Using the Church’s Creeds as Helps and Boundaries for Bible Reading

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This article is the second in a series on “How to Get More Out of Your Bible Reading.” Discussion questions and exercises are included for using this content in a class or group setting. A PDF chart that illustrates some of the key content in this article and the previous article in the series can be downloaded here: Reading in Community.

Class Prayer: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP)

Review: (1) What is the most important step that most Christians will ever take to become a better Bible readers? (2) Who has God given to model biblical interpretation for you? (3) What is one key purpose of personal Bible study? (4) Fill in the blanks: Bible reading and interpretation is a ________ effort; pastors are interpretive ______________.

In the previous article, we discussed “Reading the Bible in Community with the Local Church.” In this article, we’ll talk about reading the Bible in community with the catholic church (i.e., the whole church), especially its creeds.

1. Remember that the Bible was not just given to you; the Bible was given to the whole church, and millions of Christians have been interpreting it for nearly two thousand years.

In an article on “Reading the Bible with the Church Fathers” for the Ancient Faith Study Bible, Trevin Wax makes a crucial point:

The idea that Bible interpretation is only about “me and the Holy Spirit” is widespread in our time, and worrisome. It sounds super-spiritual on the surface, but it ignores the fact that Bible interpretation is never just about “me” but also about the Church. Likewise, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just illuminate us today but has been at work in guiding Christians to understand and apply the biblical text for millennia.

When it comes to reading the Bible with the whole church, the Creeds are the place to start. The Creeds are the result of Christians reasoning together about Scripture for hundreds of years under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then coming together to say in a few hundred words, “Here are the most important things that the Bible teaches.”

The Creeds are the result of Christians reasoning together about Scripture for hundreds of years under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Creeds of the Church properly interpret and summarize the Bible, as stated in Article VIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles, one of a few key Protestant confessions of faith: “The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.”

The Creeds are a gift that has been handed down to us by Christians across the centuries. “Tradition” is anything that is handed down; in the Creeds, the Church has handed down to us its consensual understanding of the Bible. Tradition is good or bad depending on what is handed down (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15 and Mk. 7:18). The Creeds are “what has everywhere, always, and by all been believed” (Vincent of Lerins); they are not the kind of manmade tradition that Jesus confronted.

To ignore Church Tradition is not to take a high view of the Bible; it is to take a high view of yourself. Someone must interpret the Bible; therefore, to say, “I don’t care what church tradition says, I just want to know what the Bible says” is really to say, “I don’t care how Christians throughout history have interpreted the Bible, I just care about how I interpret the Bible.”

2. Listen to the Church’s Creeds as referees that keep you within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity and help you to avoid common misinterpretations.

The Creeds were written to uphold the correct interpretation of Scripture against dangerous misinterpretations. The Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian Creeds were a direct response to heretical teachings. Reading the Bible with the Creeds is like having the whole church standing over your shoulder to make sure that you avoid common deadly errors.

The Creeds were written to uphold the correct interpretation of Scripture against dangerous misinterpretations.

Protestants recognize the authority of the ecumenical Creeds in matters of faith. Though the Creeds do not have their own independent authority, they derive their authority from the Bible because they properly interpret and summarize it. The Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone” means that Scripture alone is the final authority, not the only authority (see “Sola Scriptura: No Creed But the Bible?”). The Augsburg Confession (1530) begins with the Nicene Creed and constantly refers to the church fathers and their “authority” (see “A Protestant View of the Church and Tradition in the Augsburg Confession”).

3. Listen to the Church’s Creeds as coaches that help you to see more in Scripture than you would likely be able to see without them.

The Creeds keep the big picture of Scripture and its key themes in front of you. The Creeds are like the picture on the front of a puzzle box: when the pieces of the Bible are put together, they reveal the Triune God and his works. At the center of the Creed is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became man for us and for our salvation.

The Creeds are like the picture on the front of a puzzle box: when the pieces of the Bible are put together, they reveal the Triune God and his works.

Irenaeus likened the various parts of Scripture to pieces in a mosaic that, when properly assembled, reveal the image of a handsome King, Jesus Christ our Lord. The heretics use the same pieces, but assemble them to make the image of a fox.

The Creeds clearly explain the two major doctrines of the Christian faith—the Trinity and the incarnation—so that you can properly interpret the Bible in light of them. The fact that the God of the Bible is one God in three persons (the Trinity), and that the second person of the Trinity became a man (the incarnation), has major implications for how we read the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Work through the selected Scriptures in the group exercises at the end of this article to practice reading the Bible in light of the Creeds’ teaching on the Trinity (one God, three persons) and incarnation (one person, two natures).

The Creeds clearly explain the two major doctrines of the Christian faith—the Trinity and the incarnation—so that you can properly interpret the Bible in light of them.

Here’s a recommendation: Write the Apostles’ Creed in the front of your Bible and read it aloud (or recite it from memory) before your daily Bible reading. Augustine urged his catechumens (those preparing for baptism), “Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before you sleep, before you go forth, arm you with your Creed.”

4. Study your church’s Confession of Faith for further help and boundaries in Bible study.

While Creeds keep you inside the boundaries of the catholic church (they separate true churches from false churches), Confessions keep you inside the boundaries of your local church and confessional community (they separate true churches from other true churches).

Besides summarizing key doctrines of Scripture, confessions often have much to say about Scripture itself and its study. For example, see the Thirty-Nine Articles, Articles 6, 7, 8, and 20 (cf. Twenty-Five Articles, Articles 5 and 6; see also WCF, 1). Here are a few excerpts from the Thirty-Nine Articles:

  • “Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” (Article VI)
  • “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” (Article VII)
  • “The Church has power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.” (Article XX)

Note: This doesn’t mean that your church’s confession is infallible. If you are a humble, diligent student of Scripture who keeps bumping up against the boundary of your church’s confession, talk to your pastor. If your pastor cannot resolve your concerns, you might need to very patiently explore other orthodox Christian traditions to see if they’re a better fit for you (warning: the grass always looks greener on the other side, and every Christian tradition has its strengths and weaknesses).

5. Listen to a diversity of reputable voices and perspectives in the broader Church. 

You should prioritize, first, your local church with the pastor-teachers that God has placed over you, and second, the voices in your church’s tradition (e.g., Wesleyan); however, you should also seek out many diverse and reputable voices in the catholic Church (modern and ancient, Eastern and Western): “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).

Group Exercises

  • Read and interpret selected Scriptures in light of the Creeds’ teaching on the Trinity and the incarnation (see handout: “Group Exercises for Lesson 2” — available upon request).
  • If you have time left over, review the main points and practical recommendations in this lesson. Discuss what action steps you can take this week.
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.