Sola Scriptura: No Creed But the Bible?

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My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device nor creed:
I trust the everliving One,
his wounds for me shall plead.

There’s a part of me that is quick to say a hearty “Amen!” to these words that many of us have sung a hundred times. My faith rests in the person of Jesus in a way that it does not rest in creeds or confessions. But I wonder what most people think when they sing the second line: “Not in device nor creed.” The hymn goes on to say,

I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
it is enough that Jesus died,
and that he died for me.

Then,

My heart is leaning on the Word,
the living Word of God, …

One could get the impression that since the Bible is sufficient, the creeds are nonessential, perhaps even marginal. At worst, one may assume that creeds are dangerous because they encourage people to place their faith in a dead confession instead of the living word. Don’t worry about apologetic or theological arguments: “It is enough that Jesus died.” Just preach Jesus and the cross—don’t bother with creeds or confessions. Creeds are for those stiff, staunch, high-churchy folk, we might be prone to think. I’m not suggesting that this is what Eliza Edmunds Hewitt intended when she penned the words, but we need to stop and think about what we are singing and how it affects our thinking.

Simply because something is printed in our hymnal does not mean that it is true. It may be potentially misleading and require, at the very least, clarification from a pastor or worship leader. In fact, if you look a little closer at a few of your favorite hymns, you may be surprised to find several variations of them in hymnals from differing faith traditions. Tozer once said, “Christians don’t tell lies, they just go to church and sing them.” It’s provocative and overstated, perhaps, but it ought to prompt us to take a closer look at what we’re singing. Interestingly, the Trinity Hymnal opted to change the second line of Hewitt’s hymn:

My faith has found a resting place,
from guilt my soul is freed;
I trust the ever-living One,
his wounds for me shall plead.

I’m not sure if the revision was necessary, but one thing is certain: we should love and cherish—never demean or marginalize—the great Christian creeds. Fathers and mothers of the church bled and died, not to defend dried ink on old parchment, but to uphold the truth those words contain. The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and we are responsible to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This means serious and grateful attention to the settled doctrines of the church throughout the ages.

The Authority of the Creeds

As good Protestants, we believe in sola Scriptura. Our heart leans on the word, the living (or “written,” as some versions say) word of God. Scripture is our final authority for faith and practice. But who is to say what Scripture teaches? Me? You? What if we disagree on something essential?

Someone has said that if each man goes into the corner alone to read his Bible, each will find his own way to hell. It’s another exaggeration, perhaps, and I do not want to obscure the general clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture on essential matters. But the point is well taken: in our individualistic society, we need to remember that it is dangerous to ignore the body when interpreting the Bible. Scripture must be interpreted in community, and this community includes the communion of the saints in all times and places.

Scripture must be interpreted in community, and this community includes the communion of the saints in all ages.

It’s a mistake to pit a commitment to the Bible against a commitment to creeds or confessions. These creeds were intended as a guide for Bible reading. Matthew Emerson notes that “many evangelicals distort sola Scriptura into solo or nuda Scriptura,” and cites the incisive observation of Timothy George:

Bible-church Christians, restorationists, and some Baptists, among others, have elevated this expression [“No creed but the Bible”] to a fundamental article of the faith. ‘We have no creed but the Bible,’ they say—thus making a creed out of their commitment to creedless Christianity!

Emerson goes on to argue for the derivative authority of the creeds:

If the creeds have stood the test of time, and if, in standing that test, their phrases have been proven, generation upon generation, to be an accurate summary of biblical content, those phrases that give us most trouble today should be seen not as hurdles to be jumped or chaff to be separated from the wheat but as challenges to our (post)modern imaginations. Acknowledging the derivative authority of the creeds means that, on the one hand, we confess them precisely because they are accurate summaries of Scripture. On the other hand, it also means that derivative creedal authority is a communal and ecclesial balance that acts as a check against any of our mistaken, individual interpretations. Understanding creedal authority this way is thus an exercise in seeing how the creeds ask us to return to Scripture rather than depart from it. At minimum, it says to the interpreter who questions a creedal phrase, “search the Scriptures again, and do so with the communion of the saints.”

Even if the creeds are not the final “resting place” for our faith, they strengthen our faith by assuring us that our personal faith is “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). I find great comfort in knowing that my faith is a shared, historical faith. Jesus is the object of my faith, but he is the same Jesus who has been confessed by the saints in all ages:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended to the dead:
The third day he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: (Apostles’ Creed)

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. (Nicene Creed)

The Creeds and Our Salvation

The creeds were not written because the church fathers were distracted from Jesus, the cross, or salvation. In fact, the fathers were serious about doctrine because they were serious about salvation. They knew that if the Jesus who died was the Jesus of the Arians or the Sabellians, it is not “enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me.” We must distinguish the true Christ from false Christs, and this is where the creeds are an invaluable help.

The church fathers were serious about doctrine because they were serious about salvation.

The Nicene Creed was written to combat Arianism, a heresy that is still alive and well. A Son who was made or created by the Father is not “very God of very God,” and only true God can save us. If Jesus is not the eternally begotten Son of God, of the same substance with the Father, then his death is ineffectual. But because he is who he said that he was, we are redeemed.

The Athanasian Creed begins with salvation in focus: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” After explaining the catholic faith concerning the Trinity, it reasserts, “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.” The Creed concludes: “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

Christians need to understand how doctrine is related to their salvation. We are not saved merely by believing certain truths; however, without the truths confessed in the creeds, our faith is built on sinking sand.

The Pastoral Value of the Creeds

In my personal and pastoral ministry, I have found the creeds to be of immense value. They help me to stay grounded in the essentials. They are not something to merely affirm and then set aside until it’s time to quote a line for Christmas or Easter. We need the church’s wisdom to stay focused on matters of first importance.

If you are a pastor, consider the last time that you explained the following creedal doctrines (to name just a few):

  • The descent to the dead.
  • The ascension and session of Christ.
  • The communion of the saints.
  • The resurrection of the body (that is, our human bodies).
  • The distinction between substance and persons in the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • The eternal generation of the Son.
  • The two natures of Christ.
  • The kingdom.

Because of the creeds, my attention was especially drawn to two neglected doctrines: the ascension of Christ and his descent to the dead. These doctrines have become a source of great comfort and have major implications for everything from pastoral care to preaching on holiness. When comforting those who are sick or dying, I can remind them that Jesus has experienced human death to the fullest. When calling others to be like Christ in their behavior, I can tell them that they should “seek the things that are above” because that is “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).

Fathers and mothers of the church bled and died, not to defend dried ink on old parchment, but to uphold the truth contained in the creeds.

If we sideline the creeds, our preaching is more likely to be imbalanced and reductionistic. It’s easy to get caught up on topics that are of special interest to us or our tradition and to forget what the church has recognized as most important across the ages.

In closing, here are a few ways that you can help your congregation to get back to the creeds:

  1. Recite the creeds more often. Most hymnals include the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, so it’s easy to work them into congregational singing. Reciting the creeds helps to build church unity around a common, core confession. These truths bind us together as believers.
  2. Include excerpts from the creeds in your preaching and teaching. While recently teaching on the deity of Christ in Colossians 1, I cited the Nicene Creed and included a copy in each person’s church bulletin.
  3. Make sure your congregation is at least familiar with the three ecumenical creeds: the Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian. Consider teaching a short series on them. Explain the history behind the creeds. The church is less likely to take the creeds for granted once they understand the blood, sweat, and tears that were spilled to pass them on.
  4. Give focused attention to the Creeds at key times in the church calendar. For example, the section on the incarnation in the Athanasian Creed (lines 29–37) is an excellent study for the Advent season.
  5. Make the creeds an integral part of your discipleship process. If you use a discipleship curriculum, make sure it includes the church’s classic confessions.

We need to get back to the Bible, as the old radio show says. But we also need to get back to the creeds.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.