In last month’s article, I made two observations which set the context for the biblical basis of creeds: 1) The Bible itself contains various creeds and confessions. 2) The church is commanded to ‘confess’ Christ (Romans 10:9-10). For the church to obey the command to confess our faith, we of necessity are going to have to formulate it doctrinally. We are going to have to say who Jesus is, what he did, and why he is so vitally important.
This month I want to look further at the biblical basis of creeds. It may come as a surprise to some to hear that the Bible itself instructs the church to have creeds. The church is directed by God to confess truths which accurately summarise biblical truth. God in his Word does more than command us to ‘believe the Bible’. He commands us to believe, confess, and live according to accurate summaries of biblical truth.
In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, Paul instructs Timothy to ‘follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me … guard the good deposit entrusted to you’. The word ‘pattern’ means a standard or form or model, and the adjective ‘sound’ identifies these ‘words’ as being true and correct (even healthy).
What is striking about this biblical command is that the ‘pattern of sound words’ is not Scripture itself (what Paul had written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit). Rather, it is what Timothy had ‘heard’ from Paul. It is what Paul had taught him from Scripture and about the Christian faith. Timothy was to follow and guard more than the very words of Scripture. He was to follow and guard accurate summaries of those Scriptures.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul writes, ‘So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.’ Paul is referring to a body of articulated truth and practice that he had taught the Thessalonians. These ‘traditions’ had been conveyed to them through both the spoken word and the written letter. As such, they are more than the words of Scripture. They are accurate summaries of Scripture. They are doctrinal formulations that precisely encapsulate biblical truth. They are creeds and confessions of faith!
It should go without saying that these ‘patterns of sound words’ and ‘traditions’ must accord with Scripture and the gospel (1 Timothy 1:10). They are not to add to or take away from Scripture. They are not to be placed on a par with Scripture (many churches and denominations refer to their confessions of faith as ‘subordinate standards’ for this very reason).
On the contrary, Scripture is our highest authority. Scripture alone is to be our ultimate litmus test of all that is true and right. And yet that very statement is itself ‘extra-biblical’. To safeguard Scripture alone we actually need creeds and confessions that safeguard Scripture alone. To uphold the pre-eminent authority of the Bible we need to say that it has that authority. We need to confess Scripture alone to secure Scripture alone.
There are, of course, numerous benefits and uses of creeds and confessions in the church today. Not only will they encourage us in our faith as we stand on the shoulders of those giants of the faith who have come before us, they will unite us around biblical truth, guard us against error and heresy, help us establish a sound eldership in the church, and enable us to pass on to our children and the next generation the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
They will encourage us during times of trouble. And so, in as much as historic creeds of the church accurately summarise biblical truth, let me encourage you to read them, confess them, and most of all, live them out!
Andy Young Minister of Oxford Evangelical Presbyterian Church.