Do we need the Creed?

Andrew Thompson has provided a series of links to some recent and not-so-recent writings about the place of the Creed in Wesleyan and Methodist faith. The authors generally come out in defense of the Creed. This is not a controversial position for Christians to take, of course, but given the history of doctrinal neglect in United Methodism, it is not a foregone conclusion that any particular group of United Methodists will provide a robust defense of the creeds of the church.

So, these arguments are important.

But, at the risk of encouraging an “anything goes” attitude, I do want to ask whether the Creed is either sufficient or necessary for Christianity. Is affirming the Creed enough to make you a Christian (the demons believe and tremble)? Is affirming the Creed necessary for a person who claims to be a Christian?

Another way to ask this, I suppose, is whether Christianity could exist without the Creed. As a historical hypothetical, of course, it is an impossible question to answer. And yet, we do have an answer. The Creed was not handed to us by Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not recite the Apostles’ Creed. The church found the absence of a Creed problematic and the establishment of a Creed useful, but Peter and Paul and the subsequent generations were certainly good Christians despite their ignorance of the Creed.

So the question is not whether we need the Creed, but how best do we use it? What role should it play in the life of faith? How does knowing the Creed deepen our faith and practice? How does the Creed call us into holiness of heart and life?


9 thoughts on “Do we need the Creed?

  1. John: i have been following these posts with interest. I know I have benefited from D. H. Williams analysis of the Creed and the Rule of Faith in his book Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: if I understand Williams, it is/was the Rule of Faith that became the Creed which then helped to guide the church in its understanding and interpretation and creation of the canon of scripture as well as other doctrines.This was a long historical process of course, but it seems we may want to reflect on why the church remained undivided until the two great schisms of East/West in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s and how the creed may have been used.

    So what role it could play now is important and worth exploring in what it means to be the church. Maybe others have different slants…

    1. Andy, thanks for the post. I’m not sure the church remained undivided from the point of view of those driven out in the process of working out the meaning of orthodoxy. I’ve been reading about the Donatist controversy recently, for instance. I don’t think that means the Creed is not important or even crucial, but I am a bit wary of attributing more unity to the church than was there.

  2. First, let’s be clear about what we mean by “The Creed.” The only truly ecumenical creed we have across the church is the Nicene Creed. Both the Apostles Creed and the Athanasian Creed are Western-only products. They have no place or recognition in the East. But the Nicene Creed, albeit in a slightly different form (the procession of the Spirit is from the Father, full stop).

    And the Trinitarian faith embedded in and underlying our own Articles of Religion is derived primarily from the Nicene Creed as well.

    The Apostles Creed is not definitively Trinitarian. The Nicene Creed is. If our Articles of Religion were intended to establish among Methodists the essentials of that “doctrine” we part from at the risk of becoming a dead sect, then if we were to recover a creed as a doctrinal standard, it would be the Nicene, first of all, we must recover.

    I do believe the Nicene Creed does more than state complicated doctrines in a fairly compact and memorable way. I believe, rightly understood, and in conjunction with the practices of faithful discipling communities following the way of Jesus, can both undergird and encourage our growth in holiness and bold mercy. I’ve written a piece to that effect some years ago. You can read it here:

    1. Thanks for your link, Taylor. I don’t doubt that the Creed (Nicene) rightly understood can undergird growth in holiness. I suppose I wonder if that means it is necessary or sufficient for that purpose. Is it a useful means of grace or is it a requirement for holiness? My question belies the direction of my thinking on this.

      I believe the Creed is useful and a great gift to the church catholic, but I am wary of finding in it a key to United Methodist unity, which is where this conversation seemed to emerge. It is the symbol of ecumenical unity, but not United Methodist identity. Does that make sense as a statement?

  3. Thanks for these comments. I think you are right, John, when it comes to UM identity: we don’t see it as a way to help us in our unity as church; but I certainly think we need to see ourselves as part of the church catholic, especially in this post-denominational time. if that makes sense. What are cognitive commitments we are teaching when we help folks move toward holiness of heart and life? These are part of our catechesis.

  4. A practical view from the pew: After a life time of reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I came to the point as an adult that I realized I did not truly understand what I was saying “I believed”. Unfortunately hard on the heels of that realization, things went south for me at church and I ended up distancing myself from it. I finally stumbled on the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it that fleshed out the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. Over a space of a few days Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable and “even I” was folded into God’s story of salvation. I was left wondering why nobody had never shared this information before.

    Bottom line is, clergy and theologians tend to over think things when it comes to creeds. Reality is, reciting a creed every Sunday has a practical use for the person in the pew if it is fleshed out elsewhere. It is a very good “jumping off spot”. And, when fleshed out properly, the Apostle’s Creed is very much a Trinitarian creed.

  5. The Nicene Creed sets the boundary between what the Catholics call dogmatic theology and speculative theology. Not only that, its recitation and study form the christian worldview in the christian.

    Imagine Christianity to be a table. If you’re on the table, you are part of the People of God. The Nicene Crede defines the table. Fall off the table, and you put yourself outside the Church, the people of the one true God in time.

    The core disability of United Methodism, what’s left of it, is that all theology is speculative. That’s why the United Methodist Church, in its present configuration, needs to die.

    1. Why do you say all UM theology is speculative? I’d be interested in your further thoughts on this.

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