Saturday, March 2, 2013

What place do creeds, confessions, catechisms, and commentaries have in Christendom? (Part 1)

I'm a firm believer in Sola Scriptura, that is "The Scriptures Alone", however, that is a vague motto that has been used, misused, and abused by people from all different denominations to mean and support varying and often conflicting ideas. One particular misuse of this maxim has been termed biblicism, the belief that the scriptures are alone the only writings to which a christian should refer, casting aside all iterated doctrines, dogmas, and teachings that men have formulated (even if they have scripture as their foundation). While this sounds solid on the outset, it is dangerous in its intimation and impossible to apply. First, it will do great damage to sound doctrine by opening the door to any orator who can make a good argument for his interpretation of a particular passage of scripture. When we rely strictly on our own interpretation of scripture we give place to any Mormon, Catholic, Arian, Pelagian, etc. to make a case for their form of heresy from scripture (as they all attempt to do) because we refuse to look at what godly and learned men have decided about these very issues after much study and long debate. Second, it is impossible to implement because as soon as you've convinced someone that this is the proper way to interpret scripture, you have made a disciple and are now guilty of doing the very thing you're advocating against, i.e. allowing the teaching of a man to influence how you interpret scripture.
With all that being said, we must ask, "What then does Sola Scriptura mean? The Scriptures alone... what?" The answer is that the Scriptures alone are our ground and final rule of faith and practice. However, there are many helps that God has given to the church to help it in its definition and articulation of what the Scriptures teach. (Eph. 4:11-14) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
I. Creeds
According to a creed (in the sense I'm using it here) is "an authoritative, formulated statement of the chief articles of Christian belief." It comes from the Latin word "credo" which means "I believe". These have played an important part throughout the history of the church as concise statements which differentiate Christianity from other religions. In fact it is almost certain that in I Corinthians 15:3-7 Paul is quoting an early church creed that was probably formulated just 5-6 years after Jesus' death. The first clue is that he said in both verses one and three that he was giving them something that he had received. The Greek words behind "delivered" and "received" are the words that were used by scribes who copied and passed on written traditions. The next hint is the four part structure of the verses, further broken down into two parts made up of a fact with its supporting evidence. Note,
1. Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures.
1a. He was buried. (Not just a coma, or swooning, he was dead enough that they put him in the ground.)
2. He rose again on the third day, according to the scriptures.
2a. He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve, then of over 500 brethren. (It wasn't just a spiritual return or a hallucination, he really, bodily rose again.)
Thirdly, the connecting word "that" serves as quotation marks in the Greek (since it uses grammar to give sentence structure, instead of quotation marks) and Paul uses "how", "and", and "after" as additions to add emphasis to what he was saying, to keep the Corinthian church from hearing it as a cliche since they had probably heard and repeated it a hundred times before. So this early Christian creed probably went like this,
"We believe that Christ died for our sins,
according to the scriptures,
he was buried,
he rose again the third day,
according to the scriptures,
he was seen of Cephas,then of the twelve,
(whether verse seven was part of the creed or not is debated, if so it would have finished up with "He was seen of James then of all the apostles.")
Three early creeds that are very sound and have been held by Christians in all ages are the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The Apostles Creed is said by tradition to have been written by the twelve apostles, each contributing one of the twelve articles, on the day of Pentecost and that this is what they were doing when the Holy Ghost came upon them in Acts 2:1. Whether that is the case, or whether it was formulated by their students from their writings is not definitively known. What is known is that it was written in the first century and is entirely consistent with apostolic writings and teaching. John Calvin said this concerning this creed in his catechism.
Master. Then the foundation and beginning of confidence in God is to know him in Christ?
Student. Entirely so.
Master. I should now wish you to tell me in a few words, what the sum of this knowledge is?
Student. It is contained in the Confession of Faith, or rather Formula of Confession, which all Christians have in common. It is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, because from the beginning of the Church it was ever received among all the pious, and because it either fell from the lips of the Apostles, or was faithfully gathered out of their writings.

This is how the creed reads, (complete with the supposed contributer of each article).
Peter - 1. I believe in God the Father Almighty
John - 2. Maker of heaven and earth
James - 3. And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord
Andrew - 4. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost; born of the Virgin Mary
Philip - 5. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried
Thomas - 6. He descended into hell, the third day he rose again from the dead
Bartholomew - 7. He ascended into heaven; sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
Matthew - 8. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead
James, the son of Alpheus - 9. I believe In the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church
Simon Zelotes - 10. The communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins
Jude, the brother of James - 11. The resurrection of the body
Matthias - 12. Life everlasting. Amen
(Notice in all three creeds that the word "catholic" is spelled with a small "c", it means worldwide or universal, it does not mean the church of Rome which now calls itself the Catholic Church.)
The second most important creed in christian history is the Nicene Creed, so named because it was adopted at the first ecumenical church council held in the city of Nicea in 325. This creed is a little longer and speaks more directly to the nature of the trinity, particularly the divine nature of Jesus, since that was the heresy that was sweeping the church at the time (the Arian controvery). Of over 300 christian bishops gathered at this council, this creed was accepted and signed by all but three who were denounced as heretics. If this creed were more widely accepted in Christianity today, those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity such as T. D. Jakes and William Young (author of The Shack), might not have such a large following nor find such acceptance among those who claim to be orthodox Christians. This creed states,
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The third creed is know as the Athanasian Creed, named after Athansius who championed the true doctrine of the trinity in the face of Arianism. Unfortunately, even after the first council of Nicea in 325, and in spite of the denouncing of Arianism and the adoption of the Nicene Creed, Arianism actually became more popular than the accepted Christian position for the next fifty years until the council of Constantinople in 381 where the Nicene Creed was reaffirmed, and Arianism was crushed with Athanasius leading the charge. This creed was probably not written by him, in fact it may not have been written until the 700s, however, because it so clearly states what he articulated it bears his name to this day. It goes like this,
1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
31. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
32. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
34. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
35. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
36. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;
38. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
39. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
40. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
42. and shall give account of their own works.
43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
If under the guise of Sola Scriptura, we forget what our forefathers so clearly iterated for us, many times in spite of the fact that it could cost them their lives, (it is said that many of the bishops at the first church council bore in their bodies the scars of persecution since Rome had only very recently legalized Christianity) we dishonor the very Word we claim to be upholding. For it is the scriptures themselves that have told us that God has given the church Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers for the perfecting of it. That means that we not only need the godly ministers we have today, but until the church is perfect and complete, we still need the foundational men and their works by which the church until this point has been edified and built.


  1. Great review of the creeds and well-balanced reflections on "sola scriptura." I had never read of the attribution of the 12 points of the Apostles' Creed to one each of the disciples. Very interesting. Thanks for the post!

  2. Excellent post. A great reminder, and I am glad that you view these creeds, confessions and catechisms in such a good light. Bravo.