No Creed But the Bible?

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  • No Creed But the Bible?

    A podcast listener, Lauren Balozian, writes in to ask about confessional Christianity: “Dear Pastor John, I’m a fan of your podcast. My question is this: Do you subscribe to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith? If not, why not? And in general, what are your thoughts on the confessional movement and associations?”

    Well, before I declare myself with regard to the 1689 Baptist Confession, just some general thoughts, some encouraging, hopeful thoughts about confessional Christianity:

    Of confessional Christianity I think, Christianity that is unified around a written confession of faith, at its best, is the best Christianity. In other words, all other things being equal, it is a good thing for a people to be united around a written summary of biblical truth. Four reasons come to mind:

    1) Paul, when he was saying farewell to the elders in Ephesus, declared, “I am innocent of the blood of you all, because I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). The phrase “whole counsel of God” points to some kind of unified summary of essential biblical truth. And Paul said to Timothy in another place similarly, “Guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20). So there is some kind of apostolic deposit that is put down that you should guard and hand on — some kind of body of unified truth. We see the same thing in Romans 6:17. Paul said, “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”

    So we have got the phrases “standard of teaching,” “deposit,” “whole counsel of God,” and those all ask: Have you done that, John Piper? Did you deliver to Bethlehem Baptist Church the whole counsel of God? Is there a deposit of truth that you gave there? And I think that points us towards: Yeah, we need something like that summarized or written down for us.

    2) Without a written summary of biblical truth we tend to be vague about what we believe. Some people think that avoiding confessions of faith provides greater Christian unity, because writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.

    But the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.

    3) The slogan “No creed but the Bible” conceals the fact that in almost any group, crucial biblical statements will be properly understood by some and misunderstood by others. In such cases, it is naïve to say that the Bible unites us. It may not be uniting us at all. It may be a vague cloak for significant disunity. And that doesn’t honor the Scriptures.

    It was a great education for me to do a study of Athanasius and realize that in the debates that he had with the heretic Arius, both sides affirmed the authority of Scripture and both sides did extensive quoting of the Bible. And so “No creed but the Bible” in that case would simply be used to cover the fact that the denial of the deity of Christ doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And somebody has to stand up and say: That is not what the Bible teaches.

    4) Confessional summaries of biblical truth really do help us in our faith, because I think faith thrives on deep, true doctrine that is brought out of the Scriptures, properly summarized, applied to peoples’ lives, and in our souls, in our families, in our churches, even in society. That kind of clear, doctrinal truth is healthy for life and for obedience to Jesus.

    I know that there will always be pharisaic misuses of doctrine, of biblical truth, which turn them into a vehicle of pride and abuse of God’s people, but those kinds of misuses of truth should not stop us from the right use of truth, which is to treat it like kindling thrown on the fires of love for God and love for people. That is the way it has functioned in my life over the years anyway, that clear, faithful, doctrinal teaching has been an inflaming means to my faith and my love for God and love for people. So, yes, I am in favor of churches and schools and ministries being defined by robust affirmations of faith.

    One of the practical effects that had on me was after about 15 years of my serving Bethlehem Baptist Church, the elders, with my encouragement, worked their way for about four or five years to the point of composing and agreeing upon The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith. And that affirmation of faith now governs the church and desiringGod.org and Bethlehem College and Seminary.

    There are advantages and disadvantages of composing a new affirmation of faith. I realize their dangers. The great danger is that we might be trendy or idiosyncratic or selective, based on our own preferences. The advantage is that it can be expressed in language that is more understandable and can deal with issues and terms that we are facing today that need to be dealt with doctrinally and ethically. So we tried very hard not to be trendy or idiosyncratic and we tried to send out the affirmation of faith in its process of coming into being to Christian leaders across the country and get feedback. So that was our approach.

    Now here is the deal with the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. I didn’t choose to go that route, even though it is a good, solid, Reformed Baptist version of the Westminster Confession. And there are several reasons why. Here they are:

    1) The language is somewhat foreign. Its vocabulary is like reading the King James Version. And I think it is probably a mistake to try to enshrine that today as the one if you expect families to use it without any updated form.

    2) While I am able to affirm that Genesis 1 refers to literal 24-hour days, I had a hard time thinking that I should make that a matter of confessional faithfulness to Christianity, and so I stumbled over that section.

    3) The understanding of the Sabbath is, perhaps, more rigorous and narrow than my understanding of the implications of Jesus’s teaching about the Sabbath.

    4) There are certain historic categories of theology, like the covenant of works and others, that have proved useful, but you might wonder: Shall I make that the structure of the theology I am going to present?

    5) This is going to sound so piddly — and yet you can’t be piddly in a confession — little things like saying that bread and wine are prescribed in the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper. That comes as a shock to a lot of people. It doesn’t say that is what was used.

    Now I suspect it was. I suspect it was wine, but it always uses the term cup or fruit of the vine and, therefore, if you get into a knock down battle and say we are going to settle this confessionally and you go to the 1689 Confession, it is going to say wine is what you are supposed to use. And I would say: Well, that is just unbiblical, because that is not what the Bible says, even though that is totally legitimate and maybe even preferable, but not at all required.

    So I think the 1689 Confession of Faith is a glorious, wonderfully faithful expression of biblical truth. I fellowship down to my toenails with people who love that doctrine. But there are enough little things like I have mentioned here that made me say: I think probably for us we would want to go another direction.

    But my main point here that I want to say and leave Lauren with is I think affirmations of faith are very important and that churches should not shy away from them, but patiently over time work their way toward a unified expression of biblical faith for the sake of the preservation and the vitality and the mission of the church.

    A hearty amen to that! I can hear followup emails piling up already in the inbox on creation, Sabbath, and wine.

    So can I. Oh my, what have I done?

    John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.

  • #2
    Excellent extrapolation of a difficult position that a lot of folk of Pietistic bent and background arrive at. " Creedless Christianity" is essentially going from what one might see as a cerebral extreme to a polar opposite emotional one. Both extremes, are to my mind, insufficient. As I study the Age of Enlightenment and then the Great Awakening, I see two extremes that could potentially lead to disaster. The ideals of the Age of Enlightenment led ultimately to the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon in post- Revolutionary France. The emotionalism in the great Awakening led to the rise of a series of cults that centered around a personal figure who claimed divine revelation for himself ( or herself, in the cases of Mary Baker Eddy and Ellen White). Here's something that i found that might even be worth reading:
    Creedless Christianity

    Jan 31, 2011

    This phrase has a neat ring to it, especially to some Protestants. It certainly sounds very spiritual. It is often used as a kind of religious one-upmanship: ‘You have all your creeds and doctrines, but I am a Jesus-Only Christian’ or a ‘Bible-Only Christian’.

    The idea is that the individual believer alone can know all biblical truth, and there is no need for theology, doctrine, denominations, creeds, Christian history, or even the rest of the Body of Christ. “No creed but Christ” has been a popular rallying cry for some of these Christians, especially in America during the past few centuries.

    As one American Pentecostal preacher put it last century, “Brother, I know no creed but Christ, no law but love, and no book but the Bible”. And as one head of a Bible College put it in the mid-nineteenth century, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me.”

    Now the problem with this sort of thinking is that there is of course some truth contained in it. We all know of some believers who are all head and no heart. We all know of lifeless Christianity where mere intellectualism has crowded out the Spirit-filled life.

    We all know of churches and Bible schools where theology reigns supreme but there is little spiritual life and vitality. We all know of people who put the mind on a pedestal to the exclusion of all else. We all know of dead orthodoxy and lifeless Christianity.

    But sadly, as is so often the case in church history, we rush away from one problematic extreme, only to rush to another problematic extreme. If spiritually cold and intellectually hot believers, churches and denominations can be problematic, so too can theologically cold and emotionally hot ones.

    The ideal, as always, is to maintain the biblical balance. The truth is, we are called to love God with the whole person. Thus we should be loving God with our mind as well as with our will and emotions. Our faith should be Spirit-powered and theologically mature.

    We should embrace sound living and sound doctrine, just as Scripture exhorts us time and time again. Paul for example said quite clearly, “Give heed to your life and your teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). Both are vital, and we should never play off one against another. It is not a question of choosing head or heart, but of affirming both, simultaneously.

    As the Bible repeatedly states, and as I have so often written about, the need for sound theology or doctrine is paramount in the life of the believer. See just one article for example:In Defence of Theology - CultureWatch

    None of us can live a dogma-free Christian life. Indeed, those who promote a dogma-free faith are themselves pushing their own particular dogma. Those who argue for a creedless Christianity are themselves promoting a particular creed. Any time someone opposes a doctrine or creed or denomination or teaching, he is in fact endorsing his own.

    While it may sound spiritual, there really is no such thing as a denomination-less or theology-less Christian. We all have certain beliefs, understandings, favourite teachings, ways of interpreting Scripture, etc. We all have been influenced by the thinking, teaching and beliefs of others.

    The very fact that a person rails against some theological issue (be it theology itself, infant baptism, an eschatological view, Catholicism, Anglicanism, speaking in tongues, not speaking in tongues, etc.) means they are affirming another belief or teaching or creed or denominational position. Everyone lies somewhere on a theological and denominational spectrum, even those who claim to be Jesus-only dogma-free Christians.

    Sure, these folks want to claim they are getting back to original Christianity. They speak of being “restorationists” as they seek to restore the church to its former pristine glory. They speak much about getting back to the apostolic church, or the faith of the early church.

    But almost every Christian in the world thinks their faith is straight out of the book of Acts and the New Testament. Everyone wants to claim the high moral and spiritual ground here. While we all should certainly strive to be as biblical and Christ-like as possible, none of us have or will fully attain to an ideal Christianity.

    And the truth is, there is no such thing as lone-wolf Christianity. There is no such thing as the autonomous believer. The New Testament speaks everywhere of the importance of seeing ourselves not as solo believers, but as very much being part of the whole Body of Christ. We need to reread 1 Corinthians 12 for starters. An autonomous Christian is a contradiction in terms, biblically speaking.

    We need each other, and that is how God has designed the Christian life to be lived. So that means we not only need and depend upon our brothers and sisters of today, but on all those who have gone before as well. Thus the importance of church history, and learning from the past.

    Those who think that they can go it alone, without any outside help, getting all they need directly from God, with some kind of holy pipeline direct to the heavenly throne room, are simply kidding themselves. Indeed, they are guilty of gross spiritual pride and self-righteousness.

    No one even operates this way. Well, perhaps a person raised alone in a cave all his life with only a Bible to guide him. But the rest of us mere believers all grow up in a surrounding culture with particular biases and prejudices. We all carry cultural and theological baggage around with us, even when we deny that we do.

    No one comes to the Bible in a complete vacuum. We all have various pre-conceived ideas and perspectives we bring to bear on Scripture. Thus we very much need humility here. We need each other and we need to receive from God what he has given to the Body, including pastors, teachers and one another.

    Christian community is God’s intention for us, not rugged individualism. Humility says ‘I do not have all the answers or all the truth, and I need others to help me stay on the straight and narrow’. Spiritual pride says ‘I am sufficient myself, I don’t need the learning, teaching or wisdom of others’.

    Thus it is only arrogance which says I can learn direct from God, and have no need of the teachers he has put in the Body of Christ, or no need of learning what God has revealed to others, and so on. And it is pride to think that there is no place for creeds or theology.

    In fact, since these believers so often appeal to the early church, they really should look more closely at what the early church was in fact up to. A major portion of their time was actually spent on hammering out sound doctrine, formulating creeds, and refuting theological error.

    It is not just the great early Christian creeds that I am referring to here, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. The New Testament itself is loaded with creedal affirmations and solid theology. The Book of Romans for example is an extended theological discussion.

    Indeed, even within the New Testament there appear to be early Christian creeds or declarations of faith. Passages such as Acts 16:31; 1 Cor. 15:3-7; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16 are just some examples of what seem to be early creedal affirmations which the early disciples appealed to.

    Now since I am likely to get attacked from all sides here, let me repeat what it is I am trying to say here. The biblical balance is what we should all be after. I am not here trying to champion lifeless orthodoxy. But neither am I arguing for theologically anaemic zeal.

    Paul got the mix right when he complained about the Jews who had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). He wanted God’s people to have lots of zeal for God, but a zeal that was biblically informed and theologically mature.

    We must realise that we are all finite and fallen – even born-again Christians. Thus we must always be on our knees, coming to God in humility and brokenness. We must admit that we do not always get things right. We often mis-hear God, misinterpret his Word, and mistake our own understanding and insights for that of the Holy Spirit.

    None of this is to say that we cannot have theological certainty and biblical clarity. We can have sufficient truth, or true truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, even though we cannot have exhaustive truth. We can have strong certainty in biblical basics, while also remaining humble with a teachable spirit, recognising that we can always learn more, and we can always learn more accurately and biblically.

    “Jesus-Only Christianity” or “Bible-Only Christianity” sounds so spiritual, but the truth is none of us are lone wolf Christians and all of us depend upon and need others, even when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. The whole body of Christ, both past and present, is needed for our walk with God and following Christ according to his word. It is only pride and self-righteousness which says I can do all this alone and I don’t need or want the rest of Christ’s body, teaching and instruction.

    [1554 words] Creedless Christianity - CultureWatch
    Comment>

    • #3
      On the surface of it, "no creed but the Bible" is absurd since the statement itself is a creed. Credo = I believe. Anytime one makes a statement, they are making a creed.

      I think what these tiny minority of "Evangelical" Protestants MEAN is not that they are oppose to creeds but they are opposed to creeds being norma normans (when they should be no more than norma normata). In that, I largely agree with them - although it's not as simplistic as they seem to hold.

      Besides giving proclamation to truth (as we are commended to do), besides the rebuke of error (the typical motivation of historic, catholic creeds) - both of great value in and of themselves - creeds give US the opportunity to proclaim our faith TOGETHER. This is OUR faith - historic, ecumenical, tried, normed (thus, norma normata). Quite in constast to the all-too-often Evangelical emphasis on individualism, MEism, what I think/feel/believe/confess. As I confess the Nicene Creed, I know I'm standing with BILLIONS of Christians - on Earth and in Heaven - of many different denominations, over some 1700 years - in confessing OUR faith, the truth WE have embraced. Quite different than the typical laymen who just picked up his Bible, read a verse, and says "What this means to me is....." (I stop listening at that point so never hear the rest of the sentence) or worse, "The Holy Spirit told just little ole ME that what He meant to inspire here but didn't is....." (Yup, I stop listening at that point).



      “Jesus-Only Christianity” or “Bible-Only Christianity” sounds so spiritual, but the truth is none of us are lone wolf Christians and all of us depend upon and need others, even when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. The whole body of Christ, both past and present, is needed for our walk with God and following Christ according to his word. It is only pride and self-righteousness which says I can do all this alone and I don’t need or want the rest of Christ’s body, teaching and instruction.

      Amen!



      A blessed Epiphany to all...


      - Josiah
      Comment>

      • #4
        What do "norma normans" and "norma normata" mean?
        Clyde Herrin's Blog
        Comment>

        • #5
          Originally posted by theophilus View Post
          What do "norma normans" and "norma normata" mean?
          In epistemology, "norma normans" (Lain for "norm that norms") is the rule or canon (we may think of it as the Standard or plumbliine) - the authority. Just as we have the Rule of Law in disputed civil activities, so in epistemology we need some rule. The norma normans plays this role. Norma normata is something embraced as having been normed - it was held up to the norm and determined that it met the standard, it was normed by the norm.

          In those Protestant groups that accept the Rule of Scripture (the praxis that Luther and Calvin called "Sola Scriptura" - I have no idea why, lol, but it stuck) embraces the written words of Scripture as norma normans (the Rule or Canon) but most admit (and ALL DO) accept much as norma normata - not identical words of Scripture but Scriptural - held up to the norma normans and judged good. The Three Ecumenical Creeds would be the classic examples. Many would include at least some of the 7 Ecumenical Councils (for example, accepted the Trinity and Two Natures of Christ). Some Calvinists would accept that say the Westminster Confession is norma normata yet by embracing Sola Scriptura they are rejecting that Confession as norma normans.

          I think this is a critical distinction in epistemology that these very few "Evangelicals" miss. Protestants generally do NOT say that the Ecumenical Creeds are norma normans (the point I think they are rebuking - WRONGLY because Protestants don't believe that or use them that way), they are (at most) seen and used as norma normata.

          I hope that helps!


          Thank you

          Pax Christi


          - Josiah

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