In recent years, creeds have gotten a bad name. Opponents have labeled them oppressive, intolerant, divisive, and just about any other negative that you can imagine. As you can imagine, part of the problem is opponents by definition must oppose something. They oppose the creation and imposition of creedal statements as a violation of their religious freedom. But is that necessarily so? I don’t believe so.
The term creed comes from the Latin credo which means “I believe.” Thus, by definition, a creed is little more than a statement of one person's or one group’s personal beliefs. Surely no one can be opposed to that. In fact, the opponents of creeds use their own beliefs to make the case against creeds. But still, they complain, the use of creeds institutionally violates their religious freedom. But is that necessarily so? I don’t believe so.
The earliest creedal statements arose in Christian history during a period of increasing heresy, not simply doctrinal diversity, and rising persecution. Individuals and churches had to know where they stood on the key tenets of the faith to establish and defend the church. Creeds filled that need.
Creeds were written to summarize the beliefs of the individual and the local congregation. Does that limit religious freedom? I don’t believe so. Creeds provide the doctrinal basis that defended the religious freedom of the early church against charges of cannibalism, paganism, and infidelity to the state at a time when the Empire wanted to take away the church’s freedom.
Creeds were also developed so that one might recognize fellow believers. As the government sought to identify and persecute the early church, believers needed to know who stood with them and who stood against them. They weren’t trying to exclude anyone from their fellowship. They were trying to make sure that those in the fellowship were truly in fellowship. Does that undermine religious freedom? I don’t believe so. By ensuring that the church was not infiltrated by the world, the church made sure that the church wasn’t lost to the world.
Creeds were used as tests of orthodoxy. By that I don’t mean that they went from Sunday School class to Sunday School class checking to make sure everyone was in lock step agreement with the religious majority. No, instead they used the creed to make sure that the individual catechumen, the would-be believer, actually believed those things necessary for salvation. You can’t believe that Christ was a created being and be a Christian. You can’t believe that Christ is one of many ways to salvation. There are some things that must be believed to be saved (see Romans 10:9-10, 1 Corinthians 15:4, and 1 Timothy 3:16; all biblical creedal statements). Does that infringe upon religious freedom? I don’t believe so.
The church, then and the church now, does not force anyone to accept the doctrines of the church. You’re free to disagree. However, the church, then and now, believed that the faith once for all handed down to the saints contained certain key truths that you are not free to disregard. That’s where religious freedom ends and where orthodoxy begins. The use of creeds to test one’s orthodoxy, then, does not deny religious freedom. Instead, they aim to keep the church free of destructive error.
A creed is a good thing. It’s a positive affirmation of one believer’s or one church’s or one organization’s key beliefs. They build a hedge around the church not to limit discussion or eliminate dissent but to protect the church from deadly error. Creeds ensure religious freedom by allowing every believer to state what he or she believes and allowing him or her to seek out a body of likeminded believers with which to fellowship.In the end, we have to ask: Do creeds undermine religious freedom? I don’t believe so.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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