Prescribing Versus Seeking: Reader Comments on Creeds

“‘Friends have no creeds’ is a creed.” That was a favorite reader comment on my recent blog post Deal or No Deal? Creed or No Creed?  The commenter adds, “Sheesh, have these people never studied recursion or self-reference. Goedel, Escher, Bach?”

True enough. But ‘Friends have no creeds’ is a very small creed. And I could even be comfortable with a slightly longer statement such as the text of A Simple Faith that Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM) puts on the “About Us” page of its website.  So when does a creed become an objectionable creed?

Another comment: “in my view, Quakers do have creeds, just ones that are not spoken about.” Also true. I certainly know meetings where certain expressions of faith are welcome and others, equally deep and sincere, are not welcome. Unspoken creeds are no better than written ones. So it’s not a written text that makes a creed objectionable.

One marker may be length. The “A Simple Faith” text runs 120 words. The Richmond Declaration text runs 6868 words. That is a great deal of specific belief to prescribe.  Our word “creed” comes from the Latin credo: “I believe.”  Creeds are statements of belief.  Given the mysteries inherent in religious matters, the more we try to spell things out in words, the more likely we are to state something in a way that’s wrong.

A Quaker in Iowa urges that there is value in clarity about beliefs, especially for those in positions of responsibility for a church. He writes, “Having an employee of an organization, church or whatever, be in agreement with and supportive of its vision, goals, faith statement seems normal and minimal for a good understanding for employment.  I cannot imagine hiring a College President who wasn’t in agreement with the College’s stated purpose and goals.  … [It] is better to have those things clarified up front rather than after the contract is signed and then we find ourselves figuring out how to dismiss someone.  I would think that would have been common practice for Earlham while you were President.”

I wrote back, “When I came to Earlham, I remember being invited by the Board to tell them about how I had come to be a Quaker and to tell them a little of my continuing spiritual journey. They listened and asked questions, as I listened to them and asked questions. But they did not ask me to subscribe to particular views.

“I can imagine being asked to declare my full comfort with the statement on the IAYM website of “A Simple Faith.” And that I would gladly give. But I could not in good conscience affirm the whole of the Richmond Declaration, with its many, many specifics – many of which go to verbal formulas that do not speak to my understanding of Our Lord, my experience of whom is often beyond words.  That’s the step toward creeds, for me.”

Another reader comment: “I think there are as many creeds as there are souls sitting in any meeting room at any given moment.”  Yes, but…  And the “but” gets at the heart of the matter.

Yes, there certainly are as many packages of beliefs in a meeting room as there are souls in the room, but that doesn’t make each of these packages of beliefs a “creed.”  Creeds are more than statements of our own beliefs.  They are statements of belief that others prescribe for us. They are statements telling us what we should believe rather than personal statements of what we actually do believe.

I see value in efforts to put into words what we believe. Such statements may come from one person or many. But they should be offered for instruction and encouragement, not for prescription. Believing is something you have to do for yourself; others can’t do it for you.

Also posted on River View Friend, a new blog.

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Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 16, 2013 at 1:30am

Robert Griswold's pamphlet re 'Creeds and Quakers: What's Belief Got to Do With It?' has a considerably different direction of approach. Brief summary: ~ What distinguished the leaders among 'Early Friends' was not a particular set of beliefs (although they did agree with one another on a lot, and did agree that those matters truly mattered.) But what mattered most to them was that a person knew the meaning of those beliefs and recognized their truth via direct contact with God. No creed, no belief in a creed, could substitute for that actual contact; they rejected the imposition of such a creed because people are too inclined to mistake such verbal 'beliefs' for the substance of religion.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 2nd mo. 16, 2013 at 7:54am

Indeed. Griswold's pamphlet (2005) is #377 from Pendle Hill.  Here's the synopsis from the PH website:


"Quaker spiritual authority lies not in belief system and in creeds - but in the direct communion between individual Friends and the Divine Spirit. All other forms of authority, "be they written words, steeple-houses or a clerical hierarchy," cannot replace this direct communion. While early Friends' refusal to formulate a creed threatened existing religious practice and brought them great persecution, this historic witness against creeds is not fully appreciated by Friends today. The pamphlet's author asserts that Friends too often hold Quaker testimonies as ideals, as ends in themselves, rather than as fruits of the Spirit. Without spiritual grounding, testimonies become creeds. In the absence of the profound authority of a faith that defies verbal comprehension and words, the historic Quaker witness to the world is in danger."

Comment by Jim Wilson on 2nd mo. 16, 2013 at 11:24am

I'm wondering if the difficulty with creeds might be in how we read them rather than in having them.  There are different ways of reading and comprehending religious literature.  Personally, for example, I have no problem with the Nicene Creed; I think it is a beautiful statement of faith.  But I tend to read it as a poem rather than as a source for extended dogmatic theology.  I suspect that creeds go back to the earliest church (some scholars say there are credal statements in Paul, and the Didache likely contains one).  I think that makes sense; a brief poetic rendering of basic views can be helpful for a participant.

I very much like the Richmond Declaration; but again I tend to read it more as a poetic distillation of Quaker Faith and Practice.  So it doesn't bother me if there are a few sentences that don't precisely match my own understanding.

Finally, I suspect that creedal formulas are something that human beings naturally generate.  In the absence of specific creedal statements, I suspect that some Quaker groups have substituted a list of political positions that serve the same function as a creed; that is to say that all members must adhere to certain political views in order to be really considered a member of the meetings.  One of the virtues of a religious creedal statement is that it reminds members why they have gathered and that the purpose differs from other groups.

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by William F Rushby on 2nd mo. 16, 2013 at 5:55pm

Jim Wilson wrote: "Finally, I suspect that creedal formulas are something that human beings naturally generate.  In the absence of specific creedal statements, I suspect that some Quaker groups have substituted a list of political positions that serve the same function as a creed; that is to say that all members must adhere to certain political views in order to be really considered a member of the meetings.  One of the virtues of a religious creedal statement is that it reminds members why they have gathered and that the purpose differs from other groups."

And I say: "well put"!  My experience is that Friends' groups which claim to have no creed almost invariably have shared ideological (though often political rather than religious) commitments that are binding on those who would become part of their faith communities.

A written creed should force a group to be up front about what it stands for.  People being what they are, even a written creed may not mean much.  There is almost always a gap, sometimes very large, between a book of discipline (or, in modern parlance, a "faith and practice") and what the group's members actually believe and practice.

Comment by Tom Smith on 2nd mo. 17, 2013 at 5:57pm

I believe my take on "creeds" and similar items came to me many years ago when I came to believe that "Quaker Institution" was an oxymoron. There is either "Quaker" or "Institution." Obviously many institutions take much from "Quakerism" and many individuals attempt to live out their "Quakerism" in institutions. However, it is my belief that as soon as we pretend that any institution, be it a college, yearly meeting, or even monthly meeting (Not mentioning the alphabet soup of other organizations) is "truly Quaker" then we miss the meaning of "has come" and "knowing experimentally."

Comment by Bruce R. Arnold on 2nd mo. 17, 2013 at 11:57pm

I get the idea that there is some confusion about what a creed is. A belief is not always a creed, although a creed is a statement of beliefs. There is a sense in which "creed" can mean "my belief"; I won't argue that. However, that is not the sense which is meant when we say Friends have no creed.

It would be helpful in this discussion to consider, not so much what a creed is, as what it does. A creed divides. All beliefs are not divisive. Creeds are meant to be divisive. They are meant to keep some people out while allowing others in. A creed does not have to say that "this is an acceptable relationship with the Divine, but that is not." They are often, even most often, used in that manner, but they don't have to be like that.

So, a church which has a creed that states that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the Trinity, the Triune, Three in One, and that Jesus was born of a virgin, might very tenderly accept that others have a living and valid faith who believe God to be One, and that the virgin birth is irrelevant to their relationship with the Divine. They might tenderly accept that, and yet not allow you to join their church because you don't accept their creed. Divisive, even if not conflictual.

So if you look at what a creed does, it is clear that in most of its expressions, throughout most of its history, the Society of Friends has not had a creed. There were shared beliefs and practices, but that doesn't constitute a creed. There have been times when practices such as dress and marrying-out became the cause of division, and you might say that they had creedal significance even if no one ever wrote them down and said "this is our creed." The Wilburite-Hicksite split could be seen as having creedal overtones. FUM has long used the Richmond Declaration as a "para-creed." And, I have to agree with Doug Bennett that Indiana Yearly Meeting has used its Faith and Practice in a creedal fashion during the current split.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 2nd mo. 18, 2013 at 1:28pm

Dr. Arnold:

That's an illuminating post.  A question: suppose someone said that they think that carpet bombing any country that is anti-American (left undefined) is compatible with being a Quaker?  I suspect that most Quakers, and by 'most' I mean nearly all, would not agree.  Does this imply that there is an implicit creed among Quakers, even if it is not stated explicitly?  I picked an extreme example to make a point.  If a creed creates 'division' (and that strikes me as accurate) then aren't there dividing lines that mark Quaker 'territory'?, even if they are not often stated in this way?


Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Bill Samuel on 2nd mo. 23, 2013 at 5:11pm

If you look up dictionary definitions of creed, you will find some different definitions. I think the traditional Quaker objection is to a rigid theological statement that is used as a test. Early Friends were big into doctrine, and they would exclude those who were deemed outside the Friends' understanding of it. But it wasn't a sign on the dotted line kind of thing. It was evaluating whether the person had an understanding compatible with Quakerism.

I think statements of faith tend to be too static and rigid to be advisable. However, some common understanding is needed. The church where I am presently a member handles that by having a mission and vision statement with which all members are expected to unite, but no statement of faith. Our vision statement is somewhat dream-like setting broad principles but leaving open the working out of them. Thus it is more dynamic than statements of faith generally are.

I do think something brings people together. If it isn't explicit, it is implicit. And I think sometimes the implicit commonality is something Friends would gasp at if it was written down and proposed as an official statement. I'm thinking of some liberal meetings where what holds the people together seems to me to be more cultural similarities (like liberal white educated white collar people who listen to NPR) than any matter of faith.

Comment by Bill Samuel on 2nd mo. 23, 2013 at 5:52pm

Let me elaborate a little, partly in anticipation of questions that what I wrote might evoke.

Some Friends might say that Faith and Practice serves the purpose. It can be very useful in explaining the norm. It is an important document. How much it's used for that purpose varies. And I think a congregation needs to have something much shorter to explain who it is. And I believe it needs to be something that has been grappled with by the congregation. If it is something taken from F&P, that's fine as long as the local body is clear that it describes who they are.

I think it needs to be operational. This is a major problem with traditional creed. They are intellectual assents to some theological belief. They don't really help a lot in directing the life of individuals or groups in the faith community. My church's statement is operational. It gives a direction in which we are moving. It's something we can refer to when we're considering whether to do something. A statement that we believe in the virgin birth or something like that is not very useful in actually working out how we live our faith.

An indicator I would use is if you asked members of a faith community what they're about, would they generally be able to articulate it and would what different members of the community say be generally compatible with each other. If that is the case, they would seem to have something of a common faith understanding (if the agreement was faith-related, which may be an issue for some meetings).

My experience is that in many liberal meetings, if you ask what they're for, you will instead get what they're not. That's a bad sign, IMHO. And even if you can get people to articulate what they think the group is for, you may get grossly diverse statements or statements that are so vague as not to be of much use. If this happens, then I would be inclined to believe they have an implicit basis for unity which is something they do not articulate and very possibly something they wouldn't adopt in a million years.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 2nd mo. 25, 2013 at 9:32am

"We think that the distinctive thing about our Faith and Practice is how it is used and how it is not used." That is the beginning of the Faith and Practice of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon. Here is the whole opening paragraph:

"Most Christian churches have some statement of belief. It may be called a creed, or the doctrine of the church, or a book of discipline. Most groups of Friends have what is called a Faith and Practice, this may be a collection of testimonies, advices and queries, or it may be an explicit declaration of Faith. At Freedom Friends we think that the distinctive thing about our Faith and Practice is how it is used and how it is not used. This is not a creed, it is not written in stone, it can be changed by the discernment of the meeting for worship business. It is not used as a test of acceptability. You do not have to agree with everything in this document in order to participate in the community. But it is the best articulation of the beliefs of the Friends who felt called to start this church. We use it to call to people, and as a starting point for discussion and study. We are orthodox in our Christianity, but we are not fundamentalist. We are a peace church. We are socially progressive. We think the traditional practices of Quakerism have a lot to say to the 21st century. We believe we are still learning."

I find this a very appealing statement.


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