I am going to start teaching a class on the Apostle’s Creed this weekend and I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about the relationship of the authority of the creeds to the authority of Scripture. As a Christian, I accept that both have authority for the way I do theology (think and speak about God), but their levels of authority are not perfectly equal. While Scripture is inspired by God, the creeds are not. Yet at the same time the creeds give us the proper parameters for interpreting Scripture.
This claim creates a situation similar to the question of whether the chicken or the egg came first. The conundrum can be stated this way: if Scripture is the primary authority and the creeds are secondary, then they can be revised, if needed, no matter how radically. However, if the creeds provide the parameters for the proper interpretation of scripture, then the creeds are the final authority, not Scripture.
This problem led certain emerging groups in the Reformation, such as the Anabaptists, Quakers, and Baptists, to abandon the early creeds and become “non-creedal” Christians. They decided to avoid this problem altogether and claim the Bible alone was their creed. But since there is an infinite way of interpreting the Bible, there had to be some agreement as to what was necessary for the community to believe, so the creeds were just replaced with statements of faith. But a statement of faith is, basically, a creed. It is a summary of agreement on the main teachings of the faith that members of the community are meant to agree to and uphold.
Yet, even the non-creedal sects of Protestantism are haunted by the ghosts of the creeds’ authority. For example there is nearly universal agreement among non-creedal Christians that the doctrine of the Trinity must be upheld and taught for a sect to be considered authentically Christian. Basically, the orthodoxy that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds established so many centuries ago continues to endure as the standard for what even a non-creedal statement of faith should adhere to. A statement of faith might include things the Creeds do not, such as a position on the inerrancy of Scripture or eschatology, but it still must be Trinitarian and conform to the basic structure of the Creeds. One could say that the creeds still exercise authority over non-creedal groups, subconsciously.
I propose that we understand the creeds’ authority by drawing an analogy to watching a football game. The game is played at a specific point in time, in a specific place. The events of that game can then be written about and described and retold to other people. Most people do not learn the rules of the football game by reading and knowing every detail of the official rulebook, but learn the rules by watching games and playing it. The result is that if someone unfamiliar with football asks how the game is played, the fan can give him a basic overview of the rules and strategy that is agreed upon.
God’s revelation occurred in history, and the game was played. The inspired authors of scripture wrote down and described how the game was played in history, producing the final authority on the game. As early Christians participated in it the game and continued to read what the apostolic witnesses to the game reported, the basic “rules of the game” emerged within the community.
This does not elevate the creeds above the authority of Scripture, because Scripture alone gives us the official report, as it were, about God’s action in history. But, the creeds summarize well enough what the game is all about, so that if someone teaches something that flatly contradicts the agreed upon rules, one can say, “No, you’re playing a different game.”
For example, if I am playing football with friends, and someone asks to join the game and suggests that a basket should be incorporated, or that the concept of a touchdown should be removed, I can tell the person that their suggestion is incompatible with the rules of football. The “official rules” of football and how they can be implemented are summarized and accepted within the community. In the church, if someone brings a teaching that flatly contradicts one of the universally agreed upon rules, such as the doctrine that Jesus is fully divine and human, I can recognize their claim as being incompatible with the game we are playing.
The creeds are authoritative in the sense of providing the basic, set rules of the game. But, this way of understanding their authority allows for a lot of flexibility within the community. While the creeds set up some basic boundaries for the game, the description of the actual game (the Bible) makes it possible for there to be many ways to play it within the bounds of those rules. Just as in any football game, there are many different, yet legitimate ways to play the game, there are ways to practice Christianity that are very different, but fall within the acceptable limits of the game’s rules. The creeds function as the most recognizable boundaries for the game, but the official rulebook of the game (Bible) has the final say.
The creeds are very useful for marking out our faith because they give us the basic rules for how it is to be played out. If we use them well, we avoid error, but we also recognize that there is quite a bit of flexibility in the Christian family. Their authority consists in their ability to adequately summarize the basic markers of the game we are playing called Christianity, though the Bible, the inspired witness to how the game was and ought to be played, maintains ultimate authority.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree?