N.T. Wright and those Pesky Creeds

N.T. Wright and those Pesky Creeds May 7, 2012

Tom Wright doesn’t back down from this claim: those who read the Gospels by way of the Creed will miss what the Gospels are saying. He doesn’t back down then from this second claim: if we read the Creed by way of the Gospels — understood in context — we will read the Creeds as we ought. (After the jump I have The Apostles’ Creed.) I agree with both of Tom’s claims; but I have some reservations (see below).

Do you agree with N.T. Wright on seeing the Creed as leaving out kingdom and life of Jesus? Do you think the Creed therefore distorts the New Testament/biblical narrative? What is the relationship of Creed to Canon? Do you think the problem is Creed or soteriology?

1. Tom Wright’s aim in his scholarly career, and in this new book How God Became King, is to get into the inner and developing fabric of the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus in order to find out what makes it tick and work the way it does — shedding light on what we’ve got, not getting back to some pristine, earlier, uninterpreted Jesus or Israel. In this, Tom’s historical Jesus works differs from many. Yet, Wright’s approach is every bit that of the historian.

2. Wright knows that some today want to avoid historical scholarship, in part because some just tear the thing apart and never put it back together again. But others are more robust in saying “the Creed is what the Church believes, I will read the Bible through the Creed.” Wright contends the Creed doesn’t let the Bible do what it does naturally. The Creed is an outline of the faith, not a comprehensive confession. If you agree with that statement, everything changes when it comes to reciting the Creed.

3. The Creed omits the whole Israel Story and Kingdom Story of the Bible.  Creed and Canon are not the same: “But if their enthusiasts claim that they teach exactly the same thing as the canon, they have deceived themselves, and the truth is not in them” (257). [This does leave out some historical nuances, I have to admit: just what is the relationship of the Creed to Canon? It is not that we had Canon and then we got Creed, but that Creed and Canon were mutually developing alongside one another.]

4. The Tradition and Scripture are not the same, and Scripture is not the early part of the Tradition. For Wright, who is a good Protestant and not just a historian, first Scripture and everything must answer to Scripture. There’s more to Wright than that: for him, the categories we use to understand Jesus and the gospel must derive from the Bible and be biblical and historical and not simply theological or creedal.

5. There are two ways to read the Creed, one without awareness of the biblical Story — Israel, God becoming King through the cross and resurrection of Jesus — and one with that awareness. [I am convinced many in the church have done and do read the Creed through the Bible’s Story, but there is no question that far too many read the Creed with little awareness of the Bible’s Story. The big point, which I will make below, is that they have learned to read the Creed through a soteriology.]

6. I’d like to contend that the problem Tom Wright is addressing in this book is not simply Creed. Yes, I agree; Creed does create some problems for non-Bible readers. But the issue is more that the Creed is not needed because what the Bible teaches is a soteriology, a personal soteriology or an ecclesial soteriology or a theological soteriology, and once one has that soteriology worked out — I see this in Matt Chandler’s book The Explicit Gospel and I see this in the Reformed “covenant soterians” and I see this in Catholic soteriological theology and I see it in Eastern Orthodox soteriological approaches and I see it in four spiritual laws revivalists gospel approaches — and these make Creed of some value but what is of value is already established.

7. In other words, the Creed problem for not reading the Gospels aright is already a “gospel problem” that means neither Israel’s Story nor the Creed are really necessary. All we need is a good soteriology.

8. Tom Wright’s reading of The Apostles’ Creed in light of the Bible’s story, found on pp. 264-273, is a good place for someone to begin forming a good solid class on Christian Theology.


I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

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. AMEN.


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  • Rick

    “It is not that we had Canon and then we got Creed, but that Creed and Canon were mutually developing alongside one another.”

    Thank you for including that. I appreciate Wright the historian, but I am not sure why he doesn’t address that historical aspect (perhaps he has, and I have missed it).

  • IMO, the Creeds, formed during a period of Christendom distancing itself from Judaism’s story (which started sharply second century), are negligent in omitting Israel’s story.

    As for reading gospels with the Creed as a guide: it is not problematic to have “the end” in mind as you read a story as long as you can balance things. You can see the tension of “what if I don’t assume the Creed” while reading and also see “how does the Creed add to my understanding.” Reading one text can occur at multiple levels. Those who have difficulty multi-tasking can read through without the Creed-filter and then read through with the Creed-filter.

  • Rick


    “IMO, the Creeds, formed during a period of Christendom distancing itself from Judaism’s story (which started sharply second century)…”

    The creeds were already underway at the start of the early church. 1 Cor 15 was possibly an already existing creed.

  • scotmcknight

    Derek, the first paragraph of yours is the real issue — Yes, the Creeds did assume reading the Gospels as central texts in the church services and in theology; Yes, they did know the Bible’s Story and read that Story as leading to Jesus Christ; BUT, there was a spectrum of rejection of Jewishness — from overt anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism to “what do we do with this Israel stuff?” … and that shaped some of how the Creed was formed.

    Perhaps as important (I don’t know this scholarship that well) is that they were simply dealing with theological debates and those rose to the surface in what was confessed. They are, clearly, beyond Marcion and his rejection of the OT, so the absence of that kind of them reveals an affirmation of OT as Scripture.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, I have traced the move from 1 Cor 15 to The Apostles’ Creed and to Nicea and beyond, but central issues at Nicea are not part of 1 Cor 15. And it wasn’t until Constantinople that “acc to the Scriptures” got back into the Creed.

  • Russell Roberts

    If the ‘creeds’ have done nothing to prevent the development of dispensational theology (and they haven’t) or to prevent an egocentric soteriology (and they haven’t), I question their value in affirming who is and is not ‘orthodox’. It is still laughable to me that the creed itself includes the dubious claim that Jesus descended to ‘hell’. Seriously??? Kenneth Copeland has had a heyday with that one.

  • Scott Lyons

    It is the Church vs. the Scriptures argument all over again, is it not? When all along we needed both.

    I agree, to some extent, though I would have some qualifications certainly and maybe some hearty disagreement (I haven’t read the book). One point that needs to be said when discussing one’s understanding of the Scriptures in light of or in relation to the Creed (and this is not a disagreement with what is above necessarily, but an addition to it) – especially when one seems to be opposing the two: As soon as one reads the Scriptures in such a way that disagrees with the Creed because of one’s “understanding” of the Scriptures, that person has failed to read the Scriptures rightly. It is in the Creed that we find the Church’s interpretive voice – it is this and not the other that the Church believes. Yes, the Church believes more than what is in the Creed, does more, but it certainly does not believe less. It’s place is the Liturgy – it grew out of it and does not make a great deal of sense apart from it.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot and all,
    Well, one could argue that Paul’s creed in 1 Cor.15 omits the Israel story too? I think Wright has a point on the problems he is addressing but in this area, I get concerned that Wright can set some people against the creeds (which is not what Wright himself does) or turn this issue more into an either/or than a both/and for what it should be. Probably for Wright, the cart has been so far ahead of the horse that to put things back in their proer place (prima scriptura), it sounds like he devaluing the cart?

  • T

    Well, this whole book has been a much more thorough statement of my own thinking about the creeds. Yes, they leave out the life of Jesus and kingdom and Israel. I agree with Scot as well and say that soteriology is part of the problem.

    I have to say that the last person I expected to share my critique of the creeds was Wright. It’s not like he’s from tradition that doesn’t make hefty use of the creeds.

  • I assume Wright focuses on the Apostle’s Creed since I have not read the book, as opposed to the other creeds likely available at the time (ie those in Timothy, 1 Cor 15 etc.)

    I think the creed (or really creeds), did develop in many ways. From and as part of the oral tradition and before the NT was assembled, and also after the canon was more firmly established.

    However the creeds contained the basics of what the apostle’s taught (the Rule of Faith) and was likely used as criteria for the canon debates. It functioned as a guide. They were also likely the way early churches (especially those that had not received many or even any of the NT scriptures yet) held to the basics of the faith to help remember what they believe and the evaluate itinerant teachers and writings.

    I don’t think the creed necessarily removes a Kingdom narrative from the reading of Scripture just as a narrative reading of Scripture does not remove the creed’s basic affirmations. I am not sure I agree (or understand) all that Wright is claiming in his narrative line but am blogging through his Authority of Scripture book trying to figure it out. Maybe after that I can tackle this book.

    Mike (@g1antfan)

  • JAM

    Wright’s take on the Creeds, their function and limitations might look kind of new but it is not. It is actually a little bit surprising that it gets lots of attention given that this has been the standard critique by Latin American Liberation Theologians like Jon Sobrino and evangelicals like René Padilla for more than 30 years. It is still a worthy conversation, though.

  • Jesse Reese

    I find Wright’s comment on James K.A. Smith’s review (10th down) very helpful in understanding his position.


    I like Wright’s analogy to music. Maybe the best way to think about it would be to say that the Creeds set the key, but we cannot forget that the Gospels are the music and the tune is the kingdom of God.

    However, I cannot also help but notice that Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill (Acts 17) is also curiously silent about the “Israel-dimension” of the Jesus-story. I acknowledge that it is integral to full canonical understanding, but I also think it is important to recognize the universally-oriented Christocentrism that characterizes the early Church’s basic message and summaries.

  • Jerry

    Russell, so are you disputing the descent into hell (or to the dead depending on your translation)?
    Scot had a series on this last year that was interesting:

  • Bob

    Do any of you who attend modern evangelical churches even see or hear of the creeds (Apostles or Nicene)? I’ve attended mostly larger (2,000+) non-denominational evangelical Christian churches for the past 20+ years and have never even once heard mention of the creeds. This is across multiple areas of the US, both large, small and mid-size towns. I’ve asked around over the years and I often get blank stares from fellow Christians when I ask if their church mentions creeds at all. I know Reformed folks do, but outside of that, I’ve found many of us have swept the creeds under the carpet along with a whole bunch of history. And count me as one who has done much of that sweeping of Christian history under the rug for the most misguided of purposes.

  • Dana Ames

    I’ve commented before and will reiterate only briefly – I disagree with Wright on the Creeds but only mildly; using his own illustration of a suitcase, I think they can be “unpacked” to include everything he believes is necessary. I also think Bob @12:49 expresses something Wright might forget: most Protestant churches in the US have no familiarity with the Creeds, either from historical ignorance, or because they belong to denominations that, because of their history during the Reformation, have eschewed the Creeds – but again, I’d bet that many in the second type are also ignorant of their own history. I think Wright speaks to the Creeds because he’s familiar with them as an Anglican and knows well the state of the CofE in Anglicanism in general.

    I do think he’s spot on with his “4 speakers” illustration, though.


  • Bob

    Do any of you who attend modern evangelical churches even see or hear of the creeds (Apostles or Nicene)?

    I would say our church does not bring them up at all. as a Sunday school teacher I have used them from time to time (but I am kinda geeky that way). I actually did a lesson series comparing the creeds to some of what Rob Bell asserted in Love Wins.


  • I have just read How God Became King for the third time and The King Jesus Gospel. Let me see, Creed is the Gospel but maybe Creed isn’t the Gospel. I am so confused!!!!! Does the Creed keep me near enough to the Gospel? Actually I think the Church Year keeps me nearer the Gospel, when, that is, it is thoughtfully engaged. In this McKnight offers one of the best insights in The King Jesus Gospel. But I do think that Wright offers a way to preach the King part of King Jesus in a way that the Creed does not.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    OK, I’ve been in and around evangelical churches all my believing life and the comments above about the creeds never being read or commented on explicitly in those churches are really spot on. On the other hand, the essential content of the creeds is so much a part of “orthodox” evangelical theological commitments that they are in fact considered essential content of the Gospel, of what it means to be a believing and faithful Christian. If you don’t believe me try challenging the conclusions to the debates that form the core of the creeds and see what happens; you will likely be removed from membership and / or dis-fellowshipped if you aren’t even a member; really. The creedal tradition is often and explicitly affirmed as necessary and “what Christians have believed always” even though the actual content of the creeds is not examined or critiqued in light of the Israelite historical narrative context of the Gospel.

    For NTW as a historian he knows the creeds don’t wholly or precisely correspond with the content of scripture but as a churchman he can’t simply disavow the content of the creeds. As a historian that supports the whole canon of scripture as mostly comprehended by tradition he is an evangelical darling but as a pure historian that sees the creeds as dealing with issues, arguments, and concerns beyond those of scripture he makes evangelicals nervous. He is obviously rather adroit at squaring the comfortable circle of scriptural canon with the hard edges of creedal traditionalism.