IMPORTANCE and USE OF CREEDS

The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which simply means “I believe.” Thus, a creed is a statement of belief. It is synonymous to a Confession. Every Christian and every church has a creed, whether it is written or not. Those who say, “We have no creed but the Bible,” are in fact making a one-statement-creed by that statement. Moreover, if you were to ask them if their Bible contains 66 or 81 books, and whether the Christ they worship is the same as the Christ of the Mormons (who use the Authorised Version too), you shall soon discover that they indeed have a much larger creed, though not written down. And because it is not written down, not only will there be a lack of theological precision in the church, but there can hardly be any doctrinal unity. Moreover, the pastor or the most influential elder will then be looked upon as a kind of Protestant pope—whose decisions and interpretations are final.

A written creed is designed to solve these difficulties. It serves to express the doctrines revealed in the Scripture systematically, provides a means of unity among members of the church, and make available the opinion of a spirit-filled cloud of witnesses as to the meaning of Scripture. G.I. Williamson expresses these benefits of creeds most succinctly and persuasively in his introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism:

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.… one of the most important things about a creed that is true to the Bible [is that] it remains true down through the ages. It does not need to be changed again and again, with each generation, because it deals with the things which 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 (The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide, P&R, 2–3).

In this day of theological declension, it is often thought that creedal or confessional churches are sectarian and isolationistic churches. This is far from the truth. The confessional church is, in fact, seeking to be one in doctrine with the great number of churches which hold to the same Confession. It is true that there are few such churches today, though there were many more in the past age when there was much more theological purity and pious learning. But is it right to define sectarianism with respect to the churches of the present age of individualism and independent spirit when the church “consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the Head thereof” (WCF 25.1)? Indeed, when we take away the factor of time, it is those churches,—no matter how big,—which use no historical creed whether in practice or by profession, that are sectarian and are guilty of having independent spirits. Such is the timeless significance of the creeds.

But what are the immediate uses of the creeds in individual churches that do subscribe to them? Let me highlight three:

Constitutional or Unifying Use

Firstly, creeds have a constitutional or unifying use. It is the banner of truth that David speaks about in Psalm 60:4. As a summary of the doctrine contained in the Word of God, it is a banner raised to rally together all who hold similar convictions. This is why the creed of the Dutch Reformed churches is called theThree Forms of Unity (comprising of Heidelberg CatechismBelgic Confessionand Canon of Dort). And there is such a surprising consensus between theWestminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity that I can only think of few places where they differ, and that only in relatively minor matters. For this reason, among the Reformed confessional churches that adhere to their confessions, there is a great deal of agreement and unity in doctrine and practices.

Now, does this use of the creeds mean that every member of a particular congregation must subscribe to every point of the church creed or be denied membership? No. “God alone is the Lord of the conscience” (WCF 20.2). The creed is not intended to bind every member to conformity. Rather, it states the ‘official’ position of the church and therefore is the doctrinal schema that will form the basis of unity within the communion. It is a placard that says, “Within this communion, we will not openly disagree or contend with the doctrines taught therein.” In other words, a person can be a member even if he disagrees with some of the tenets of the creed, provided he agrees not to disturb the peace and unity of the church by being contentious on these issues. Naturally, however, those who are in teaching positions within the church ought to subscribe fully to the creed of the church. It is no doubt possible for someone who differs significantly to be appointed a teacher if he would consciously avoid teaching his views when they are contrary to the creed of the church. But it will be extremely difficult to do so.

Juridical Use

The second use of creeds, which is closely related to the first use, is its juridicaluse. Briefly, this refers to the use of the creed in settling and avoiding disputes. It does so as a subordinate standard of the church with authority derived from the Scriptures. Should a dispute on doctrine addressed in the creed arise, the creed not only brings together the teachings of the Scripture on the doctrine, but it also provides the basis for dissolving the dispute. It does so by setting forth what the particular communion and its predecessors hold to be the consensus doctrine and interpretation of the Scripture on the matter. Thus, suppose, a member of PCC desires to marry a Roman Catholic, and he insists that other churches allow it, and that even the well-known Dr So-and-so allows it. Then, our elders may appeal to our Confession, particularly WCF 24.3 (cf. 1 Cor 7:39; 2 Cor 6:14) to assert our belief that the Lord forbids such a union. And if he insists on going ahead with his plans, then the church will have to discipline him.


It must be added that for the purpose of juridical use, any church which holds particular points of doctrine distinctively ought to include clear statements in the constitution or confession of the church stating the particular stance that is taken. Thus, a church which holds dogmatically to Dispensational premillennialism, would save herself much difficulties if her constitution specifies “Dispensational premillennialism” and not just “premillennialism” because there is a world of a difference between the two kinds of premillennialism. In the same way, a church which professes Calvinism but teaches that Christ died universally for all without exception,—contra historic Calvinism,—would do well to highlight that in her creed or constitution. Needless to say, it is morally inconsistent for the church to claim to hold to a certain Confession, while in practice opposingthe teachings of the Confession.

A creed serves to avoid disputes, moreover, by setting forth what the church considers to be the things that are important. It says, “Let us not argue about minor matters and things that gender strives” (cf. 2 Tim 2:23). How does the creed do so, seeing that it would be impossible to enumerate all the “minor matters.” The creed does so by leaving these matters out of it! Thus the WCF, for example, tacitly ‘says,’ “Let us not argue whether the bread in the Lord’s Supper should be leavened or unleavened”; “Let us not argue on whether the pastor should preach extemporaneously or with a prepared text”; “Let us not argue whether an individual may use a different Bible version in his own study”; and “Let us not argue about how the minister should dress on the Lord’s Day.”

Catechetical Use

The final use of creeds, which I would like to highlight, is the catechetical use. This refers to the use of the creed as a teaching tool for the church.

It is theoretically possible to teach “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) by preaching and teaching through the Bible, chapter by chapter, book by book. But this is practically impossible. It will take more than a lifetime, and by the time you end, new converts would have been added to the church and old converts would have forgotten what you first taught. Moreover, you would have repeated yourself on certain points of doctrines many times over. The creeds, particularly the catechisms, are designed to summarise the teaching of the Bible so that they are not only easily digestible, but cover the whole counsel of God in a manageable and repeatable duration.

I am convinced that the teaching programme of our church ought to have a strong emphasis on the creeds. This, naturally, does not mean that we do not teach the Bible, for a biblical creed such as the WCF or the Heidelberg Catechism is founded on the Word of God. Of course, there is also a place for studying the books of the Bible expositorily. But for the reasons I have already stated, it would be to our disadvantage if we do not insist on a regular and systematic diet of the creeds each week in addition to any expository study of the biblical books.

Finally, dear pilgrim, though you may not be required to subscribe wholeheartedly to our Confession,—namely, the Westminster Standards,may I urge you to endeavour to know it well so that it can be effectively and properly use for the purpose of building up the body of Christ.


J.J. Lim