Creedal Orthodoxy and the New Testament

A creed is a formal statement of the beliefs of a religious organization. In Christian theology it is a technical term for historic summaries of Christian beliefs, particularly those from the 4th and 5th centuries, that are widely accepted as authoritative by mainstream Christian traditions and are regarded as the standard for doctrinal orthodoxy. There are equivalent terms like “symbol”, “confession” and “article” that are period or denomination specific. When the term creed is used it usually refers to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed. These creeds appeared several centuries after the New Testament era and they are considered to represent orthodox Christianity. Given the importance of these creeds, the question is then asked if the New Testament itself contains creeds since the later creeds claim to be ultimately derived from that era.

Different New Testament authors called their religion “the Faith” and members of their group commonly self-identified as “believers.” Participation in their group meant believing a particular message which was expressed in particular ways which we can observe in the New Testament. Therefore, if you use a broad definition of the term then there are certainly creeds in the New Testament.

Even though the first believers did clearly state their beliefs, they were not the same as the later creeds. The later historic creeds were written summaries of a fixed form that were authorized by church hierarchy. What we broadly call creeds in the New Testament were shared oral traditions in early Christian communities that were latter written down as part of normal religious discourse in what we now call the New Testament. However, they were not formally compiled into official fixed summaries. Yet these traditions were not completely fluid either because they were very important for Christian identity, being things that principally defined them. Therefore, they were clearly and consistently articulated.

1The early Christian community exercised control and employed formal means of transmission to ensure the traditions remained stable. New Testament scholarship has been able to identify what this distinctive corpus of traditions was. I have made a fairly comprehensive compilation of what constitutes that corpus based on the results of scholarly research in my post The Earliest Christian Traditions. One scholar, the late J.N.D. Kelly, in his classic work Early Christian Creeds (Longman, 1972) writes,

Examples could easily be multiplied, and the conclusion inescapable that, however anachronistic it may be to postulate fixed creedal forms for the apostolic age, the documents themselves testify to the existence of a corpus of distinctively Christian teaching. In this sense at any rate it is legitimate to speak of the creed of the primitive church. Nor was it something vague and nebulous, without precision of contour: its main features were clearly enough defined. The Epistles and the Gospels are of course, rarely if ever concerned to set out the faith in its fulness: they rather presuppose and hint at it. Even so it is possible to reconstruct, with a fair degree of confidence, what must have been its chief constituents. pp. 10-11

However, given that the term “creed” within Christian theology refers to the official doctrinal summaries of later centuries, it is worth qualifying the term when it is used to refer to the New Testament because, as we just saw, the New Testament’s creedal formulas are different in important ways. The reason why I endeavoured to demonstrate that the New Testament does indeed contain, at the very least, creed-like material is because I think those primitive traditions should not only have the doctrinal status that the later historic creeds have enjoyed, they should supersede them by becoming the definitive standard for Christian orthodoxy.

Every historic creed claims to be biblical, that is they purport to correctly and concisely interpret, restate, reaffirm and/or clarify what the Bible fundamentally teaches. One could simply take the word of the creedal formulators for it but a summary cannot be a substitute for what it is summarising. Summaries do have their uses but for the sake of brevity they do not give a full account. The same is true of creeds, no matter how wonderful they are, they do not fully represent what the Bible teaches. The creeds themselves point to the Bible as their source of their authority so even if they accurately represent what the Bible teaches, it is not the creeds themselves that are being reaffirmed but rather the authority of the Bible over them.

Some argue that when you do go to the Bible, it does not clearly define doctrinal orthodoxy in an unambiguous manner. Therefore the creeds have a necessary function by systematically and unambiguously formulating the tenets of Christian orthodoxy. While it may not be conveniently organized, New Testament scholarship has convincingly demonstrated that the text is not ambiguous when it comes to Christian orthodoxy. In fact, we can determine that across their diverse communities the early Christians had a very well-defined and well-known corpus of traditions that clearly shaped and informed their Faith. It seems strange to me that how later generations understood the faith should be the standard when we have direct access to how the first generations of believers understood the faith. It is even more curious since the later generations who formulated the creeds looked back to the New Testament era for an authoritative definition of their faith. They were the originators of what we now call Christianity so their conception of the faith, which we can clearly discern from their own surviving writings i.e. the New Testament, should be definitive.

The other reason why the New Testament creeds should be the standard for orthodoxy over other later creeds is because that is what the New Testament expressly indicates. These creeds and other oral traditions were crucial to the core of their identity so there are multiple passages in the New Testament about faithfully and passionately guarding them. Tradition is what defines a community and it does so across generations. Therefore, within a community tradition is not only taught to consolidate and promote its particular group identity, it is taught to the newer generation to preserve that identity when the older generation passes away. The New Testament believers being a trans-local community also had certain things they explicitly called “tradition,” that is a standard for belonging to the group, which they expected to be faithfully passed on to and upheld by new members of the group. According to the New Testament they were able to successfully pass it on to new believers in diverse settings, so they were very serious about these traditions being the authoritative standard for generations of believers to come. It is clear that these things constituted the standard for all believers in every place and across all time.

1See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chpts. 10 & 11, Eerdmans, 2006, where he discusses the nature of Christian tradition in the New Testament era. You can hear Bauckham discussing the 2nd edition of his magnum opus here.

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