Five reasons reciting creeds is unhelpful

I strongly suspect there is a significant correlation between your ecclesiological background and your view of the creeds (no, not really the one in the picture!). Particularly, I think, your view of reading the creeds together as part of a service of worship is affected by your tradition. I doubt you would find many Anglicans objecting whilst, I suspect, few Charismatics would be keeping their already raised hands up in favour. I think there are a number of obvious, and a few perhaps less obvious, reasons for that.

As neither a Charismatic nor an Anglican, I have been asked before (more than once) about whether we should include the creeds as part of our service. Most usually, it is the Apostles Creed that gets floated. My answer has always been a hard ‘no’. This is why I don’t think it is helpful for us.

Sola scriptura

For me, most importantly, we want people to have confidence in the Word of God. If we are going to get people to memorise and say anything together (more on this below), I want it to be the Word. I don’t think the Creeds – true as much of what they contain is (more, again, on that below) – are helpful to us here.

Creeds are only valuable inasmuch as they reflect what is in scripture. If something is in a creed but not in scripture, then it is actively unhelpful. If something is in a creed and is in scripture, it begs the question why we are not simply going to the source? It strikes me that the same argument many give against the sharing of ‘words from the Lord’ apply equally here to creeds. If we believe in the final authority of scripture, then scripture ought to be the source from which we draw our theology and the place to which we send our people.

When people state what they believe, I would prefer they pointed directly to the Bible and affirmed it, rather than a statement drawn up after it. We want to give people confidence in the Word, not particularly in the creeds and traditions.

Requires explanation

On top of that, we want to be clear in what we are teaching. Of course, we believe in preaching the Word. Jesus commands us to do just that and we think it is important for the Word to be read, explained and then applied.

Some would argue the creeds act as a helpful tool in teaching our people. But if the creed itself requires some careful explanation, it becomes more of a hinderance than a help. We do better to turn to the Word, and then explain it, rather than a creed that requires explanation that then needs us to turn to the Word in order to provide the necessary clarification.

Just to take the Apostles Creed as an example, if we come to the phrase ‘holy catholic church’ and have to stop and explain just what we mean by that, and then turn to scripture to show what that means, it seems we aren’t helping people as much as adding to their confusion. Then, of course, there is the tricky line about descending into Hell that not only requires explanation but the understanding of which is a point of debate between Christians at any rate. Rather than introducing confusion that requires explanation from the Word, it is more helpful to turn straight to the Word and avoid that confusion altogether.

Questions of authority

This is a particularly significant question in a context like ours. Muslim people tend to work on a basis of reference to authorities. The first question we will be asked by our Muslim-background brothers and sisters is this: is this creed authoratative?

If the answer seems to be ‘yes’, we are dragging people away from the authority of the scriptures. If the answer is ‘no’, it begs another question: why are we using what isn’t authoritative in a service of worship? Some might, at that point, say, ‘but preaching isn’t authoritative, is it?’ Well, actually, it is if it is preached in accordance with the Word. When we preach – if we are truly preaching the Word of God faithfully – yes, it is authoritative because its authority is derived directly from the Word which it is expounding. But if we end up having to offer a similar-looking explanation of the creed as we do in our preaching, a mini-sermon if you will, it makes it all the harder to distinguish its authority from that of the Bible. Again, we want new believers to trust the Bible, not specifically the creeds.

But this is not only an issue for young believers. I have noted before the tendency of many to argue, not by reference to scripture, but with reference to creeds and confessions. Now, the Westminster Confession of Faith (or whatever your confession of choice may be) might well be correct in what it affirms. But it is only correct inasmuch as it rightly reflects scripture. But there is a troubling tendency, even among otherwise good Evangelical people, to lean hard on their creeds and confessions such that scripture takes a back seat. Given this tendency even among well taught, mature believers, I think it all the more dangerous for those with little church background. It is important that we lead our people to see scripture alone as our final and ultimate authority.

Alien to outsiders

The other day, I wrote about my view of enforced actions in church services. In response to that article, somebody tweeted the following:

Now, this is referring to the collective reading of scripture. Particularly collective readings when nobody bothers to put any words up so that those who don’t know them can join in or discern what is being said. I have a lot of sympathy with this and don’t think it is especially helpful for visitors.

The same is true, in my view, of creeds. The collective recital is not going to be helpful for those coming in from outside. To me, it feels overly formulaic, rather like chanting some magic words together. It also encourages people to chunter along with everybody else words that they almost certainly don’t mean. Few people like to feel out of place, the only one not doing what seemingly everyone else is doing, and so assuming we have taken the time to put the words up, will merrily join in affirming their belief in truths that they do not hold at all. Just as I don’t serve communion to those we can’t affirm as believers because we don’t want them to affirm what is clearly not true for them, I don’t think it’s helpful to encourage unbelievers to affirm in words things that are evidently not true for them either.

Traditionally alien

I appreciate for many, they have grown up with the creeds and for them it is very normal to recite them. But I have been in churches for 35 years and – as a good Dissenter – I don’t think I have ever once (or, at best, maybe once) recited a creed in church. It is traditionally very alien to me.

Now, I don’t think this argument in any way clinches anything. Sometimes, things that are alien are good, we just haven’t done them before. But it seems to me that there are reasons our traditions have sprung up as they have (some good reasons, some less good for all of our respective approaches).

But one of the reasons Baptists have particularly steered away from the creeds is that they are very culturally Anglican things to do in a service of worship. So what, you may wonder? Well, the view is very much that it was an Anglican thing to do because it was a Catholic thing to do before that. Indeed, the same creed is read in Catholic Services too. Baptists – especially those of a puritan bent – tended to want to get away from anything that smacked of Catholic holdover post-Reformation. Not a lot has changed about that position.

But equally, Baptists have tended away from it for some of the reasons cited above. We want people in the Word, not so much the creeds or confessions. Baptist are pointedly non-creedal. That isn’t to say we don’t have confessions. We had a good Baptist one published in 1644 before the Presbyterians got their finger out and completed the WCF. They certainly have their place and their value. But there weren’t many reciting that confession in the middle of their service of worship, just as you don’t find too many churches reciting the FIEC statement of faith today even though all churches affiliated to them hold to it and typically publish it on their websites. Ultimately, we don’t want people reciting these things; we want them firmly rooted in the Word and going to the source of authority for what they believe. Anything likely to detract from that is not likely to be favoured by Baptists.