The Function of Creeds (Part 1)

PMT 2014-017b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In this mini-series I will list six important functions of creeds for the Christian faith. Broader socio-cultural implications flow forth from creedalism, but these are beyond the purview of the present study (see: R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order).

First, creeds serve as a basis for ecclesiastical fellowship and labor.

Whenever two walk together they must be agreed (Amos 3:3) for a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matt 12.25). Community labors are better performed and “body life” is more consistently maintained within that church which possesses a homogeneity of faith. And it is imperative that the particular content of that fundamental faith be known, as in a written creed.

Non-creedal fundamentalism is both internally inconsistent at the theoretical level and seriously endangered at the practical level. Its theoretical inconsistency is manifest in the internal contradiction of the very statement “no creed but the Bible.” This statement itself is a creed. It says, in effect: “I believe (credo) in no creed.” That is, “My creed is that there be no creed.” Furthermore, this theoretical position is not amenable to practice. Even the notoriously anti-creedal Church of Christ denomination requires some sort of implied statement of belief from persons seeking positions of authority in its fellowship. A paedo-baptist, or a Five Point Calvinist will simply never be allowed in its ministry.

Ironically, non-creedalism possesses inherent dangers in that in principle such a position allows almost any doctrine into a church. The anti-creedal quotations in the third paragraph of this study are pious sounding and widely representative of many churches. Unfortunately, the statements are drawn from Let God Be True, a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The essence of the citation could well be reduced to: “No creed but the Bible.” Yet despite the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s adoption of the same principle (no creed) and the same authority (the Bible), they are unacceptable to orthodox churches. Obviously there is more to orthodoxy than the claim “no creed but the Bible.” And once you go beyond “no creed but the Bible” to probe one’s faith you are thereby establishing a creed, a statement of faith.

Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney aptly comments: “As man’s mind is notoriously fallible, and professed Christians who claim to hold the Scriptures, as they understand them, differ from each other notoriously, some platform for union and cooperation must be adopted, by which those who believe they are truly agreed may stand and work together.” Churches absolutely must provide a formal, public affirmation of their faith so their members and prospective members may know exactly where they stand. This is the function of a creed.

Second, creeds serve as tools of Christian education.

Obviously the sheer volume of the Bible (1,189 chapters containing over 773,000 words) forbids its full comprehension in a moment and by every Christian — or even by one supremely gifted believer in an entire lifetime. Nevertheless, God commands his people in the Old Testament Shema (Deut 6:4-25) and in the New Testament Great Commission (Matt. 28.19-20) to teach the Bible’s truth to others. This teaching process necessarily deals with fundamental, selected truths at first — truths such as outlined and organized in a creed.

A growing understanding of the Bible comes only through reading it, systematizing it, studying it, hearing it expounded, and applying it. Nineteenth century Presbyterian theologian A. A. Hodge notes in his defense of creeds: “While . . . the Scriptures are from God, the understanding of them belongs to the part of men. Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of the Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scripture teaches upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system.” In short, creeds are simply expository distillations of Scripture. They summarily state the most basic themes of Scripture in order to facilitate education in them.

If a brief expository summation of the teachings of the Bible is acceptable to evangelical Christians, then creeds are legitimatized in that they fulfil that precise function. In this respect, creeds differ from doctrinal sermons only in being more exact and being more carefully compiled by several minds. Once a church encourages public teaching of the Word or publishes literature explaining it, that church has in fact made a creedal statement.

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