The historic creeds of the Christian church have always served a vital role, but I would argue we need them now more than ever. Modern-day evangelical Christianity is facing a crisis of identity, and if we are to survive, creeds and confessions must play a central part.
I recognize there can be some suspicion towards anything written outside of Scripture as being “man-made” and therefore irrelevant, as all orthodox Christians look to the Bible alone as the supreme authority. However, no orthodox creed or confession claims to hold authority over Scripture, but a summary of the very truths that are proclaimed in Scripture. In this sense, a creed serves as a public conversation or consensus of what the Scriptures teach. And this is of particular importance for our present culture that emphasizes individualism and subjective experience.
(1) We tend to read and interpret Scripture in isolation, elevating our private insights and applications.
While Christianity is most definitely personal, it is not private, and one aspect of this reality is seen in how we study and apply the Scriptures.
If we agree with Scripture that we are finite creatures, ruined by sin, we would also have to admit that our ability to reason, interpret, and apply could also be mistaken. Therefore, a creed or confession exists as a public conversation that has been worked out and confessed by numerous Christians over hundreds of years.
In this way, a creed guards against relying upon our individualized theological statements, and brings us into a broader circle of truths confessed by a multitude of Christians. This public agreement is not only significant in breadth, as in the number of Christians that affirm them, but also in length, as it reaches back to previous generations. This sort of breadth and depth pushes against our cultural blindspots or mistaken assumptions.
So, creeds serve to unite Christians across varied cultures and centuries as they affirm these to be faithful summaries of Scripture. This practice is far more trustworthy than a private insight among a particular person immersed in their modern subculture.
(2) Our proclivity towards elevating private experience as the validation for the truthfulness of Christianity.
Creeds remind us that Christianity is first and foremost historical.
This might sound strange to our post-modern ears, but it is of utmost importance. The message of the gospel is that God did for us what we could not do for ourselves by sending Christ to redeem us from our sins and reconcile us to himself. This act of redemption was accomplished upon a real cross, under the oversight of a real governor (Pontius Pilate) in an actual point in time.
The experience of Christian new birth and life in Christ is real, not because I feel it, but because it is true. This is why the Apostles Creed lines out, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Here is why this matters: in our post-modern, experience-driven culture, Christians can often try and evangelize or convince non-Christians of their faith based on their personal experience. But if we are trying to convert people to our particular experience, we are, in essence, arguing for our favorite color or flavor of ice cream. “Who are you to say that chocolate chip is better than my favorite, Rocky Road? How arrogant of you! How can you dismiss my experience as invalid?”
Rather than debating subjective experience, the Christian faith is first and foremost truth, which most definitely creates the most important experience ever—communion with the triune God.
(3) Our present culture is dismissive and even antagonistic towards Christian faith and practice.
We live in a post-Christian culture where the practices and assumptions of Christianity are no longer shared or validated by the greater culture.
The overlap of belief and practice between the church and culture is shrinking at breakneck speed, and in most regions, they are increasingly opposed. Therefore, Christians cannot expect that upon leaving the church gathering, the particular language, teachings, or Scriptural principals will be reinforced even permitted in the surrounding culture.
Christianity is now a cultural minority, and minorities must work to preserve and pass on their beliefs and practices to future generations if they are to survive. Creeds (and especially catechisms on this point) serve a vital role in distilling the essential elements of the Christian faith into bite-sized summaries that are intended to be memorized and handed down to new believers and younger children.
In this way, creeds serve as an accessible teaching method to instruct and affirm the faith of present and future generations.
The Means Not the End
Above all, creeds serve as a means to the end, as they are not the end itself. The end of the matter is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Our understanding of how this can be done and must be done is ultimately through the Scriptures. Creeds must never replace Scripture, but creeds most certainly play a role in helping us define, summarize, and teach what the Scriptures say. For these reasons, the modern-day church would be well served by looking to, adhering, and teaching from the historic creeds of our Christian heritage.