by Matthew Y. Emerson
“No creed but the Bible!”
This expression has, at times, been used by Baptists as a self-descriptor. Motivated by factors as diverse as anti-Catholicism and soul competency, and historically derived from Campbellites, this anti-creedal creed is not, in fact, expressive of Baptist identity or helpful in Baptist discipleship. Historically, the earliest Baptists affirmed the three ecumenical creeds (e.g. in the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed) and used language similar to historic creeds and confessions in their articulations of their faith. In subsequent centuries, explicit affirmation of the early Christian creeds has waned, but Baptists continue to use historic creedal and confessional language in their own doctrinal expressions, especially with respect to the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.
This historical perspective is a precursor to my main point here, namely that Baptists’ use of the creeds in worship is helpful for the transformation of a church’s members into Christ’s image. This practice is admittedly not widespread among Baptists today, and in my view this is for at least two reasons. First, the rise of “soul competency” as a Baptist distinctive under the influence of E. Y. Mullins has impacted the way we view creeds and confessions. The primacy of the individual, and especially of their free will, leads many to view creeds and confessions as unduly coercive. Second, Protestants, and especially Baptists, continue to shy away from anything that is “too Catholic,” by which we usually mean anything that feels like it fits in a Roman Catholic Mass.
While we certainly want to affirm the Baptist emphasis on religious liberty and individual responsibility before God, we also want to remember the biblical principle of “guarding the good deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) and “entrusting to faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2) what we have learned from our predecessors in the faith. These instructions from Paul to Timothy concern right belief – doctrine. Doctrine is to be passed down from generation to generation, according to Paul. From a theological perspective, as Alistair McGrath and Scott Swain and Michael Allen, among others, have argued, tradition can and should have authority in the Christian life, albeit one that is subordinate to the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice – the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Scriptures. The authority that the creeds have on the Christian faith is second to the Scriptures, to be sure, but to the extent that they are faithful to those Scriptures they are to be viewed as accurate, and therefore authoritative, articulations of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
As far as the fear of Rome is concerned, one wonders what we would be left with if Protestants rejected everything tied to pope or council. From Augustine to Gregory to Anselm to Aquinas there are a whole host of doctrines and practices that Protestants preserved from Roman Catholic thought and life that ought not be jettisoned. In other words, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly if there are practices and doctrines that are antithetical to the the Reformation – namely those related to soteriology, bibliology, and ecclesiology – then we ought to avoid them. But in my mind knowing and saying the Creeds is not one of those, an opinion that is shared by many (most?) other Protestant denominations.
So, to the point, then. What are the benefits of reciting the Creeds on a regular basis in public worship? At least three come to mind.
The Creeds are summaries of the Christian faith. They are a means, perhaps the primary means, of doing as Paul instructed and passing down the good deposit of apostolic teaching.
The Creeds help us to read Scripture rightly. They assist us in seeing both the nature of God and also the structure, or economy, of the salvation he accomplishes for us. These two – who God is and what he does – are crucial for a right reading of the Bible, and the Creeds in their structure and content teach us how to read well.
The Creeds, and particularly their public recitation in corporate worship, remind us that we as local churches and in particular denominations are not alone in following the Lord Jesus Christ. Five hundred years after the Reformation when visible fragmentation of the church exists on a denominational level, corporate recitation of the Creeds fosters visible catholicity, or unity, with other Christians.
In other words, public recitation of the Creeds is a means of discipleship. The Creeds are, as Swain and Allen put it, tools in the school of Christ, instruments that teach us how to believe, read, and love.