One of the signs of the evangelical movement’s ahistorical attitude is its downplaying or outright denial of creeds. In how many Protestant churches is the Nicene Creed still recited? Much of the church seems to cede all pre-Reformation ground to Rome and Constantinople. Who needs the communion of saints anyway?
The 19th century Princetonian, Samuel Miller, once delivered a nifty speech called The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions. He lists these considerations in favor of them:
- For Agreement and Unity. “Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church… can maintain unity among themselves.” Further, “Before the church…can detect heretics, and cast them out from her bosom… her governors and members must be agreed what is truth.” (Phil 2:16, Prov 23:23, Jude 3, 2 Tim 1:14, Rom 12:5, Eph 4:3, 1 Cor 1:10, Phil 2:2, Amos 3:3)
- To Guard Truth. “Those orthodox brethren who admit that the church is bound to raise her voice against error, and to ‘contend earnestly’ for the truth, and yet denounce creeds and confessions are, in the highest degree, inconsistent with themselves. They acknowledge the obligation and importance of a great duty; and yet reject the only means by which it can be performed.” (Jude 3, 2 Tim 1:14, Phil 1:27)
- To Proclaim Beliefs. “The adoption and publication of a creed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church owes to the other churches, and the world around her.”
- To Encourage Doctrinal Study. “…[L]et them be careful to present… that ‘good confession’ which they are commanded to ‘profess before many witnesses’ (1 Tim 6:12-13). Earlier, he says: “Look at the loose, vague, indecisive character of the preaching heard in nine-tenths of the Unitarian, and other latitudinarian pulpits… If the occupants of those pulpits had it for their distinct and main object to render their hearers indifferent…about the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, they could scarcely adopt a plan more directly calculated to attain their end, than that which they actually pursue.”
- Historical Experience. “It is an argument of no small weight, in favor of creeds, that the experience of all ages has found them indispensably necessary.”
- They Have the Right Enemies. “…[T]he most ardent and noisy opponents of creeds have been those who hold corrupt opinions… [M]en are seldom opposed to creeds, until creeds are opposed to them.”
- Even Opposers End Up Using Them. “Did anyone ever hear of a Unitarian congregation engaging as their pastor a preacher of Calvinism? … The Calvinist surely comes with his Bible in his hand, and professes to believe it as cordially as they… Yet we know that…it is not enough for these advocates of unbounded liberality.”
Those who say “the New Testament is my only creed” or “I just believe in the Bible” affirm nothing distinguishing them from a multitude of cults. They beg the question of interpretation. Miller illustrates the need for interpretive creeds using a classic example, the 4th century Arian heresy that denied Christ’s divinity:
Of this demand [for a creed] there never was a more striking instance than in the Council of Nicea, when the heresy of Arius was under the consideration of that far-famed assembly. When the Council entered on the examination of the subject, it was found extremely difficult to obtain from Arius any satisfactory explanation of his views. He was not only as ready, as the most orthodox divine present, to profess that he believed the Bible; but he also declared himself willing to adopt, as his own, all the language of the scriptures, in detail, concerning the person and character of the blessed Redeemer. But when the members of the Council wished to ascertain in what sense he understood this language, he discovered a disposition to evade and equivocate, and actually, for a considerable time, baffled the attempts of the most ingenious of the orthodox to specify his errors, and to bring them to light. He declared that he was perfectly willing to employ the popular language on the subject in controversy; and wished to have it believed that he differed very little from the body of the church.
Accordingly the orthodox went over the various titles of Christ plainly expressive of Divinity such as “God,” “the true God,” the “express image of God,” etc. (Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20; cf. Heb. 1:3) to every one of which Arius and his followers most readily subscribed, claiming a right, however, to put their own construction on the scriptural titles in question. After employing much time and ingenuity in vain, in endeavoring to drag this artful chief from his lurking places, and to obtain from him an explanation of his views, the Council found it would be impossible to accomplish their object as long as they permitted him to entrench himself behind a mere general profession of belief in the Bible.
They therefore did what common sense, as well as the word of God, had taught the church to do in all preceding times, and what alone can enable her to detect the artful advocate of error. They expressed, in their own language, what they supposed to be the doctrine of scripture concerning the Divinity of the Saviour: in other words, they drew up a confession of faith on this subject, which they called upon Arius and his disciples to subscribe. This the heretics refused; and were thus virtually brought to the acknowledgment that they did not understand the scriptures as the rest of the Council understood them, and, of course, that the charge against them was correct.