Flaming Tongues: On the Need for Creeds

There is a tendency among our evangelical brethren to see the creeds as distractions from true, Biblical Christianity; a human addition that is non-essential at best and a “vain philosophy” at worst. I will grant that the concern is noble. They fear going beyond the scriptures, and they are right to do so. This voice is an important one in the life of the Church. But the winds of modern skepticism have brought this voice to an extreme, emptying the Church of creedal confessions. The result is a Christian message filled with moralisms but void of substance. To this end, I find it necessary for the good of the faithful to offer a brief apologia for the creeds of our fathers.

What exactly are the creeds? I primarily have in mind the early creeds of the undivided Church: the Apostles’ creed, the Nicaean Creed, and the Chalcedonean creed. It is not my aim (or ability) to explain the complexities of each. I wish only to clarify their similar origins, because I suspect that much of the modern neglect of creeds is the result of us misunderstanding their character.

Responses to Heresy

We can begin by observing that no creed is the result of an academic conference. It was neither put together by Christians who got bored. Councils are convened in response to error. It is to the glory of God and his Church that false teaching always proves the occasion for great striving. Orthodoxy is best refined when innovators speak against it. Every heresy has provided the catalyst for deeper understanding. The Spirit brings forth mystery from mayhem and creeds from confusion. Clever heresies with subtle errors have always threatened to swallow the faith.

But the gospel has been protected. Blessed are we who receive it from those who fought for its purity. Let us then gratefully accept the creeds, forged in battles which ran the course of centuries.

Having considered in brief the origin of a creed, let us hear the objection that has been awaiting a response since I first ventured to comment on this topic. “Creeds, while important matters of history, take us away from the gospel. Let us stick to the Bible and do without the wisdom of men.” I will leave off responding that under this logic a sermon would itself be difficult to justify, given that it too includes words about the Bible and not the Bible itself. The more important point to be made is that the creeds are not additions to the scripture; they take us deeper within its truths and rule out false interpretations. They are the result of the Church working through essential questions of scripture in the course of time.

Marked by Historic Struggle

It is at this point necessary to understand the dual nature of creeds if we are to give this objection the response it deserves. Creeds are both eternal and temporal. As to the first, the doctrinal affirmations of the creeds are eternal and everlasting. But, as to the second, the Church is made aware of eternal truths through historical struggles. This is their dual nature: timeless and in time. In terms of their content, they are timeless; in terms of their development, they are historical. It is only through the historical that we know the eternal. We may want a faith freed from history and its complexities, but you cannot discard the process and retain the truth.

Humans are embodied beings, and we learn as such: we are not angels who see perfectly into spiritual realities. We cannot abstract ourselves from time. All Christians are part of, and not exempt from, Church history. We are both in time and redeemed from time. Such is the tragic glory of man: the being who sees to eternity but only through time.

I believe an example will clarify this point. Nearly all Christians, confessional or not, would affirm the Trinity. But how did we come to accept this as a dogma? We can look at the Nicaean formulation of the Trinity to demonstrate how God used human and historical steps to make his nature known. For the “Road to Nicaea” was paved by the real struggles of real men in real time, but its end result was an everlasting truth.

Athanasius contra mundum

Arius arose—and his words were persuasive. He claimed scripture as his own and many agreed. Bishop after bishop fell away. And the Christian world was nearly swallowed by his debased form of Christianity[1] (so much so that early drafts of Nicaea were Arian in persuasion). The Church was in danger, and she needed a voice. When semantics were distorted, she needed a thinker. And what she received was simply a Christian: a man ferocious in his doctrine, yet humble in his living.2[2] A Christian by the name of Athanasius, who now bears the epitaph the Great. Credit is owed to the stubborn brilliance of this man, whose flaming tongue kept the faith intact. Athanasius contra mundum—“Athanasius against the World,” and he did indeed stand against the world. He showed the world the dynamism of our faith—ever ancient, ever new.

Pressed by the Arians of his day, he creatively brought forth the term consubstantial (ὁμοούσιος in the Greek)—“of the same substance” (of Christ with his Father). To his time he was an innovator; to us, the ancient teacher. To opponents, he was harsh, for he cherished the truth. The danger was great; his courage was all the greater. But in all his toil St. Athanasius gave the church nothing new; he merely showed her what she always knew to be the case: that the Son is divine like the Father.

I mention this to show the epistemic tragedy in evangelical piety (and I do believe the tragedy to be motivated by piety). They dare not go beyond the scriptures—a noble impulse I will again grant. But they take doctrines for granted that were only clarified through conciliar means. The energetic contribution of Athanasius (with a word not found in scripture) did not take us from the Word of God; rather, it brought the Church deeper within its truths. I previously stated that nearly all Christians accept the Trinity. But let us not flatter ourselves. We affirm this not through the sharpness of our own wits; credit is due to them who contended for the Triune Godhead when the matter was in question. We no longer debate the Trinity because they did so for us. Only now it seems clear because they settled the score. And we share in their spoils in affirming their Creeds.

Timely yet Timeless

We can thus far say that creeds, situated in time yet telling of eternity, make truth accessible to us. But if that be the case, then to politely neglect the gift of creeds is to thrust any church or pastor into an epistemically impossible situation. You have asked of them the impossible: to arrive at the Trinity apart from Nicaea; the incarnation without Chalcedon. We have given men the unbearable task of seeing truth apart from history. The tragedy may be seen more clearly in a different light. It is like asking the critic to defend the end of a book which he never read, or a musician to transpose a symphony he never heard. We call the blind to a painting and bid them see beauty, withholding the only glasses that would offer them vision. But to return to the theological burden, can we expect anyone to understand, let alone reproduce, a millennia of doctrine in a lifetime?

I myself would not be up for the task. And indeed, I love theology. But I could never presume myself capable of coordinating all points of doctrine. Now perhaps this is my own ignorance, so let’s say I enlist some scholars to help me. But erase the memory of the councils and their history from our minds, and I see little chance that we could stare into the scriptures and emerge with the Trinity unscathed. I would not count on our arriving at three co-equal, co-eternal persons: with God as the origin; the Son, begotten; the Spirit, proceeding—all without the help of the historical circumstances in which these were clarified. I am not arguing that the scriptures are unintelligible. Everything from Nicaea and Chalcedon has its foundations in the scriptures. But we need a guide. To suggest otherwise, to read the scriptures apart from the fathers—the doctrine of nuda scriptura, not to be confused with his pious but often berated elder brother, sola scriptura—may begin with piety but it ends only in confusion and error.

We need the creeds to harmonize the Word. No one can grasp the whole: we need the spirit, we need the fathers, we need each other. And the Church walks us there with the wisdom, dogmas, and mysteries revealed in centuries of contending with an ultimately impotent but nevertheless hideous strength. She gives us sight in the creeds—every one of us. No scholar can stand above them or do without them. St. Athanasius is not above Nicaea, neither are we above any point of sacred doctrine. Reciting the creeds brings all Christians to the same point of humility. It is among my favorite moments in the liturgy when my priest, Fr. Kell, whose gait is sure and posture erect, declares with the voice of one who knows the significance of his post: “Christian, what do you believe?”

And with that we are off—the old and the young, the cradle Christian and the visitor.

Babies are crying; children are stirring; I, myself, am stumbling about, trying to make it back to page 15 of the Prayer Book. But it does not matter. For in that moment there exists little between us: there is neither jew nor gentile, male nor female, learned nor handicapped. We are forged in a communion that is based in worship. And we align ourselves not only with the living; we commune with the dead. Our tongues become inflamed with timeless words. And in those moments we take our place with the Church triumphant—the noble confessors—who recited those very words in diverse tongues long before our own day. We may be thinking only of lunch at that moment, but the act remains profound. For the barrier of time is broken. Our words are linked with those who came before us. And should we be good stewards of these gifts, we shall be wedded in harmony with those yet to come.

Not Merely Semantics

We have thus far considered whether or not creeds obscure the scriptures from our sight. And I hope that the reader sees how creeds are necessary to the life of the Church in making the faith accessible to all. But paired with this original objection is the related concern that the creeds speak of potentially interesting but non-essential points of doctrine. “Mere semantics,” we are told; but these semantics are the very substance of our faith. Our view of language is so impoverished that we have difficulty thinking our words have any meaning beyond themselves. We doubt that language could be stabilized by any ultimate reality.

But words mean something. They matter. To declare Christ to be of “one substance with the father” is not arbitrary or accidental, and neither are the more obscure claims, such as Christ “descend[ing] into hell.” These are ultimate realities, and they are precisely what makes the incarnation worth proclaiming, even unto death. For to speak of Christ is to speak of God. And this is the point upon which my writing descends: a Christianity without creeds has lost the thick trunk of doctrine that gives every good dead, every community event, every sermon it’s beginning and end. But even the word “doctrine” here is insufficient. We do not pedal another philosophy. We proclaim and glorify real persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We bear witness to real events: a virgin birth; God made flesh; his death, resurrection, and ascension; and his future kingdom. These are not abstractions or ethical treatises. They are facts that turned the world upside down. So when the world sees Christ as just another moralist, Nicaea reminds them that creation was made by Him. When our friends are indifferent to Christ, Nicaea declares that He is coming back as a judge. When well-meaning Churchmen would make Christ into a lofty spiritual entity, Chalcedon reminds us that He was, in fact, fully man. When our friends are heavy laden with despair, we lead them to the final two lines of Nicaea, where we cross ourselves each time:

And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

This is not mere semantics. This is our hope.

Without these semantics will have put aside the claims that make us distinctively Christian. We may continue teaching ethics, but the world did not need another ethical creed. Aristotle’s Ethics is nearly comprehensive. Confucius and Socrates trail not far behind. Mankind needed something more real. We needed God to assume our poverty, die in our place, stare hell in the face, and emerge victoriously. That is what we proclaim in the creeds: the substance of our faith. These are the claims that make us the salt and light of the earth. “Be kind and do good”—I can find that anywhere. But the claim that Christ is “truly God and truly human…consubstantial with the Father according to his divinity and consubstantial with us according to his humanity”—now this is different. This has some life to it. It’s hope of the realist sort and love of the only kind. This is a mystery men yearn to submit to even without full understanding. Morals are indispensable, but we are not a club of moral philosophers. We are the redeemed—those washed by the blood of the God-Man.

A Faith Without a Past?

But I will allow the possibility that I am wrong. Let us take the most radical stance, and say that since Constantine called Nicaea, everything has gone downhill. The Christians left the catacombs and the faith was lost soon after. Therefore, we must not look to the creeds, for they are tainted by the political ambitions of men. We will be a church with no creeds. We will look only to the scriptures. Very well. At least that is consistent. But it will not be for long. In a matter of time, new creeds will emerge—only these will not have the sanction of history. You can hear the creedal rumblings already: “It is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” And depending on what is meant all Christians should agree. But the validity of this phrase is not my present concern. I mention it only to suggest that any church will develop a Biblical heuristic—a method of organizing the whole. We all carry foundational beliefs that we use to interpret the scriptures.

And that is not wrong. I merely ask that we give the same—or rather, greater—deference to the heuristic used by the Fathers.

Those who see creeds as the dry documents of men—as the very “traditions” which Christ spoke against—do not see the creeds at all. The fault may be our own—we confessors—for mindlessly repeating what is in fact the wondrous mysteries that comprise our hope. I accept the critique that creedal recitations often fail to penetrate the heart. That problem is real, but it can be handled from within. My greater concern is for those not anchored in the creeds. But perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps we can retain the Trinity and get along just fine without Nicaea. Perhaps. But before accepting this hypothesis I beg the reader to consider our posterity. Is it reasonable to ask each generation to build the gospel anew? To make everyone start from square one? We ourselves may be lucky enough to retain the shadows of orthodoxy without creeds, but it will not be our own doing. We may survive on the fumes of creedal confessions. But what of centuries to come? How will the complexities of God, three-in-one, and the Son, God and man, be preserved, should our fallen species continue for three centuries? It was Burke’s observation that a nation without a past will have no cause for the future. So it is in the life of the church: a faith without a past is a faith without a future. Without doctrinal affirmations what will we be left with? I do not see how a post-credal Christianity could be anything other than a therapeutic center, quite different from the “faith once delivered unto the saints.” But perhaps that is already the water in which we swim.


  1. While not an exact quote, I derive this characterization of Arianism primarily from C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in Saint Athanasius On the Incarnation, from Popular Patristics (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011). 14. For a more serious scholarly consideration see John Henry Newman, The Arians of the Fourth Century, 1833; Pelkins, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 1975.
  2. I credit Chesterton with the origin of this paradox—one that he finds in the Song of Roland. G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction to the Book of Job,” xxv.


Caleb Knox

Caleb Knox is studying Political Theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He attends a Reformed Episcopal Church, the Church of our Savior Oatlands, with his friends and professors. At school, Caleb is captain of the college's Mock Trial team. After graduation he hopes to pass along the Classical Christian inheritance at a secondary school and then pursue studies in Theology and Political Thought.

'Flaming Tongues: On the Need for Creeds' have 4 comments

  1. August 9, 2023 @ 10:36 am Philip Enarson

    A beautiful and compelling apologia for the creeds; an appeal to the mind against the temptations of less studious more pietistic commitments. Thank you.


    • August 9, 2023 @ 7:27 pm Alice C. Linsley

      Most Evangelical Anglicans recite the Nicene Creed as part of the divine liturgy. Those that do not are likely to view the Book of Common Prayer as a liturgical resource from which they can pick the parts that they like, and that can lead to heterodoxy. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.


  2. August 14, 2023 @ 2:15 pm Francis R Lyons

    Some evangelicals are Anti-Creedal (René Padilla) because of the philosophical terminology and direction made in the creedal debates. They would suggest this lifts Jesus out of his human and historically compassionate context to focus on the divine (and dogmatic) which becomes an exclusive view coopted by a Church to colonize rather than evangelize the world. The Kingdom of God, for them, is derailed by this philosophical direction. We can see a valid critique of the history of the Church here. However, without the creeds, the understanding of the Triune relationships and the dynamic personhood of Jesus are totally left to flounder and cause mayhem and find a stunted, isolated Church. The horns of a dilemma.


    • August 14, 2023 @ 5:00 pm Philip Enarson

      ‘…a Church to colonize rather then evangelize’. Lots to unpack in this statement. Agreed it’s a potential dilemma if one takes an ‘either-or’ approach; not needed. If we commit to follow Jesus with ‘heart and mind’ we can be both intellectually mature in our doctrine as well as ‘on fire’ to evangelical. Trust the Holy Spirit to lead.


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