I used to provide regular supply preaching for a warm and intimate fellowship of Christians in the Free Church tradition. I cheekily smiled to myself whenever I read their bulletin because it always had on it the words, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” The irony, of course, is that those words are not found in the Bible. This delightful group of saints had in fact turned their pious motto into a type of extrabiblical creed. Their genuine concern not to court controversy over creeds led to the formation of their own anticreedal creed as it were.
Hesitation about the value of the ancient creeds for modern Christians is quite understandable. If your only experience of creeds is mindless repetition, if you’ve been exposed to seemingly esoteric debates about technical theological jargon that does not appear relevant to anything, if you’ve ever been confused about how the creeds relate to what the Bible actually says, or if you think that the whole process of writing creeds and confessions just becomes divisive, then you may certainly be excused for some misgivings about creeds.
The problem is that it is no good just to say, “We believe the Bible!” Noble as that might sound, it runs into several problems. The fact is that many groups claim to believe the Bible, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and many more. Yet you cannot help but notice that these groups do not always agree on what the Bible teaches. Most of the time these differences are fairly inconsequential, but other times the differences are absolutely gigantic. Whether we should baptize babies or only believing adults is significant, but is hardly going to shake the foundations of the cosmos. Whether Jesus was an archangel who briefly visited earth or the coequal and coeternal Son of God who was incarnated as a man makes an immense difference, with a whole constellation of things riding on it. If you do believe the Bible, then sooner or later you have to set out what you think the Bible says. What does the Bible—the entire Bible for that matter—say about God, Jesus, salvation, and the life of the age to come? When you set out the biblical teaching in some formal sense, like in a church doctrinal statement, then you are creating a creed. You are saying: this is what we believe the Bible teaches about X, Y, and Z. You are saying: this is the stuff that really matters. You are declaring: this is where the boundaries of the faith need to be drawn. You are suggesting: this is what brings us together in one faith.
Something we need to remember is that creeds are in fact found in the Bible! There are a number of passages in the Old and New Testaments that have a creedal function. In Deuteronomy, we find the Shema, Israel’s most concise confession of its faith in one God. Hence the words: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4–5). These are the words that faithful Jews across the centuries have confessed daily. It was this belief in one God that distinguished the Israelites from pagan polytheists and even to this day marks out Judaism as a monotheistic religion in contrast to many other world religions. The Shema described the essential elements of Israel’s faith in a short and simple summary. The Shema stipulated that Israel’s God was the one and only God, the God of creation and covenant, the God of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who had rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Furthermore, the Israelites were to respond to their God principally in love, as love would determine the nature of their faith and obedience to him. As God had loved them, so they in return must love God. No surprise, then, that the Shema was affirmed by both Jesus and Paul and held in tandem with their distinctive beliefs about kingdom, Messiah, and salvation (see Mark 12:29; 1 Cor 8:6). What that means is that Jesus, Paul, and the first Christians were creedal believers simply by virtue of the fact that they were Jewish and lived within the orbit of Jewish beliefs about God, the covenant, and the future.
Given that context, it is perfectly understandable that the early church developed their own creeds to summarize what they believed the God of Israel had done and would yet do in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’s tomb was not long vacated when persons in the early church began to set out summaries of their faith in early creedal statements. Among the first believers were those who composed a short summary of the basic beliefs that were shared by Christians all over the Greco-Roman world.
To begin with, what was arguably the most pervasive of early Christian beliefs was that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead:
For we believe that Jesus died and rose again. (1 Thess 4:14)
[Jesus] died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor 5:15)
He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Rom 4:25)
Christ died and returned to life. (Rom 14:9)
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. (Rev 2:8)
What is striking is that this belief that Jesus was crucified and was raised to life was affirmed in diverse types of material in the New Testament. It is found in liturgical material, apostolic exhortation to congregations, snuggly inserted into theological argumentation, laid out in hymnlike poetry, and even found in New Testament prophecy. It was a belief that was as pervasive as it was popular. Furthermore, this statement was the fulcrum of the church’s confession about who Jesus was and what God did through him.
We find more elaborate creedal statements appearing in Paul’s letters. During Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, he wrote a letter to Timothy in Ephesus, and in this letter Paul referred to what was very probably an early creed:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory. (1 Tim 3:16)
This creed gives a basic summary of Jesus’s career from incarnation to his exaltation. Each line tells us about some key event in his earthly mission. It is a short summary of the story of Jesus and functions as the touchstone of faith. It doesn’t say everything there is to say, but it gives the basic outlines into which other beliefs can be seamlessly added to fill out the picture.
Another important passage is the famous “Christ hymn” found in Philippians 2:5–11. This passage might not be an actual hymn; it could simply be poetic prose or a fragment of an early statement of faith that Paul had received from others. In any case, it is a majestic description of how Jesus went from divine glory to servile humiliation to exaltation to the right hand of God the Father.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something
to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5–11)
This wonderful text sets forth the story of Jesus’s incarnation, his redemptive death, and his accession to divine glory. Whether sung, read, or recited, it certainly lends itself to a creedal function as it sets out what Christians believe about where Jesus came from, why he died, and why he should be worshipped.
The creedal-like materials that we find in the New Testament are part of a general pattern of “teachings” or “traditions” that were composed and passed on for the benefit of the churches. We find evidence in the New Testament for a large body of instruction being orally transmitted to the nascent churches by the apostles. In the Pauline churches, this included the story of the gospel (1 Cor 15:3–5), Jesus’s final supper with his followers (1 Cor 11:23–26), and a general body of Christian teachings (Rom 6:17). Indeed, Paul tells the Thessalonians that they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Similarly, the risen Jesus tells the church in Sardis to remember “what you have received and heard” (Rev 3:3). What Jude calls the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” refers to the faith taught in the Old Testament Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus, the story of Jesus, and the apostolic instruction in the way of Jesus (Jude 3). The spiritually gifted teachers of the church passed on these teachings—stories and instructions about Jesus—which provided the substance for the later creeds of the church (see Acts 13:1; Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28–29; Eph 4:11; Heb 5:12; Jas 3:1).
We might say that early Christian instruction was the exposition of a “tradition,” that is, a collection of teachings that were passed on by Jesus to his apostles, combined with a distinctive way of interpreting the Old Testament that made Jesus the centerpiece of God’s promises, a tradition interpreted and augmented in light of their experience of God in life and worship, which was then transmitted and taught among the churches.1
This “tradition” is what largely generated the New Testament. The Gospels are the traditions of Jesus that were passed on by eyewitnesses, received by early leaders, and written down by the evangelists (see Luke 1:1–4). The New Testament letters use a lot of traditional materials—hymns, creeds, sayings, stories, vice lists, virtue lists, etc.—to instruct congregations in light of the situations they were facing. When leaders in the postapostolic church sought to transmit their faith to other churches through correspondence, they were trying to summarize what they had learned from the Jewish Scriptures and the disciples of the apostles and were attempting to lay out the common consensus of the faith as they understood it. The creeds that were subsequently written were largely the attempt to provide concise statements about the faith that had been received in the church. In other words, early traditions shaped the New Testament, and then the New Testament subsequently shaped the developing traditions of the church, traditions that crystallized into the later creeds. Thus, the creeds are really a summary of the New Testament tradition: the text and its history of interpretation in the churches.
You cannot read the New Testament apart from some tradition. Even the pulpit-pounding fundamentalist who claims that the Bible alone guides him still appeals to an established consensus within his own community to validate his exposition of the Bible as a true and accurate account. This tradition, even if not openly acknowledged, is regarded as an authoritative decla...