During times of cultural acceptance, Christianity in the United States has grown in many directions, some of which are not healthy. Setting aside the heretical movements of Christianity, like the prosperity gospel, which should be rightly be anathematized, there has been a growing movement toward fragmentation.
Denominations have divided. Often this has been for good cause, as when revisionist tendencies have denatured the gospel by rejecting the clear content of Scripture. However, there have been other cases where new denominations and congregations have been formed over non-essential doctrines or mere stylistic preferences.
As orthodox Christian ethics are more consistently and violently rejected in contemporary society, the resident alien church will need to form coalitions more broadly than in recent years. Congregations that refuse to revise doctrines for the spirit of the age will likely face greater punitive forces in society, which will require consolidation of small congregations.
If this scenario unfolds, a central point of contact will need to be established. One possible point of contact for broader Christian coalitions is the traditional Christian creeds.
No Creed but the Bible
Earlier in my life, I embraced the idea that creeds were an unhealthy addition to the Christian tradition.
I found myself fond of the idea, “No creed but the Bible.” This happens to be a refrain that was uttered explicitly by Alexander Campbell, whose primitivist Christian movement has done some good, but has sown a great deal of confusion by reviving the idea of baptismal regeneration.
As I’ve studied Church History and Historical Theology, I’ve realized that those that argue for no creed but the Bible often end up in heresy. If not them, then their followers have significantly modified Christian doctrines through spurious interpretation.
It’s taken years, but I’ve come around to an appreciation of the creeds. They have a place in grounding contemporary Christians in the great tradition.
The Authority of Scripture
Part of my rejection of the Apostles’ Creed, when I was first exposed to it, was due to the phrase describing Christ’s decent into hell.
When I tried to reconcile that passage with Scripture, I simply couldn’t. There might be themes that resonate somewhat with a descent into hell, but there was an insufficient connection between that firm theological statement and Scripture. As a result, my primitivist leanings were validated, and I ignored creeds for another decade.
As it turns out, there is a convincing case to be made for a textual variant in the Apostles’ Creed. It should read that Christ descended to the dead, which is clearly a biblical concept. In this case, textual criticism saves the day. A bad text only cost me a decade of being more strongly connected with traditional Christianity.
My instincts were right. Scripture is the ultimate authority, but when the creeds are rightly presented, they connect us to the theologians who were wrestling with the Bible in light of the controversies of their day. The creeds help me to interpret Scripture rightly to avoid the heresies that drove the creation of the creedal statements in the first place.
Creeds do no replace the authority of Scripture, they help ensure continuity of interpretation of Scripture.
Are the Creeds Enough?
The traditional, ecumenical creeds of the church are documents that reflect the time in which they were written. This is evident as the Christology in the various creeds becomes more complex over time, because the Church was responding to new attacks on a biblical view of Christ.
As a result, the creeds for a common center around which we can worship, but they can’t be used as final guidelines for the extent of Christian doctrine. In other words, they do a great deal to ensure that everyone is worshipping the same God, but there are a whole lot of errors they don’t prevent.
The contemporary church must go beyond the creeds. Even the early church did. For example, the prohibition against abortion was universally accepted in the early church, but since it was not contested within the church, it didn’t need an article in the creeds. Refusing to participate in abortion was also a product of discipleship, which is the result of proper belief in who God is, so it wasn’t necessary to affirm such an obvious ethical claim immediately after conversion.
Although the creeds are not complete, we should consider how we can anchor our worship in the creedal tradition. They provide a strong, common center around which community can be constructed. A creedal center allows others who differ from the majority of the congregation to worship together, even when differing on important secondary matters.
No one knows what the future holds. It may be that the present rumblings in opposition to the free exercise of religion come to nothing.
However, it may be that a crisis due to political machinations can unite faithful Christians around the central doctrines of the church and creeds can help form a common foundation.