The Significance of Theological Creeds and How They Function in the Christian Community

“Responding to Tom Krattenmaker”

Christian bodies that claim to follow “no creed but the Bible” put themselves at an enormous disadvantage for many purposes, not least for promoting Christian learning, because they cut themselves off from the vitally important work that has been accomplished by the numberless assemblies making up the community of Saints. [Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind]

Tom Kuttenmaker recently published an article entitled, “Why a Stout Theological Creed is Not Saving Evangelical Churches.” You may read this article HERE. There is a lot of truth in Tom’s article. However, overall, the article is misguided at its most fundamental level.

Tom spends his time rebuffing the likes of men like Al Mohler for pointing out that Liberal Protestantism is chiefly in decline is because of its lack of conviction around basic Christian doctrine. Mohler often points out that Liberal Protestants reject the one thing that could restore their communities to health: a return to biblical authority. It is here, and nowhere else, that all professing Christian communities are defined. A rejection of biblical authority leaves a vacuum that no version of a social gospel can fill. Moreover, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is life, a vibrant community filled with a love for God, for God’s truth and a love for each other.

Protestant Liberalism gets the cart before the horse. She has lived for decades now, attempting to place love of men prior to love for God. Or worse, she redefines love according to criteria over which she is the sole authority. What Tom Krattenmaker and others like him do not understand is that where there is no love for divine truth, no love for biblical authority, there can be no love for God. And where there is no love for God, there can be no love, no true love for humanity. But I digress. Evangelicalism is in decline. And her supposedly firm grip on staunch theological creed is powerless to curtail her slide. The point is that if it is true that a stanch theological creed would save liberal Protestantism from her decline, then why isn’t this staunch theological creed saving evangelicalism? That is indeed a very fair point. But Krattenmaker is only seeing and telling half the story. What he is not telling you is that the evangelical trends that Mohler and others see and have seen for years now is a trajectory much like that of the liberal Protestants of years gone by.

The point is precisely this: liberal Protestantism abandoned the historic creeds and a staunch theological conviction years ago and as a result, over time, people have exited her in droves. What has held much of evangelical churches together for years, however, has been her strong convictions around biblical authority and other basic tenets of historic Christian orthodoxy. However, evangelicals have shifted from a staunch theological creed to a weakened one and now to outright abandonment of such a concept.

Some leaders are afraid to call themselves reformed, and they fail to recognize that a subscription to reformed theology matters, and it matters a lot. They worry that if they say Calvin or Calvinism that someone’s senses may be offended. We essentially make decisions on what to say and how we say it, based on the ignorance of those who haven’t cared enough to educate themselves. That’s right. What we preach, teach, and call ourselves in many instances is determined by the ignorant rather than by the informed. What? Say it with me: What!?

Tom is right when he says that church membership is not the place to look if we are seeking evidence for the beauty and power of truth. He is right when he says it never was the place to look. But still many, including the SBC, look exactly right there. And that is more than a little disturbing and has been since the practice began. The beauty and power of the gospel is witnessed not in the masses of people joining a church or an organization. It is witnessed in the miraculous change of the sinner’s heart. The transformation is indeed miraculous.

The church in modern America has been far too involved in the political system, the outward governmental structure and even economic policy. American Christians can hardly distinguish between their faith and their patriotism. Christ told us to make disciples and to preach the gospel and somehow, that has turned into outlawing abortion, stopping homosexual marriage, ending sex trafficking, fighting over things like “Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays,” and putting a stop to world hunger and a host of other good and noble causes but sadly, not the primary, or even the secondary purpose of the church. And now, we are starting the pay the price. It is all really very pathetic when you think about the mission of Christians in the world. We are fighting over prayer in secular school and whether or not we can bake a cake for a gay wedding. The distractions of political and social activism have drowned the gospel. Pagans in America think the gospel is “thou shalt not have an abortion,” or “thou shalt pray in school,” or “fill in the blank.” It isn’t because we should not be preaching against these vile sins. We should. But they are no longer issues of sin when you frame them up in political conversations. The gospel runs the risk of looking just like any other political posturing when we make it about issues like gay marriage or abortion or whatever.

Carl Truman, in his excellent book, The Creedal Imperative, hits the target; all Christians engage in confessional synthesis; the difference is simply whether one adheres to a public confession, subject to public scrutiny, or to a private one that is, by its very nature, immune to such examination.

In the end, liberal Protestants have their own staunch theological creed. Even though they like to claim they are more tolerant, the truth is, they are not. Just as true Christianity rejects those who claim to be Christian and yet reject basic Christian tenets, like the authority or Scripture, liberal Protestants reject those tenets outright. And just as true Christians reject the sexual ethic of the modern liberal Protestant, the modern liberal Protestant rejects the sexual ethic of biblical Christianity, characterizing it as hateful and bigoted. You see, both biblical Christianity and liberal Protestantism engage in confessional synthesis. We confess that Scripture alone is our final authority for faith and practice while liberal Protestantism confesses that human reason will decide which portions of Scripture are acceptable for faith and practice. That is the basic difference.

Categories:

7 Comments

  1. ok. there are several ways to have this conversation, but let’s just go with the title of the article. function, belief, and centrality, significance.

    beliefs entail action. if “belief” applies to some idea which cannot be after on, it cannot be of central importance; it serves a purpose, actionable brief, is confined on it. those sort of “beliefs” are like a connecting thread to things we think are the case and in so thinking, we “act as if” it is the case.

    having said that, doctrine and creed can be central to community in the sense that the set “community” contains folks who think x, y, and z are true. however, neither creeds nor doctrine have statements which are actionable. for instance, “there is a snake just there!”, fosters action if one thinks it is the case that there’s a snake. “jesus is the son of god” is not a case which leads to any action if we believe it true or false. we just maybe think, “well, that’s just great for jesus.”

    with this theory of knowledge from philosophy and psychology, there’s no real mystery about the functional role of creeds and doctrines. they are for community, not salvation. they cannot be central to christianity at all, though they are perhaps central to the life of the church. we simply have to note in that case, each church has its own sets of ideas on jesus, the nazarene, and there is only a guarantee of agreement in that all christian communities believes that christ atones, even though no one can agree as to how he does.

    “The ancient ideas about salvation … do not in themselves place us under any critique, except in so far as, in their own way, they posit the criterion of Jesus as final source of salvation. Anyone who fails to see this distinction is proposing not Jesus Christ but one particular bit of religious culture as the norm of Christian faith — and ceases to be faith in Jesus of Nazareth … In him we find final salvation, well-being. This is the fundamental creed of primitive Christianity.”

    Edward Schillebeeckx, ‘Jesus: An Experiment In Christology’, pg. 23.

    Like

    1. Belief drives action. To say “there is a snake just there” for most people also means “avoid just there.” Creeds themselves are a set of doctrines/beliefs. As Truman points out, some are public, and therefore subject to public scrutiny. Others are private. What is a fact is that 1) they are unavoidable; 2) you do live your life by them. For instance, your private creed/doctrine/belief is that they play no role in salvation. But that is impossible. The belief that salvation is even possible belongs to your creed/doctrine/belief.

      There is a difference between “ancient ideas about salvation” and the biblical revelation about it. If one rejects sola scriptura, your point is valid and sound. As it stands, it may be valid but it is off target. There is only one version of Jesus Christ and his work that is true, and therefore, must inform the Christian community regarding its purpose and function. All other versions are indeed the product of unbelieving cultures. Romans 1 tells us that the unbeliever will suppress the truth of God that is in the world. So also suppress the truth of Jesus Christ in his church.

      If we really want to understand what we mean by “belief” that Jesus is the Son of God, we must understand what biblical faith is and is not. For starters, no one can call Jesus Lord but by the Holy Spirit. To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to have God the Holy Spirit supernaturally exchange your heart of stone for one of flesh. That knowledge only comes by divine activity. It is not a matter of rational or mere cognitive function.

      It means nothing to use the sort of language you use, such as, “being in Christ” unless our beliefs about who Christ is, who we are, and what being in him means, are informed by divine truth. And that is what makes for a stout theological creed. The creed of primitive Christianity cannot be stripped of its content and summed up in such a simplistic manner. The point of all this is to say that Christianity was creedal from its start. I think of Peter’s confession, “thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The NT itself is the creed of Christianity. You cannot be in Christ without it. And you cannot be in Christ and reject parts of it because they offend your modern senses.

      Like

      1. sure you can be in christ without belief in christ because whomever loves is in christ.

        belief is not creed is not doctrine. and in scripture, belief is not ascent to a proposition. pistis is the draw to the good, conscience. grace is god’s active presence in the world. in our likeness to god, the good, which is god, resonates. in participation is atonement. the result of the experience is salvation. what schillebeeckx is saying is that the ID NO content to primitive christianity. there is only the idea that god is goodness itself and that jesus is the way we ought to be in the world; champions of human well-being, sacraments. in johannine literature, god intended from the very beginning (logos; reason, plan, mind, will) that there is a certain way to be in the world (hodos; way of being), and jesus exemplified both, showing the reality (alethea; truth, reality, clarity) of our humanity and its relation to the divine, and how to live in the world (zoe; mode, means to an end), a full life.

        those are beliefs. these are all actionable. all knowledge entails to justified belief. no one is concerned about that fact. notice though, the are not injunctions to think or act particularly and then, are neither creeds nor doctrine.

        my question is this:

        you are taking issue with me saying that neither doctrines nor creeds are efficacious for salvation but you don’t explain how. likely, it’s because you conflate belief with creed and doctrine. but again, neither doctrine nor creeds are actionable.

        so if i outline the scriptural notions that grace and faith (ie pistis, not belief) are what is efficacious for salvation and that atonement and salvation are found in enjoining the good by participating, this expresses beliefs. however, none of what i’ve said is doctrinal nor creedal; and certainly “there’s a snake over there!” lacks doctrine and creed as well.

        you ask about the function of doctrines and creeds. it can be summed up by extending kant. ideas start with perception then move on into conception, and with more interest and though, become images. as is concerns doctrine and creed, these are developmental and responsive to what we come to believe about christ. and certainly with the concerns of pauline literature, we can see he was trying to codify christ behavior and thinking, and we can see that was all fairly early. however, like peter, everyone had an image of christ that was from “pregnant expectation”. and it shouldn’t be more than observational that as a matter of christian history, creeds and doctrines at least, in the minimal sense, are what communities form around. to say that these do more than being a locus of community and are also what our salvation is contingent to is to say much with little reason to, and again i ask for those. what’s the impossibility?

        Like

      2. “In our times, an authentic faith in God only seems to be possible in the context of a praxis of liberation and of solidarity with the needy. It is in that praxis that the idea develops that God reveals himself as the mystery and the very heart of humanity’s striving for liberation, wholeness and soundness. The concept of that mystery, which is at first concealed in the praxis of liberation and of making whole, is only made explicit in the naming of that concept in the statement made in faith that God is the liberator, the promoter of what is good and the opponent of what is evil …”

        i guess, more schillebeeckx since i’m already there.

        Like

  2. sure you can be in christ without belief in christ because whomever loves is in christ.

    RESPONSE: You cannot love biblically without true knowledge. “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:5-8

    belief is not creed is not doctrine. and in scripture, belief is not ascent to a proposition. pistis is the draw to the good, conscience. grace is god’s active presence in the world. in our likeness to god, the good, which is god, resonates. in participation is atonement. the result of the experience is salvation. what schillebeeckx is saying is that the ID NO content to primitive christianity. there is only the idea that god is goodness itself and that jesus is the way we ought to be in the world; champions of human well-being, sacraments. in johannine literature, god intended from the very beginning (logos; reason, plan, mind, will) that there is a certain way to be in the world (hodos; way of being), and jesus exemplified both, showing the reality (alethea; truth, reality, clarity) of our humanity and its relation to the divine, and how to live in the world (zoe; mode, means to an end), a full life.

    RESPONSE: I agree that belief is not ascent to a proposition. However, in back of the proposition is a metaphysical state that is affirmed by such belief. Faith is indeed certain trust in God. But what God are we talking about? The omniscient, omnipotent God revealed by way of propositions in Scripture or some other god? It is an illegitimate practice to drive a wedge between the proposition and the reality being expressed by the proposition. After all, God communicates with us by way of propositions. To say that God is goodness itself is an illegitimate and heretical abstraction for the God of Scripture is tripersonal in nature, Father, Son, Spirit. By the way, your propositions here sound eerily similar to a creed, a doctrine, a series of beliefs about what God is like and who Jesus was and what Jesus came to earth to demonstrate. It seems to me that you are attempting to replace orthodox creeds with one of your own making, albeit with a little help from your RC theologian, whose faith I reject by the way.

    those are beliefs. these are all actionable. all knowledge entails to justified belief. no one is concerned about that fact. notice though, the are not injunctions to think or act particularly and then, are neither creeds nor doctrine.

    RESPONSE: Your definition of creeds and doctrines seems more like a rescuing device to me. The Greek word for doctrine is didache. It is simply the content of what is taught. It is impossible to dismiss doctrine from any component of any belief system, be it Christianity or a hostile atheism or even radical skepticism. Your comments represent the content of a teaching and hence, they reflect your doctrine.

    my question is this:
    you are taking issue with me saying that neither doctrines nor creeds are efficacious for salvation but you don’t explain how. likely, it’s because you conflate belief with creed and doctrine. but again, neither doctrine nor creeds are actionable.
    so if i outline the scriptural notions that grace and faith (ie pistis, not belief) are what is efficacious for salvation and that atonement and salvation are found in enjoining the good by participating, this expresses beliefs. however, none of what i’ve said is doctrinal nor creedal;

    RESPONSE: A creed is a formal statement of Christian belief. You can’t even open your mouth about salvation, about grace, or faith and make them intelligible or meaningful without doctrine, without a creed. For, you see, there are many doctrines in your claims and those doctrines come together in your creed. This fact is unavoidable. It is like saying, there is no such thing as objective truth. Your criticism of the creedal idea is self-refuting.
    and certainly “there’s a snake over there!” lacks doctrine and creed as well.

    RESPONSE: Surely you are mistaken. I must have a doctrine of snake in order to make the statement. And by snake, you know I don’t mean “fish.” A fish could not exist in the weeds, assuming we are talking about that which has life in it. And if it is a certain kind of snake, my proposition has prelocutionary intent, all based on my doctrine of snake.

    you ask about the function of doctrines and creeds. it can be summed up by extending kant.

    RESPONSE: I typically do not call on Kant to assist me in formulating an understanding of what the Scripture means when it talks about things like faith, belief, and doctrine. Tertullian was keen to point out the radical antithesis that exists between believing and unbelieving thought.

    ideas start with perception then move on into conception, and with more interest and though, become images. as is concerns doctrine and creed, these are developmental and responsive to what we come to believe about christ. and certainly with the concerns of pauline literature, we can see he was trying to codify christ behavior and thinking, and we can see that was all fairly early. however, like peter, everyone had an image of christ that was from “pregnant expectation”. and it shouldn’t be more than observational that as a matter of christian history, creeds and doctrines at least, in the minimal sense, are what communities form around. to say that these do more than being a locus of community and are also what our salvation is contingent to is to say much with little reason to, and again i ask for those. what’s the impossibility?

    RESPONSE: You are correct that communities rally around a set of beliefs, doctrines, a system, creeds. You are also correct that Paul, Peter, and the other NT writers were careful to formulate true doctrine and to rally the “one Christ community” around that revealed system. That system is authoritative for the community. It is to that system that the community submits. Competing systems are called out as being demonic, constructed by messengers of Satan, to be avoided, rebuked, corrected, and shunned. If you miss that part of the NT, you are missing most of the NT.

    Now, you may say that no one can get to that system, the set of beliefs revealed in Scripture, that defines what it is to be a confessional Christian. If so, your conclusion is skepticism. And if that is the case, you will need to justify how you know that those of us in the Reformed, Protestant tradition do not indeed hold to the apostolic tradition given in Scripture. If you cannot identify that system because no one can, then no one can determine when a particular community has struck just the right note.

    Like

  3. The expression of authentic faith does not change with the passage of time except by way of specific cultural practices. Orgies were just as wrong in biblical times as porn is today, as an example. But to say that we reduce Christianity to solidarity with the needy is far removed from the gospel given by Christ. The gospel is timeless, changeless. To replace the good news that Christ saves wicked sinners from their sinful rebellion against the Creator with an antinomian, social gospel is not only misguided, it destroys the very religion it is supposed to expand. I have to say, I am not a fan of RC. Perhaps we should turn our attention to why I think your denomination proclaims a gospel that is far removed from the one revealed in the pages of Scripture. In fact, I think RC theology is devastating to the Christian worldview expressed in Scripture.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s