The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, “I believe.” The verb form is active, meaning not just a set of beliefs but a confession of faith, an affirmation of trust.
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
The third day he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
I believe in the Holy Ghost:
I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.
Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous . . . “– Deut 26:5
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”– Rom 10:9
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting . . . “– The Apostles’ Creed
From a positive perspective, creeds …
- offer a means of identification– separating orthodoxy from the heresy
- provide a basis for community– via commonly held beliefs
- serve as a reminder of the past– so that progress isn’t lost to future generations
- are a means of instruction– simplifying “the basics” so everyone can understand
- mark the battle line where error is confronted– focusing the faithful where needed the most
From a negative perspective, creeds can …
- offer opportunities for gainsaying– slogans can be exploited by opponents
- raise barriers to broader community– outsiders may be alienated or demonized
- stifle honest inquiry– creedal simplifications can harm rather than help
- focus on by-gone controversies– the faithful may find themselves “fighting floods with fire extinguishers and fires with sandbags”– C.S. Lewis
The “Five-Step Plan” has long been a basis for community, a means of identification, and a reminder of past achievements among churches of Christ. Even so, it is rather artificial– nowhere in the NT do we find a gospel preacher iterating its steps.
Its legalistic flavor begs questions that no NT writer considers– what happens if a person is killed before getting to “step 4″?
It risks abandonment of converts once its demands have been met.
It is exegetically questionable– “repent and be baptized” in Acts 2:38 are not two steps in the plan of salvation, but one– “be baptized” simply explains what is meant by “repent.”
It separates things that cannot be separated– confession is more than a “step”– it comprehends all of Christian life– repentance is confession; baptism is confession; being faithful “unto death” (martyrdom) is confession. (A better model might be to envision all of the “steps” radiating from faith instead of in a linear progression.)
Lastly, the Five-Step Plan fails to communicate the excitement of participating in God’s in-breaking kingdom.
In all of these respects, “the Plan” has characteristic of the creeds many like to demonize.
Yet, it does function as a creed in reflecting historical experiences of the Stone-Campbell Movement. For example, the command(s) to…
- “hear” opposes the necessity of Holy Spirit regeneration or illumination,
- “believe” and “confess” oppose infant baptism,
- “repent” opposes cheap grace and antinomianism (lawlessness),
- “be baptized” opposes alternatives to immersion and the “sinner’s prayer,” and
- “be faithful unto death” opposes “once saved, always saved” (Calvin’s “perseverance of the saints”)
“The Plan” took shape at a time when the fundamental claims of Christianity (the divinity of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, etc.) were not in major dispute. The main issues were largely procedural or organizational– church government, worship, salvation, etc. In that context, “the Plan” spoke to those who were trying to make sense of denominational confusion.
That is no longer true. Most people no longer care about denominational distinctions and cultural acceptance of Christian beliefs has waned. In this changed context, “the Plan” fails to counterpoint the culture the way it used to. The answer may be to re-order our confession according to different priorities– not to dispense with a biblical pattern of gospel response, but simply to address modern unbelief more directly.
The need for this kind of change shouldn’t be a surprise– the church will always need to most strongly confess whatever the world most strongly denies. The motives of those who take this tactic aren’t necessarily suspect. The Apostle Paul recognized confessional priorities– some things are secondary; others are “of first importance”– most especially “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day”– 1Cor 15:3ff. This “confession” best affirms what the modern world denies.
When Elijah returned to Sinai in his attempt to “restore” the true faith, his journey retraced the sites Israel had visited during conquest of the Promised Land. In a similar way, creeds lead their adherents through subtle retracings of historical conflicts that have shaped their particular communities. Sometimes these retracings are appropriate– sometime not– God was not pleased with Elijah’s.
Most people do not understand or even need to know the particular nuances we give to “hear, believe, and repent”? To contemporary listeners, it turns the excitement of participating in God’s in-breaking kingdom into a checklist exercise.
A better model for today might be to tie response to the gospel to the demands of conscience– demands that involve confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification. Since these demands are not optional, the choice then for modern-day listeners is not whether they are met, but whether they will be worked out destructively or not. The gospel is the “good news” of a hopeful outcome– the opportunity for a constructive response to what God has written on the heart.