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Creeds and confessions

January 2015 | by Jack Sin

I once read a Christian magazine that had the statement, ‘No creed but Christ!’ While, at first glance, this seemed an impressive phrase, further examination confirmed it showed a lack of understanding of the vital place of creeds in churches today.

Creeds are a confession or expression of the faith of believers. While they do not have any claim to existence apart from the Scriptures, a sound creed is a properly worded statement of biblical truths. We must remember that the English word ‘creed’ comes from the Latin word credo, which means ‘I believe’.

Philip Schaff, the noted church historian, in his Creeds of Christendom, defines a creed this way: ‘A creed or rule of faith is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of faith which are regarded by the framers and necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian church’.

A creed may cover the whole ground of Christian doctrines or focus on a particular point that is fundamental to the Christian faith.

Origin

Where and when did creeds originate? In Matthew 10:32, Jesus said: ‘Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven’.Perhaps one of the first creeds mentioned in the Bible is what Peter said in Matthew 16:16: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’.

Nathanael said much the same: ‘Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel’ (John 1:49). And Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch and he professed his faith in a simple one sentence creed: ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’ (Acts 8:37).

Creeds never precede but presuppose faith. For example, the Apostles’ Creed became the prevailing standard in the West during the first few centuries, and was followed later by the Nicene Creed in the East.

The first few centuries of theological controversies led to the formulation of many orthodox creeds and confessions to combat heresies. They are still needed today to combat the teachings of cults and the many other heresies of our times.

Sound creeds range from the Athanasian Creed (against the heresy of Arianism, condemned at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325) to the Creed of Chalcedon, to the creeds of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation and Puritan creeds include the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the 39 Articles of the Church of England, the Canons of Dort of 161819 (where we get the five points of Calvinism under the acronym TULIP, against Arminianism), the Westminster Confession of Faith of 164347, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the Helvetic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession.

Uses

Creeds are subordinate to the Bible and their value depends entirely on their agreement with the Scriptures. A well worded and biblically sound creed can be an accurate and helpful expression of revealed truths.

Every well regulated Christian church today should have a standard doctrinal standard for its members to adhere to. While no creed can be an absolute guarantee of protection for a church or Christian’s purity of faith and practice, we are surely far better off with, than without, one.

There are seven practical uses for a Reformed creed in the life of a church. They define the doctrinal or theological position of a church; they distinguish a Reformed church from others; they help defend the faith, where there is an assault on its beliefs; they help disseminate the doctrines of grace to succeeding generations; they help develop biblical inter-church relations with others like-minded in the faith; they help nurture younger Christians; and they deepen our connection with and understanding of the Christian church of the past.

Belonging to a Bible-Presbyterian (B-P) church that adheres to the Westminster Confession of Faith, I urge its members and friends to have a good understanding of its contents — and of the Larger and Shorter Westminster Catechisms as well.

Practice

It is lamentable that sound creeds and confessions are seldom given their rightful place in the life of the church. Perhaps, this is the reason for today’s heresies, deception and spiritual compromise, and the dilemmas besetting many church members.

It is important that we do not just claim to have a creed, but practise what is written in it; otherwise such claims are futile and worthless.

I was encouraged one day, when speaking in a certain B-P church, to hear that one of its elders was teaching the Westminster Confession to its Sunday school. Our own church elders teach the Shorter Catechism in our church’s catechism class, over five months, to each new member.

Why not get hold of a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith or of the Shorter Catechism and read, memorise, digest, assimilate and internalise their contents — and make an effort to teach them to your children as well? It will be greatly for their blessing to mature them as Christians.

Jack Sin

Dr Sin is pastor of Maranatha Bible-Presbyterian Church, Singapore, and a lecturer for the Emmanuel Reformed Bible lectures