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No creed but the Bible?

In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Sola Scriptura,” Justin Holcomb has written an article called, “No Creed but the Bible?” Justin is the author of several books, including Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils. Justin is an Episcopal priest (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously taught at the University of Virginia and Emory University. Justin serves on the boards of  GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) and REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade). He holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University. Justin and his wife, Lindsey, live in Orlando, Florida, with their two daughters.

Here is the start of Justin’s article:

Obviously, Christianity did not begin when we were born, nor did our generation invent Christian thought. We live two thousand years removed from the time of our founder, and—for better or for worse—we are the recipients of a long line of Christians’ insights, mistakes, and ways of speaking about God and the Christian faith. Today’s Christianity is directly affected by what earlier Christians chose to do and believe.

The fact that Christianity developed—that the sixteenth century, for instance, looked very different from the third, and that both looked very different from the twenty-first—can sometimes lead us to wonder what the essential core of Christianity might be. As a result, some people decide to ignore history altogether and reconstruct “real Christianity” with nothing more than a Bible. But this approach misses a great deal. Christians of the past were no less concerned with being faithful to God than we are, and they sought to fit together all that Scripture has to say about the mysteries of Christianity—the incarnation, the Trinity, predestination, and more—with all the intellectual power of their times. To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly.

Thankfully, the church of the past has given us a wealth of creeds, councils, confessions, and catechisms. These are tools that the church has used to speak about God clearly and faithfully, to guide its members closer to God, and sometimes to distinguish authentic Christianity from the innovations, heresies, and false teachings that the New Testament warns against. While their purposes differ, all try to communicate complex theological ideas to people who do not have sophisticated theological backgrounds (in some cases, to people who are illiterate).

Once sola Scriptura is properly understood and the divine authority and sufficiency of Scripture are established, we should appeal to the church’s ministerial authority (the theological statements from the tradition) as very useful tools. John Calvin writes: “Thus councils would come to have the majesty that is their due; yet in the meantime Scripture would stand out in the higher place with everything subject to its standard. In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus 1, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors—in so far as they relate to the things of faith” (4.9.1).

What is a Creed?

Some of the most important creeds in the Christian tradition are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the Athanasian Creed.

The English word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which means “I believe.” Church historian J. N. D. Kelly says that a creed is “a fixed formula summarizing the essential articles of the Christian religion and enjoying the sanction of ecclesiastical [church] authority.” More simply, the creeds set forth the basic beliefs of the church that have been handed down from earliest times, what the New Testament calls “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). When teachers throughout history called parts of this faith into question (usually the parts that were taken for granted or were less well-defined), the early church reaffirmed the essentials in a way that honored the traditional teaching.

The earliest creeds are arguably to be found in Scripture itself. In the Old Testament, what is known as the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” Deut. 6:4) is a creed-like statement. While there are no official, full-blown creeds in the New Testament, scholar Ralph Martin has suggested that the beginnings of creeds are already present in the New Testament and were developed by early Christians to defend against subtle pagan influences and to establish key beliefs. Many scholars believe that Paul recites an early creed in his letter to the Corinthians when he summarizes the facts that he taught as “of first importance”: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared [to the apostles and many others]” (1 Cor. 15:3 – 7). Furthermore, in the church’s acts of baptism, Eucharist, and worship, certain prayers and early creed-like statements of belief were developed, such as “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3) and the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” While there is no formal creed in the pages of Scripture, the idea of a central, basic teaching of Christianity certainly is there.

After the age of the apostles, the early church possessed what is known as “the rule of faith” or “the tradition,” which theologian Bruce Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.” Early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Hippolytus all assumed this “rule of faith,” an unwritten set of beliefs that had been passed down from the apostles and taught to Christian converts. In the second century, Irenaeus described the rule of faith in this way: “One God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.”

Irenaeus’s rule of faith sounds quite similar to later formal creeds and contains the essence of the gospel. As the early Christian community dealt with new heretical movements, the rule of faith gave birth to more precise statements of the essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

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Protestantism today faces a crisis in authority. Living in the twenty-first century means we are born into a world that has experienced the full effects of the Enlightenment, Protestant Liberalism, and Postmodernism. Yet at the same time, God’s Word continues to stand undefeated. No doubt, the Bible is under fire today as critics, both secular and evangelical (oddly enough), attack the Bible’s full authority. But if we’ve learned anything from the sixteenth-century Reformation, we know that God’s Word will prevail in the end.

As he stood there trembling at the Diet of Worms, certainly it must have seemed to Martin Luther that the whole world was against him. Yet Luther could boldly stand upon the authority of God’s Word because he knew that not even his greatest nemesis was a match for the voice of the living God.

While our circumstances may differ today, the need to recover biblical authority in the church and in the culture remains. The next generation of Christians need to be taught, perhaps for the first time, that this is no ordinary book we hold in our hands. It is the very Word of God. In other words, if Christians today are to give an answer for the faith within them against those who would criticize the scriptures, then they need to be taught the formal principle of the Reformation: sola Scriptura—only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.

Contributors include Justin Holcomb, Gavin Ortlund, Robert Kolb, Chris Castaldo, Paul House, and many others.






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