THE true object of a creed was well expressed in the old Latin sentence, "Symbola credita, non credenda., exprimunt." Creeds express the things which are believed, not things which must be believed. It is rather for the exhibition of the faith of the church, than for its enforcement on the conscience; and though the true design has been often forgotten and often perverted, it still remains as useful now as in former days, to have "set forth in order a declaration of the things which are most surely believed among us." Their utility is rendered obvious by the very objections which are urged against them by errorists. They are standing witnesses against heresy, an abiding "testimony" most inconvenient and disagreeable to those who love to wander from the old paths.
We extract from the History of the Midland Association, above named, some valuable facts with reference to their use among early churches:Ancient creeds or confessions of faith are known to have been generally used in the age immediately following that of the apostles. Lord King, in his "Primitive Church," alluding to the apostles' creed, remarks: "But though they had not that (he disputes the antiquity of that particular creed,) yet they had other creeds very like thereunto, which contained the fundamental articles of the christian faith, to which all Christians gave their assent and consent, and that publicly at baptism."The most ancient creed extant is that of the venerable Irenaeus, who had been a pupil of the holy pastor Polycarp, and who flourished as "Bishop" of Lyons from about A.D. 157 to 180, when he suffered martyrdom. It has been preserved to us as follows:"The church, though it be dispersed over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other, has received from the apostles and their disciples the belief in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all things in them: and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Ghost, who preached by the prophets the dispensations of God and the advent, nativity of a virgin, passion, resurrection from the dead, and bodily ascension into heaven of the flesh of his beloved Son Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming again from heaven in the glory of the Father, to restore all things, and raise the flesh of all mankind; that according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in the earth, and things under the earth, to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King; and that every tongue should confess to him; and that he may exercise just judgment upon all, and may send spiritual wickedness and the transgressing and apostate angels, with all ungodly, unrighteous, lawless and blaspheming men into everlasting fire; but having granted life to all righteous and holy men that keep his commandments and persevere in his love, some from the beginning, others after repentance, on these he may bestow the gift of immortality, and invest them with eternal glory."
In allusion to this creed, Lord King remarks, that"Irenaeus having recited a creed, or a short summary of the christian faith, not much uulike to the apostles' creed, immediately added, "The church having received this faith and doctrine, although dispersed through the whole world, diligently preserves it, as though she had but one soul and one heart, and consonantly preaches and teaches these things as though she had but one mouth; for although there are various languages in the world, yet the doctrine is one and the same; so that the churches in Germany, France, Asia, Egypt, or Lybia, have not a different faith, but as the sun is one and the same to all the creatures of God in the whole world, so the preaching of the word is a light that enlightens every where, and illuminates all men that would come to the knowledge of the truth."
Tertullian, who died A. D. 220, confessed his faith in a statement of doctrine, of which the following is but a fragment:"The rule of faith is altogether one and the same, entirely firm and unalterable; namely, that we believe in one all-powerful God, the Creator of the world, and in his Son Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was raised from the dead the third day, was taken up into heaven; sits now at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead by the resurrection of the flesh."The Nicene Creed dates from about A. D. 325, and the collection of Articles called "The Apostles' Creed" followed soon after.
With the increase of schismatics, who denied various great doctrines of christianity, such as the Gnostics, the Ebionites, the Encratites, the Simonians, the Marcionists, the Arians, and a host of others, who advocated most pernicious errors, while professing a general belief in the scriptures; confessions of the orthodox faith increased also, and these are to be found in the fragmentary writingsof Origen, Cyprian; Thaumaturgus, Lucian the martyr, and other early authors. In addition to their declaratory purpose, they were evidently employed to test and expose the character of dishonest men, who under the plea of believers, entered the church to pollute its doctrine, and to divide and scatter, its members. These men were the agents of the wicked one, and crept into the church that they might all the more effectual1y do the work of their master. The orthodox creed was employed by the church to correct the mischief by exposing such men.
In the year 1120, and amidst the thickest darkness of popery, the simple-minded, holy, faithful Vaudois published their Confession of Faith, and thus struck out the first ray or light in the dawn of the reformation. In 1530 the Augsburg Confession appeared, and was followed, in, 1532, by that of the Moravians. In 1535 the noble-minded Waldenses declared their faith in a Confession of seventeen articles; in 1549 the Protestant churches of Hungary avowed their faith in twenty articles; and in 1556 the Swiss Confession was printed at Torgau. In 1560 the Scotch Reformed Church puhlished their Confession; and in 1562 the Articles of the Church of England, which, had been drawn up by Cranmer and Ridley, were adopted in full convocation.
In 1643 appeared the Westminster Confession of Faith; in the same year that of seven Baptist churches in London; and in the year 1656 the Somersetshire Baptist churches puplished their Confession, that of the Midland Association having been framed and adopted in 1655. In 1660 the General Baptists published a Confession of Faith.
From this rapid sketch it will be obvious that, in all ages, the best men and the most noble of churches have considered it perfectly consistent with a full belief in the sufficiency of the holy scriptures, to declare their faith to the world in the form of Creeds and Confessions. It never entered, into their minds to suppose for a moment that such a'practice was in the slightest degree derogatory to divine truth as contained in the Bible; but loving that truth with more than mortal affection, even to a readiness to die rather than forego its claims, they conceived it expedient and honorable to avow before the world the principles to which they pledged their obedience and their life.
That eminent divine, John Howe, say of creeds, that "such schemes or collections of doctrines, reduced into an order (as gold formed into a vessel, whereas truth, as it lies in the holy scriptures, is as gold in the mass) may be of use (as they have always been used in the church in all ages) more distinctly to inform others concerning our sentiments, provided they be avowed to be looked upon, but as a measured rule, reserving unto the Scriptures the honor of being the only measuring rule, and so that we only own them as agreeable to the Scriptures."
[From American Baptist Memorial, Basil Manly, Editor, 1856, pp. 173-174. Additional paragraph spacing has been used to make the essay easier to read. - jrd]
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