What to Do with Creeds and Councils?

The church—be it Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—has long debated the role of creeds and councils without reaching full consensus. Evangelicals care about sound doctrine, and we would be wrong to think it didn’t exist until the Reformation. So what’s an appropriate emphasis on creeds and councils for evangelicals in particular? What authority should they have in our life and doctrine?

Follow Me as I Follow Christ

In his first letter to the Corinthians, after exhorting them to do all things for the glory of God (10:23-33), Paul sets himself apart as an example when he says, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Notice, though, he doesn’t set himself apart as a perfect guide. He has a very important qualification: “as I follow Christ.” In other words, Paul wants his readers to recognize where Paul’s life is that of Christ’s (I would say, where it is biblical) and therefore follow him in that way. This is an easy paradigm to remember how Protestants have thought about creeds and councils: follow the creeds and councils as they follow the Bible.

Bruce Demarest, in an older Themelios article, “The Contemporary Relevance of Christendom’s Creeds” (by the way, you can look through our entire archives of Themelios, all the way back to 1975) makes the same point rather well:

[T]he creed is not only a rule; it is also a rule that is ruled. As human formulations the creeds are subordinate to Scripture, the supreme rule of faith and practice. However majestic its language, however moving its assertions, however closely it purports to approximate apostolic doctrine, the creed is a human and therefore potentially fallible document. Ultimately the creeds must be checked and ruled by the Word of God. Christendom’s creeds are worthy of honour to the degree that they accord with the teaching of the Word of God.

What Kind of Authority

Since we’ve concluded that the creeds and councils don’t have ultimate authority, which is ascribed only to Scripture, do they have any authority at all? There’s a cavalier spirit in evangelicals that is quick to say, No! But that’s a tough line to plow since our evangelical understanding of the gospel is built upon the orthodox formulations of the creeds and councils. Even the most rogue, “no-creed-but-the-Bible” evangelical still uses words like orthodox and heresy. These aren’t biblical words, so to speak, but Christian words that depend upon some sort of agreement as to what our spiritual ancestors have claimed to be good and right beliefs and what is damnable, according to the Bible.

So for Protestants, creeds and councils are viewed as norma normata, which is a fancy Latin phrase for “a rule that is ruled.” Creeds and councils are rules ruled by Scripture. But note, that it is still a rule. Again, Demarest gives some explanation:

Note in the first place that the creed is a rule. If we desist from divinizing the creed, neither do we depreciate its intrinsic worth and relevance. We acknowledge that the creeds reflect the overwhelming faith-consciousness of the early church. . . . The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds, and the Athanasian Creed affirm those core truths of the gospel embraced by the church from the beginning.

Some may smirk at Demarest’s statement that “the creeds reflect the overwhelming faith-consciousness of the early church,” as if it’s an overstatement. But, conspiracy theories aside, it’s a difficult argument to disprove, seeing the three major corners of the Christian world (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox) judge the councils—aside from a filioque clause here and there—as authoritative rules of doctrine.

So the question, then, is this: If the creeds and councils are less authoritative than the Bible, but more authoritative than, say, me, what about compared to my pastor or, even, someone like John Calvin?

Oliver Crisp has a quick and helpful explanation in a dense and difficult book on “weighting authority.” His hierarchy looks this way:

  1. Holy Scripture—It is normative for all matters of faith and practice.
  2. Creeds and confessions—They are authoritative but derivative and dependent on Scripture.
  3. Christian theologians—While individual theologians can be authoritative and have an enduring significance, they can only offer a perspective or represent a school of thought. On the other hand, creeds and confessions offer a “collective” conclusion of what the universal church believes as it relates to biblical doctrine.

So evangelicals who stand on the full authority of the Bible and hold to God’s providence and faithful presence with his church should take seriously the creeds and councils. Our impulse should be to assume their truthfulness as we continue to test their biblical fidelity. If this generation takes seriously its value of community, then we won’t neglect this great community of saints spanning 2,000 years.