Creeds are “summary exhibitions of what the Scriptures teach.” Many Baptists have historically held up the necessity of creeds for the Church as a mechanism of setting forth in clear terms the doctrinal basis of the union the body holds in the Scriptures. The important element here is that the union is held in the Scriptures, and not in the creed. The Apostle Paul made it clear that the unity of the church is based in “the faith and knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). A creed summarizes the primary teachings of the Scriptures which are the basis of the unity of the particular community.1 Creeds are theology.2 Williams Stokes wrote in 1855,
Our articles of religious belief . . . take the form precisely that our knowledge of Divine things directs our faith to assume, but faith could assume no tangible or intelligible form at all, were the principles on which it acts so obscure as to be inexpressible in any other than a technical phraseology. It is not enough, therefore, that a man declares he believes the Bible.3
The first principle for understanding the use of creeds in theology is that creeds are under the authority of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). While an ecclesial association or church necessarily believes that her creed truly represents the orthodox teachings of the Bible, she must nevertheless confess that creeds are not infallible, and are not equal with the Scriptures. Creeds are man-made, and not inspired. Creeds never rival the authority of the Scriptures; any authority they have is derived. Error can easily slip in. In fact, Baptist creeds historically emphasized the primacy of Scriptures within their creeds and confessions.4 Therefore Baptists should be always seeking to hold their creed with the assumption that the Bible is the ultimate authority that confirms or denies the points articulated therein. The doctrines in the creed must be based and confirmed in the careful interpretation of the Bible.
Yet a dynamic exists between creeds resting on the authority and interpretation of the Scripture, and creeds functioning as a kind of hermeneutic grid for future interpretations. Thus the second principle for the use of creeds in theology is that they provide protective boundaries. Creeds serve as a kind of pre-existing grid for approaching the study of the Bible. They necessarily and inevitably provide a lens through which one interprets the Scriptures, as they are embraced prior to the study. Creeds assist one in seeing clearly what the settled doctrine is for the church to which the theologian is ministering, and provides a kind of boundary over which he may not pass and justifiably consider himself to be joined to that community of saints.
Therefore creeds serve as an fence to protect the larger body of believers. Creeds serve to inform the theologian that he must remain loyal to certain doctrines for him to remain at one theologically with his current fellowship of believers. Should he be convinced from Scripture of the necessity of such action, he is free to pass outside the scope of the creed, but “at his own risk.” If he is convinced of the necessity of taking this step “outside the boundary” of the present creed, he must either convince the fellowship of believers to change their creed to articulate the more Biblically accurate doctrine, or go unite himself to a different body whose creed already embraces his conclusion. These are the ethical demands creeds place on the theologian. In this way, creeds protect and stabilize the doctrine of the church of God. Paul S. Fiddes is right when he observes the historic Baptist use of confessions thus: “Baptists have not been reluctant to compile ‘confessions’ for use in teaching, for making clear the basis on which they covenant together, and for explaining their belief and practice to those outside Baptist communities.”5
The final principle for the use of creeds in theology is in their providing tested patterns for the careful articulation of theology. Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong said, “The creeds of Christendom have not originated in mere speculative curiosity and logical hair-splitting. They are statements of doctrine in which the attacked and imperiled church has sought to express the truth which constitutes her very life.”6 Creeds of the past will always be important declarations of the teachings of Scripture, in that they are born out of the controversy which led to the orthodox articulation of the doctrine. The sculptors of creeds know where the pitfalls lie, and where imprecise wording may mean the difference between heaven and hell. Perhaps it was for this reason that the Baptists who crafted the “Orthodox Creed” wrote of the three chief symbols,
The three creeds, viz. Nicene creed, Athanasius’s creed, and the Apostle’s creed, as they are commonly called, ought throughly to be received, and believed. For we believe, they may be proved, by most undoubted authority of holy scripture, and are necessary to be understood of all christians; and to be instructed in the knowledge of them, by the ministers of Christ, according to the analogy of faith, recorded in sacred scriptures, upon which these creeds are grounded, and catechistically opened, and expounded in all christian families, for the edification of young and old, which might be a means to prevent heresy in doctrine, and practice, these creeds containing all things in a brief manner, that are necessary to be known, fundamentally, in order to our salvation . . .7
Therefore the value of creeds lies not only in its ability to give a theological boundary to the individuals joined to a particular congregation, but also in its ability to address theology “contextually,” or out of a particular historical setting.8 This gives the wording and articulation of doctrine found in particular creeds and confessions an historical advantage over similar attempts made before the controversy took place. Before Arianism, there was no need for a Nicene creed, and therefore none was produced. Before the contemporary controversy of the role of genders, there was no need for a statement to be written to articulate the orthodox teaching for that particular doctrinal controversy. It is in the fires of theological controversy that the purest articulations of theology are forged.
In sum, creeds are essential for theology, and should be used under the following grid: 1) the authority of creeds is derived from the Scriptures; 2) creeds provide an important boundary for the theologian in his service to the assembly of believers to whom he ministers; and 3) creeds provide refined articulations and definitions of orthodox theology.
1Gregory Wills says, “We do not seek uniformity in all things, only agreement in those matters of doctrine and polity that our churches believe are essential to the gospel and to the integrity of the churches of Jesus Christ” (“Baptists, the Bible and Confessions,” Southern Seminary Magazine 68, no. 4 [November 2000]: 15).
2Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium Designed for the Use of Theological Students (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 41-42.
3The History of the Midland Association of Baptist Churches, from its Rise in the Year 1655 to 1855 (London: R. Theobald, Paternobter Row, 1855), 10.
4William L. Lumpkin, “The Bible in Early Baptist Confessions of Faith,” in Baptist History and Heritage 19 (1984): 33-41.
5Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Studies in Baptist History and Thought 13; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003), 8. Fiddes makes a false distinction between “creeds” and “confessions” in Baptist life. On the use of creeds in Baptist life, also see Edward T. Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches ([Judson Press, 1984; repr., Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980], 525) and J. M. Pendleton, Church Manual Designed for the Use of Baptist Churches ([Philadelphia: Judson, 1867], 42).
6Systematic Theology, 18.
7William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson, 1959), 326. Also see Steven R. Harmon, “Baptist Confessions of Faith and the Patristic Tradition,” (PRSt 29 : 349-358); James Leo Garrett, “The Roots of Baptist Beliefs,” (n.p. [cited 17 April 2006]. Online: http://www.baptist2baptist.net/Issues/BaptistPolity/rootofbaptistbeliefs.asp); H. Wheeler Robinson, The Life and Faith of the Baptists ([London: Methuen & Co, 1927], 90). and Freeman, McClendon, and Ewell, Baptist Roots, 14.
8The contextual and historical nature of theology is well demonstrated by David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003); John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: A Postconservative Evangelical Approach: An Introduction to its Nature, Task, and Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); and Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).