No Creed but the New Testament?
By Richard B. Gardner
Slogans. Most of the groups or
organizations I know have some slogan, some catchy phrase they use to describe
"In God we trust."
"The quality goes in before the name goes on."
So it is, likewise, in the Church of the Brethren. And one of the slogans we like to cite provides the title of this article: "No creed but the New Testament."
The position summed up in this slogan goes all the way back to the 18th century. According to Samuel Smith, a Quaker historian in colonial Pennsylvania, the Brethren "have a great esteem for the New Testament, valuing it higher than all other books, and if they are asked about the articles of their faith, they know of no other than what is contained in this book, and therefore can give none."
In the era of our early forebears, such a position was quite novel. It contrasted sharply with the mindset of many religious groups, who fought wars over creeds and sought to silence dissenters.
But that was then. What about today? Is the slogan "No creed but the New Testament" only a relic of history? Or does it still say something important about who we are as Brethren - and who we want to be?
Before answering that question, we need to admit up front that our cherished slogan has its dangers and limitations. Sometimes it has been abbreviated to read simply "No creed," conveying the mistaken idea that we never confess our faith or that convictions are unimportant. Sometimes the slogan is used as a basis for bashing the Old Testament, overlooking the fact that the New Testament constantly appeals to the Old. And sometimes, regrettably, the slogan has been only a slogan, mouthed by persons who know neither the creeds nor the New Testament.
So, where does that leave us? In spite of its misuse, the slogan "No creed but the New Testament" belongs with our future as well as our past. It has much to teach us about the faith we confess and the way we confess it.
The faith we confess cannot be packaged once and for all in a neat statement or system.
That particular learning did not come easily for me. Journal entries from earlier days remind me of a time when I operated with a very tight doctrinal system. I equated that system with true faith and was ready to defend it against all threats, real or imagined.
Somewhere along the line, however , the system began to crack. I came to realize that no statement of faith, no well-structured theological system, can ever nail God down. God’s reality is forever overflowing our rational containers, and God's surprises are forever confounding our calculations.
This does not mean that statements of faith are wrong. To the contrary, confessing our faith is an essential part of our witness, whether in personal exchange, congregational worship, or papers of Annual Conference. Statements of faith are a means of declaring: This is how we perceive God's story at this juncture in our own story .
No matter how well we say it, however, no statement is ever the final word. No matter how well we put the pieces together, no system is ever the final system. "No creed but the New Testament" is a reminder that the mystery of God cannot be captured or exhausted in our attempts to define that mystery.
The faith we confess has a clear point of reference,
a primary story from which we take our clues for interpreting all of life.
It is commonplace now to describe the world we inhabit as pluralistic. We live in a kind of cultural "farmer's market," full of booths or stands displaying different texts, different traditions, different lifestyles, different ideologies. In the midst of this market, we constantly are deciding what to keep, what to sell, and what to buy. But how do we make those decisions?
The slogan "No creed but the New Testament" helps to define the ground rules by which we barter in the market. On the one hand, it permits us to draw from the diversity around us. Because we are not bound by a closed system, we are free to sample the wares that others offer. Who knows what God might have in store for us, from a source we least expected?
On the other hand, we are guided in this process by the New Testament story of God's agenda in Jesus Christ. We do not wander through the market as aimless consumers, but as people formed by a particular promise and vision. We are ready to explore the truth claims that come to us from other sellers. But we know that whatever is true and valid must in some way fit with our charter story, the New Testament story of God at work in the world to redeem all creation. That is our compass, our constant point of reference,
The faith we confess must be shaped by all the voices that
speak in the Scriptures,
not just those we know or like best.
There is a persistent tendency in the church to fasten on one element in scripture and overlook the rest. As others have put it, we establish our own "canon within the canon."
For some persons, this selective canon consist of a favorite section or author in the Bible - perhaps the letters of Paul, the Sermon on the Mount, or the letter of James. For others, it may be a favorite theme or emphasis - justification by faith, liberating the oppressed, or following the way of Jesus. Whatever our preferred texts or themes, they become the lenses through which we read the rest of scripture.
To be sure, there are times when we need to focus on one particular strand of the Bible. In a culture that is obsessed with law and performance, the grace notes of Paul's letters sound a vital corrective. In a church where patriarchy still reigns, texts that challenge patriarchy deserve our special attention. In a violent society, our red-letter texts must be those that call us to peace and reconciliation.
However, if anyone voice in scripture so dominates our reading of the whole that it drowns out other voices, we have a serious problem. The faith we confess will be a very distorted faith.
"No creed but the New Testament" is a reminder to listen to all the voices of the biblical story. As in every choral concert, some of the voices and some of the numbers may appeal to us more than others. It is in the whole program, however, that we experience the fullness of God’s self-disclosure.
The faith we confess springs from direct engagement with the
not from positions taken by those who went before us.
The issue is well-stated in a query that came to our Annual Meeting in 1857: "Would it not be better in deciding upon all subjects... to refer first to the Word of God, instead of first referring to the old minutes?" With brevity and wisdom, the delegates gave the answer: "We think it always safest to refer first to the Word of God!"
The 19th century Brethren who debated this query were free enough from the creeds of other churches. At the same time, they had become captive to a century’s worth of traditions of their own making, covering every facet of life. In confronting this situation, the instincts of those who brought the query were sound. They realized that it is not sufficient to live out of traditions derived from the New Testament. It is essential in every generation to return to our biblical wellsprings and discover anew what is there for faith.
How easily we forget that, however. Activists can become content with the stale visions of yesterday’s movements. Theologians can become mired in the language and methods of’ yesterday’s thought systems. Church boards can become stuck in programs that respond to yesterday’s problems.
The slogan "No creed but the New Testament" points us in a different direction. It summons us to turn afresh to the primary sources of our faith, and to let ourselves be changed by what we discover.
A Brethren tract from the 18th century describes this process of discovery and transformation rather well: "The necessity of Christendom requires that all the words of Christ and his Spirit be so read, considered, and believed... that the entire New Testament is written into the hearts of its readers, until their lives become living letters of God in which one can read all the commandments of Jesus Christ."
When and where this happens, "No creed but the New Testament" is more than a mere slogan for us to recite. The word has become flesh, text incarnate in life.
Richard B. Gardner is Interim Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament
at Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, Indiana
(article reprinted from Messenger magazine, April 1991, pp. 24-25)
read the following Church of the Brethren Annual Conference
"The New Testament as our Rule of Faith and Practice"
"Biblical Inspiration and Authority"
return to "I Believe" return to Didache page