This phrase has a neat ring to it, especially to some Protestants. It certainly sounds very spiritual. It is often used as a kind of religious one-upmanship: ‘You have all your creeds and doctrines, but I am a Jesus-Only Christian’ or a ‘Bible-Only Christian’.
The idea is that the individual believer alone can know all biblical truth, and there is no need for theology, doctrine, denominations, creeds, Christian history, or even the rest of the Body of Christ. “No creed but Christ” has been a popular rallying cry for some of these Christians, especially in America during the past few centuries.
As one American Pentecostal preacher put it last century, “Brother, I know no creed but Christ, no law but love, and no book but the Bible”. And as one head of a Bible College put it in the mid-nineteenth century, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me.”
Now the problem with this sort of thinking is that there is of course some truth contained in it. We all know of some believers who are all head and no heart. We all know of lifeless Christianity where mere intellectualism has crowded out the Spirit-filled life.
We all know of churches and Bible schools where theology reigns supreme but there is little spiritual life and vitality. We all know of people who put the mind on a pedestal to the exclusion of all else. We all know of dead orthodoxy and lifeless Christianity.
But sadly, as is so often the case in church history, we rush away from one problematic extreme, only to rush to another problematic extreme. If spiritually cold and intellectually hot believers, churches and denominations can be problematic, so too can theologically cold and emotionally hot ones.
The ideal, as always, is to maintain the biblical balance. The truth is, we are called to love God with the whole person. Thus we should be loving God with our mind as well as with our will and emotions. Our faith should be Spirit-powered and theologically mature.
We should embrace sound living and sound doctrine, just as Scripture exhorts us time and time again. Paul for example said quite clearly, “Give heed to your life and your teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). Both are vital, and we should never play off one against another. It is not a question of choosing head or heart, but of affirming both, simultaneously.
As the Bible repeatedly states, and as I have so often written about, the need for sound theology or doctrine is paramount in the life of the believer. See just one article for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/
None of us can live a dogma-free Christian life. Indeed, those who promote a dogma-free faith are themselves pushing their own particular dogma. Those who argue for a creedless Christianity are themselves promoting a particular creed. Any time someone opposes a doctrine or creed or denomination or teaching, he is in fact endorsing his own.
While it may sound spiritual, there really is no such thing as a denomination-less or theology-less Christian. We all have certain beliefs, understandings, favourite teachings, ways of interpreting Scripture, etc. We all have been influenced by the thinking, teaching and beliefs of others.
The very fact that a person rails against some theological issue (be it theology itself, infant baptism, an eschatological view, Catholicism, Anglicanism, speaking in tongues, not speaking in tongues, etc.) means they are affirming another belief or teaching or creed or denominational position. Everyone lies somewhere on a theological and denominational spectrum, even those who claim to be Jesus-only dogma-free Christians.
Sure, these folks want to claim they are getting back to original Christianity. They speak of being “restorationists” as they seek to restore the church to its former pristine glory. They speak much about getting back to the apostolic church, or the faith of the early church.
But almost every Christian in the world thinks their faith is straight out of the book of Acts and the New Testament. Everyone wants to claim the high moral and spiritual ground here. While we all should certainly strive to be as biblical and Christ-like as possible, none of us have or will fully attain to an ideal Christianity.
And the truth is, there is no such thing as lone-wolf Christianity. There is no such thing as the autonomous believer. The New Testament speaks everywhere of the importance of seeing ourselves not as solo believers, but as very much being part of the whole Body of Christ. We need to reread 1 Corinthians 12 for starters. An autonomous Christian is a contradiction in terms, biblically speaking.
We need each other, and that is how God has designed the Christian life to be lived. So that means we not only need and depend upon our brothers and sisters of today, but on all those who have gone before as well. Thus the importance of church history, and learning from the past.
Those who think that they can go it alone, without any outside help, getting all they need directly from God, with some kind of holy pipeline direct to the heavenly throne room, are simply kidding themselves. Indeed, they are guilty of gross spiritual pride and self-righteousness.
No one even operates this way. Well, perhaps a person raised alone in a cave all his life with only a Bible to guide him. But the rest of us mere believers all grow up in a surrounding culture with particular biases and prejudices. We all carry cultural and theological baggage around with us, even when we deny that we do.
No one comes to the Bible in a complete vacuum. We all have various pre-conceived ideas and perspectives we bring to bear on Scripture. Thus we very much need humility here. We need each other and we need to receive from God what he has given to the Body, including pastors, teachers and one another.
Christian community is God’s intention for us, not rugged individualism. Humility says ‘I do not have all the answers or all the truth, and I need others to help me stay on the straight and narrow’. Spiritual pride says ‘I am sufficient myself, I don’t need the learning, teaching or wisdom of others’.
Thus it is only arrogance which says I can learn direct from God, and have no need of the teachers he has put in the Body of Christ, or no need of learning what God has revealed to others, and so on. And it is pride to think that there is no place for creeds or theology.
In fact, since these believers so often appeal to the early church, they really should look more closely at what the early church was in fact up to. A major portion of their time was actually spent on hammering out sound doctrine, formulating creeds, and refuting theological error.
It is not just the great early Christian creeds that I am referring to here, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. The New Testament itself is loaded with creedal affirmations and solid theology. The Book of Romans for example is an extended theological discussion.
Indeed, even within the New Testament there appear to be early Christian creeds or declarations of faith. Passages such as Acts 16:31; 1 Cor. 15:3-7; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16 are just some examples of what seem to be early creedal affirmations which the early disciples appealed to.
Now since I am likely to get attacked from all sides here, let me repeat what it is I am trying to say here. The biblical balance is what we should all be after. I am not here trying to champion lifeless orthodoxy. But neither am I arguing for theologically anaemic zeal.
Paul got the mix right when he complained about the Jews who had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). He wanted God’s people to have lots of zeal for God, but a zeal that was biblically informed and theologically mature.
We must realise that we are all finite and fallen – even born-again Christians. Thus we must always be on our knees, coming to God in humility and brokenness. We must admit that we do not always get things right. We often mis-hear God, misinterpret his Word, and mistake our own understanding and insights for that of the Holy Spirit.
None of this is to say that we cannot have theological certainty and biblical clarity. We can have sufficient truth, or true truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, even though we cannot have exhaustive truth. We can have strong certainty in biblical basics, while also remaining humble with a teachable spirit, recognising that we can always learn more, and we can always learn more accurately and biblically.
“Jesus-Only Christianity” or “Bible-Only Christianity” sounds so spiritual, but the truth is none of us are lone wolf Christians and all of us depend upon and need others, even when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. The whole body of Christ, both past and present, is needed for our walk with God and following Christ according to his word. It is only pride and self-righteousness which says I can do all this alone and I don’t need or want the rest of Christ’s body, teaching and instruction.