Objections to using the historic creeds take many forms. Some, such as the Rev. John Beverly Butcher, maintain that the creeds are defective because they do not mention the life, teachings, and healing power of Jesus and thus should be “taken out of service.” There are other objections to the creeds, such as these noted by Presbyterian theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850): “The objection that creeds supersede the Bible as a standard of faith; the objection that creeds interfere with the rights of conscience; the objection that creeds discourage free inquiry; the objection that creeds fail to achieve their purpose; the objection that creeds promote discord and strife.”
It’s not my intent to even begin answering all of these objections in any detail. Rather, I want to offer reflections from Luke Timothy Johnson’s wonderful book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003) that I think offer ways of entering into possible answers to such objections. The section of the book I’m drawing on is entitled “The Blessed Simplicity of Profession.”
One of the qualities of the creed that most recommends it to contemporary Christians who find themselves confused about essentials and divided by nonessentials is its remarkable simplicity in profession. As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4).
Now, simply with respect to economy of expression and content, the Apostles’ Creed is considerably superior to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that has been our text. It says everything that needs to be said, and nothing more, which probably accounts in part for its continuing use and influence. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, however, is far superior to every subsequent creed and confession elaborated by Christians.
It adds to the Apostles’ Creed what is required to clarify the identity and work of the Son of God, and the work of the Spirit and the church. In this elaboration, it has shown itself faithful to the full range of scriptural testimony and the extraordinarily complex character of the Christian story. But it stops there. It retains the virtue of reticence. For this reason, and for its central place in the liturgical life of many Christians, this version of the creed deserves the close attention of the church today.
The simplicity of the creed is notable first in those matters on which it speaks. The creed consistently affirms what without trying to specify how, and thus liberates in two ways: the minds of believers are free to examine and investigate, without constraint, the gaps left within by the creed’s propositions, and their minds are not imprisoned by extraneous and possibly unworthy explanations or elaborations. The creed thus provides a stable confession within which the faithful can find a variety of acceptable standpoints and interpretations. This is part of what I meant by saying earlier that the creed gives boundaries, not barriers (pp. 314-316).
The creed tells us what is absolutely essential: God acts in the world for the sake of humans and to save them. The “how” and any further inquiry into the “why” remain unstated because they are both (ultimately) unknowable and unnecessary (p. 318).
Thus, the creed, far from being a restriction on Christian thinking, actually liberates the Christian mind. The simple and thrifty creed defines a few essential points and opens reasoning faith to many others. In this way it provides a model of establishing boundaries that are not barriers (pp. 320-321).