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Why Do Christians Use Creeds?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

All Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and many Protestant churches, recite ancient creeds during masses or services, but why? Why not just stick to the Bible?

Ancient creeds were developed by the early Christian church to summarize the central beliefs of Christianity. These were understood to be the beliefs that separated Christians from all other religions or worldviews.

It is important to remember that the Bible, as it currently exists, was not available to most Christians during the first 1500 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, these creeds were incredibly important to encapsulate the core teachings of the faith.

Today, most Christians do have access to Bibles, and so what use are creeds? Thomas Aquinas lived in the period before Bibles became truly widespread, but he certainly had access to the Scriptures in the thirteenth century. His take on the role of creeds is quite helpful. Norm Geisler summarizes Aquinas’s views in his book Thomas Aquinas:

For Aquinas, the truth of faith is contained in Scripture. A creed “is not added to Scripture, but drawn from Scripture.” It is a later symbol of God’s revelation; “a later symbol does not abolish an earlier one, but elaborates on it.”

Not only is Scripture sufficient apart from the creeds, but it is also perspicuous. “The truth of faith is sufficiently plain in the teaching of Christ and the Apostles.” It is only because “wicked men have wrested apostolic teaching and the other Scriptures to their own destruction, [that] declaration of the faith against those impugning it is needed from time to time.”

The need for a creed arises out of the fact that “the truth of faith is contained in sacred Scripture, but diffusely, in divers ways and, sometimes, darklv.” Hence, “the result is that to draw out that truth of faith from Scripture requires a prolonged study and a practice not within the capacities of all those who need to know the truth of faith. . . . That is why there was a need to draw succinctly together out of the Scriptural teaching some clear statement to be set before all for their belief.”

For Aquinas, creeds summarize what is already contained in Scripture. Creeds make it simpler for Christians to know the “truths of faith.”

This simplification, though, has qualifications around it. Geisler explains in his book, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, that the person who wants to promote creeds ahead of Scripture is making a mistake.

On the surface, creeds and commentaries may seem more clear than the Bible, but this is misleading for several reasons. First, they are only summaries of what the Bible teaches, and good summaries are often clearer than the whole text. Second, when the Bible summarizes a truth it is as clear, if not clearer, than any statement someone can make about the Bible (cf. Matt. 7:12; 1 John 5:12). Third, the comparison is false, since the Bible does not systematize most doctrines, as do human creeds and theologies. Hence, they cannot be clearer systematic statements than the non-systematic ones in the Bible for the simple reason that no fair comparison can be made between systematic and non-systematic statements. Finally, unless the Bible were clear enough to begin with, no one would be able to summarize or systematize it.

Put simply, a summary is built on the foundation of what it summarizes. As Geisler says, “unless the Bible were clear enough to begin with, no one would be able to summarize or systematize it.” While creeds are helpful in enumerating the central truths of the faith, they should never replace the careful study of Scripture itself.


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Comments

  • darrellboan

    Thanks for the post Billy.

    One of the challenges I see with setting Aquinas’ comments up against Geisler’s is that there appears to be a disconnect between the two.

    Aquinas said, “. . . the truth of faith is contained in sacred Scripture, but diffusely, in divers ways and, sometimes, *darkly*. . . the result is that to draw out that truth of faith from Scripture *requires a prolonged study and a practice not within the capacities of all those who need to know the truth of faith.* ”

    Aquinas admits that the truth in Scripture is not necessarily readily apparant to all. It is sometimes in there *darkly* and requires *prolonged study* not within the capacities of all. However, Creeds can be used to communicate the central truths of Scripture in an easily digestable form.

    However, Geisler says, “On the surface, creeds and commentaries may seem more clear than the Bible, but this is misleading for several reasons.” Wait a second, isn’t this exactly what Aquinas just said, i.e., that Creeds serve to “draw out central truths of the faith” thatare sometimes “dark” and that “require prolonged study and practice” that not everyone has the capacity for? Why then does Geisler tell us that this is *not* true of Creeds and that the Bible is clear enough on its own? If it were really clear to begin with we wouldn’t have a *need* for Creeds at all and all Sola Scriptura Churches would be in complete agreement on the central tenants of the faith.

    In reality, Creeds were developed precisely because of disagreement surrounding the Apostolic Deposit, i.e., because it wasn’t necessarily all the “clear”. They served to formalize the offical teaching and interpretation of the Apostolic Deposit and were considered authoritative and binding once they were conciliar. It was the practice of the Church from very early on to require the Catechumens to recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. A person had to agree with it before being received into the Church.

    I believe the reason we see such a stark difference between Aquinas’ approach to them and Geisler’s approach is that Aquinas did not operate from the hyper Sola Scriptura perspective that Geisler uses, setting up Holy Tradition in opposition to Scripture. In the Ancient Church’s view, there is no opposition between Tradition and Scripture because Scripture is part of Holy Tradition.

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