A creed is a confession of faith for public use, a form of words setting forth certain articles of belief which are regarded as necessary for salvation and for the well-being of the Church. A creed may be extensive, covering the whole system of Christian doctrine, (as the Westminster Confession of Faith), or it may be a brief outline of fundamental beliefs ( as the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds ). A creed may also be catechetical in form, designed in particular for the instruction of the young.
THE ORIGIN OF CREEDS
Where there is faith and strong conviction, inevitably there will be confession. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” “I believe, therefore have I spoken.” The apostle Paul declared, “We also believe, and therefore speak.” Faith and confession are inseparable in the life of the Church.
There is evidence in the New Testament that there were creedal statements current during the life-time of the Apostles. There were brief statements of faith in Christ as the Son of God and in the incarnation (Rom. 10:9; 1 Jn. 4:2), and much longer creedal affirmations (1 Tim.3:16). The apostle Paul emphasises the importance of “holding the pattern of sound words,” and teaches that the Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” There was apostolic concern that revealed truth should be clearly stated and maintained.
When the people of God rejoice in the truth and have a passion for the truth, they will be eager to affirm that truth systematically and succinctly. This is necessary for the edification of believers and as a rebuttal of false teaching. Both these functions of creeds are seen in the New Testament. It was found necessary to condense the great body of redemptive truth in order to provide the Church with a clearly visible framework of belief and at the same time to demolish the pernicious doctrines of false teachers.
The need for confessions and symbols did not cease with the close of the canon of Scripture. From those very Scriptures, attempts were repeatedly made to deduce doctrines which the Church saw as contrary to Apostolic teaching. While there would have been creeds even if there had been no doctrinal controversy, most of the historic Christian creeds and confessions were hammered out on the anvil of controversy. These creeds did not originate in mere speculative curiosity. They were statements of doctrine in which the imperilled Church sought to express truths that were vital to her very existence. In a certain sense they are to be seen as mile-stones in the history of Christian doctrine. The development of creeds throughout the centuries, and the controversies that gave rise to them, indicate the fallacy of the popular argument that, since we have the Bible, creeds are unnecessary. There have always been those who wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction and to that of others (2 Pet.3:16).
THE AUTHORITY OF CREEDS
Creeds are never co-ordinate with, but always subordinate to, the Bible as the only rule of faith and conduct. At best a creed is an approximate and relatively correct interpretation of Scripture, and may be improved by the increasing knowledge that the Church derives from Scripture. The Bible remains perfect, infallible and absolutely authoritative. The Bible is of God; confessions are the response of the man in Christ to God’s Word and his acceptance of that Word. The authority of Scripture, therefore, is divine and absolute, and that of confessions, ecclesiastical and relative. Creed and Scripture are related as stream and fountain.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland recognises Holy Scripture as its only Standard, but sees that Standard summarised, interpreted and applied in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and in her Testimony. Thus the supremacy of Scripture is safeguarded and the subordinate authority of the Confession accepted.
Resistance to creedal statements arises from two quarters. Naturally, those who do not accept Scripture as the infallible Word of God will vigorously oppose subscription to a summary of its teachings. But there are those who see the sufficiency of Scripture imperilled by creeds. It has to be admitted that, if a creed is equated, in practice at least, with Scripture, then the authority of Scripture has been undermined. That is why creeds and confessions can only be accepted on the grounds that they are founded on and agreeable to the Word of God, a perspective that must never be forgotten.
THE VALUE OF CREEDS
When a Christian Church sets forth in a confession her honest conviction of what the Scriptures principally teach, she is thereby identified as being apostolic in faith and practice, and as cherishing “the faith once delivered unto the saints.” That Church is saying in her Confession “This is what the Scriptures teach.”
Such a confession is a bond of union among those who profess “like precious faith.” Those who love the truth of God will not see creeds as cages, but as agreed statements of Biblical truth to which they freely and gladly bind themselves. Unless there is unity in the truth, there is either a pretence of unity which masks doctrinal indifference, or there is unity in unbelief. Those who love the truth cannot tolerate a sham unity, or indifference to the truth. It has been said that “entire intellectual toleration is the mark of those who believe nothing.”
Admittedly, the creeds are both apologetic and polemic, but that is not the primary motivation of the Church in drafting her creeds. The Church is not concerned to be a debating society, but to witness faithfully to divine truth. Where there is whole-hearted acceptance of a Scriptural creed, there is true unity in the faith and a consequent incentive to evangelise.
As summaries of biblical doctrines and aids to their understanding, creeds edify the Body of Christ. The purpose of the early creeds was that of popular instruction. The more detailed confessions of later date are also useful in the instruction of the members and prospective members of the Church and the catechisms were designed expressly for this purpose. Thus creeds and catechisms are of importance in the prophetic ministry of the Church.
Creeds are also of service to the Church in the maintenance of internal discipline. They can be used to bring those who do not fully understand a church’s confession to a clearer perception of the doctrines of grace, and, where there is hostility to the Gospel, creeds may subserve and assist disciplinary action. Thus creeds, when properly used, are guards against false doctrine and practice. It needs to be stressed that defective understanding of the truth results sooner or later in a serious collapse both in morals and church order.
No creed can, by itself, guarantee undiminished purity of faith and practice. The best churches have, at times, declined and become degenerate. Yet corrupt churches may be revived by the Spirit of God through the Word of God which abides forever. It is the responsibility of the confessional church to endeavour by God’s grace to be faithful to its confession of Christ and His Gospel.