CREEDS & CONFESSIONS
In the Modern Church
In a couple of days’ time, on October 31st, it will be 489th anniversary of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. On that day in 1517, a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther, a professor in theology nailed an invitation to a debate onto the door of the castle church of Wittenberg, Germany. In this document, today known as the 95 Thesis, Luther exposed a number of gross errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and called for anyone who would be inclined to do so to prove him wrong in a public debate.
No one took up the challenge. What Luther wrote resonated with the heart feeling of the common people and scholars alike. So in a very short while, the document was copied and distributed all over Germany and beyond. It was the start of a great religious revolution known as the Protestant Reformation.
But 489 years have passed. Many of the things that Luther and his successors both in the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Churches taught have become strange in the ears of contemporary Christians. Many do not even know the difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism apart from the fact that Rome prays to the Virgin Mary while Protestants do not. Many Protestants know Martin Luther King, jr., the American civil rights activist, but know not his greater name sake.
What shall we do to arrest this sad state of affairs in the church? I believe that apart from teaching church history and promoting the reading of church history books, it is necessary for the church to be brought back to a proper understanding of the place and necessity of creeds and confessions. What have creeds and confessions to do with the Reformation, you may ask? Well, the answer lies in the fact that history has shown that apart from churches which maintain a firm and honest emphasis on creeds and confessions, most others have drifted away from the moorings of the 16th Century Reformation and the form of Scripturally balanced Christianity taught by the Magisterial Reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, etc.
In this short article therefore, we would like to examine the questions: Is there a Biblical Basis for Creeds and Confessions? What are the Uses of Creeds and Confessions in the Church? To what extend should Creeds or Confessions be binding to members?
1. Biblical Basis
Many modern evangelical Christians are quick to say that they believe in no creeds but the Bible. But this statement is in itself a creedal statement, and therefore makes it self-contradictory.
You see, the English word ‘creed’ really comes from the Latin word ‘credo’ which means ‘I believe’. A biblical creed, then, is really an expression or statement of belief concerning what the Bible teaches.
When the church adopts a ‘creed’, she is essentially confessing their faith or belief together. For this reason, creeds are also known as ‘Confessions of Faith’ such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Numerous passages in the Scripture instruct us to confess our faith (e.g. Mt 10:32; Rom 10:9-10; Rom 15:6; cf. Jn 1:49; Mt 16:16). And when the apostle Paul beseeched the Corinthian church "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that [they] all speak the same thing" (1 Cor 1:10), he is in fact, telling them to confess the same faith. How might they do so except they have a statement of faith or a Confession of Faith however primitive or simple it might have been?
Herein is the first biblical basis for creeds and confession: The scripture calls us to confession of our faith and to confess it together.
But secondly, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy: "Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus" (2Tm 1:13). The word translated ‘form’ means ‘schema’ or ‘system.’ No, strictly speaking the Bible as we have received it does not present such a form that we can retain in our memory. A form or system requires some form of organization of the biblical data mined from everywhere in the Scripture. Only with an adopted creed or confession with their associated catechism can we effectively hold fast a form of sound doctrine in our minds.
And thirdly, when we use creeds or confessions, we are simply affirming our belief in the work of the illuminating work of the Spirit (Jn 16:13). We agree with those who refuse to hold creeds in high regard that the Holy Spirit illumines our minds individually so that we can all understand the Scripture. But unlike them, we recognize that God’s gift is given in different measure to different individuals (Eph 4:7). And we believe that our Confession of Faith and other Reformed Confessions were written by learned and godly men who were richly endowed with the Holy Spirit and enabled to interpret and expound the Scripture with uncommon clarity and accuracy. And their spiritual wisdom and faithfulness to the truth have been confirmed not only by their peers but by the church searching the Scriptures to see if the things they taught are in accordance with the Scripture.
This being the case, when we adopt a Confession as a church, we are in effect, acknowledging that the church did not begin with us and the Holy Spirit is not our sole possession. The Holy Spirit did not only inspire the Scripture, He illumined believers. The written Confessions represent the Spirit’s work in the history of the Church. We should therefore regard the Confession highly and use it to guide our own interpretation of the Scripture.
In this regard, we agree with the eloquent statement of Dr G.I. Williamson:
The Bible contains a great wealth of information. It isn't easy to master it all - in fact, no one has ever mastered it completely. It would therefore be foolish for us to try to do it on our own, starting from scratch. We would be ignoring all the study of the Word of God that other people have done down through the centuries. That is exactly why we have creeds. They are the product of many centuries of Bible study by a great company of believers. They are a kind of spiritual "road map" of the teaching of the Bible, already worked out and proved by others before us. And, after all, isn't this exactly what Jesus promised? When he was about to finish his work on earth, he made this promise to his disciples: "When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth" (Jn 16:13). And Christ kept his promise. When the Day of Pentecost came, he sent his Spirit to dwell in his people. The Holy Spirit was poured out - not on individuals, each by himself, but on the whole body of Christian believers together (Acts 2). And from that time until this, he has been giving his church an understanding of the Scriptures. It is no wonder that the church expressed itself from very early times through creeds… And right here we see one of the most important things about a creed that is true to the Bible - it remains true down through the ages. It does not need to be changed again and again, with each generation, because it deals with things that are unchanging. Thus, an accurate creed binds the generations together. It reminds us that the church of Jesus Christ is not confined to one age, just as it is not confined to any one place. In other words, there is a unity in what Christians have believed, right down through the ages. Just think of it: when we confess our faith together . . . we join with all those believers who have gone before us. Does not this demonstrate that there is indeed just one Lord and one true faith? (The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide [P&R, 1993], 2-3).
So then, the use of Creeds and Confessions has a strong biblical basis, because firstly, we are commanded in the Word of God to confess our faith together; secondly, we are taught to retain in our minds a system of doctrine; and thirdly, we are convinced from the Scripture that the Holy Spirit is not only given to us, but in fact given in greater measure to our godly and learned fathers in the faith, some of whom were used by the Lord to pen and to hand down their exposition and creedal systematization of the Word of God.
But what are the uses of Creeds and Confessions?
Dr A.A. Hodge has outlined the uses of creeds and confessions very succinctly:
They have been found in all ages of the church useful for the following purposes: (1) To mark, preserve and disseminate the attainments made in the knowledge of Christian truth by any branch of the church in any grand crisis of its development. (2) To discriminate the truth from the glosses of false teachers, and accurately to define it in its integrity and due proportions. (3) To act as the bond of ecclesiastical fellowship among those so nearly agreed as to be able to labor together in harmony. (4) To be used as instruments in the great work of popular instruction (Outlines of Theology, chapter 7).
Developing on this outline, we may think of three inter-related uses for creeds or confessions in the church.
Firstly, there is a Unifying Use as already alluded by the fact that part of the biblical basis for the use of confessions is so that the church may confess the same truth.
The apostle Paul speaks of the church as having "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph 4:5). But unless the church interprets the Scripture in the same way on major issues, there can be no true unity of faith. So Paul also speaks of how the gifts of the Holy Spirit pertaining to the conveyance of knowledge are given to various individuals in the church "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ… " (Eph 4:12-13).
The Confession of Faith which is produced through the collective exercise of the gift of the Spirit is therefore very important as a tool to maintain the unity of the church.
In this regard it is important to note that in a Reformed church, the ‘official’ doctrinal position of the church should not be the pastor’s position (as in the case of papalism and independent non-creedal churches). Rather, it should be the doctrine spelt out in the Confession. Where the Confession is silent on any matter, then members should be allowed to differ. A church should never be allowed to split over issues that are extra-confessional. On the other hand, if an officer of the church, especially an elder, in the church differs from the confessional position on a point of doctrine and seeks to promote his view, then he could be cited for having a divisive spirit.
Secondly, Confessions have a Didactic Use. That is: they and especially their associated Catechism may be profitably used for the systematic instruction of children and adults alike.
In additional to that, statements in the Confessions and Catechisms may be quoted authoritatively in sermons to clarify or state a doctrine without having to prove its veracity again.
Thirdly, Confessions have a Corrective Use. That is: Since the Confession contains the accepted or adopted doctrinal position of the church, anyone who promotes a different doctrine can be asked officially to refrain. And if he continues to promote his opinions contrary to the Confessions, he can be dealt with disciplinarily by the church. Thus, if a minister of the church which upholds the historic Westminster Confession of Faith were to insist in Premillenialism, he can and should be asked to resign from the pastorate.
3. Extent of Authority
A Church that decides to adopt a creed for the afore said reasons must decide the extent to which the creed should be given power to bind the conscience.
In this regard there are two errors which we must avoid.
First, we should avoid the error of making the Confession a powerless symbol in the church. Sadly, this has become the case in many modern Presbyterian churches where the stated Confession of the Church is the Westminster Confession of Faith, whereas the ministers and elders teach and defend Arminianism and Dispensationalism; and where the worship is contemporary to the exclusion of Psalms. Such churches are merely paying lip-service to the Confession of Faith and may be better off without them rather than face charges of dishonesty from within and without.
But secondly, we should avoid the error of making every member in the church subscribe to the confession of faith. The church is the church of Christ, we have no right to make the doorway to the church narrower than it already is.
Thus, we agree with the judgment of Dr A.A. Hodge:
"The matter of all these Creeds and Confessions binds the consciences of men only so far as it is purely scriptural, and because it is so. The form in which that matter is stated, on the other hand, binds only those who have voluntarily subscribed the Confession and because of that subscription.
In all churches, a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership and the terms upon which office–bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling. A church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation. The church is Christ’s fold. The Sacraments are the seals of his covenant. All have a gilt to claim admittance who make a credible profession of the true religion, that is, who are presumptively the people of Christ. This credible profession of course involves a competent knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, a declaration of personal faith in Christ and of devotion to his service, and a temper of mind and a habit of life consistent therewith. On the other hand, no man can be inducted into any office in any church who does not profess to believe in the truth and wisdom of the constitution and laws it will be his duty to conserve and administer. Otherwise all harmony of sentiment and all efficient co–operation in action would be impossible" (ibid.).
In other words, officers of the church, especially elders should subscribe fully to the Confession of Faith—to be able to defend it and to have no disagreement with it. On the other hand, to be an ordinary member of the church, only credible profession of faith is needed. Of course, for prudential reasons, for two cannot walk except they be agreed, the elders of the church should, when admitting anyone who is known to differ from the doctrine of the Confession at any point, admonish the would be member not to promote his or her own peculiar doctrine; and to require him to submit to the teaching and instruction of the church which is in accordance with the Confession of Faith.
We have seen the biblical basis for having a Confession of Faith. We have seen its uses in the church and the extent to which it is authoritative in the church.
It remains for us to conclude by way of an assertion that it would be of far greater value for modern churches planning to celebrate Reformation Day to return to an honest and balanced use of the Reformation Creeds and Confession, rather than to be entertained by videos and sermons about the Reformation.
The Lord Himself says:
"Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (Jer 6:16).
Unless we return to the old ways, even the ways which our fathers of the faith have so diligently delineated in our Creeds and Confession, we shall have no rest, but continue to experience ecclesiastical declensions and divisions to the shame of the name of Christ, the King of the Church. Amen
— JJ Lim