true to such an extent that my Lutheran predecessors emphasized their consistency with historical Christianity by including them as the first documents in their collection of statements about what they as a group believed in comparison to their Roman Catholic and Reformed neighbors of the time.
To confess these creeds, whether as foundation for one’s written doctrine, or as a public act of worship, is not a way of adding onto the Bible, though. This is because these creeds are summaries of what is contained in the Bible. In fact, fragments of these creeds can be seen already in the letters of the Apostle Paul, as he quotes them as evidence for which doctrine is true or false in the congregations he is addressing.
The reason these creeds are necessary is because throughout the history of Christianity, people have frequently misunderstood the message of the Bible, and as a result, strayed from the truth. These creeds serve as a succinct and time-tested way to begin instructing new Christians in the faith, so that as they begin to read the Bible, they can “stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them” as these foundational statements undergird their personal reading, as well as an easily-memorized way that Christians can test the statements of unknown teachers against established truth to judge whether the teacher in question ought to be believed.
In the centuries since these creeds, the tradition of summarizing the doctrines of churches in a written statement has continued with documents such as the Book of Concord among Lutherans and the “Westminster Confession” and the “Canons of the Synod of Dort” among protestants.
However, this is not to say that these creeds or other confessions are to be considered equal to the Bible. Instead, they are always subject to what is taught in the Bible, and derive their authority from the Bible.
At the same time, the three major creeds listed at the beginning of this article are not merely examples of what Christians have believed in the past. Instead, they are statements of timeless truth which reflect the essence and foundation of Christian teaching. Since God Himself does not change, neither does His Truth, and since these creeds reflect and embody that Truth as revealed in the Bible, they themselves remain true for all time, regardless of the changes in human opinion and perspective which may have occurred in the generations since.