CultureWatch

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Creedless Christianity

Jan 31, 2011

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: www.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.

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21 Responses to Creedless Christianity

  • G’day Bill,

    I’m only a bit of a bush lawyer, and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that the land ownership laws in Australia requre some named persons to be ‘owners.’ An entity like a church has named trustees as the nominal owners, holding the land in trust for the church. And the trust deed or act of incorporation specifies the beliefs and principles that the trustees must hold to be trustees. This means, as I understand it, that those churches that claim to be ‘Bible only’ or ‘creedless’ churches actually do have a list of their beliefs, effectively a creed, even thought they deny it. Anyway, if I’m wrong, perhaps someone will let me know …

    Andrew Campbell

  • Thanks for this, Bill. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul.” We are not to be heartless or mindless. Another side of this same outlook is, “I am a New Testament Christian”, as if the Cross can make sense without Creation and the Fall.
    Blessings!
    Don Batten

  • Thanks Don

    Even worse: “I am a Red Letter Christian”. Mainly religious lefties, these folks really do massacre the Bible to push their agendas: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/03/03/on-reading-jesus/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Yes, much evangelical and pentecostal Christianity (and I am a Pentecostal minister) acts as if the rest of the church – now and over history – never existed. We need to recapture the insights of the early and even medieval church, while not being naive about their limitations; we too have limitations and blind spots.
    Jon Newton

  • Bill, are we not also talking about tradition or teaching? 1 Corinthian 11:2 says “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.” NIV
    And 2 Thessalonians 3:6 says “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we give you this command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stay away from all believers who live idle lives and don’t follow the tradition they received from us.” NLB

    I have just noticed that your “mission statement” on the left hand side of your web page says “This website is devoted to exploring the major cultural, social and political issues of the day. It offers reflection and commentary drawing upon the wealth of wisdom found in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks David

    There are of course two sorts of tradition: good and bad. The good kind is found in the passages you mention – and other texts. The bad kind is what we find Jesus warning about for example when he chastised the Pharisees for elevating the traditions of men over God’s commandments (eg., Mark 7:1-9).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • One of the best things I have ever done is to begin teaching my kids a basic catechism (even more simplified than Shorter Westminster – they are currently 5 and 3). They know why they were made, who made them, who God is, that he is one God in three persons, the effect of original sin etc – and we are only just beginning! Many adult Christians could not readily explain the most basic, foundational aspects of our faith – original sin and its legacy, regeneration, justification, sanctification for example. A good catechism will give a believer such a foundational understanding of all this and more, and yet catechising is all but forgotten by most modern evangelical churches.
    Katie Donovan

  • Well done Katie. I am with you all the way.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • No knocks from me, Bill. A well stated position that I love to hold.
    Greg Brien

  • There are two basic appproaches to the scriptures, harking back to the Reformation. These are “sola scriptura”., i.e. reliance on the scriptures only for Divine authority or the basic position taken by the Catholic Church, which recognizes both scripture and “tradition” as authoritative.

    Leaving aside the Catholic approach, those who base their beliefs and practices on sola scriptura have the obligation to be honest and intellectually sound in their interpretations of scripture.

    I agree with your statement that:

    “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.”

    However, “affirming another belief” might well entail affirmation of the BIBLICALLY CORRECT interpretation on the matter at issue. Yes, there is a “theological and denominational spectrum” of beliefs, but when one belief (e.g. free will/salvation offered equally to all) is diametrically opposite of another (predestination, election/reprobation etc.), then logic impels us to the conclusion that ONE of these positions is in error. Both can not be right. That there is some kind of spectrum of beliefs attending such issues does not in any way validate the divisiveness that results therefrom. Jesus prayed for his disciples that they might all be one, even as He and His Father are one (John 17:21, 22). He stated the reason for his desire for unity, namely “that the world may believe that thou us hast sent me”(v.21). Paul wrote passionately of “one lord, one faith, one baptism.”

    One reason the “world” rejects Christianity is because we are not “one” in anything like the sense Jesus prayed for or Paul contemplated! And the reason we are not is because there are afoot in Christendom a host of patently un-scriptural doctrines and practices either selfishly or ignorantly clung to by people who CLAIM to base their faith on scripture but who would be helpless to defend their beliefs in open and honest debate.

    In the 19th Century, public and energetic debates on religious topics were common and were highly popular. In today’s world, alas, many people would object to such debates, preferring simply to be “tolerant” and “accepting” of the beliefs of others–and thereby setting at naught the admonitions of both Jesus and Paul.

    John Crowder

  • “Our faith should be Spirit-powered and theologically mature.”

    Bill, that is a great summation of what Paul says in his epistles about the life of the Christian (among a truck-load of other things, of course!). I am very cerebral, and am aware of the danger of lifeless intellectualism. I find prayer to be a vital part of retaining the all-important balance. Thanks for your wise words.

    Simon Kennedy

  • Thanks John

    One brief reply if I may. When you talk about free will and predestination, you say both cannot be right. Yet that is exactly what Scripture seems to affirm, that we are to hold both positions, even if they may seem to clash. Scripture everywhere speaks about our moral responsibility in the choices we make, while also speaking everywhere about God’s calling, election, choosing and predestining. So in this case we can affirm both, even if we may have a hard time seeing how they can be reconciled.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The liberal leadership of our churches has cast into doubt their belief in the key doctrine of the Communion of Saints. Traditionally, Anglicans have seen the observance of Holy Communion as a central activity in the life of their communities. For most of my life, since the early seventies, Anglican ministers have usually announced that the table was open to all baptized Christians in good standing in their own churches. That announcement is rarely heard today. In the current troubles we have seen entire congregations and indeed corporate dioceses remove themselves from distant and destructive corporate bureaucracies.

    Indulge me as I share a few lines written in advent 1999.

    REMINDERS ARE GIVEN BY BOOKISH ONES
    FROM CITY LANES AND COUNTRY HOMES,
    LESSONS OF INJURIES AND MARTYRDOMS,
    POINTING THE WAY AHEAD TO THOSE WHO WOULD SEE.
    COME, DAY OF GOD, COME!
    STAR-GOWNED SINGERS, GROWN IN SIN,
    MOURN IN A MAJOR KEY, SURROUNDED BY STONE AND WOOD AND BRASS. IMPRESSIVE EXPRESSIONS!
    AND YET THE SWEETEST SOUNDING NOTE BE JUNK…TO HIM WHO WANTS ONLY…LOVE…CALLED…STRONG!
    THE PRAISE OF GOD A MINOR THING?
    SPIRIT TRULY SHRIEKS WITHIN!
    BUT, O WHAT JOY TO FIND TRADITION SPRING TO LIFE, BUDDING INTO MARVELOUS FLOWER, ACTIVATED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT TO SING AFRESH AND SHOUT THE GREAT NEWS OF THE WORLD-MORN TO COME!
    AND SO THE ULTIMATE REWARD OF DIVINE PATIENCE
    SHALL INDEED REST IN THE MAJESTIC PRESENCE OF JESUS.
    COME, LORD, COME!

    Richard Bunn

  • Hi Katie,

    We’ve also discovered the amazing benefits of teaching our children (4 and 5) a catechism:

    www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/cat_for_young_children.html

    With this simple tool, children quickly gain a very thorough theological basis (far better than most adults in the church today). I highly recommend it to all Christian parents.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • Katie and others,

    I recommend “The Lamb” by John R Cross as a narrative picture book for little kids. It teaches the essentials of the gospel in memorable fashion and should complement the catechistic approach. It comes with a CD so kids can read along as they listen. A DVD version is available with options for: ‘just the story’; five; or ten lessons with reviews.

    A Power Point version allows kids to be the narrators of the story as the pictures from the book are projected on screen for a church concert etc. This is a good excuse to get the basics of the gospel across to Sunday-School parents who are often quite ignorant of the basics. It covers creation, good & evil, the fall, justice and the need for the lamb as a substitute. “A foundation is laid beginning with creation, moving to a clear connection between the sacrifice lamb and Jesus as our substitute.”

    It’s not ‘just a kid’s book’: it’s good for parents and, apparently, it’s even popular in nursing homes. It’s available in 7 languages. www.goodseed.com/products/lamb-eng-book/

    Peter Newland

  • Excellent article Bill, you have done it again. There is just the greatest heritage for us handed down by those whose faith has been hammered out in the fires of affliction. God has given us them to us as an amazing gift.
    I find it incredible in the current church such a lack of interest in church history and those who made it. T.A. Sparks wrote a little gem about how God works at the end of something, when the old passes on and leaves some thing for the next generation. Does our young generation even know what gold the last generation had? I have great problems with groups that say they are just following Jesus and only read the bible and are just like the early church, what candidates for deception! No wonder we have so much nonsense, we ignore the provision for our sanity.
    Rob Withall

  • I try to help the ‘no creed but Christ’ people by asking them what they mean by that statement. Do you mean that Christ was a great teacher? Great role model? Great bloke? Great mate? The best man who ever lived? A divine emanation? The God-Man? And what do they think He did/does? Did He set an example for us to try to follow? Did He give us a body of teaching to obey? What happens to us if we don’t fully follow Him? Does God forgive us just because He loves us? Did He lay down His life on Calvary’s Cross to pay the penalty due to us for our sins? Does God reckon Christ’s righteousness to us when we repent of our sin and trust in Christ for our salvation?
    The more acute of them come to realise that while our faith is simple, it is profoundly simple and simply profound.
    Bob Thomas

  • Thanks Peter and Mansel. Mansel, that is the same catechism we are teaching our kids, but I hadn’t been to that website before. Great link! Also Peter – I have seen ‘The Lamb’ advertised but haven’t had a chance to look at it. Thanks for the recommendation.
    Katie Donovan

  • I have only recently heard of you Bill, through the controversy at Online Opinion, and I have to say that I like your website and I appreciate all that you do to try and get the Word of God out there, when all the time standing on the shore facing a huge tidal wave of evil threatening to dump on you.

    For my comment on the above article, I will have to start off by stating that I am simply a Sinner!

    I am a “Practicing Christian”!

    In other words, and to be crude, I suck at being what one would call a ‘good Christian’, so I have to ‘practice’ my faith each and every day/week and I fail each and every day and week.

    If I did not have a Church to go to; Sacraments to partake in; Doctrine to follow, and a square box to live in which has boundaries and consequences, I am certain I would be doomed to see out eternity in Hell.

    Thanks be to God, we have had those in our history who have had the faith and humility to actually hear the Word of God and to pen this Word into a book called The Holy Bible, that has been since used to also further formulate doctrine.

    And isn’t it wonderful we can still have these discussions without being thrown in an extermination camp. Well, that’s for the moment anyway.

    Thanks be to God!

    Peter Gregory

  • Defence of the creeds
    The issue that ‘Jesus/Bible only’ congregations bring up is that history is full of violence and bigotry towards those who might be as little as one iota out of line with our doctrine (Nestorius is a fine example), and this leads to what they perceive as ‘over-dogmatism ‘ and ‘focusing on the little issues’.
    The historical creeds are not there to divide the churches up into different factions depending on whether or not they believed that Jesus was of the same essence or a similar essence as God, but quite the opposite; the creeds are there to prevent the churches disintegrating into a mess of confusing doctrines and beliefs. A ‘culture’ can be defined as ‘a group of people with similar values and beliefs’ – so how a church, or even a whole denomination, can profess to be a united organisation when the Bible or God can mean something completely different from one parishioner to the next, is contradictory to the extreme. Also, counter-intuitively, one finds that churches that are not dogmatic are the ones more prone to harmful factions.
    The creeds are not things that need to be professed for their own value, as this is nothing better than the old danger of Gnosticism (it is faith in the Jesus of the Gospels that saves, not having a doctorate level understanding of the Trinity), but the creeds are there to stop heresy creeping in – by knowing the truth you can recognise a lie.
    Jai W. Steinmeyer

  • Just found a quote that I should have used:

    “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you will have a lot of wrong ones.” – C.S. Lewis

    Jai W. Steinmeyer

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