Credo Redux

I have been thinking a lot about creeds lately.  Creed derives from the Latin, credo, meaning “I believe.”  Thus, a creed is a statement of faith in something.  From the point of view of one in the Stone-Campbell heritage, we claim to have no creed but Christ.  Others claim we have no creed but the Bible.  And still others may even say we have no creed but Christ and his word (the New Testament).  All of these are noble comments reflecting the aspirations of the early Restoration Movement.  However, sometimes it is necessary to subject the faith to a reality check.  If we are not careful, there is a creeping tendency to accept “things” as being articles and tests of faith that amount to creeds, or to their logical descendants, “confessions of faith.”

Belief is essential to the practice of religion.  If the exercise of religion has no real object, it becomes pointless, and of little more than technical value.  So from a biblical perspective, what sorts of things must be believed?  What may we consider to be the “creed” of the Bible?  We know that Jesus expected his followers to believe in God the Father and to believe in him as the Son of God (John 8.24, 9.35; 14.1; Acts 8.37); that Jesus did the works of the Father (John 10.37-38); that those who live and believe in Jesus will never die (John 11.26-27); believe Jesus was in the Father, and the Father in him (John 14.11); that he is the Christ, the anointed one, the promised Messiah who would bring life (John 20.31); that Jesus died and rose again (I Thess 4.14); that God exists and rewards seekers (Hebrews 11:6); that God is one (James 2.19); and that we have come to believe the love God has for us (I John 4.16).  From this brief survey of “believe” statements, it will be easy to see that the early creeds were very closely aligned with scripture.

In the late 19th century, Philip Schaff composed a lengthy work detailing The Creeds of Christendom.  In it, he discusses not only the content, but the origins and development of creeds within the burgeoning plurality of denominations that arose mostly as a result of the Reformation.  The earliest creeds probably arose as a result of the development of some perceived error or heresy.  Schaff says,” The first object of creeds was to distinguish the Church from the world, from Jews and heathen, afterwards orthodoxy from heresy, and finally denomination from denomination.”  Schaff further points out, “They [creeds] never precede faith, but presuppose it. They emanate from the inner life of the Church, independently of external occasion. There would have been creeds even if there had been no doctrinal controversies.”

The two earliest written creeds were probably the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed.  The exact origin of the Nicene Creed is placed with the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea convened in 325 A.D., shortly after the ascension of Constantine to power in 312 A.D.  The Apostles’ Creed may have its origin as early as the late 1st or 2nd century A.D., but the earliest mention in history is from around 390 A.D.  There is obvious similarity in the form and content of the two texts, suggesting that whichever was first was the obvious foundation for the second.

These early creeds essentially affirm biblical truths, and even those who adhere to no creeds would find little with which to argue.

The Apostles’ Creed

 “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

 The Nicene Creed

 “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

 Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

 And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

 And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

 As denominations evolved, their creeds evolved with them into broader documents, confessions of faith, which not only include core truths, but also specific points of doctrine (catechisms) to be held by that group.  Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession and Apology, Luther’s Articles of Smalkald and Catechism, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism are all examples of the expansion of fundamental statements of faith to follow specific denominational flavors.  Presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) includes 33 chapters that include specific attention to Calvin’s core doctrines.  The Savoy Declaration of 1658 revised the Westminster Confession to suit the structural and doctrinal views of the Congregationalists.  The Baptist Confession of 1689 appears rooted in the Westminster Confession, but with details oriented to the views and opinions of Calvinistic Baptists.

And therein lies the problem.  From the Bible, distinct statements of faith were developed in order to oppose error.  But as differences in opinion increased, these differences became codified, essentially building walls between those who would profess a Christian faith.  There was not one church any longer, but many—ex uno, plures.

Enter Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who, along with others like Barton Stone, appealed for the abolition of those walls that divided Christians.  Propositions 1 through 3 of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, delivered in 1809, specifically address the harmful nature of religious division, and the need to eliminate any article of faith of strictly human origin imposed on and dividing believers.  It is ironic in a way that Campbell’s appeal for unity and the denunciation of creeds seemed to dance dangerously close to becoming something of a creed or confession of faith, itself.

 PROP. 1. That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

 2. That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them, to the glory of God. And for this purpose they ought all to walk by the same rule, to mind and speak the same thing; and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.

 3. That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.

 Proposition 10 describes the effects of such division as “antichristian,”“antiscriptural,” and “antinatural.”

 10. That division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is antiscriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is antinatural, as it excites Christians to contemn, to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.

 In 1804, The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery was witnessed by Barton W. Stone, and read, in part,

 Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; forthere is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

 Item. We will that our name of distinction, with its Reverend title, be forgotten, that there be but one Lord over God’s heritage, and his name one….

 Item. We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.

 Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less; and while they behold the signs of the times, look up, and confidently expect that redemption draweth nigh.

 These two documents provided a foundation for the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, the first and probably the broadest indigenous religious movement in the Americas.  Of the six signatories to The Last Will and Testament, two soon repented and returned to the Presbyterian fold, two became Shakers, leaving Stone and David Purviance as supporters of that root of the movement.  I particularly appreciate the short but sweet admonition to “pray more and dispute less.”  There is a deep wisdom in that, if not a dark humor.

So, to borrow a bit of phrasing, in the beginning, was the Word, which was then clarified and defended by creeds that affirmed universal truths, but were later replaced or amended to include the doctrinally complex and balkanizing articles of communion for distinct bodies, based on extra-scriptural interpretations and thought.

A review of several church of Christ websites reveals an interesting development.  Although we may not claim to have any specific, universal creed, creeds are there in abundance.  The churches of Christ have claimed that we have no creed but the Bible, but if that were indeed true, then we would not see articles like one titled, “Fundamentals of the Faith,” which is organized suspiciously like a confession of faith, with headings like, “The Inspiration of the Bible,” “The Unity of the Bible,” “The completeness of the Bible,” “The Infallibility of the Bible,” “The Indestructibility of the Bible,” “The All-Sufficiency of the Bible,” “The Church of Christ,” and “The Plan of Salvation.”  It is interesting to note that Each of these heading’s in this article has a roughly corresponding chapter or sub-chapter in the Westminster Confession.  The University church of Christ in Abilene has published “What We Believe” on their website, which reads as follows:

“We believe in the only true and living God, creator of everything. We believe God revealed himself in the history of Israel and the person of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. We believe Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, but through his resurrection the Father confirmed him to be the true Messiah (Christ) of prophecy. He is now exalted at the right hand of God.

In unity with Christians across space and time, we believe and proclaim this biblical story as good news or “gospel.” We believe that Scripture is trustworthy and inspired by God to tell us what we need to know.

Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God is putting all of his broken creation back together. In the gift of his Son and his indwelling Holy Spirit – given to believers by grace through faith in baptism (water immersion) – God created a new community, the church, the body of Christ.

As members of God’s kingdom, we are called into his great mission to set right everything that is so wrong. We confess we are part of the problem, sinners living in total need of God’s forgiveness. But we believe God’s Spirit is changing us daily into the image of Christ. So we strive to walk by faith, to serve others, to love God and glorify him in worship.

As for the future, Jesus is Lord, so we do not fear death. We believe Christ will return one day to bring God’s final justice to all things. We live in hope for his new creation where we will be raised up with new bodies to know God fully, face to face, as it was meant to be.”

This is for all intents and purposes a modern rendering of an ancient document like the Nicene Creed.

Lest the non-institutional group feel left out, the Franklin Church of Christ in Franklin, TN has a page on their website titled, “What We Teach,” that details the sovereignty of God, the plan of salvation, the organization of the church, and its work.  Someone may say that this is not a creed, only a summary of the core beliefs of the group.  But wait, isn’t that a creed?  If they don’t believe it, why do they teach it?  The implication here is that the congregation adheres to these principles, and if you are at variance with them, you would be more comfortable worshipping elsewhere.

I do not fault any congregation for having such a document.  I suspect it would be rare for there to be a group without some type of statement along these lines.  Without some sort of guidance, there may arise countless conflicts.  Which is precisely why creeds and confessions came into existence.

However, we should revisit our vehement denunciation of something that we tacitly if not openly practice.

The more insidious side of church of Christ creeds involves the silent or unspoken or unwritten rules and regulations.  Any member of the churches of Christ knows exactly what I am talking about.  While we may  denounce specific practices in various groups, we have not yet formalized the prohibitions into a concrete written code.  The non-institutional churches strongly oppose congregational cooperation, suggesting that it violates example and principle of church autonomy.  That view is not often in writing in a formal statement of beliefs.  At least not yet, or it may not be widespread.  Non-institutional churches shun any sort of legislative bodies, but we know that there have been numerous meetings of preachers amounting to little more than thinly veiled ecclesiastical councils, from which “open letters” have emerged to counter specific “heresies” opposed by the group.  We have no conferences or conventions, yet every February, the faithful converge on Temple Terrace for a week of lectures at Florida College.  It would be naïve to think that official doctrines are neither discussed nor ratified by activists in attendance.  The same could be said for the lectures at Lipscomb, Freed-Hardeman, Harding, Abilene Christian, or Pepperdine, running the spectrum of church of Christ positions.

If we indeed have no creed but Christ, then let us embrace that.  If there are written or unwritten rules and practices that divide us beyond what is required of any Christian to believe and to do, let us lay them aside.  As no two leaves or no two snowflakes are identical, it is likely that no two churches, or perhaps not even two Christians are identical in their beliefs and practices.  What unifies us is our faith in Christ and obedience to him, not inferred rules and laws.  (Isn’t it interesting that although we deny any extra-scriptural authority, we actually have a “Law of Silence” or a “Law of Exclusion”?  Neither term appears anywhere in scripture.)  Alexander Campbell once said, “It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.”  The need to legislate the finest detail of life, thought or worship carries the distinct tang of pharisaism.  Jesus offered relief from that kind of burden, calling his disciples to a life of love and service.  It’s hard to find fault in others with our heads bowed in prayer, our eyes lifted to heaven in praise, or our arms full in service to others.  Like the framers of The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery advised, we should “pray more and dispute less.”  To which I would offer a hearty, “Amen.”

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One Response to Credo Redux

  1. Ron Exum says:

    Oral tradition among churches of Christ also anchors within adherents filters by which we read our Bibles, and perspectives by which we view Christ and his church among other doctrines. These too can be teased out and studied.

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