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Importance of Creeds and Confessions (Reformed Conference 2021)

Day 3, Lecture 3

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman

In this third and final lecture, I want to give a very very brief summary of the history of Creed and Confessions, and then offer a series of points that I think would be worth your church thinking about in terms of how to use Creeds and Confessions in the everyday life of the Christian community where you are.  

In terms of the history, Creeds and Confessions really start pretty early by the second century. By the end of the second century, we have circulating around the Mediterranean what’s called the Rule of faith, which is like the Apostles Creed (if you know the Apostles Creed today). It’s a basic summary of the essential elements of the history of the biblical faith focused upon God as creator, and the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. When it occurred around the Mediterranean, it typically occurred in different verbal forms which strongly suggests that the content was agreed upon, but the wording wasn’t. So, we know from very early on in the church’s life that these forms of sound words were being circulated, but have not been universally agreed upon in terms of their precise wording. 

The big change comes in the fourth century with the debates about the Trinity and the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325. And then finally at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., a specific set of words to deal with what the Bible is teaching about the Godhead, about the three persons of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is agreed as normative for the whole church. That really is the trigger for the great tradition of Creeds and Confessions that we have flowing from that. 

We have another creed produced in 451, the Chalcedonian formula which builds upon the Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and the Nicene Creed in order to clarify the church’s teaching on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. We also have, around about that time, the so-called Athanasian Creed which is probably written by a man called Vincent of Lérins (certainly not put together by Athanasius the great fourth century father) that again deals with the doctrine of God and Christology. On through the centuries, we have perhaps the great era of confession making, and confessions are more comprehensive documents than creeds because creeds tend to focus just on the doctrine of God and Christology. 

When we get to the 16th to 17th century, we have the era of the great confessions. As the church is fragmenting in Europe, as Lutheranism and Reformed are vying with Catholicism, now there is what we might call a competitive religious marketplace where churches define themselves more comprehensively and more precisely in relation to each other. 

And then we have the emergence of the great Creeds and Confessions of the Protestant Church. Those that are apply today for Baptists is often what we call the Second London Confession or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. For Presbyterians, it’s the Westminster Confession of Faith. For the reformed, to those who look to Holland and Germany for their historical origins, we have what we call the Three Forms of Unity: The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, which are comprehensive statements, not only of the doctrine of God, but also of Salvation, Sacraments, etc. 

So, Creeds and Confessions really become central to the church’s existence very early on. It’s only really in in the 20th century, with the rise of Evangelicalism and a basically incorrect understanding of that phrase “No creed but the Bible” which seems to think that we shouldn’t have any other documents but the Bible, that we see confessionalism coming under suspicion. And I think that is, in large part, has something to do with the wider culture in which we belong. I outlined in Lecture One the various pathologies or tendencies of the culture to which we belong, and show how all of them, as they creep, or seep into a Christian context, would militate against Creeds. 

Why then should your church or you, as an individual Christian believer and as a member of your Christian community, take Creed and Confessions seriously? Well, there are a number of reasons that I would outline. First of all, I think Creed and Confessions help us to keep our worship properly focused. Why is that? the great preoccupation of the Creeds of the ancient church is the Trinitarian doctrine of God. Often particularly as Protestants, when we think about our worship, it’s often not distinctly Trinitarian. When you think about it, we believe the doctrine of the Trinity but how does it shape our worship service? How does it shape how we think liturgically in the worship service? Well, if you recite the Nicene Creed for example each Sunday, there you’ve got a clear statement of Trinitarianism right at the heart of your Christian worship. It becomes very clear then that whatever’s going on in your gathering, it is the Christian God you are worshiping, because you are worshiping the God who is one in his being, and three in his persons. So that’s just a simple thing that I would say Creeds and Confessions, employing them liturgically in your service, can help keep the focus on the Trinity, can help keep things distinctively Christian, or reinforce the distinctive Christianness of our worship. 

Of course, some people will say, “Well yeah, but reciting a creed, can’t that become just formalism? Can’t that just become, you know, saying the words and not meaning anything by them?” Well, absolutely that’s clearly a danger, but that applies in hymns as well, or choruses, or praise songs. They are agreed forms of words., but they are just attached to a tune or piece of music. You can sing hymns, you can sing psalms, you can sing choruses, and you can sing praise songs in a way that is just reciting the words and nothing to do with grasping those words by faith. You can sink into formalism that way very easily and yet nobody suggests that that should therefore be a reason why we abandoned singing in the worship service. Again, the abuse of an institution, the abuse of a practice does not negate the validity, or even the necessity of the practice. So, I would say, “Okay yeah, reciting a creed could lead to formalism, and it’s up to you to stop that from happening.” Having a creed there is vital because it’s a constant reminder to you that the God you worship is not Allah, it’s not Buddha, and He’s not commensurable with any of the other gods out there. He’s the one God, unique, one God three person. Reciting of a creed really helps to reinforce that.  

Second, you might say “Well, I just don’t want our church to have a creed or confession, or even a statement of faith because it detracts in the Bible.” Well, all I would say is your church does have a creed or confession whether they write it down or not in some ways. Beside the point, on that particular question, nobody just believes the Bible. Everybody in every church believes the Bible means something. And what you think the Bible means, that’s your creed or confession. When you come into a person who says, “Well, I don’t have a creed I just believe the Bible”, what they’re actually saying to you is this, “I do have a creed. I do believe the Bible means something, but I’m not going to write it down so that other people can critique it. I’m going to keep it to myself. I’m not going to be answerable in any kind of public way for what I actually believe about the Bible.” So, I would say the person who says I have “No creed but the Bible”, that that’s not correct. They will believe that the Bible means something. They will believe that the Bible’s teaching could be summarized in other words than those provided by the Bible. That’s their creed. The key question is are they humble enough to write it down, to formalize it, in a way that others, if you like, can scrutinize it, can search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. So, all churches, and all Christians have Creeds and Confessions, and I think the appropriate thing to do is to write them down, so they can be scrutinized and if necessary checked, and changed. 

Thirdly, you might say “Well this might be a little counter-intuitive. I think confessions limit the power of the church.” You might say “Well I tend to think of Creeds and Confessions as this sort of blunt instruments that the guys in charge can use to sort of squeeze the little people in the pew”. Certainly, Creeds and Confessions have been used that way and can be used that way. But think about it, Creeds or Confession or let’s say the Westminster Confession of Faith. That really defines the limits of the minister’s and elder’s power. If I want to turn up as a church member to church on a Sunday wearing a canary yellow suit, that may be a real crime against taste. It may not be a fashionably advisable thing to do, but my minister can’t tell me not to do it because it’s not covered in the creed or confession of the church. 

The minister only has power, if you like, to enforce what the creed or the confession the church holds to enforces. So, for example, if the minister has a particular issue with people not using thee or thy in public prayer, but the confession doesn’t say that you’ve got to use thee or thy in public prayer, then the minister cannot enforce that. That would be an abuse of his power, a stepping beyond his power. The creed and confessions in some ways can function a little bit like a national constitution that limits the power of the government. It essentially says ministers can go this far and no further. They can speak on this with authority as ministers, but they cannot speak on that. The problem is if your church doesn’t have a creed or confession is that the guys in charge are completely in charge. If the minister decides one Sunday that infant baptism is okay, and the following Sunday decides that it isn’t okay, you have no way, you have no court course of appeal against his change of view. The only way really to limit the power of the leadership of the church is to have a clearly defined confession of faith that explicates precisely what they are able to opine on with authority and what they cannot opine on with authority.

Next point, Creeds and Confessions offer succinct and thorough summaries of the faith. If you want a book in your pocket that summarizes the Christian faith more thoroughly than anything else it’s going to be a confession. If you’re holding the Westminster Confession or the Second London Confession, if you’re a Baptist, or the Augsburg Confession, if you’re a Lutheran, you have in the space of 40 to 50 pages a concentrated compression of the counsel of God that you could read in half an hour or an hour. If you want a brilliant and succinct summary of the faith, Creed and Confessions are it. And of course, what that allows is a coherent teaching of the faith. If you’re discipling a young Christian, and they’re wondering what is sanctification, take him to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, part of the Westminster standards or take him to the definition of sanctification. If they’re wondering who is God, take them to the definition of God. They have to read the whole Bible, and the Creeds and Confessions often refer to chapters that will allow you then to cross-reference what you’re reading two parts of the Bible to show the biblical justification for the statements that are being made. But they’re brilliant, succinct summaries of faith. If you yourself want a primer on what does the Bible teach on justification, what does it teach on baptism, or what does it teach on the Lord’s Supper – Confessions, brilliant little summaries of faith. It’s like a theological library, distilled into 50 pages. Remarkable and wonderful summaries of the faith. 

Related to that, and again this is an interesting point, I think confessions allow for an appropriate discrimination between members of the church, and those who hold office: elders, ministers within the church. One of the reasons we’re in the church is to grow in the faith. The moment you believe, the first moment that you have faith and repent, put you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the likelihood is you don’t know very much. The likelihood is you might instinctively believe a lot of stuff that isn’t actually true or biblical. But that’s okay, you’ve just been converted. You’re a new believer. Nobody expects a new believer to be able to exegete the Bible brilliantly. They expect the new believer to be able to confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead. They expect a new believer to have a very basic understanding, and a very basic faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, and we want those people to be members of the church. We want those people to be discipled within the church. We want those people to come under the care of older, more mature leadership within the church, to bring them on to maturity. But we can’t make maturity the criterion for being a member of a church, or those things can’t happen. In other words, we need to set the bar really low for membership in the church: confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believing your heart that God raised him from the dead. That’s the bar we want to set. But we don’t want somebody, for whom that is the limit of their understanding, being a leader in the church. We don’t want them being an elder, or a minister. We want people in eldership positions, and ministerial positions who are mature in the faith, who understand the faith, who are able to pastorally care for those who are young, and growing in the faith, or those who are able to discern and handle error, when it creeps into the church. We require a sort of higher level of understanding among the leadership. 

How do we practically realize that in the life of the church? One way I would say is this – we make the condition for membership very basic. Some very basic questions we’d ask members of the church who are coming into membership are: What do you think about the cross of Christ? How did you come to believe in Jesus? Those very basic things. What does Jesus mean in your life? What do you think his work means for you? We ask very basic questions, and if people can answer them convincingly, they’re in. For elders though, we need to know that elders have a thorough grasp of the faith. If the church has a confession, one of the ways to train elders or one of the ways to discern who is elder material or not: Is do they grasp the confession? Are they able to sort of articulate the counsel of God as laid out in its more elaborate advanced form in the confession? Do they embody that teaching in the way they live their lives? The bar for eldership, if you like, can be set high at a church which has a confession, but a low bar for membership. 

Well, you will say, “Well how does the confession then function for members of the church?” I would say as a discipling tool. One of the things that elders are meant to be of course is a sort of aspirational model for all Christians. Read the qualifications for eldership in the New Testament. They’re things to which all Christians should aspire. When you join a church, and you might say to the elders, “So where am I meant to go”, “What do you expect from me?”, “How am I meant to grow in my faith?” You can give him a confession and say, “Well over the coming years, we hope that you will come to a deeper and deeper grasp of the Christian truth as summarized here. This, if you like, is the bar that you want to reach for.” So, Creed and Confessions then, I think, are useful because they allow for appropriate discrimination between members and office bearers.

  Next, I think they reflect what I call the ministerial authority of the church. One of the key developments of Protestantism is the notion of the ministerial authority of the church. Medieval Catholic Church had very clear and strong views of its power. If it excommunicated you, you were out. Not just out of the visible church but you’re out of God’s kingdom. The Reformation makes church power more provisional. Church power is very much based upon what we can see and hear outwardly. Nobody can penetrate to the heart. We can simply make judgments on the state of the heart from what we see and hear outwardly. And again, Creeds and Confessions play into that. They provide us with criteria by which we can make those judgments, but they also remind us that those judgments are just provisional. We’re not penetrating the heart. We’re not saying to somebody, even when somebody’s excommunicated, we’re not definitively saying to them you’re not a Christian. What we’re saying is we do not believe that you can live and think the way you do, and outwardly maintain a credible Christian profession. And therefore, for your good, we’re excommunicating you in order that, if you’re not really a Christian, you can have your mind focused on the terrible position in which you placed yourself. And if you are really a Christian, if you just happen that way, you will be brought to fairly quick repentance by this process. And Creed and Confessions functions that way. I mentioned earlier they limit the power of the ministers. They make our power more modest, and they give us a framework. They give us a framework by which we are able to administer that power over people. Remembering that it’s provisional and modest, and it has distinct limits as set by the confessions themselves. They reflect the ministerial authority of the church. 

We might also add that Creed and Confessions represent the maximum doctrinal competence which can be expected from a congregation. The things that you think are important are in the Creeds or Confession that you adopt. Think about it then, let’s say you’re a church, and you have a 10-point statement of faith. That’s all you’re ever really going to be able to expect from people in your congregation. Those 10 basic points, and don’t get me wrong, those could be 10 good points, and they’re much better than nothing. So, it’s not slamming those with basic confessions of faith here, but saying you put yourself in a position where you have that 11th thing, that 12th thing, or that 13th thing, that is actually quite important to faith. It’s not essential to salvation, but it’s important for Christian maturity, and growth. You’re never going to be able to persuade people that that’s really important, because it’s not part of your statement. You might say, “But we don’t want to overburden people.” Well, no. We don’t, and that’s why I made my point earlier about Creed and Confessions, making or allowing us to make this nice discrimination between those in the office in church elders, and ministers, and members. It’s not that we demand that every member believe, every line of the Westminster confession of faith. But we tell every member, that every line of the Westminster confession of faith is important, and it would be really good if over the years, you come to appreciate that, and grasp that, and understand why it’s important. And I think churches need to be ambitious here, particularly in an era when there’s so many pressures coming in from the outside world. The Christian faith, our doctrines don’t stand in isolation. They all connect to each other. Some are more central than others. We can disagree on church government for example, or even disagree on baptism, and it doesn’t necessarily affect our core understanding of the doctrine of God. But our doctrines all interconnect, and confessions, because they’re comprehensive, draw out those interconnections in a way that a 10-point statement of faith wouldn’t do so. And the more interconnections we have, the more interconnections we see, the stronger our faith is relative to the challenges that come at it from outside. The more competent we are in being able to not only understand what we believe, but articulate why we believe it. 

So if you have a 10-point statement of faith, you’re really teaching your people, these are the only 10 things that are important, and you’re probably isolating those points from where they stand in the great matrix, or framework of Christian doctrine. That leaves people dangerously vulnerable to challenges and pressures coming from outside, and sometimes even creeping within the church. We need to make sure that our pedagogical strategy is built on proper foundations, and one of the proper foundations is we got to make sure that it’s built upon as much of the whole council of God as we can get hold off. The Westminster Confession of Faith is a whole lot closer to that than a 10-point statement of faith. So, I would suggest that a good confession sets forth an ambitious project for the church in terms of what it wants people to believe, but also reflects the maximum we can expect them normally to believe, and we’ve got to make sure that that maximum is the right one. We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving people enough for them to be able to operate effectively in what is becoming an increasingly hostile outside culture with which we all have to do business in our daily lives.

Next point, I think Creed and Confessions relativize the present. There’s a great tendency for us to absolutize our own age both for good and its bad aspects. We can think, well we just have everything better than everybody else. We have more knowledge now. We’re superior to the past, and we look down on them, and that cultivates in us an attitude of ingratitude to our brothers and sisters in the past who really, humanly speaking, kept the church going over the centuries. 

Secondly, we can lead to despair sometimes, we can think our problems are so great and overwhelming today that we simply don’t have the resources to address them. I think Creeds and Confessions, by adopting them by acknowledging them, we immediately place ourselves in a position of humility, and debt to the past. It places ourselves in a position of learning from the past, and humility is always a good virtue to cultivating Christians, in whatever sphere we find ourselves. In the sphere of the church, relative to history, humility is very good. I think it can stir our confidence as well. When I recite the Nicene Creed on a Sunday, I’m reciting words that Christians have recited from two million, nearly two millennia, hundreds of years down through the centuries. God has kept the church alive with the same faith for hundreds and hundreds of years. That’s a humbling experience, and that’s an encouraging experience. So, I would suggest that Creed and Confessions relativize the present, and in doing so they relativize us they put us in our place and give us an appropriate and humble attitude towards the past. 

And related to that, in the present, I think Creeds and Confessions fulfill the function of helping us to define our church in relation to another. When I mix with friends from other Christian traditions and churches and they ask “So, what do you believe in your church? What’s distinct about your church?” I give them the Westminster Confession and they can look at it, and say, “Wow! we share a lot in common. We disagree at these points but we share a lot in common here, and we disagree here”. My baptist friends say, “You believe in baptism of infants?” “Yeah, I do. Infants of believers should be baptized.” “Well, that’s a place we disagree.” I say, “Yes, but as Christian brothers, we can understand, we can respect that difference.” It’s out in the open. It’s clearly laid out. I know where I stand in relation to you. I know that when we have sort of dialogue or conversations about Christian unity and the way forward, we can see immediately where we’ve got to focus those conversations where we can really build common ground and where we have points where we have to try and listen to each other where we have to talk to each other. 

So, I think that Christian Creeds and Confessions also help to define churches in relation to each other. That’s an important thing particularly today that the church, is very fragmented, and in the West at least, it’s coming under huge pressure. Fragmentation, distinctively weakens us. Now, there’s no easy way to get over that fragmentation. The reasons for fragmentation are deep seated both theologically historically, and ecclesiastically. But if we’ve got confessions, if we hold to historic confessions, we’re able to understand some of the history of that division. We’re able to understand the nature of that division, we’re also able to see areas where we are able to walk in lock steps, stand shoulder to shoulder, work together for the common good of the kingdom, in what is as I say a very hostile environment which will not fail to capitalize on unnecessary division fragmentation, and misunderstanding where it sees it. 

I fully understand why some people would say “No creed but the Bible”, and I want to affirm the good thing that they want to protect with that statement. They want to protect the unique authority of the Bible, and yet as I said in Lecture One, I think some of the way that’s understood today is shaped as much by the values of the world as it is by Scripture. Lecture Two, we looked at the values of the world on history language, institutions, etc and realized profoundly wanting on those fronts, and we mustn’t allow that to shape how we think of the church, and we mustn’t allow that to shape how we think of Creed and Confessions. 

Finally in the last lecture, what I hope I’ve done is brought to your attention that there are some great benefits, practical benefits in terms of our worship, our church life, our teaching and engaging with other Christians, our engagement with the world outside, some real practical benefits that are served by having a creed and confession. 

Now just to emphasize, I don’t believe the Westminster Confession of Faith simply because it’s the Westminster confession of faith. I believe the Westminster Confession of Faith because it seems to me to summarize, rather beautifully and wonderfully, the biblical teaching of Scripture. Scripture itself is still the ultimate norm, what we call the “norming norm” of the confession, but in practical day-to-day church life the confession operates as what we call the “normed norm”. It’s the quick go-to guide that explains the faith to us, limits church power, helps us to grow to Christian maturity, helps us to govern the church. And for all those reasons, I would urge you to overcome that traditional protestant fear of Creeds and Confessions, allow the Bible to regulate and shape how you think of those things, and then use Creed and Confessions to enrich your worship, your corporate Christian life, and your individual Christian life. The Lord has given these things to the church let us make use of them.

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