Americans can be a strange people, and this is perhaps especially true of American Christians. Although the percentage of the population claiming a Christian identity has fallen in recent years, the majority of the population still professes adherence to some form of Christianity. However, it is one thing to profess Christianity; it is another thing entirely to know or hold to anything resembling an orthodox expression of the faith. Surveys like this one have repeatedly demonstrated that American Christians in general possess a rather low level of biblical literacy, even in groups which profess strict adherence to the scriptures. And don’t ask about knowledge of important personages and doctrinal disputes throughout church history; the level of knowledge is even lower. While evangelicals at least profess to believe and revere the Bible, too many have very little idea of what it actually teaches, and doctrinal standards often consist in practice of “that’s how we’ve always taught it,” “my church does it this way,” or even worse, “God told me.” Leaving an unpacking of the last statement in particular for some other time, let me set forth a less subjective (and, I hope, therefore superior) approach to forming, reforming, and defending the Christian’s faith and practice. I like to summarize this as “Scripture, then Creeds, then Confessions, then Self.”
1. Scripture. In 2 Timothy 3 we read the following words:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
If the Bible is what it claims to be, the Word of God in written form, then we are bound to affirm what it affirms, reject what it rejects, and obey what it commands. It should be the Christian’s ultimate and inviolable rule for faith and life. This means at the very least that we should make every effort to develop a full knowledge of what the Bible teaches so that we might live and believe in a way that pleases God, and ultimately find eternal life in Christ.
Still, the Bible is a big book (or collection of books), encompassing multiple authors, time periods, and genres. Some of its teachings are not as clear as others, and the sheer volume of material means that some systematization is helpful in increasing our comprehension of it. That brings us to…
2. Creeds. The great ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’, Nicene [or Niceno-Constantinopolitan], and Athanasian Creeds) are summaries of biblical doctrine that have served the church well for nearly two millennia, setting forth basic understandings of who God is and how people can be saved. It is safe to say that these contain the minimal standards of what might be considered orthodox—Christians of different denominations or traditions that differ on any number of secondary and tertiary issues can receive each other as brothers so long as there is agreement on these core issues. For more specific areas of doctrine, we move on to…
3. Confessions. The confessions of faith of various denominations are the next level of specificity. Whether you know it or not, if you are a member of an organized Christian denomination your church probably officially holds to documents such as the Westminster Standards for conservative Presbyterians, the Three Forms of Unity for those in the continental Reformed traditions, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith for Reformed Baptists, the Baptist Faith and Message for Southern Baptists, the Book of Concord for confessional Lutherans, and similar documents for other denominations. While members and even officers and clergy of these denominations might take exception to one or more individual (usually minor) points in these documents, in general these represent faithful efforts to systematize, promote, and teach the beliefs of a particular denomination or group—subject, of course, to Holy Scripture.
4. Self. Lastly, self. Rather than making one’s own personal opinions or experiences the ultimate rule and arbiter in matters of faith, it is safest to subject one’s personal opinions to the standards listed previously. For example, I am a member of a Presbyterian church, which means that I subordinate and check my own opinions on matters of faith by the doctrinal standards of my church, the Westminster Standards. For the most part, that is as far as I have to go, as the Standards are demonstrably faithful to the scriptures in practically every respect. In the very few cases (one or two only) in which I take exception to Westminster, I don’t simply say “I don’t like that,” but rather move up the chain as it were, making sure that my opinions are at least consonant with the creeds and, then, with Scripture itself. As it turns out, the areas in which I take exception are some where the Bible is not as immediately clear as it is in others (a circumstance acknowledged by the Westminster Standards themselves), and faithful Christians can be found holding several opinions on these matters. So while I am in very nearly 100% agreement with the stated doctrinal opinions of my denomination, I dare not depart from them at all without believing that there is a scriptural argument for my deviation. The Christian’s primary commitment should be to Holy Scripture; one should never knowingly go against that.
To put my view even more briefly, one should hold tightly to the Bible as the ultimate rule of faith and life, then a little more loosely to the ecumenical creeds, still more loosely to the confessions of one’s denomination, and very loosely indeed to one’s personal opinions. Rather than taking the quintessentially American approach of making primary the beliefs and experiences of the individual, the correct and ultimately safer approach is quite the opposite, subjecting every religious belief to the test of Scripture, in most cases as interpreted by the (not infallible but certainly helpful) creeds and confessions.