On Thursday, August 6, 1801, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people gathered around the Cane Ridge Meetinghouse in Bourbon County, Kentucky, for a week-long “camp meeting” that would become the seminal event of the “Great Revival.” Ministers from several denominations preached and led singing around stumps and in meadows over consecutive days, and hundreds of people professed faith in Christ. Churches in Kentucky swelled over the next several years as similar revivals spread across the United States.
With revival excitement in the air, many wondered if Christ was nearing his return. Because people were responding to preaching that emphasized the simple gospel message, many were ready to deemphasize historical Christian doctrine altogether. Doctrinal distinctions were seen as divisive. A new slogan emerged that celebrated the individual’s ability to read and interpret his or her own Bible individually: “No creed but the Bible.” Real unity seemed within reach.
That sense of unity, however, was short-lived. From the spirit of no-creed-but-the-Bible, countless sects and denominations arose as charismatic leaders drew followers behind their own unique interpretations of Scripture. Out of the Great Revival, a free-for-all emerged, and American religious culture became more splintered than ever. The revival’s anti-creedalism led not to unity, but to its opposite, as individual Christians became creeds unto themselves.
The historic creeds and confessions of the church were replaced by new unwritten creeds of individual Christians often making it up as they went along. Rejecting the form of the faith handed down and preserved through generations, individual experience increasingly became the authoritative guide for articulating the Christian faith and interpreting the Bible.
We are living today in the shadow of that movement. Creeds and confessions seem like ancient relics from distant ages. Looking back for wisdom and guidance is not valued in the digital age where everything new competes for our attention and immediate gratification is promised. Any practice that constrains the will of the autonomous individual is frowned upon. Even among Christians, living faithfully within a tradition often seems like some kind of violation of the authentic self.
But I believe we need creeds and confessions today more than ever, and I want to share four brief reasons why.
First, everyone already has a creed. As great as it sounds, there’s no such thing as, “No creed but the Bible.” All of us bring assumptions to the Bible that guide our interpretation of it even if those assumptions are not written down. A creed or confession is simply a community’s summary of what they believe the Bible teaches on the most fundamental Christian doctrines. Creeds and confessions never replace the Bible, but they root us in a specific time-tested interpretive tradition of the Bible. As the Baptist theologian and pastor Andrew Fuller wrote, “The man who has no creed has no belief.”
Second, creeds and confessions preserve truth. Immediately after the age of the apostles and the conclusion of the writings that would become the New Testament, new heresies sprung up. Some taught that everything physical was evil and denied that Christ was really human. He only appeared to be so, they claimed. Within a few generations, orthodox Christians were gathering to clarify what the Bible taught in response to these false teachings. They realized that these doctrinal errors would wreak havoc in the church, and they responded with brilliant creeds we continue to use today. These creeds have helped us preserve the truth for two thousand years and counting.
Third, creeds and confessions keep us anchored in truth through changing historical circumstances and fleeting personal changes. As Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a-changin.” But we have a Savior who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). C.S. Lewis once commended the study of history because we are unable to study the future and we need something to which to compare the present. He wrote that the historian is “in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Creeds and confessions keep us grounded in the truth “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Finally, creeds and confessions preserve unity. This claim may seem strange because we often assume falsely that doctrine divides. But think about what happens when a group of Christians come together in a church and say, “This is what we believe together.” Creeds and confessions allow us to build fellowship on a foundation of truth on which we all agree. In this age, we are not going to agree with all Christians on every point of doctrine, but creeds and confessions allow us to locate a tradition that best represents what we believe and unify with others based on mutual commitment to the truth being confessed.