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.