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David preaching to congregation

Notes from Pastor David

Why We Have Creeds

February 19th, 2023

I concluded my previous note with questions about the need for confessions and creeds. Why do we need a creed or a confession of faith, when we have the Bible, which is God’s inspired and inerrant Word? Does the use of creeds and confessions undermine the sufficiency and authority of Scripture?

Irenaeus of Lyons considered these questions in the second century. At the time, there were Gnostic Christians who confessed, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) but what they meant by that confession denied what Scripture affirmed. They denied that the Lord Jesus was incarnate, that he suffered and died in our place for our sin, and that he was raised in the flesh on the third day. They said they believed in the resurrection, but for them resurrection meant spiritual enlightenment and liberation from the body.

Both true believers and Gnostics were confessing the lordship of Christ and his resurrection, but the Gnostics denied what Scripture affirmed about the lordship of Christ and his resurrection. In response to the Gnostics, the church had a confession of faith that affirmed what Scripture revealed and taught about God. Irenaeus reminds his readers of this confession in his book against the Gnostics:

"The church, dispersed throughout the world to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets predicted the dispensations of God: the advent, the birth from the Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension of the beloved Jesus Christ our Lord in the flesh into the heavens, and his coming from the heavens in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things and raise up all flesh of the human race." (Against Heresies I.10.1)

This confession is simply a summary of the what the Bible declares about the Triune God, creation, and redemption.

In the second century, Christians called this confession “the rule of faith.” The rule of faith functions like a ruler. We use a ruler to measure and draw straight lines. Likewise, various ideas, truth claims, and interpretations of Scripture can be measured by the rule of faith and can be proven straight (or crooked) by their alignment with the rule of faith. 

The rule of faith helped Christians recognize false teaching. Irenaeus writes that the Gnostics tried to prove their doctrine by “changing the interpretations and twisting the exegesis” of Scripture (Against Heresies I.3.6). He uses an analogy to illustrate this twisting exegesis. He compares Scripture to a mosaic portrait of a king. Looking at isolated passages of Scripture is like looking at individual stones or tiles in a mosaic. When you step back, you see that there’s a logic and an ordering to the stones, which together presents the portrait of the king. The rule of faith (or creed) is analogous to the image of the king. It’s the picture we see when we look at the Bible as a whole. 

The Gnostics had taken the various stones of the mosaic and rearranged them, producing the image of a dog or a fox. They quoted the Bible, but they twisted it to present their own false doctrine. Irenaeus warns that false teachers “contradict the order and the continuity of the Scriptures” (Against Heresies I.8.1).

There’s an order and continuity in the Scriptures, which provides the basic structure and content of biblical doctrine. Creeds follow the order and continuity of Scripture and present a basic outline of biblical doctrine.

The Nicene Creed is a fourth-century version of the rule of faith, which provides the basic outline of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. It is the portrait of the king. If someone uses Scripture to present a different portrait, we’ll know it’s false.

Creeds and confessions don’t undermine the sufficiency, inerrancy, and authority of God’s Word. On the contrary, they acknowledge and affirm God’s Word. The Nicene Creed follows the order and continuity of the Scriptures and gives us the basic structure and content of biblical doctrine.