It sounds so heartening when you first hear it: “No creed but the Bible.” You’re a young Christian, you love the Bible, and you’re eager to be around people who share your passion for the Word. But as time goes on, you realize there are some problems with this seemingly innocent sentence. “No creed but the Bible” actually functions as a governing theological statement that norms all others. In a dazzling burst of irony, “No creed but the Bible” fails its own test, because it is a creed.
Then you study a little evangelical history. You realize as you read up on the 20th-century controversies between evangelicals and Protestant liberals that “No creed but the Bible” was used over and over to steer churches away from sound doctrine. When seminaries and colleges hired professors who taught liberal ideas, evangelicals in the Northern Baptist movement—for one example—tried valiantly to lash their movement to a confession of faith in the 1920s. The motion failed. Why? “No creed but the Bible” won the day.
Today the Northern Baptists are a shell of what they were; they’ve been gutted by theological liberalism. Their schools are in many cases out of business; members have departed in huge numbers over the decades. This isn’t a strange outcome for the “No creed” movement. This is the same song, thousandth stanza. Unsound doctrine kills.
There is no text like Scripture. The Word of God is theopneustos, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Its holy origin speaks to its holy character. As the reformers understood, Scripture alone—sola scriptura—has authority to norm the doctrine of God’s people. Old and New Testament together bear nothing less than divine weight, teaching us the ways and will of God. No other source, authority, or voice comes close to the authoritative power of the Bible, which alone reveals Christ the alpha and omega (Rev. 22:13).
From the earliest days of the early church, Christians have been a Scripture people. Yet as unsound teaching arose millennia ago, church leaders recognized the need to standardize gospel doctrine to separate false teachers from true teachers. Tertullian promoted the “rule of faith,” a summary of core Christian truth. The apostles’ creed and four ecumenical creeds continued this standardizing work, helping the church distinguish false Christology and counterfeit Trinitarianism from the biblical Christ and the biblical Trinity.
In the era of the Protestant Reformation, the recovery of scriptural soteriology and ecclesiology fueled the rise of confessional groups. The English and American Baptists, for example, produced no less than three hefty confessions to guide and protect their churches (London 1644 and 1689, Philadelphia 1742). The Reformed movement looked to the rock-ribbed Westminster Confession of Faith. Believers from past generations didn’t think these foundational documents normed the Word of God; they did believe these statements “confessed” the core teaching of the Scripture, and did so with particular reference to areas where the faith might suffer attack.
The strangest thing happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however. With the rise of liberal theology, different groups moved away from doctrinal standards. “No creed but the Bible” gained popularity in this age, as noted. It sounded so good: The person using this phrase valued the Word so highly that the Bible alone functioned as their confession. Their theology was so pure, so untouched by human opinions, so unsullied by human interpretation, that it couldn’t be reduced to a few hundred words on a sheet of paper. But in truth their theology was far from pure. The same theologians and pastors who deployed this statement to shut down debate were in fact revising the traditional doctrine of the Word. The Bible that supposedly was their “creed” was errant. Biblical authors weren’t fully trustworthy. Once the doctrine of inerrancy is denied, other doctrines necessarily follow. So it was among the Protestant liberals, as Jeff Straub and Greg Wills have shown.
Biblical Creeds Give Life
Liberal theology steers clear of “systematic” theology, seeing it as manmade. But in doing so, liberal theology steers clear of apostolic teaching. When Paul speaks of the “deposit” of gospel teaching, for example, he’s referencing a standard, a proper conception of the message of Christ (2 Tim. 1:13–14). When he speaks of “another Jesus” that unsound teachers preach, he’s referencing the need for a right understanding of Jesus—a normative understanding (2 Cor. 11:4). When Peter tells us that false prophets “promise freedom,” he is communicating the need to distinguish between the truth and a lie (2 Pet. 2:19). Confessions and creeds help the church heed these apostolic mandates (and many others we could mention).
“No creed but the Bible” doesn’t even meet the Bible’s own doctrinal expectation. The apostles not only allow believers to systematize their doctrine—they demand the church do so. This isn’t because they wish to squelch joy. It’s because they want believers to know the truth, believe the truth, love the truth, and be set free by the truth (in fulfillment of John 8:32). They don’t want precious souls drawn off by wolves. They want men and women to flourish in Christ, and to be presented spotless on the last day (Phil. 2:15). Doctrine doesn’t get in the way of this lofty end; doctrine is the gateway to it. Unsound doctrine kills; sound doctrine gives life.
‘No creed but the Bible’ doesn’t even meet the Bible’s own doctrinal expectation.
“No creed but the Bible” may be used by some good-hearted, God-loving people. But all too often, schools and churches that embrace this creed end up teaching unbiblical ideas: annihilationism, inclusivism, biblical errancy, the denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the acceptability of homosexuality and cross-gender identity, the denial of a wrath-bearing substitutionary atonement, and more. These same schools and churches seem to speak softly, but their classrooms and pulpits conceal thunder. They foment unbelief. They reverence doubt. However well-meaning, they turn the hearts of the people away from God and his righteousness.
But not only this: They carry a big stick. They fiercely police their boundaries. They expel sound voices. They say they love tolerance and debate, but often act intolerantly to shut it down. They do all this, in many cases, quietly. They network and speak with exceeding shrewdness in public before evangelical parents, assuring them of their fidelity to God’s Word. But behind the scenes, many are enacting revolution, starting fights over truths once cherished and plotting the victory of a new creed and an altered Christianity. But not only altered—for, as J. Gresham Machen prophetically said, this Christianity rapidly ends up no Christianity at all.
Let’s do better than “no creed but the Bible.” Let’s not fall prey to the old traps. Let’s raise up churches full of believers who search the Spirit-inspired Scriptures with affections entranced by the majesty of God and the mercy of Christ. Let’s stop serving up soft targets to unsound teachers. If our churches and institutions have strayed into falsehood, let’s take them back.
Let’s not send our beloved sons and daughters to colleges, universities, and seminaries as lambs to the theological slaughter. Let’s send them, with love and prayers, to be instructed in the most holy faith so that they trust the Bible and esteem the creeds and confessions that witness to the Bible.