August 2021 Credo
Preface to Dr Scott Callaham’s article:
Dr Scott Callaham’s article “Why Creeds and Confessions Are Less Important” was written as a response to Dr Edmund Fong’s article “Why Creeds and Confessions Are Important” (https://ethosinstitute.sg/creeds-and-confessions/ ). The sub-editor of the Credo column would like to invite readers to explore a different perspective on this crucial topic.
Dr Edmund Fong, Sub-editor
I am grateful to Dr. Fong for his recent posting, “Why Creeds and Confessions are Important,” here on the ETHOS Institute website. He helpfully summarizes what certain denominations of Christianity believe about creeds and confessions. Yet I am afraid that Dr. Fong inadvertently casts untold millions of orthodox believers outside of the normative boundaries that he draws for the Christian faith. Therefore for the sake of urging greater unity in the body of Christ, here I offer a different perspective upon the importance of creeds and confessions.
Authority—where does it lie? If indeed “All Scripture is breathed out by God . . .” as in 2 Timothy 3:16, then we have our answer. The Bible, the word of God alone, is our authority. The Bible cannot merely be the “final” or “primary” authority, if by such expressions we mean to make room for any number of alternative human-sourced authorities that hold “veto power” over the Spirit-breathed word.
If what the Bible says about humanity is true, then sin corrupts us through and through. Even after we come to faith in Christ, we are still sinners who await our final deliverance from death. So now, before the resurrection, our lives are like a hymn of praise sung haltingly out of rhythm and painfully off key. Yet “sing” we must, and with all our hearts. So what should followers of Jesus do to sing his praise rightly?
Some Christians believe that creeds regulate our singing in common time with each other, and that confessions set the richly-harmonious chords that tune each voice in the choir of faith. This is the essence of the “polyphonic unity-in-diversity” model of faith Dr. Fong’s article mentions. While we cannot help but admire this optimistic view of the church, let’s remember that we who author these guides to rhythm and pitch—which is to say, the creeds and confessions—are thoroughly compromised.
While our best work may indeed longingly allude to highlights of the divine composer’s masterpiece, we should not ignore the patently obvious, jarring disharmonies found in our various sectarian confessions. Despite any embarrassment that may follow, we should gather our courage and answer the straightforward question: “Why are we so quick to depart from the score, inscribed by the composer’s own hand, splayed open before us?”
As the drama of contemporary Christianity plays out on the world stage, some denominations in Europe and North America that uphold the five points of Calvinism (as well as some that adhere to their opposites in Arminianism) have rallied around an ultimatum of contemporary culture: Human sexuality must shake off the fetters of biblical authority. Even so, a few churches dissent and refuse to bow in these matters. Strikingly, they include churches in the very same denominational streams as those aforementioned Calvinists and Arminians who embrace sexual libertinism. They recite identical creeds in their worship and cherish the same confessions as their co-denominationalists. So what accounts for the difference in this mixed Calvinist and Arminian remnant of creedal Christianity? It is surely not their commonly-held creeds and mutually-contradictory confessions, which have proven impotent “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) No, these churches’ fidelity to historic Christianity derives from trust in the full authority and sufficiency of all of Scripture.
One challenge to the sufficiency of Scripture notes the broad spectrum of doctrinal disagreements among Christians. Then as this stream of thinking goes, if Christians so heatedly disagree on such a wide array of issues about the Bible, the Bible must be really difficult to understand. Hence application of biblical teaching in the Christian life should be tentative and provisional, open to further confirmation or even modification as such need may arise. This argument proceeds from a false premise and arrives at a faulty conclusion. As stated before, the infallible word of God does not collapse into a tangled pile of theological ideas simply because its interpreters are fallible. To put it another way, fallibility lies with the interpreters, not the inspired text before them. Consulting creeds and confessions in the act of biblical interpretation exacerbates the interpretive problem, for we presume to elevate fallibly interpreted fallible texts as an authority over the word of God.
So . . . is there any value at all to creeds and confessions? Yes! After all, the title of this article is not “Why Creeds and Confessions are Unimportant.”
The historic creeds of the Christian faith are treasured formulations of historical and systematic theology, arrived at through countless theological controversies over the centuries. Because of creeds, the church has a memory. Thus, for example, the church does not have to negotiate the doctrine of the Trinity anew each generation. Those who have come before us have done the hard work of demonstrating the thoroughly biblical basis of the trinitarian nature of God, who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We can imagine the following scenario. A church member arrives for an appointment with her pastor, sharing that family members have begun expressing doubts about Christianity. “After all,” they say, “Jesus never claimed to be God,” and “The word ‘trinity’ is not in the Bible.” Should the pastor refer to creeds at this point? No, no, a thousand times no. Creeds have value because they point to the Bible, and so should we.
What about confessions?
Of course every interpreter comes to the Bible with a world view that seeks affirmation through biblical interpretation. As summaries of doctrine our sectarian confessions can, and should, shape our world view. However—and this is the scary part—every last one of those world views’ component ideas should be open to the critique of authoritative and sufficient Scripture.
What if we discover that a beloved denominational doctrine that has shaped our family’s faith for generations stands directly opposed to the plain teaching of the Bible? A crisis such as this certainly calls for deeper study of Scripture, prayer, wisdom, and journeying with our church along the path of discipleship. Yet what such a faith crisis resolutely does not call for, is hope that some superior synthesis will arise from the collision of the word of God with the word of humanity. This is the time to obey God rather than human authorities (see Acts 5:29). Confessions are useful tools of doctrinal accountability for denominations, but they are not the word of God.
Throughout my remarks above I have begun to explain why creeds and confessions are important, but considerably less important than Scripture. Yet this is no mere quibble about the proper relative degrees of emphasis we should place upon Scripture versus creeds and confessions. No, I am pleading for trust in the full authority and sufficiency of all of Scripture.
Will we point to the Bible and say, “Not enough”? Instead, without hesitation or qualification, we should point to the word of God and say, “Thus says the Lord.”
Dr. Scott N. Callaham is Lecturer in Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament at Baptist Theological Seminary, Singapore, where he teaches in both Chinese and English.