I wrote an article about why I don’t think it is particularly helpful to recite the creeds as part of services of worship last Friday. You can read that here. Unsurprisingly, a number of people didn’t agree. Fair enough. Notably, the day it came out, Daniel Blanche wrote this reply.
I thought it was probably worth replying to that. Not because I especially want to (or suppose I could) change Daniel’s mind. More because some of what he said doesn’t fairly represent what I was arguing. So, I will quickly summarise my position and then I will get to his points. I will also address a couple of other comments that have come up from other quarters too.
My original article was arguing why I do not believe it is most helpful to recite creeds as part of a worship service. As there is no command to recite creeds in scripture – unlike the command to sing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together – it is a question of helpfulness in that context. My argument, for the reasons given, was that it is not the most helpful to recite the creeds as part of your worship service.
For the sake of clarity, I was not arguing that creeds and confessions are sinful. I was not arguing that you can’t use them if you think they are helpful. I was not claiming that reference to anything outside of the words of scripture – no matter how faithful to it they happen to be – should be verboten. I was not suggesting that they cannot be used in other ways, in the life of the church, as might be appropriate in your context. What I was arguing was that I do not think, as part of a service of worship (particularly in my context), it is helpful to recite creeds.
Let me be as clear as I can be. A lot of the pushback appeared to run on the presumption that I was somehow repudiating historic Christianity down through the ages. I mean, if it helps, I am happy to affirm the Nicene Creed just as I am happy to affirm the 1644 Baptist Confession. I am not denying the teaching of either one; I am simply saying that reciting them in a service of worship is not especially helpful as far as I can see.
Equally, I was denounced as being ‘biblicist’. I don’t think wanting to look to the Bible makes one a Biblicist. I always find the charge funny that wanting to look to the Bible for what we do in our services of worship is biblicist when I understood it was just a fair reflection of the regulative principle that is specifically outlined in some of the confessions I am accused of wanting to ignore. I am always surprised when people throw out biblicism as a charge as though looking to the Bible for grounds to do or not do something is a problem. It is, if I may say so, a remarkably Catholic line of reasoning to insist that we cannot look at scripture and question the traditions of The Church! How, for example, do we know the creeds or confessions to which we subscribe are legitimate? Surely by reference to the scriptures themselves.
It probably helps to define what biblicism actually is before we label me as a biblicist. Biblicism insists on proof-texts, expressly stated in scripture, before any position can be held. It wants explicit affirmation of a position – with no theological inferences or deductive reasoning permitted – before a position can be approved. But I wasn’t arguing for that. Nor, incidentally, was I arguing that tradition cannot possibly be a guide (though I would argue that tradition, without any biblical warrant, can be rejected).
A biblicist would struggle with the concept of church membership, for example, because the Bible does not expressly use the phrase, ‘you must join a local church’. But it is evidently a concept that is taught in scripture, it just isn’t expressly stated in those terms. If no church throughout history practised church membership, it would seem valid to at least ask, ‘why not?’ Just as if every church does something, it is valid to ask, ‘why?’ But that point is not ultimately decisive; it is the scriptures that bind us. That doesn’t mean because the Bible doesn’t explicitly use the word ‘Trinity’ the doctrine isn’t taught in its pages. What I was arguing was not biblicism.
So, let me address the specific points that have been raised in response:
First, Daniel tackles what I labelled Sola Scriptura. Admittedly, I probably could have been clearer here. For the record, I don’t think referencing creeds and confession of itself undermines sola scriptura. But, I appreciate, the way that point was written was easily misconstrued.
What I was saying is that we want our people to go to scripture as their primary source. It is not the use of confessions and creeds per se that undermines sola scriptura, but the way in which we recite them in services of worship can. It can lead our people to cite the creeds and confessions rather than the Bible. It can lead to people investing creeds and confessions with a level of authority that they ought not to have. I think it better to point our people to the scriptures rather than the traditions. Sola scriptura leads me to affirm what is in the creeds because it is what is affirmed in scripture, not because they are authoritative of themselves. If the creeds derive their authority from scripture, in my view it is better to point to those scriptures. Just as I don’t think it best to quote preachers to prove what the scriptures teach, but should use what they have heard in preaching to point people to the scriptures themselves. To me, that seemed a fairly uncontroversial point (albeit probably not as clearly stated as it should have been).
But Daniel goes further and claims, ‘read the Bible’ is what the Arians would have argued. And yes, they would have said that. But then, so did those who wrote the creed! Obviously, everyone claims scripture is on their side. The answer is not found in raising the creeds and confessions to the level of scriptural authority, it is found in reading the scriptures closely (like the Bereans) ‘to see if the things he told them were true’. Isn’t that, in fact, what sparked the Reformation? Luther looked into the scriptures and discerned that what was being taught in the traditions was, in fact, untrue. Interestingly, he too was denounced as a biblicist. All I am arguing is that it is preferable to encourage our people to see what is plainly taught in the scriptures from the scriptures, even if the creeds and confessions (rightly) say it too.
Here it helps to remember that the argument I am making is a wisdom case. Is reciting the creeds together more or less helpful to us in explaining what the Bible says. I came to the conclusion the answer to that, through mere recitation, is ‘no’. Daniel, by contrast, preached a whole series through the Nicene Creed. As you can imagine, I wouldn’t do that. I would rather preach through scripture and, such as Nicea relates to what is preached, reference it.
Daniel argues that lots of things need explanation, which is obviously true. He cites hymns as an example. But I would argue, if people can’t readily understand your hymns, you are probably better finding some that they can understand rather than preach a mini-sermon to explain the ones they don’t. That aside, scripture itself commands us to sing. I think we need to think through how to do that most helpfully, but there it is in the Bible as something we are explicitly told to do. Reciting the creeds simply isn’t. Given that we aren’t bound to recite them, the question is whether it is helpful. If they require lengthy explanation and further reference to scripture, I don’t really think they are in the context of a service of worship.
Daniel goes on to argue that the creeds and confessions are sometimes explanatory themselves. I agree. Where they are, I have no problem citing them in a sermon or some such. The problem is that they aren’t uniformly explanatory and are often unhelpfully worded for our context. To simply recite them doesn’t, in my view, then add clarity. It is better, in my opinion, to cite them in a sermon as they are a help, rather than recite them as an element in a service as a mixed bag.
I think Daniel probably does understand me rightly here. I am afraid I don’t recognise tradition as authoritative in and of itself. A guide, maybe. But certainly not an authority on a par with scripture.
Daniel then suggests that I am arguing we come to scripture without reference to anyone who read it before. But I didn’t, and don’t, argue that. What I am arguing is that reciting creeds raises to the level of scripture something that is necessarily subservient to it. I think this is a particular danger in our context with those who come from a Muslim background who argue strongly by argument to authorities. In my opinion, reciting creeds as an element in a service is not helpful on this front as it does confuse authority in the minds of many.
He goes on to say, ‘They are not ultimate, but they are not lightly put aside if we want to be sure that we stand in some continuity of faith with our spiritual forebears.’ I agree. But if we read them in church, simply reciting them together as though they are similarly authoritative, it does not require much to see how that can be easily confused. Again, it is a question of helpfulness. In my view, we show their subordinate position to scripture when we bring them to boot in our sermons at relevant points to show that the church has historically agreed with the point we are making from the scriptures themselves. To merely recite them as an element gives a sense of weight and authority that I, personally, do not think they ought to have.
Alien to outsiders
Daniel says this point is weak. I don’t pretend it is any sort of clinching argument. But, given the context in which I was making my wider point – this is not biblically mandated and therefore a matter of wisdom – it is worth considering.
Daniel says lots of things we do in church is alien to outsiders. Yes! But we do them because we are commanded to do them in some form (communion would be a good example). But it is equally true that where we are not commanded to do a particular thing, if it is alien to outsiders, it begs the question why we would persist in doing it? That’s not to make the outsider the de facto worship leader. Where Jesus asks us to do something we do it and where he tells us not to do something we don’t. But where there is no such command, or we are dealing with questions of ‘forms’ rather than ‘elements’, it isn’t uncommon for us to insist that certain things are alien to outsiders so we won’t do them. For my money, reciting creeds is one of them.
Alien to insiders
I do maintain the recitation of creeds carries something of a Catholic overtone. I recognise many nonconformists also do it, but let’s not pretend that Baptists in particular don’t believe that all the paedobaptist nonconformists didn’t reform quite far enough and continued that practice as an errant Catholic hangover. The idea that reciting creeds might be another such hangover in the ‘Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches’ he cites is hardly outlandish because they all share that other characteristic. I appreciate they will not accept that claim and will argue it is biblical. But I suspect they will make that point without reference to the creeds and more to the scriptures (which maybe makes them the biblicists now?)
Daniel argues that ‘if the creeds are alien to the Baptist tradition, the Baptist tradition is (at that point) alien to the universal belief and practice of the church.’ But, as a Baptist himself, that would surely cause a problem for his own Baptistic view on which we quite clearly aren’t in line with all the other denominations he cites either. Of course, we argue by reference to scripture that credobaptism is right and the other churches – convinced as they are – are not following the teaching of scripture (on our view). To argue, by the same token, that recitation of creeds falls into this same bracket is hardly a shock.
Again, I don’t insist this is the clinching argument. But – as I argued above – it is valid to ask why tradition has sprung up as it has. In this case, it is valid to ask why Particular Baptists don’t tend to recite the creeds. It doesn’t swing the case by itself, but again, for a question that is a matter of wisdom and helpfulness, it may give us some insight into why others haven’t necessarily adopted the practice. The reality is that most Particular Baptists recognise creeds and they inform their doctrine and statements, but it is not typically used as part of the service of worship. The way they are used in the life of the church are as a guide to the church’s doctrine and teaching rather than as a means of recitation within a formal service of worship itself.
Interestingly, Daniel suggests I was arguing as though people haven’t read the Bible before us. But, in fact, I was arguing like a Baptist, looking at Baptist tradition, asking why have Baptists typically shied away from recitation of the creeds. That isn’t to say the creeds and confessions are, of themselves, necessarily errant. Particular Baptists would sign up to Nicea happily enough. But recitation in services of worship is less common. Having also moved in Brethren circles, the same remains true there too. In the churches with baptistic practice, it is far less common because of some of the reasons I outline above.