In our discussion of denominations and denominationalism we saw last time that there is not only room for creeds, which are an official statement of that which any given denomination believes, but also a need for them. Not simply, of course, as dead statements of the past, written perhaps in the back of our Psalters, to be curiously read before the service to pass the time away, but remaining otherwise a mystery to us, but as living statements of that faith which we possess— which we have received as our heritage from the church of the past, we cherish them, study them, know them, and love them.
Not that we imagine creeds to be infallible, we know better. We know also that as the living church of Christ we must and will continue to be led into all the truth and that thus also our creeds will have to grow and develop and we in our understanding of them. Therefore we turn with our creeds back to Scripture, again and again, in order that we may test them, develop them, check them and learn to love them more and more.
Somewhat along this line we wrote last time.
This however, immediately raises another question, “What is the authority of our creeds?” In answer to this question we must insist, that in the final analysis, all that is binding upon the child of God is Scripture. By this I do not mean to overthrow all that I have written above but rather to put it in its proper light. In the final analysis the only authority of the creeds consists in this, that they express the truths of Scripture. If it is or can ever be shown that any creed does not reflect the truth of Scripture it has lost its power and authority and one must not heed it any longer.
This, of course, informs us also that creeds can have no authority over against Scripture. Essentially this is Roman Catholicism. In the Romish Church Scripture is not the last court of appeal but rather what the church as institution says about the Scriptures. And in the last instance this is the pope who has the authority to speak infallibly. This can never be the case. The creeds derive their authority from Scripture. They have authority because they express the truth of Scripture. If it would ever become evident that in any degree they contradicted Scripture they must he discarded. Nor therefore, if any point of controversy arises involving the creed, is the mere statement of the creed sufficient, but it must be shown that also in such a disputed point the creed properly reflects the teaching of Scripture.
We may then well ask, “What is the authority, and to what extent are the creeds authoritative?”
And then we would answer by saying first of all that creeds certainly have authority. Not the first authority of the Scriptures but the derived authority of expressing the truth of Scripture. But do not minimize this fact. From this point of view not only our three forms of unity have authority for us, but all creeds of the historical church, in as far as they reflect and express the truth of Scripture, are binding upon and have authority also for us.
However they have an additional authority in the fact that they express the faith of the church of the past. They serve as depositories of the truth. Once again this cannot be divorced from the fact that they express the truth of Scripture. Rather because I am a member of an historical church, therefore I am bound also to the historical confession of that church for as long as I remain a member. This of course does not mean that I can never question the expression of that confession. Neither does it mean that I may not express disagreement in case it becomes clear to me that Scripture teaches something different. In fact I have a calling, exactly because I am a member of that church, to share my Scriptural light also with the church of which I am a member. This the Formula of Subscription, signed by all elders, deacons and ministers expresses beautifully, “And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines shall arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, Classis and Synod, that the same may be there examined . . . .”
Finally the authority of the creeds consists in this that they are not simply dead statements but rather express the living confession of the church and of each of its members. As soon as this ceases to be the case the cause is lost and the creed has really lost its usefulness.
To limit ourselves for a moment to our own churches, we may say that we have three creeds. They and the Scriptures are alone binding upon us as Churches and as members because they express, we believe, the truth of the Word of God. But it is exactly in as far as they are living and conscious expressions of faith that they have significance for us. For after all we develop and grow also in our knowledge and conception of the creeds. And exactly because we know and love and confess that they contain the truth of Scripture we bow before them. And within the limits of such a confession there must be freedom to grow and develop in the truth. Therefore we do not care for nor do we need binding decisions of Synod or Classes to tell us what the creeds teach or how they must be interpreted. (Strangely such decisions are usually contrary to the creeds.) And the power of any interpretation of a creed exactly rests in the fact that it is the belief of the church not in the fact that it has been laid upon the church by some body, be it Classis or Synod. Therefore I cannot agree with the desire expressed recently that we must have additional binding decisions added to the creeds. Certainly the creeds as we have them are plain. Anyone who contradicts them can be shown to err. Any questions which arise as to meaning and interpretation may and can be settled on the basis of Scripture. But we must retain liberty within the limits of the confession or we die. And the power of the creeds in our own circles, to limit ourselves to that again, is not that we have some binding decision which limits us to our leaders interpretations of what the creeds say but is the conviction in our hearts that such interpretation is correct and the truth of the Word of God. For in the final instance recognizing the authority of creeds always returns to this—that we recognize that they contain and express the truth of the Bible!