THE REJECTED STONE
There is regrettably much opposition to creeds in our day — not only from outside the Church but also from within. Part of this opposition is due to an inherited suspicion towards creeds, but there is also a general confusion as to what creeds are.
A creed is a teaching, doctrine or dogma. It's sometimes referred to as a confession, symbol or article of faith, or perhaps more commonly used in popular Christianity, "statement of faith". The word creed comes from the Latin "credo", which simply means "I believe". So, a creed in a Christian sense is what we believe the Bible to say, and consequently what we teach and exercise as a church body.
A creed can be written and unwritten and is closely connected with what a church body holds to be their authority, whether it's the Bible, Church, Pope, tradition, council, extra-biblical revelations, reason, mysticism etc. However, all church bodies have creeds, whether they recognise it or not; everyone follows one tradition or another, whether the members can appreciate it or not. For example, the Lutheran Church follows in the steps of Luther and other German reformers but can be traced back even further to Augustine. Suppose you're Non-Denominational, chances are high that you're following in the steps of the radical reformer Zwingli, who certainly has some very distinct ideas, and who with Calvin, not only emphasise the Bible, but also the use of reason.
Even if a church body or movement claims "no creed but Christ!" or "no doctrine, only the Bible!" and the like, they still have an inherited theological system, even if kept loose. This becomes very apparent when asking someone what their belief is with regards to the nature of Christ, the Gospel, Baptism, the Eucharist, sin, justification, sanctification etc. Whatever their answer is to any of those questions, that would be their creed or doctrine, that is, the confession of what they believe the Bible to say.
The Orthodox, or Confessional, Lutheran Church have a written corpus of confessions called Concordia, or the Book of Concord. The purpose of these confessions, as with any creed, is to uphold pure doctrine, and defend against and refute false doctrine. It should be said that they are confessions of faith and not infallible, but it is believed that they accurately reflect God's Word. God's Word alone is infallible and so the only supreme authority in all things. The Lutheran Church value tradition and creeds, but always in light of Scripture.
The Lutheran Confessions could perhaps be summed up by the famous solae:
Sola scriptura — by Scripture alone
The Holy Scripture, true Word of God, is the sole source and norm of Christian doctrine, hence the supreme, infallible and sole authority in the Church. Over against the view that Scripture is obscure, waiting for priest, Pope, theologian, council, philosopher, mystics and enthusiasts to demonstrate its real meaning, the Lutheran Church upholds the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture; that it is the clear Word of God, containing everything man needs to know in order to obtain salvation and live according to God’s will. Holy Scripture is complete and is its own authentic and infallible interpreter, and no one may add or deduct from it.
Though most protestants would agree with sola scriptura on paper, regrettably, in practice, they are often inconsistent and unfaithful to this article of faith. They suffer from tendencies of rationalism and spiritualism. That is, many bodies will claim adherence to "Bible alone", but still form doctrine based on reason. Others on Bible alongside new extra-biblical revelation. Those of Calvinist tradition, generally the Reformed, claim scripture alone, but reason is emphasised and employed. Calvin’s Geneva Catechism reads: “Can you prove by means of your reason that nothing strange is contained in this article? Yes, if it is granted that the Lord did not institute anything which is out of harmony with our reason.” Those of the Zwinglian tradition, for the most part Charismatic and Non-Denominational, claim authority lies in Scripture and extra-biblical revelation from the Holy Spirit. That is, they look internally and through the speaking in tongues, modern-day prophets and apostles to interpret what the Bible says, when in fact, Scripture interprets itself. Many modern churches, by freely mixing doctrine, lay much emphasis on both reason and revelation and also personal experience, all at the expense of God's written Word.
Sola fide — by faith alone
We are saved by faith alone in the person and works of our Lord Jesus Christ. By this saving faith, worked by the Holy Spirit, we are declared righteous before God. It is not our own doing, but from beginning to end it is the gift of God. So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Many church bodies confuse saving faith with obedience, which is not the cause nor the sustainer of saving faith, but rather the fruit of saving faith. Saving faith is, correctly, trust in the person and works of Jesus Christ; trust in God's promise of salvation. Only as a result of this trust comes true obedience, but our salvation is not conditioned on obedience as that would be work-righteousness. So trust has to do with justification (being declared righteous, a free gift from God), whereas obedience has to do with sanctification (gradually becoming holy in character and moulded into the image of Christ, the fruit of the Holy Spirit).
Sola gratia — by grace alone
We are saved by grace alone, apart from works. Justification can be understood as a judicial act of God, where the sins of the world are forgiven because of the vicarious atonement of Christ (objective justification). God pronounces the sinner righteous who by faith accepts this universal pardon offered in the Gospel, imputing to him the righteousness of Christ. In a word, the believer in the person and works of Jesus is clothed in Christ, by God’s grace. This teaching is the essence of the Gospel, and with Paul, we gladly confess that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Furthermore, we are not saved by our ability to believe, nor by the will of man or by a decision to believe, nor by any thing or quality within us, but entirely by God's grace in the objective and external works of Christ. Sadly, many church bodies teach (in varying degrees) that after we have made a decision to follow Jesus, we are then required to sustain and supplement our salvation through good works and the avoidance of sin, lest we backslide and lose our salvation. This notion is nothing short of Pelagianism, supposing that we can keep the law and merit salvation; it's a distrust in the finished work of Christ. Scripture simply and clearly teaches that (1) we are saved by grace, and (2) that we must do good works and live holy lives. Not that good works and holiness of living are necessary for salvation, but that good works and holiness are necessary results of salvation.
Many suppose it's sufficient to subscribe to the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, and while we absolutely should subscribe to these, the problem with this kind of minimalist approach is that it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. That is, different church bodies will not only interpret the Bible differently, but also the creed itself. For example, the confession that we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" is understood very differently between the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed and Charismatic.
Latitudinarianism — Rejection of or disregard for creeds
It has become a popular opinion that creeds are a thing of the past and something that only causes division and hinders unity. However, what meaningful union can there be without true unity? What benefit is there in compromising the Gospel in the name of unity? Is it Biblically sound to be in a union where someone teaches that salvation is a free gift, whilst others teach that salvation needs to be merited? Can truth be in union with falsehood? To be sure, to be patient and forgiving does not correspond with embracing or allowing false doctrine, for Scripture teaches us to watch our life and doctrine closely. It's good to earnestly strive for and pray for unity, but an honest schism is better than a dishonest unity.