The Nature and Uses of Religions Creeds

by Francis R. Beattie

Before entering on the formal exposition of the Westminster Standards, which form the creed of the Presbyterian Church, a short chapter explaining the nature and uses of religious creeds may also serve a useful purpose. It is all the more necessary to make some such explanation at the present day, when it is to be observed that from many quarters the cry comes to abolish all definite creeds, and thus give larger liberty of religious thought and action. It is assumed by some who object to religious creeds of any kind that they hamper the spirit of free inquiry, and hinder unbiased research concerning religious problems. Hence they are an evil to be abolished as soon as possible. Such views and claims are doubtless largely the result of misapprehension, so that a simple explanation of the nature and function of religious creeds, or ecclesiastical symbols, may do something to remove this misapprehension, and show that creeds in their proper place are important and useful.

I. The Nature of a Religious Creed.

A creed may be defined as a brief and orderly statement of the system of divine truth contained in the sacred Scriptures. It is the meaning which one or more persons may take of the system of religious truth and life which is found in the Bible. In other words, a creed is that interpretation of the contents of the Scriptures, in relation to life and expenence, to which certain persons may agree as revealed authoritative truth. The creed thus becomes an expression of religious belief and life based on the Bible. From this point of view a creed is a confession of faith, which means that acceptance of, and submission to, the creed is confessed. A creed and a confession are really the same thing from different points of view. The more technical term applied to a creed or confession is symbol. This term first denotes a sign or mark. It next means a signal or watchword. Then in its religious sense it signifies a Christian creed or confession of faith. As such it is that summary of religious truth which is set forth as the official doctrinal statement of belief and practice by any branch of the Christian church. The word symbol thus becomes a third term to denote the same thing. The word catechism is also used in this connection, and in many cases catechisms are regarded as creeds or confessions. This is the case with the Presbyterian and some of the Reformed confessions. A catechism is a summary of religious truth used for purposes of religious instruction. Where catechisms are regarded as parts of the creed they may be defined as creeds framed by question and answer, and so fitted for use in catechetical instruction. The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms are of this nature, and as they form part of the standards of Presbyterianism, they must have a proper place in this exposition.

A very important question which arises in connection with the subject of creeds is that of their relation to the Scriptures. As it is at this point that much of the misunderstanding concerning creeds and confessions has arisen, it may be well to explain this relation with some care. First of all, let it be distinctly understood that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be regarded as the infallible rule of faith and life. It alone sets forth a revelation from God which is distinctly inspired, and hence of infallible truth and divine authority. The supreme standard in religion, therefore, is holy Scripture. The Scriptures are the standards in the highest sense, and to them the appeal must always be made. This position is held as firmly by those who have a formal written creed as it is by those who profess to have no other religious standard than the Bible. The divine creed is the Bible, and the ecclesiastical creed is the church’s interpretation of this divine creed. Such being the case, the creed is derived from, depends on, and is subordinate to, the Bible. The creed, therefore, cannot take the place of the Bible, much less can it be put above the Scriptures. The Scriptures, as the inspired word of God, rightly sit upon the throne in all matters pertaining to religious belief, conduct and worship. They cannot abdicate in favor of, nor be supplanted by, any summary of their contents, no matter how true and complete it may be. The Bible is the fixed, unchanging and infallible rule, while the creed may be regarded as the secondary, subordinate, temporary standard of faith and life. Nor is the latter to be divorced from the former, for the creed derives its meaning and value only from the Scriptures, whose contents it professes to exhibit. Hence, the true view of the relation of the creed to the Bible may be expressed by the phrase, the Scriptures as interpreted by the standards. The Bible is the infallible rule, the creed is the accepted interpretation of that rule in systematic form. Thus the real standard is not the creed in itself considered, but the Scriptures as interpreted by the creed. If this intimate relation and dependence of the creed upon the Bible be kept clearly in mind, some confusion, and perhaps some mistakes, would be avoided.

It may be well to add, that while the creed in the sense above explained is taken to be a written creed, yet the same thing is virtually true of an unwritten creed. This fact is often overlooked, and the objection to a written creed sometimes comes from those who have a very definite and sometimes a rather narrow creed, though unwritten. The creed, as we have seen, is the meaning of the Scriptures accepted by any body of Christians, and it may be written or unwritten. The fact that it is written does not alter the case, for the unwritten creed may be as well defined and as firmly held as any written confession can be. It is well understood that some honored branches of the church have no written creed, but profess to take the Bible pure and simple as their standard. This claim sounds well, and it certainly gives the Bible the place of honor which it deserves. But a little reflection will show that some of these churches do not honor the Scriptures any more than those which have written creeds in the sense explained; and some of those churches which have no written creed, but rest upon the Bible alone, have an unwritten creed which is just as rigid as any written creed can possibly be. This is evident from the fact that when a minister seeks ordination in such a church, he must accept its credal interpretation of the doctrines, of the ordinances, and of the polity which it understands the Scriptures to teach. This is further seen to be the case also in the fact that in such branches of the church which have no written creed, the conditions of membership are much more rigid than in the Presbyterian Church, with its elaborate written one. It is clear, therefore, that an unwritten creed is exposed to all the objections which lie against one that is written, and at the same time the latter has many advantages over the former, as will be shown later on in this chapter.

Another important question naturally arises from the inquiry concerning the permanency of a creed. Can a creed once accepted be amended? The answer to this question appears from what has just been said about the relation of the creed to the Bible. From the view already taken of that relation, it is clear that the way is open for the church at any time, in accordance with her own chosen methods, to revise or modify her credal interpretation of the Scriptures. She dare not undertake to revise or amend the Scriptures, although even here room must be left for the textual critic to provide us with as correct a text of the Scriptures as it is possible to obtain, and for the legitimate work of the higher critic to shed what light he can upon the origin and structure of the Bible. Leaving a place for the proper work of the textual and the higher critic, the position is still maintained that the church has no right to revise her divine religious standard, which is holy Scripture. But the church may revise her credal interpretation of the Scriptures. In other words, creed revision is not to be denied as a right pertaining to the church. But such creed revision must be in accordance with the Scriptures themselves, and in order to set forth their meaning more clearly and completely. No other reason than this exists for creed revision. The reason sometimes given, to the effect that the church should revise her creed in order to bring it into harmony with the life and the thought of the church in a new age is not valid, unless it can also be shown that the creed is not in harmony with the Scriptures. In any case the need for creed revision should be really urgent before it is undertaken. Recent attempts in regard to the Westminster Standards cannot be regarded as successful. The aim of such revision, if undertaken, should be to express more clearly and fully the teachings of Scripture, rather than to bring the creed into harmony with the thought and life of the church. The thought and life of the church is to be determined by the Scriptures, as the rule and norm thereof, and by the Holy Spirit, who applies the truth to the members of the church from age to age. Thus the creed, as the interpretation of the Scriptures, becomes the norm of the life of the church under the tuition of the Holy Spirit. But the creed can never, in the first instance, consist in an interpretation of the life of the church, however clearly that life may in turn reflect the contents of the Scriptures as interpreted in the Standards.

As to the proper length of a creed as an interpretation of the Scriptures, opinions will differ. Some think that a very short and simple creed best suits the purpose. Others prefer a much more extended creed or confession of faith. Here, of course, each church must decide for itself. It may be admitted that there are some things in favor of a short and simple creed, and at the same time be maintained that a compact and complete statement of religious truth, especially for the purpose of doctrinal instruction, may have many advantages. It may be said that some things might be omitted from the Westminster Standards without affecting the substance of their doctrine; still, the strong and complete outline of doctrine, and the clear and logical form in which it is presented in these historic Standards, have no doubt had much to do with making Presbyterians what they are the world over, as an intellectual and moral force. If the doctrinal area covered by the creed statement of any church be narrow, the danger of a decrease in intelligence and moral power will surely threaten that church. Hence a comprehensive creed has some important advantages which exhort to hesitation before the demand for a short creed is acceded to. If a shorter creed would comprehend a greater number of Christians in one fold, it might fail to secure those clear and definite views in regard to religious truth which are found so necessary to give it strong vitality, and to make it a real and lasting power. What was gained in extension might be lost in intension.

II. The Uses of Religious Creeds.

In what remains of this chapter some of the chief uses of religious creeds will be indicated. From what has been said concerning the nature or function of religious creeds, it was hinted that creeds, confessions, and catechisms are valuable and useful. This hint must now be expanded, and it is hoped that the explanations now to be made shall elicit greater interest in the exposition of the Westminster Standards which the next chapter begins. Under four heads the main uses of creeds and confessions may be summed up.

In the first place, a creed provides a well-defined bond of union as to doctrine, rite, and polity for those who belong to any branch of the church. The creed thus forms an intelligent basis for all those who are associated in any one Christian communion. Especially does it secure a definite system to which all the office-bearers of any branch of the church profess agreement. Without some such common basis or bond it would be almost impossible to secure general harmony of opinion and action. The Bible is such an extensive book that the task of each one for himself would be too great, and the prospect of harmony would be exceedingly small. Then, without a written creed it would be very difficult to examine any one who presented himself as a candidate for the ministry. But with a definite written creed the examination becomes comparatively easy, and can be intelligently attended to, both by the church court and the candidate. So, when a man takes upon himself the solemn vows of ordination, both he and they who ordain him have a definite system of religious truth to which it is understood that the vow relates. The Scriptures as interpreted by the Standards, the Standards as founded on and agreeable to the word of God, become the form according to which the ordination vow is presented. This affords a common systematic interpretation of the contents of the Scriptures, to which the office-bearers are committed, and which produces a given type of life and teaching in any church communion.

Here it may be well to add that the subscription to the creed in the Presbyterian Church is required only from the office-bearers. For membership in this church, all that is required is an intelligent and credible profession of faith in Christ, and a sincere promise to obey and serve him in life. This fact is not always understood by Presbyterians themselves, and many in other communions are not even aware of this fact. Of course, those who become members in the Presbyterian church may expect to receive the teaching of those who have accepted the doctrine of the Confession and Catechisms, but even then their private judgment is in no way denied an opportunity for exercise. But for the officers of the church, the Standards are of the very highest value in providing a compact and comprehensive outline of Scripture truth which they are to maintain, promulgate and defend.

In the second place, a creed is of much value in enabling the church to deal in a satisfactory way with cases of heresy. The church which has no written creed apart from the Scriptures is at a disadvantage in such cases. It has no generally accepted statement, in written form, of the meaning it takes of the Scriptures, by which to test the truth or error of any opinions which may be alleged to be heretical. The written creed supplies as fully as possible just such a test. Moreover, it is also the test to which the accused party gave his assent at some earlier time. By this once-accepted test, which is still binding upon him, the views of the accused are to be judged. This test is not the creed, apart altogether from the Scriptures, but the Scriptures as interpreted in the creed.

At this point objection is sometimes made to the effect that this view virtually puts the creed above the Bible, and renders an appeal to the Bible impossible in the case; but this is not so, for the appeal is to the Scriptures, as their meaning is expressed in the Standards, so that the appeal is as directly to the Bible as it can be, even where there is no written creed. If at any time it should appear that the creed does not correctly express the meaning of the Bible, then there is a proper and regular way, by means of the revision already spoken of, to bring them into harmony; but when a case of trial for heresy is actually entered on, it does not lie in the power of the accused to make the objection alluded to, for the reason that the creed represents the doctrine of the church to which he belongs, and which doctrine he himself had accepted. This does not imply that creed revision is inadmissible; it simply means that a trial for heresy is not the proper way or time to revise the creed. As has been stated, the church may at any proper time seek to bring her creed into closer harmony with the Scriptures, but the party accused of heresy is not the one to plead for this revision, when he is placed on trial by the church for his views. He is to be fairly tried according to the creed interpretation of the Scriptures to which he had subscribed, under which he had been serving the church, and which for the time being is the church’s view of the Scriptures. The accused is judged by the Scriptures as interpreted in the creed, and the church, not the individual, is the party to give the final decision as to whether any controverted views are in harmony or not with the meaning of the Scriptures set forth in the creed. There can surely be no injustice in this.

But, further, if any office-bearer of the church finds that his views are not in accord with those taught in the Standards, he may withdraw from the church, and hold and even teach his views elsewhere. His remaining in the church is a voluntary matter, and the church simply protects herself when she says that if a man wishes to remain in the church he must conform to the opinions and practices of the church. Nor can there be injustice or hardship in this connection.

In the third place, a creed serves to exhibit to other branches of the church the views of doctrine, polity, discipline, ritual and worship held or observed by any particular branch of it. The Westminster Standards are very valuable in this respect. Those who are in communion with other churches may learn from these Standards what the Presbyterian Church believes and teaches. By this means misconception can be avoided. In regard to those branches of the church which have no written creed, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain any clear knowledge of the concensus of teaching in those churches. The result of this is lack of definiteness and loss of force.

Now, while dead uniformity is a thing not to be desired, and is not here advocated, still a definite written creed may combine that degree of uniformity and flexibility which shall produce the best results. For those within the church there is unity and flexibility, and for those without the church there is a full exhibit of the teaching of the church, so that all who read may understand. If, as is sometimes the case, the Presbyterian Church is charged with holding views which it does not, then it is easy to show that the charge is unfounded, by a reference to the Standards. Thus it appears that the idea of a well-ordered doctrinal system, of a fully-organized form of government, and of a high ideal of life, such as is usually associated with the Presbyterian church, is of great use in showing to other churches what the Presbyterian Church believes and teaches. In like manner this is true of all those churches which have a definite written creed, and live in conformity with it.

In the fourth place, one of the most practical uses of a creed remains to be considered, and with a brief notice of it this chapter concludes. The creed, confession, or catechism always provides a valuable compend of Christian doctrine for religious instruction. A good catechism is of immense use for the instruction of the young, and for the indoctrination of those in more advanced years. It is in this connection that catechisms, which are merely creeds in catechetical form, have value. As a mere confession of faith, a creed may be the best form in which to have the Standards stated in, but even a creed is a very useful instrument of instruction. But catechisms like the Shorter Catechism are of the utmost value for this important purpose. Churches which have no doctrinal symbols, or catechetical creeds, find difficulty in this connection. They have not a form of sound words in which to sum up the teaching of Scripture regarding the doctrines and duties of our holy religion. It behooves the Presbyterian Church not to neglect her duty and privilege in this respect, with such excellent instruments of instruction in her hands. She should diligently instruct her children and young people especially, and not neglect to teach constantly those in more advanced years. It is only by doing so that the people will grow to be strong, intelligent, and robust Christians, able to give a reason for the hope that is in them, and qualified to adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour in all things.

These are some of the main uses of creeds and confessions in general, and of the Presbyterian Standards in particular. Other minor uses might have been mentioned and enforced, but what has been said may suffice to give the reader some idea of the value of creeds, and perhaps remove some of the prejudice which not a few sincere persons have in regard to creeds of any kind except the Bible. In the next chapter the formal exposition of the Standards of the Presbyterian Church, which consist of the Catechisms and Confession will be begun.


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