I smile when I hear folks say they believe the church should have, "no creed except the Bible," since that statement is in itself a creed. Of course as a Christian of the Reformed tradition, I like to have the essentials all spelled out. That way we know 1) What the essential doctrines are that will not be compromised by my church's leadership, and 2) What non-essentials are matters of Christian liberty and individual conscience: limited church government, in a sense.
Emergent US has now issued a statement that according to their faith, they have decided they don't need a statement of faith. I read the explanation by the "leading theologian," LeRon Shults, (There are a lot of leading theologians I have bever heard of, this one included.), on why this should be so. David Wayne at JollyBlogger and Dr. Andrew Jackson at SmartChristian.com are both scratching their heads about it, and frankly, so am I. Here's a snippet from Shults:
The writers of the New Testament were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions the assent to which marks off true believers. Paul, Luke and John all talked much more about the mission to which we should commit ourselves than they did about the propositions to which we should assent.
I am dumbfounded. For a moment, let's accept Shults' characterization of the writings of Paul, Luke and John for the sake of argument. (I'll address that below.) Isn't saying we should be committing ourselves to a mission a credal statement? What mission is it? Can we commit to a mission we are unwilling to define? What form does this commitment take? The answers to all of these questions are statements of what we believe is true. They are statements of faith.
I was also surprised to see Paul first on this list of non-propositional, mission-minded writers. I think of Paul as the "King of the Therefore." Paul's writings are chapter after chapter of propositional statements and reasoning followed by a "therefore" after which he applies those propositions to ideas and actions. In other words, the propositional statements of Paul are the foundation upon which unity of thought and action (mission, as Shults puts it), within the church are based. I would like to see Shults' support for the assertion that Paul, of all people, did not write as much on propositional doctrinal statements as he did statements about "commitment to a mission," whatever that means. As to John, the overriding theme of John's Gospel, in my opinion, is to answer the basic credal question of who Jesus is. Luke's Gospel and the Acts are narrative works, which are of course focused on actions and events, but not in the way Shults characterizes them.
Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.
It is God who chose language to reveal Himself to us, is it not? The Son of God is called, "The Word," is He not? I agree that God is beyond our "linguistic grasping." He is beyond any sort of grasping we can do, and no one making statements of faith claims to have "captured" the infinite nature of God in them. But that does not mean we cannot grasp some part of the truth He has communicated. Why else would He bother to reveal it? Nor does this support the assertion that we are not to use language to propositionally communicate the truth He has revealed to us.
Does Shults suggest that Irenaeus and Calvin would not/did not make propositional statements about what is to be believed and what is not to be believed about God, the Church or the Faith? (My evidence to the contrary can be found by following the links on their names.) Obviously, whatever it is Irenaeus and Calvin believed about the limitations of language, it did not prevent them from using it extensively to define the doctrines of the true Faith and to define heresy. The beliefs of those men cannot logically be used to support a position that was entirely opposite to what they practiced, or to support Shults' charge that those practices are "linguistic idolatry."
This is not a complete analysis of Shults' arguments, just a few thoughts that struck me as I read his statement. I've love to see more discussion on this from all sides or to see a formal debate. Before you go after me on this, though, let me state a few things I believe about statements of belief (word play intended), so I am not misunderstood. I believe:
- Statements of faith are always in subordination to the Scriptures and should not reflect any doctrine that is unbiblical or extra-biblical. They should not bind the consciences of men where the Scriptures do not.
- Statements of faith that define those doctrines that are essential to true Christian faith are appropriate to be used to define the fellowship of believers, that is, who may or may not join the church, or who we may or may not consider a brother or sister in Christ. I am talking about very basic statements of the Gospel and the nature of God here, such as those based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 or John 14:6. The Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed would be examples.
- Statements of faith beyond those essential doctrines are appropriate to be used in the administration of the church.They are useful for defining what will or will not be taught by the church's leaders. It is appropriate to use them to define the authority and limitations of church government and discipline.The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Augsburg Confession, and the London Baptist Confession are examples.
- Statements of Faith can be abused to manipulate and control believers and can be used for unnecessary and counterproductive divisiveness. The same thing can be said of the Scriptures themselves. There are many things in life that are not evil in themselves, but can be used unwisely or with bad intent to evil ends. This, however does not mean they cannot or should not be used. It means they should be used with wisdom, love, humility and grace.
UPDATE: I answered comments on this post in another post: Do Creeds Promote Unity or Division?