Unpacking “No Creed but the Bible”

This article is part of the Unpacking Culture series in which we examine a well-known axiom and weigh any true or positive aspects of it against any negative or misleading connotations of the phrase.

An Important Truth

Many Christians from non-denominational evangelical backgrounds may well have heard the phrase “no creed but the Bible” at some point. Perhaps a pastor has used it while preaching or somebody has used it at a Bible study or in conversation about what Christians are supposed to believe. As a statement it is concise and clear. But the key question is, Is it a faithful and useful principle for guiding how we as Christians think about Christian truth and authority?

Before offering some criticism of how the principle of “no creed but the Bible” is sometimes used, it is first useful to understand what important truth those who use it are rightly trying to protect. That truth is the unique authority and sufficiency of the Bible as the source and criterion for Christian doctrine. This scriptural principle is something that is rooted in the Reformation when the Protestant Reformers asserted that many of the claims of the medieval church—for example, purgatory, indulgences, and the elaborate theory of transubstantiation—not only lacked warrant in Scripture but were arguably inconsistent with scriptural teaching. They were inventions or speculations of a church that claimed access to a tradition of Christian truth that was independent of the biblical revelation.

Crisis of Confidence

Carl R. Trueman

Carl Trueman explains the importance of creeds and confessions today, including how they help churches navigate the modern culture of expressive individualism.

Against this background, “no creed but the Bible” highlights an important truth: the Bible provides the content of Christian doctrine and the principles for judging whether a doctrinal claim is true or not. Is justification by faith? Yes, for Paul teaches that in Romans. Can someone buy God’s favor through the purchase of an indulgence? No. Not only does the Bible never teach that, it teaches against it, as in the case of Simon the Magician in Acts 8. The desire to protect scriptural sufficiency is therefore something to be commended.

But does this mean that creeds and confessions—statements of faith that summarize biblical teaching—are problematic and should have no place in the church? Does the use of a creed or confession necessarily mean that the unique authority of Scripture has been compromised? Not at all. And it is important to understand why.

First, we all need to acknowledge that no Christian has no creed but the Bible in a comprehensive and exhaustive sense. To understand why, one need only reflect on the fact that nobody simply believes the Bible. All Christians, from the greatest biblical scholar to the humblest new believer, believe the Bible means something. We know this because no preacher merely reads the Bible from the pulpit. He expounds it and applies it to the congregation. And no Christian witnessing to friends or neighbors simply gives them the Bible; they also offer to explain to them how the Bible should be understood. And what we think the Bible means is our creed and confession, whether we write it down or not.

How Creeds Relate to Scripture

Once we acknowledge this basic truth, the real question is not whether creeds and confessions are good things. Rather, the question is whether the creed or confession we have is one that reflects the teaching of the Bible or not. And this is where it is useful to understand how creeds and confessions relate to Scripture. They do not stand prior to Scripture, as a framework that has ultimate authority over what the Bible means. Nor are they a separate stream of divine revelation that stand alone and on their own authority. They are summaries of biblical teaching and thus, in theory at least, corrigible in light of Scripture’s teaching.

Systematic theology has a pair of terms to capture this relationship between Scripture and confessions. It calls the former the norming norm and the latter the normed norm. The former protects the good that “no creed but the Bible” represents: the unique and ultimate authority of the Bible in formulating Christian teaching and judging the truth of any doctrinal formula. The latter, though, points to an important practical reality: churches (and individual Christians) do in practice operate by stating Christian doctrines without always feeling the need to quote all the relevant Bible texts or offer an elaborate account of how, say, the doctrine of the Trinity is drawn from Scripture. In short, one purpose of confessions is to provide a “form of sound words,” to borrow Paul’s phrase, that sets forth, in brief, important biblical truth.

Does the use of a creed or confession necessarily mean that the unique authority of Scripture has been compromised? Not at all.

The best scenario for Christians, therefore, is to acknowledge that all of us have creeds and confessions—all of us think the Bible means something and that its teaching can be formulated in a manner that is concise and summarizes the Bible’s position on a whole variety if important. But we should not stop there. We move from such an acknowledgment to look to the great creeds and confessions of the church to see what “forms of sound words” have been useful throughout history to keep the church faithful to the gospel message. Time is no guarantee of truth, but if a creed—say, the Apostles’ or the Nicene—has served the church for over 1,500 years, that says something about the consistency of its content with what the Bible says. Of course, a church today can produce its own statement of faith. But why reinvent the wheel when tried and tested creeds and confessions already exist?

Further, the adoption by a church of a historic creed or confession has added benefits. It is a reminder to the congregation that the gospel is not reinvented every Sunday. It also presses each Christian to identify with other brothers and sisters both across the globe today and down through the ages. The Presbyterian who affirms the Westminster Confession and the Anglican who affirms the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Lutheran who affirms the Book of Concord is also identifying with great and extensive Christian traditions and being thereby reminded that they are part of a much bigger story.

There are many other benefits—doctrinal, ecclesiastical and doxological—which creeds and confessions offer to today’s Christians and to the modern church, but I hope that the above is enough to whet your appetite for more. All concerned with the transmission of the faith from generation to generation and from place to place will find these great documents to be an immeasurable help.

Carl R. Trueman is the author of Crisis of Confidence: Reclaiming the Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity.

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