What Is the Function of Creeds?
To too many the creeds are a dusty vestige of a happily distant past. They were written centuries ago, born out of abstract battles whose players we can’t even name. Isn’t it just better to love each other and not get caught up in all those silly questions?
We are indeed called to love each other. But let’s begin first by asking this question: are the questions wrestled over by the historic creeds silly? Is the deity of Christ an insignificant question? Is it a matter of indifference whether He was a man or not? Is the question of the future resurrection of moment to the Christian faith? Is the question of if Jesus really received the wrath of the Father due to us for our sins not a difference maker in our lives?
The reality is not only that there could not be any more important questions, but that in each case there are people and institutions who claim to be Christians, to be our brothers and sisters in Christ, who deny the deity of Christ, who deny His humanity, who deny the future resurrection, who deny the atonement of Christ for us. The creeds were born out of battles over denials of the faith that are not merely past but are with us now and will likely be with us to the end of the age. We cannot wish heresy away. Putting our head in the sand doesn’t mean it has left us.
Creeds are definitions of what it means to be a Christian. They are fences that, albeit imperfectly, seek to separate sheep from goats. Love too is a mark of the church. Jesus did say that the world would know we are His by our love for each other (John 13:35). But love as He defines it, includes protecting sheep not just from goats but from wolves. Love among the brethren must necessarily include testing to see who is our brother.
Suppose there were a guard outside my house. Suppose Charles Manson shows up and demands entrance. When he’s asked for identification he insists, “Hey man, this is a family affair. I’m family, and it’s wrong of you to try to keep family out. Do you not have any sense of family? If you knew this family you’d know we’re all about love. So stop with all this interrogation and let me in.” The creeds would be a good guard. Firing them from the job doesn’t make Charles Manson a sheep. It makes him well fed upon the souls of the sheep.
But there is more. Even within the body, creeds serve us in these ways. First, they remind us that we didn’t start the fire. They remind us that we have stepped into a stream that precedes us—that our fathers are at this table. It puts us in our context. Second, they teach us of His glory. They are tools by which we can enter into His character, and worship. They are delights, not burdens, radiant windows as well as effective gates. Maybe our fathers were on to something. And maybe we ought to get into them.