A striking and yet often ignored fact is that the Reformation and Puritan eras produced over 40 confessions of faith. Men like John Calvin, John Knox, and John Owen saw the writing (and confessing!) of creeds and confessions as essential to the recovery of gospel truth and the building of Christ’s kingdom.
Contrast this with the ‘evanjellyfish’ age we currently live in where doctrinal statements are at best minimal, and at worst vilified. Creeds and confessions have taken on something of a negative aura. They are often seen as compromising the supreme authority of the Bible, binding consciences to extra-biblical standards, and fostering barren orthodoxy. ‘Doctrine divides’ and ‘the Bible is my only creed’ are asserted as soon as the words ‘creed’ or ‘confession’ enter polite Christian conversation.
Leaving aside the self-refuting nature of both these statements (both are extra-biblical dogmas), I have some sympathy with this. Criticism of creeds and confessions often comes from those who have good intentions. They want to prize unity and safeguard the Bible alone as our highest authority. These are of course great things to fight for.
However, they beg the question: does the Bible itself instruct us to have creeds and confessions? I will be arguing in the next two guest columns that creeds and confessions are in fact biblical. More, that the best way to uphold the supreme authority of the Bible, to preserve unity, and to foster a healthy church life is to have and use creeds and confessions.
First a warning, and then two observations (next month I will endeavour to explore more the biblical basis of creeds and confessions).
A warning from history
Almost every major heresy in the history of the Christian church has been against the use of creeds and confessions. The Arians and Socinians are (not so) great examples. They did not favour doctrinal statements. All they wanted was the Bible. They rejected the deductions and inferences of Scripture which concluded the essentials about the Trinity and Deity of Christ. This should sober us. To reject the historic creeds and confessions of the church leaves you in very poor company.
The Bible itself contains various creeds and confessions
See for example Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Psalms 33, 97 & 136, as well as 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Colossians 1:15ff, 1 Timothy 3:16, and Philippians 2:5-11. It is interesting to note what the New Testament epistles do with the four Gospels – they ‘systematise’ the life of Christ. Paul et al condense the life of Christ from his pre-existence to his second coming into just a few sentences. They draw meaning from the perfect obedience, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection of Christ and summarise it into truth that can be confessed, taught, and applied.
The Church is commanded to ‘confess’ Christ
Romans 10:9-10: ‘… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ This is a verbalising of what we believe and it raises immediate questions: when we say, ‘I believe in Jesus,’ who is he? What has he done? And what significance does he have? History gives us a lot of different answers to these questions. Which ones are right? Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all ‘believe in Jesus’. Yet what they believe about him is very different.
We need the data of Scripture to be summarised in a way that is true to the meaning of Scripture. More importantly, for the Church to obey the command to confess our faith we are, of necessity, going to have to explain our faith and formulate it doctrinally. We are going to have to say who Jesus was, what he did, and why it was so vitally important.
None of the above prove in and of themselves why creeds are biblical. But they do begin to build the case for them. Perhaps more than ever, with our world in political, social, and economic turmoil, we need to stand on the truths of Scripture so wonderfully articulated in the historic creeds and confessions. When we do, we are mimicking the biblical examples and obeying the biblical command to confess our God!
Andy Young Minister of Oxford Evangelical Presbyterian Church.