10 Problems with “No Creed But The Bible” 

10 Problems with “No Creed But The Bible” 

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by Corey J. McLaughlin

 

Is “No Creed but the Bible” actually faithful to the Bible? It is a simple question that can spur a lot of debate, but it is worth asking and trying to answer so that our churches and the denomination as a whole can become biblically stronger, healthier, and more unified. Here are 10 reasons we should pull a Frozen and “Let it go!” (If I had hair, I’d sling it back while I sang the song, but you will just have to imagine that for yourself!).     

1.     It is ambiguous and in need of clarification.  Does this slogan mean the Bible, correctly interpreted according to its sense (i.e. author’s intended meaning) is our final authority in matters of faith and practice (so, Sola Scriptura e.g. Mathison Chp. 9),[1] or, does it mean the Bible is the only authority in church life and the only basis for our views with no help given to us by creeds, confessions, or any and all interpretations (so Solo Scriptura, e.g. Mathison Chp. 8)?[2]  If the former, conservative Protestants agree en mass and rightly understand the place and proper use of creeds and confessions while maintaining the supremacy of the Scriptures.  In that case, something like the NAE statement poses no problem whatsoever.  If it means anything close to the latter, then there are any number of serious problems that flow from it.  Since I think most ACs who quote this intend this in some form of the latter sense I’ll address the remaining 9 in that direction.

2.     It is a wrong appeal for unity.  For Advent Christians (and prior to them the Christian Connection Movement which influenced them, and even earlier the Restoration Movement which influenced them) this slogan has its roots in a desire for Christian unity.[3]  The goal is admirable, yet the mere appeal to a common source opens the doors to likewise seek unity with or at least accept the presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, liberal Christianity, universalists and any number of dozens if not hundreds of cults that all appeal to the Bible as their source of authority (Tom Loghry made this point recently on this site).  Someone who cites this slogan as their principle for unity is essentially saying, “All you have to do is appeal to the Bible and we will accept you no matter your views or theological persuasion and with no debate, questions, or concern, after all, we are all Bible believing Christians here!”[4]

On the other hand, seeking a common sense, as in the case of Nicaea, clarifies the lines instead of blurring them, and unites those who are seeking faithful biblical truth as distinguished from those who are false teachers.  Ligon Duncan rightly says, “Whenever false teachers were appealing to the Bible and twisting it to suit their own purposes, Christians defended the truth by clearly articulating their scriptural convictions with the most faithful language they could muster—and which the false teachers could not affirm.”  And again, “The point of a confession is to ensure the public teaching of the church is as close to the teaching of Scripture as possible.”     

3.     It teaches misordered priorities:  Connected with the above, I would say if unity is the highest goal, then the truth will suffer, because as we know from Jesus’ life, truth divides.  Churches that chase the pretty butterfly of unity as their topmost goal are often unaware of the danger ahead as they walk off the cliff of liberalism.  This is largely true of the modern day ecumenical movement and its search for unity

And yet truth, rightly conceived (#2), can also unite as well.  The priority is to abide with Christ and abide with His word and then, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32).  The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and upon that truth we must stand, and upon that truth we must unite.  We do not need to spell out every jot and tittle mind you, but the basics need to be understood. 

4.     Misordered priorities leave the door open to heresy.  This can be seen from the very beginning of the Restoration movement which started as various independent strands that came together and united.  B.W. Stone was instrumental in one major stream that formed the Christian Connection movement that would later combine with Campbell in the North, many of whom would later spill into the young Adventist movement and influence it formatively (e.g. no Creed…, character as the only test…, Bible names for Bible things, etc.).[5]  Alexander Campbell was a powerful driving force behind his strand of the movement and was solidly orthodox in his view of God, the nature of Christ, etc., while Barton Stone was not.  He brought with him all of his own heretical views that denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ and yet, despite concern, Campbell accepted him.  Then again, it was just a matter of time.  Campbell had little recourse to object once he agreed with Stone on the premise, “no creed but the Bible,” and thus he and his followers were left in a bit of a theological quagmire.

Adherents to “No Creed…” will argue this is a moot point because in practice Advent Christians have not been overtaken by liberalism or heresy.  First, YES WE HAVE!  We would have no need to discuss non-Trinitarian churches had we never accepted this belief in the first place!  Second, notice our point here, “it leaves the door open.”  People often leave their car doors unlocked and their house doors unlocked and think nothing of it…until their car is stolen and their house burglarized.  Then they wish they would have taken precautions!  Perhaps we ought to heed the Scriptures:  “So the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).    

Thieves have already broken into similar houses.  Three come to mind:

First, The Restoration Movement of churches still around today have been plagued with a liberal invasion within their denomination as well as persistent attacks by Jehovah’s Witness who seek to exploit their weakness on the Trinity.[6] 

Second, and third, both the United Churches Of Christ and the Disciples of Christ trace their origins back to such ideas as, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no law but love, no name but the divine.”  Consequently, it should be no surprise to us that today both denominations have walked headlong into the sea of radical liberalism, affirming homosexuality, supporting abortion, and viewing the doctrines of heaven and hell as “speculative,” at best.[7] 

B.W. Stone’s polluted hermeneutic poisoned the well that the Christian Connection drank from and shared with the young Adventist movement.  We are similar in many ways to the Disciples of Christ and the RM, and there is no reason to believe a 12th Declaration will stem the wave that is coming, since by our very structure the Declaration of Principles holds no binding authority.  Our problems as a denomination are more deeply rooted than this single fallacious slogan of course, but we must deal with one thing at a time. 

5.     It leaves the door open to heresy in various forms.  The slogan effectively says, “I just believe what the Bible says,” yet this obscures the truth of the matter.  What the person really means is, “I believe what [my interpretation of] the Bible says.”  This then conflates one’s own interpretation of the Bible with what the Bible actually says and ASSUMES they are one and the same.  This undermines biblical fidelity because it lifts man-made interpretation to the level of inspiration thus promoting the very thing the slogan was intended to prevent!    

OR, we might imagine two people who have opposing views of the Word.  Rather than appeal to agreeing on the majors (a basic set of standards that form the essentials) and allow diversity within the minors (the non-essentials), both interpretations must be seen as equally valid for both people despite the theological gravitas of the issue and the possiblity of direct contradiction.  We might observe that practiced consistently this…

(a) creates a radical individualism (that was the soil from which it sprang after all),[8]

(b) removes objective truth (i.e. the biblical author’s intended meaning) and replaces it with relativism (i.e. whatever meaning I intended is okay for me and whatever you intended is okay for you),

(c) replaces hermeneutical principles by which we assess valid from invalid interpretations and strong from weak one’s and replaces it with an overly broad theological pluralism. This leaves no other recourse but to say that all interpretations derived from the source are equally accurate with none better or worse than the other because evidently, Scripture is not clear about anything…at all!    

6.     It requires a commitment to naïve presuppositions.  In order to accept this slogan and what it teaches one must presuppose some very basic truths.  One author investigating the history of B.W. Stone and this phrase points out three assumptions, in particular, that must be made (Disciples and the Bible:  A History p. 19-26):

a.     The meaning of the Bible is clear.

b.     The interpreter is free and capable.

c.     The hermeneutical method is common sense.

Stone said, “We may take the Bible alone, and Bible facts, without note or comment as the only standard of faith and practice…” (p. 22). 

If we dig into Stone’s own views we might ask, what did he consider to be “clear” Bible “facts”?  Well, Arminianism as opposed to Calvinism, immersion rather than sprinkling, Credo-Baptism as opposed to infant baptism, a rejection of Trinitarianism, a rejection of the deity of Christ, and the moral influence theory of the cross over against the substitutionary atonement of Christ.  Many will rightly protest that clearly we are not working with the same definition of “clear.”  While many of these are non-essentials, the nature of Christ and the nature of God are paramount to a faithful representation of biblical truth. 

The author in the above link takes all of these assumptions to task, dismantling each one in turn, and I would concur with his overall assessment.

7.     It throws the baby out with the bathwater.  Campbell and Stone were both from a confessional Presbyterian background and appear to go to the extreme in assuming that all creeds and confessions stand against the plain meaning of Scripture and result only in division. [9]  No allowance is made that perhaps some creeds and confessions do in fact embody and are faithful to the plain meaning of Scripture.

Instead, what we need is a basic and consistent hermeneutic to evaluate secondary statements derived from and supported by Holy Scripture so that we can weigh and affirm those things which are in line with God’s intent for His people.  If someone wants to debate how inspiration works, for example, that is fine, but that inspiration is clearly taught, should be a given, a starting point.  If someone wants to debate how the God-head functions, there is room for lots of dialogue, but that the Triune God exists, that is a foundational truth.  It is not a difficult or contrived argument that Scripture explicitly affirms the deity of three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 1:1; Phil 2:5-12; Col. 2:9; John 16:5-15; Acts 5:3-4), thus revealing the truth of the Triune God-head, and yet also allowing for mystery (Deut. 29:29; Matt. 3:16-17; 28:18-20; Rom. 11:33-34).  It is to our shame and embarrassment that Advent Christians have been so chained to this “No Creed…” principle as to miss the most rudimentary starting points for the Christian faith. 

This is not even to mention that the principle itself, “No Creed but the Bible” is self-refuting on a number of different levels. 

8.     It is self-refuting in terms of logic.  I know some will think this objection is just trying to be fancy with words, but if words have meanings and convey truth then they ought to be consistent.  This slogan sounds no different to me than the relativist who confidently asserts, “There is no such thing as absolute truth!”, thus asserting at least one fundamental absolute truth they do in fact adhere to and undercutting their main premise.  Likewise, “No creed…” is…a…creed, used authoritatively both to protect one’s beliefs and to exclude, not just those who are historically creedal, but even those who simply want a basic (what I consider the most meager and mere) definition of Christianity publicly and formally stated as an identifying marker for the denomination (thinking of the NAE statement here).    

9.     It is self-refuting in terms of consistency.  Where does the concept come from?  Does it come from human reasoning or biblical teaching?  The slogan purports to teach that only the Bible should be our creed, yet where in the Bible does it teach that only the Bible should be our creed?  In fact, I would instead follow Carl Trueman’s exposition of 2 Timothy 1 and argue that Paul’s command to “hold fast the form of sound words” in fact demands that we faithfully and accurately preach, teach, and confess words that are in line with Scripture and to the extent that they agree with Scripture they are therefore authoritative (The Creedal Imperative, 72-79).  

I might also point out three remaining inconsistencies along these lines: 

(a) the slogan does not work when applied to itself since it rests on the fact that the canon of the Bible must first be defined by authoritative early church creeds and councils (since the New Testament does not define its own canon) before it can apply the slogan and before there can be any agreement as to what constitutes the “Bible” in the first place (so The Shape of Sola Scriptura 248).      

(b) One might wonder if this slogan were God’s intent, then why does He want us to preach at all?  Preaching is not the Bible, but truths based upon the Bible which people often receive as God’s word to them, but this is always a mingling of human interpretation and biblical truth.  Should we not simply read the Bible without note or commentary and let the people in the pews do what they may with it?  That seems to me a more consistent use of the slogan’s philosophy.     

10.  Lastly, it is self-refuting in terms of practice.  The word “Creed” comes from the Latin Credo meaning, “I believe.”  The fact of the matter is that everyone has a creed, whether implicit or explicit, formal or informal.   Everyone reads the Bible through a particular lens, a starting point, stated or unstated (so Trueman in The Creedal Imperative p. 15). 

So, instead of denying this fact, or trying to skirt around “declaring” non-binding “principles” (read “suggestions”) we ought to declare authoritatively the most clearly revealed, core tenets of the faith as our starting point, entrance point, replication point for our denomination.    

Now in actual practice, the slogan probably means something more like “Only the [Advent Christian interpretation of the] Bible should be our Creed.  Hence, if a church stood against the ideas of Conditional Immortality and/or Soul Sleep but still wanted to join the denomination simply because they affirmed the slogan, I imagine there would be little reason to let them in.  Dr. Roller mentioned in an email exchange one example he knows of whereby a non-Trinitarian church did try to join the denomination but was denied by the local conference in that region.  Amen, I say!  Yet, how on earth is this consistent with “No Creed but the Bible”?  What authority does the conference have to deny them membership as long as they are appealing to the Bible as their divinely inspired source?  It sounds like some conferences are acting as though we have an agreed upon statement of faith more specific than “No Creed but the Bible.”  In fact, I would guess that most are doing something similar, so let’s bring this out of the shadows and make it explicit.

In the end, I think that Sola Scriptura should be the guiding principle.  When rightly defined, it affirms the final authority of the Bible but does not exclude the wise counsel of those who have gone before us.  It recognizes freedom of interpretive communities, while not affirming the validity of every individualistic interpretation.  It recognizes that there will be, in a fallen and imperfect world, a certain relativism between these interpretive communities and yet it still finds common ground and unity around the principle itself and the core tenets of the faith.  I believe it is superior in every way to the Solo Scriptura inherent in the AC slogan “No Creed but the Bible.”   

 

            For more on this topic via blog thoughts:

·      No Creed but the Bible by John Piper

·      Why ‘No Creed But the Bible’ Is A Lousy Creed by Ligon Duncan

·      Why ‘No Creed But The Bible’ is Misguided by J.T. English

 

 

[1] For a video introduction to the concept see R.C. Sproul, What Is Reformed Theology:  Scripture Alone online at Ligonier.com.   

[2] Also, “Solo Scriptura:  The Difference A Vowel Makes,” in Modern Reformation 16/2 (March/April 2007):  25-29.

[3] See The Oxford History Of Protestant Dissenting Traditions – The Nineteenth Century Volume 3, ed. Timothy Larsen et. al. 2017:  276-294 (chapter 11).  For their intertwining history see A Basic Chronology of the Stone-Campbell Movement (pdf).

[4] The original desire of the Campbell movement was to return to “primitive Christianity” before Creeds, confessions, etc. ruined all our supposed unity.  Yet this overlooks that those early churches in the NT still had the Apostles to help settle disputes and regulate the faith with their authoritative teachings.  There simply is no way to return to primitive Christianity without some rule of faith guiding the process.  Even Campbell and those who joined him came to realize that in practice (see note 3 for the historical background).  

[5] The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement ed. Douglas A. Foster, 2004:  154-55, 190; more detail in Christians Only:  A History Of The Restoration Movement by James D. Murch, 2004:  83-96 entitled, “Barton W. Stone and The Christian Connection.”    

[6] Listen to one Restoration Movement blogger discuss his life in the RM and how discovering the influence of B.W. Stone explains for him the liberal onslaught his movement faces.    

[7] The United Churches Of Christ base their unity on another principle of the restoration movement, namely, that unity is “not on doctrine or polity, but on Christian spirit and character,” (website).  That should sound familiar, Advent Christians hold to the same ideals.  Gotquestions.org offers a short summary on The Disciples of Christ calling them one of the most liberal denominations in the US (though to be fair many conservative churches have broken away from the movement).  For a full article see “The Churches Of Christ, The Christian Churches, The Disciples Of Christ” at equip.org. 

[8] See A History Of Christianity In The United States and Canada by Mark Noll, 1992:  p. 151

[9] Barton Stone – A Spiritual Biography by D. Newell Williams, 2000:  159- 174 (The Bible Alone).

The Advent Christian Statement of Faith

The Advent Christian Statement of Faith

A Brief Critique of the Creedalist Argument for Adopting a Statement of Faith

A Brief Critique of the Creedalist Argument for Adopting a Statement of Faith