The New Testament --
Our Only Creed
Volume 58, Number 1
2023 marks the 300th year since the organization of the first Brethren in North America. On Christmas Day, 1723, the Brethren at Germantown, Pennsylvania gathered for their first baptism and love feast in the New World. They did this because of what they believed, and then what they wanted to practice. They wanted to teach and practice their simple New Testament faith.
Harold Martin wrote, “The “No creed but the New Testament” slogan has both benefits and dangers. Non-creedalism allows for new understandings which God may yet disclose to us. It reduces incidents of mere lip-service to key ecclesiastical phrases; and it stresses God’s standard in the New Testament rather than human opinion. The dangers associated with not having a written creed include the following: Having “no creed but the New Testament” is often abbreviated to say “no creed” period. Noncreedalism tends toward allowing “each to do and believe what is right in his own eyes.” Sometimes noncreedalism is used to defend a move away from the practices of the New Testament, and is used to support unrestrained individualism. To have no simple statement of faith allows for too many possibilities of interpretation” (BRF Witness, Volume 26, Number 6, 1991).
He continued, “The writer in the Brethren Encyclopedia says: “Despite assertions to the contrary by Brethren in the 20th century, early Brethren were not open to ‘progressive revelation’ in regard to basic Christian doctrine” (page 942). And while the Brethren through the years have been noncreedal, stating frequently that the New Testament is the only rule of faith and practice, earlier Brethren were willing to summarize in concise form what they believed about God and the Bible and sin and salvation. One such statement of faith has become known as The Brethren Card, and has for many years become a helpful tool for summarizing the beliefs and practices of the Brethren.”
The Brethren Card was printed in full in the 1946 Brethren Minister’s Manual and pastors were instructed to see that applicants for church membership “make a definite commitment on these great principles” at the time of their baptism and reception into the church. It appeared for two or three decades in every Gospel Messenger, the official organ of the Church of the Brethren. This attests to a general endorsement of this statement of faith.
The Brethren Card or similar statements of faith, are not “creeds,” nor are they ever intended to be so. They do not exhaust the whole message of the Bible. That is why Brethren have always said that “The entire New Testament is our creed.” Statements of faith do not set a limit beyond which faith cannot go. On the other hand, many of us believe that insofar as these statements extend, they are a true presentation of the sound doctrine taught in the Scriptures, and these teachings are therefore binding upon us as Christian disciples.
The exposition of the Brethren Card – New Testament Beliefs and Practices: A Brethren Understanding by Brother Martin, the former editor of this publication – remains in print and is a perennial seller among Brethren congregations. This shows a clear recognition of its continuing importance.
The Covenant Brethren Church, in its organizational beginnings, instructed its editorial committee to produce a restatement of the Brethren Card, so as it emphasize the continuing importance of that faith statement, to highlight some understandings assumed but not stated in the Brethren Card, and to express the Covenant Brethren continuity with its Brethren heritage.
We of BRF continue on to a deeper appreciation and confidence in our Brethren heritage, in our New Testament foundation, and in our future in the Gospel message. We will continue to make steady progress until Jesus comes. We would invite you to join us in that. –Craig Alan Myers
The New Testament — Our Only Creed
By Craig Alan Myers
The word, “creed,” comes from the Latin word, “credo,” which simply means, “I believe.” A creed is defined as “a brief formula of belief,” or “a set of fundamental beliefs.” At its heart, then, a creed is an expression of faith or confession of what one believes. It serves to focus on certain points of teaching that may be in controversy or possibly neglected in some ages. Early creeds like the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed were intended to serve as statements of belief in contrast to the errors and heresies which were cropping up. They were not necessarily used as a means to judge heretics, but were boundary markers of basic teaching, setting forth both accepted and acceptable understandings of the Christian faith.
CREEDAL STATEMENTS MAY BE MISUSED
Brethren came into existence in a time where there were a great many creedal statements. The Augsburg Confession (Lutheran), the Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed), and the Decrees of the Council of Trent (Roman Catholic) were issued to clarify the various teachings of those groups. The Mennonites formulated the Dortrecht Confession of Faith in 1632. Philip Spener wrote a small work called “Pious Desires” or Pia Desiderata, expressing some teaching that Christians of the later Reformation times had ignored. Some of these statements had the force of law, and persons not conforming to these creeds were subject to arrest, imprisonment, and even death. Yet many statements simply were the expressions of heart-felt faith that some groups felt compelled to explain in fuller fashion, both to the next generations of believers and to the larger world. If anything, the Reformation and its aftermath brought about intense theological discussions that were fairly rare in the history of the Christian faith.
In the midst of these debates, Brethren were concerned that people were giving mere lip-service to these creeds and not reflecting their “belief” in the manner of their living. Therefore, Brethren tended to avoid manmade creeds, and relied on what was said to be “our only creed” – the New Testament. They also felt that belief in Christ should be voluntary – not forced by a governmental authority.
As a result, the early Brethren felt that the only standard by which Christians should be judged was the New Testament. The New Testament, being the fullest revelation of God and His plan of salvation through Christ, was the only means able to discern what real faith was all about. Creedal statements could never be completely without error and authoritative for they are written by mere humans. The New Testament, whose author is God, is the complete standard to guide Christians in their faith and life.
Edward Frantz, editor of the Gospel Messenger from 1915 to 1942, wrote, “[Creed] came to stand for a formal statement of doctrinal beliefs, supposedly the most important, often with details of opinion which could have no bearing on character making or on fellowship with God or on one’s relations with his fellow men. Reaction against this tendency to excess in creedal statement went so far that some people take pride in saying they have no creed” (Basic Belief, p. 95).
More recently, the “tendency to excess” has been in the other direction, for some Brethren avoid any kind of statement of faith or even reject the concept that our only creed is the New Testament. Indeed, it is often stated that Brethren have no creed. Some are unwilling to be forthright about the substance of their faith. Instead, one hears that Brethren are “open to new revelation”–and this from “evangelical” leaders!
Brethren over the years approved and issued statements–study papers, position papers, and resolutions–many of which go to great lengths to put forward their views. These have covered theological, moral, cultural, and practical matters.
And yet, at the same time, many have been nervous about studying “the essential nature of the Brethren,” for fear that it would lead to adopting a creed of some sort. Some also objected to the adoption of a statement which said, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, and the Head of the Church, according to the Scriptures.”
WE NEED GUIDELINES OF FAITH
Our Brethren forebears were not afraid to proclaim–and debate with non-Brethren-the substance of their faith and their trust in the New Testament as their only creed. “It should be reemphasized that the Brethren accepted the great body of evangelical truths held by the Reformation churches,” writes Dale R. Stoffer in Background and Development of Brethren Doctrines (p. 75, 1st Edition).
The Brethren of the 1700s also requested that Christopher Sauer II, the Brethren printer, reprint the Heidelberg Catechism – the primary creedal document of the continental European Reformed churches. Why did they do this? Because they recognized the orthodoxy and value of this teaching source. They believed the essential doctrines it promoted, and used it to pass the basic Christian faith on to their children and grandchildren.
Now, however, some Brethren seem to fear being firm in their belief in anything. There is little regard for the plain commands of the New Testament, but instead, a clamor for “relevance” is the present theological fad. Some may argue that there is no need to set forth official statements of what Brethren believe, for the New Testament contains all we need to know. It is true that no matter what any body or school, or any other group states about an issue, the Word of God still stands. The deity, Saviourhood, and headship of Christ are not subject to votes, nor are matters of morals.
However, it would be different if leaders and professors in educational institutions would accept without question the words of the New Testament plainly interpreted. If it stood as the final rule of faith and practice, then we should have small difficulty in agreeing that there is little need for us to spell out what we believe. Yet higher criticism, speculative interpretations, and simple unbelief have undermined much of the authority which the Bible once commanded.
Matters of apparent minor importance, once so emphasized, have indeed passed from view. Yet now even the great doctrines of the faith, the “fundamental, evangelical” beliefs we once shared in common with all of orthodox Christianity, are being dismissed quickly. Even while a calls is issued for spiritual renewal, the omniscience and omnipresence of God is questioned, as is the very deity of Jesus Christ. Recent surveys by Christianity Today magazine show that even many “evangelicals” hold to a sub-Christian view of Christ similar to the Arians of the 4th Century.
Again, a quote from editor Frantz, “What a man believes about anything determines what he does about it. To pretend otherwise is the sheerest folly. To say that it is what you do that counts, overlooks the simple fact that what you do depends on what you believe” (Basic Belief, p. 95, emphasis mine). For example, if you believe God is a loving being who will merely wink at your “mistakes,” then you will have little incentive to be carefully obedient in all things.
This attitude has had grave consequences in the Christian life. Moral wrongs never countenanced even a few years ago are now open behavior for all to see. Homosexuality, premarital sex, and adultery are not condemned as sin anymore, but are accepted as mainstream. What one believes has a close relation to how one lives.
We turn now to a comparison of the New Testament with creedal statements, and look at the proper place of each in the life and faith of the church.
THE WORD OF GOD HAS AUTHORITY
As the very Word of God, the New Testament is our final rule of faith and practice, and accepted as authoritative in all matters. Every belief and practice must be subjected to it. Those ideas which do not comport with the plain teachings and principles of the New Testament should be discarded. The Church has every right to expect its members to believe in and accept the New Testament fully. Also, the church has every right to discipline its members for violations of the teachings found in the Scriptures.
Creedal statements written by human beings are only authoritative when they follow the straightforward teachings of the Scripture. Many creeds go far beyond the explicit doctrines into subjects of conjecture. For example, some statements of faith are very definite about the doctrine of last things and the Second Coming of Christ. Other than the fact that Christ will return for His Church, much of what is taught today is merely an opinion of how events will occur. Some Christians are premillennial, some are amillennial, some postmillennial. There are many details the Lord has not given to us.
This is not to say that statements of faith are in themselves always wrong and not to be made or followed. The early Brethren were simply wan/ of stating what they believed and then being held in a “box” which would be considered a higher authority than the New Testament. They wanted to be open to new understandings as they studied the Scriptures for themselves. For example, as they read the Gospel of John, they observed that Jesus commanded that His followers were to “wash one another’s feet.” They also saw that Christians were to engage in a fellowship meal as a symbol of their love for one another. This was not being widely done by Christians of their time and area, so they sought to practice it themselves, as obedient disciples of Jesus. They were under the authority of the New Testament and any new commands which they found. This has been the practice of Brethren down to the present.
WE HAVE A SUPERIOR AND COMPLETE REVELATION FROM GOD
When we say that the New Testament is our only creed, it often goes unsaid that all other statements and confessions of faith and creeds are inferior to it. This is not to say that we cannot compose statements of that which we believe from time to time. We need to recognize that all such statements are merely the works of human minds.
There does seem to be a need for people to set forth some kind of summary of their beliefs. It assists believers in their efforts to tell others–in a short way–the basics of their faith. Insofar as these summaries are faithful to the New Testament, they assist in communicating our faith. Many of us use the “Roman Road” as a help when explaining the Gospel to unbelievers. It simply covers the rudimentary facts of salvation. It does not include everything a person needs to know about the Christian faith. In the same way, a concise summary of beliefs does not include everything there is to the Bible or in the Christian faith. If it correctly relates the doctrines of the faith, then it is accurate and can be trusted. Yet the final authority is the New Testament itself.
William Beahm, former dean of Bethany Theological Seminary, writes, “Creedal statements can be useful, however, if they are regarded as a brief and memorable form of Christian belief as it faces spurious substitutes which from time to time might threaten to replace Biblical faith. It is valuable to have, in every age, short and simple statements of Biblical faith which may help to clarify and unify the church’s consensus on vital issues” (Studies in Christian Belief, pp. 26-27).
WE HAVE AN IMMUTABLE REVELATION FROM GOD
Man-made creeds are subject to change over the years as issues confronting the Christian faith change. When the Apostles’ Creed was written, no one ever expected the modern attack on the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Therefore, the doctrine of the Scriptures was not addressed. For the past century or so, however, the Bible has been questioned from both within and outside of the Church. Thus, in modern confessions and statements of faith, the issue of Biblical reliability and authority is mentioned.
The New Testament, however, does not change. Its statements are forever true and forever pertinent to the human condition. Some argue that the early Brethren opposed formulating a statement of belief because they were open to new revelation. It was not new revelation they were seeking, but fresh illumination. When you enter a dark room, you turn on the lights to show you what is already there, not in the hope there will be something there that was not present before. We search the Scriptures, not for a vision of new things, but for the understanding of those things already there.
In the article on the “Bible” in the Brethren Encyclopedia, the writer says “Brethren sometimes single out the New Testament as that part of Scripture to be designated as the ‘rule of faith and practice.’ Underlying this special esteem for the New Testament is the conviction that it sets forth God’s final and binding covenant with humanity in Jesus Christ” (p. 133, emphasis mine). Many raise the cry that we must be “on the cutting edge” of modern developments in theology and practice. Alexander Mack, when accused of starting a new church, replied, “We have neither a new church nor new laws. We only want to remain in simplicity and true faith in the original church which Jesus founded through His blood” (Ground Searching Questions, No. 38). Would that that be the concern of our leaders and preachers today!
OUR STANDARD OF FAITH IS OBJECTIVE
When we mention that the New Testament is our only creed, we acknowledge that it has the highest authority in our Christian faith. While we may gain wisdom and insight from our experience, from the gathered body of believers, and from the Holy Spirit instructing us, the only objective measure we possess today is the Bible. By it only may beliefs and behavior be adequately judged.
The Bible is not subject to our redefining and reinterpreting, although many attempt to do so. Those who redefine Scripture, while loudly proclaiming their faith in Christ and His Word, really have no desire to pattern their lives and faith after the simple faith of the New Testament. Rather, they try to stand in judgment of the Word, and to re-interpret it according to the current theological and social trend. “Salvation” becomes liberation from social and economic oppression, and the Jesus who came “to seek and to save that which was lost,” becomes a political messiah intent on overthrowing Rome. The New Testament becomes so pliable that it often is no longer recognizable to the average believer, and becomes meaningless as any sort of guide.
Others (many of whom are theologically similar to conservative Brethren) also proclaim their belief in the New Testament, but prefer to pick and choose what they believe and practice. Yet the early Brethren found no “canon within the canon” which they followed more closely than the rest of the New Testament. It was to be obeyed, in its entirety, without question.
To be sure, Matthew 5-7 are to be the Christian’s guide, and so is 1 Corinthians 11. Why in some congregations is the feetwashing and full communion service on the way out? How is it that divorce and remarriage and even homosexuality have gained acceptance even within our more evangelical churches? We cannot do better than to accept the New Testament unconditionally and uncritically, although we can definitely do much worse.
WE HAVE A STANDARD THAT WE CAN HOLD AND PRACTICE
One of the things that concerned early Brethren most was that many in the state churches professed faith in Christ and in a creed, but there was no corresponding change in their lives. Those who claim faith in Jesus must also live that faith out. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
A statement of faith will not change peoples’ lives. Only the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit can prompt people to make permanent changes. Yet a written summary of belief may help us keep our minds focused on what is central in our faith, and remind us of the practices commanded in the New Testament. A statement can never capture all the essence of the New Testament faith — but it can help us as we seek to apply the Word to our lives.
Some do not care for statements of faith because they spell out directly what the essential content of faith is. A real fear is that such statements would serve to expose what people really believe–or do not believe! Many persons who are so inclined, can re-interpret or explain away the plain words of the Lord, as being “cultural” or “hard to understand.” It is not quite as easy to challenge the words and phrases of one’s own time. This is one reason why the “Brethren Card” is accepted by so few today. It sets forth in concise language what the Brethren have stood for from the beginning. It cannot be explained away. Then too, the Word of God is not to be explained or interpreted away. To do so is to go against all that Brethren have stood for in the past 315 years. The Bible is to be read, studied, and obeyed. “Seek to know the Lord and to practice what you know,” said Henry Holsinger, the leader of the Progressive Brethren of the 1880s.
When we say that “The New Testament is our Rule of Faith and Practice,” we are saying that the New Testament is our creed. We are saying the New Testament is our standard for what we believe and what we do.
If we truly believe that the New Testament is our only creed, our final rule of faith and practice, then it is important that it be reflected in our lives and actions. Alexander Mack noted it would be hard for many to do this, and thus he counseled them (after Luke 14) to “count well the cost.” Simple obedience to the Lord’s Word can and will involve sacrifices at times. Jesus did not say that the way would always be easy, but He did promise the help of the Holy Spirit and an end which would be glorious. May He find us faithful!