The tensions were high. In June of 1922, the Northern Baptist Convention convened under the theme, “Agreed to Differ, but Resolved to Love.” One might dispute whether the resolution was successfully carried out. But no one will debate that they “agreed to differ.” The tensions were high.
Perhaps one of the sharpest differences came to a head when William Bell Riley motioned that the Convention adopt the New Hampshire Confession of Faith as its doctrinal standard. Riley was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, and he represented the Fundamentalists who were concerned to stem the rising tide of modernism among the churches. Not surprisingly, Riley’s motion was challenged with a substitute motion from Cornelius Woelfkin, pastor of Park Avenue Baptist, New York. Woelfkin replied that “the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.”1
If you were there and had to take sides, which side would you have taken? Would you have agreed with the position that said in essence, “No creed but the New Testament”? Or would have voted with Riley to adopt a confession of faith?
In the article below, I’d like to try to help you answer that question, I’ll begin by defining creeds and confessions. Then I’ll argue for their legitimacy and usefulness.
DEFINITION OF A CONFESSION OF FAITH
One of the most thorough and helpful studies on this subject is Philip Schaff’s three-volume work, The Creeds of Christendom.2 According to Dr. Schaff, both a confession of faith and a catechism are a form of creed. The primary difference between a confession and catechism is that the latter, derived from the Greek κατηκειν, “to teach with the mouth,” is written in question-and-answer form.
The term “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which means, “I believe.” In fact, it is the first word that appears in the so-called Apostles’ Creed,3 which begins, “I believe [credo] in God the Father Almighty ….” Thus, confessions and catechisms, as creeds, are expressions of faith. That is, they indicate what a Christian or church understands and believes the Bible to teach regarding faith and life. But Schaff offers us a more formal definition as well. In his words,
A Creed is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church.4
Let me highlight several elements in that definition.
First of all, Schaff refers to a creed as a “confession of faith for public use” (emphasis mine). Since creeds are intended for public use, they are usually written. That’s what I will be defending—a written creed or confession.
Second, Schaff acknowledges that creeds set forth articles of faith “with authority.” A little later in his book, he specifies the kind of authority that he has in mind. Comparing the authority of creeds with the authority of Scripture, Schaff writes,
The Bible is the rule of faith (regula fidei); the Confession [is] the rule of doctrine (regula doctrinae). The Bible has, therefore, a divine and absolute [authority], the Confession only an ecclesiastical and relative authority.5
Now as Evangelicals and Protestants, I trust we agree with Schaff’s position. Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox churches, we do not accord our creeds authority equal with Scripture. There are at least two ramifications that follow:
(1) The confession’s authority is always subordinate to the authority of Scripture. The Bible is our supreme authority in matters of faith and practice because it is the inspired Word of God. A creed or confession, on the other hand, represents the church’s interpretation of God’s word and is, therefore, an expression of human authority. The creed or confession is the norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”), and the Bible is the norma normans (“the rule that rules”).
(2) Confessions, unlike the Scripture, are fallible. Therefore, confessions are subject to correction, modification, and improvement. A case in point is the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession is probably the greatest creed ever written. Nevertheless, the Congregationalists as well as our Baptist forefathers felt that certain doctrines in that Confession needed to be corrected or revised. As a result, they produced the Savoy Declaration and the Second London Baptist Confession respectively. These two confessions may be viewed as modified versions of the Westminster.6
In the third place, with respect to Schaff’s definition, note that creeds or confessions may contain articles of faith that vary in level of importance. Some of the articles are very important, being “necessary for salvation.” Whereas other articles are of relative importance for “the well-being [i.e., spiritual health] of the church.”
This will be important for us to remember. For example, the 2LBC, which my local church and the seminary I serve uses, contains, as do all good creeds, some doctrines that we view as essential for salvation. Some of those doctrines would include the divine authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, man’s sinfulness and need for salvation, the vicarious atonement of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, the bodily resurrection, and so on. To reject any one of those doctrines would call into question one’s Christian profession.
On the other hand, we do not believe or claim that one must agree with all the doctrines in a confession like the WCF or 2LBC in order to be saved. In fact, it’s possible to be a genuine Christian and yet to disagree at some points with these confessions. Of course, to reject the non-essential teachings of these confessions may affect one’s spiritual health or the spiritual health of the church.7 Nevertheless, I want to make it clear that I’m neither asserting nor defending full agreement with a confession like 2LBC or the WCF as a requisite for salvation.
So with these preliminary clarifications in view, let me offer you a modified and modernized version of Schaff’s definition. This is what I will be defending:
A creed or a confession of faith is the church’s doctrinal standard in written form, identifying and expounding those doctrines of Scripture that are essential for salvation, as well as those doctrines of Scripture that are necessary for the church’s spiritual well being.8
THE VALIDITY OF A CONFESSION OF FAITH
First, I’ll present arguments for the validity of adopting and using creeds and confessions in the church. Second, I’ll address three of the primary objections raised against the use of creeds and confessions. Others have provided a more comprehensive defense of creeds.9
I will confine myself to three main arguments:
1. The Bible commands us to confess our faith publicly.
The Lord Jesus Christ expresses this duty very pointedly in Matthew 10:32-33. In the context, the Lord has warned his twelve disciples that they will be persecuted because of their commitment to Him. He exhorts them not to fear those who only have power to kill their body, but have no power over their soul. Rather, they should fear God, who has the power to destroy both the body and the soul. And to enforce that exhortation, Jesus adds,
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven (Matt 10:32-33).10
Obviously, Jesus wants His disciples to do more than “mouth” the right words. Merely reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, for example, will not guarantee anyone a place in heaven. Certainly, Jesus is really calling for a heart commitment. Nevertheless, when the heart is truly committed to Christ, the mouth ought to confess Christ publicly. Should the mouth refuse to confess Christ publicly, we have reason to question whether there is any true heart commitment. And so, these verses plainly teach that Jesus wants His disciples to confess their faith publicly.
Is this not the teaching of Paul as well? In Romans 10:9-10, the Apostle, like Jesus, connects a public confession of faith with a heart commitment of faith:
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (Rom 10:9-10).
Allow me to make three observations about this passage:
First, confessing Christ as Lord entails some degree of understanding of and agreement with what His lordship means. Both the immediate and larger context of Scripture indicates that Christ’s lordship includes both His Messianic kingship11 and also His deity.12 Thus, when a first century Jew or Gentile confessed Christ as “Lord,” he was publicly affirming that Christ was His king and His God.13
Second, a public confession of Christ’s lordship apart from a heart commitment to that lordship is insufficient for salvation. Many who say, “Lord, Lord,” will be rejected in the Last Day because their lives did not match up to their public profession (Matt 7:21-23).
Third, a public confession of faith, like good works, is a necessary evidence of saving faith. Charles Hodge’s comment is to the point:
The public profession of religion or confession of Christ is an indispensable duty. That is, in order to salvation, we must not only secretly believe, but also openly acknowledge that Jesus is our prophet, priest, and king.14
How does this square with the claim that faith and religion are personal and private matters? Many people today, especially politicians, claim to have faith and religion, and yet they studiously avoid any public affirmation of what that means. Contrary to that practice, the Bible calls God’s people to confess their faith unashamedly and publicly.
This is precisely what we do by publishing and affirming a written confession of faith. We proclaim to the world and to one another both the reality and the substance of our faith.
2. The Bible commends the interpretation and application of Scripture.
We do not have time to consider the many passages that teach this.15 For our purposes, let’s simply consider one:
Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas …” (Acts 17:1-4).
When Paul preached in the Synagogues, he did not merely read the Old Testament and sit down. Rather, he “reasoned … from the Scriptures.” And according to verse 3, his reasoning included interpretation and argumentation. The first Greek participle, διανοιγω, literally means, “to open.” Applied to Scripture it refers to opening up the meaning of a passage; hence, interpretation. The second participle, παρατιθημι, means “to set forth.” Here, it refers to the putting forth of arguments.
Furthermore, verse 4 indicates that Paul applied his conclusions to his audience, calling upon them to receive Jesus as the Messiah. Obviously, Paul did not hesitate to go beyond the mere text of Scripture and offer his own explanation of what Scripture meant.
Someone may object that Paul was an inspired apostle. Certainly, he may tread where others may not. However, Ephesians 4:11-14 indicates that non-inspired pastor-teachers, as well as apostles, have been given to the church in order to equip the saints with sound doctrine until the unity of the faith is attained. And no one in the history of the church has ever argued that pastors fulfill that duty by merely quoting or reading passages of Scripture. To the contrary, they do exactly what Paul did. They interpret and apply God’s word.
As A. A. Hodge points out in his defense of creeds:
While, however, the Scriptures are from God, the understanding of them belongs to the part of men. Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole.16
Now if interpreting and applying God’s word is appropriate, then creeds are appropriate. A creed or a confession of faith is no different in principle than a sermon except that it is often the product of several minds, and as a result, often more precise.17
3. The Bible contains rudimentary creeds and confessions of faith.
When Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered on behalf of the others with a confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This miniature confession of faith was an essential part of the “rock” upon which Jesus built His church (Matt 16:15-18).18
Furthermore, there is some evidence that this brief confession of faith later became a standardized formula and prerequisite for baptism. For example, when the Ethiopian Eunuch says to Philip, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip replies, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” To which the Eunuch responded, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”19
Not surprisingly, many scholars believe that the confession of Jesus “as Lord” was also a rudimentary Christian creed (Acts 10:36; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:11).20 In time, this creed may have expanded to include various elements of Christ’s person and work stated in concise form. Perhaps, we have such an example in 1 Timothy 3:16.
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
Paul did not compose these words on the spur of the moment. Nor do they reflect his private opinion. Rather, he says, “by common confession, great is the mystery of godliness.” Then follows a summary of several important truths related to Christ’s saving work. Because of the symmetrical structure of the phrases, some commentators believe that this was part of an early creed or perhaps even a hymn.21
There are other rudimentary creeds in the Bible such as the ancient Shema’ (Deut 6:4), the “Exodus Confession” (Deut 26:1-11), and the great “The Church Unity Creed” (Eph 4:4-6).22 These and the ones described above became the models for later, more fully developed creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed.23 The biblical writers planted the seeds of what would later blossom into the great symbols of the faith. Thus, far from discouraging creeds, the Bible validates their composition and use.
Despite the biblical evidence supporting the use of creeds and confessions, some Christians have raised objections to their use. We’ll attempt to address the three most common ones.
1. Confessions undermine the authority of Scripture.
This can and does happen. For instance, both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches extend the claim of infallibility to several of their creeds, elevating their authority to a place equal with Scripture. I believe that to a certain extent some Protestant churches have been guilty of a kind of “hyper-confessionalism” that gives the creed a kind of practical authority equal Scripture.24 And approach to confessions borders on “symbolatry,” which Phillip Schaff defines as “a species of idolatry, and substitutes the tyranny of a printed book for that of a living pope.”25
However, the problem is not with creeds per se, but with the church’s attitude towards creeds. If we venerate our confession of faith and accord it coordinate authority with Scripture, then we have a problem. But in this case the problem is not the creed; it is our attitude towards the creed! We have already stated that a creed is merely an extension of ecclesiastical, and therefore, human authority (see above). As a result, all creeds—except those found in Scripture—must be viewed as authorities subordinate to Scripture. Our own Confession of Faith, 1:10, articulates this viewpoint very well:
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved (2LCF 1.10).
We might add to these words those of the chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession (which isn’t included in the 2LCF):
All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (WCF 31.3).
So as long as we maintain a strong commitment to the supremacy of Scripture (sola Scriptura), we need not fear the unlawful intrusion of human creeds.
2. Confessions contradict the sufficiency of Scripture.
Does not Paul assure Timothy that Scripture is sufficient to equip him for “every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17)? If the Bible is sufficient, then why do we need confessions?
This objection misunderstands the nature of Scripture’s sufficiency. When we say that the Bible is sufficient as a rule of faith, we do not mean to exclude sermons or creeds. As Sam Waldron explains,
The Scripture was not given to be a complete catalog of all the sermons the church would ever need. It is not sufficient for that, and in the same way it is not sufficient to serve the church as a confession of faith.26
Would you conclude that a pastor is faithfully carrying out his role to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2) if he were to stand behind the pulpit every Sunday and simply read from the Bible without any comment? I suspect you would say, “That’s not sufficient, Pastor.” I think you’d be justified to expect a little more from him: some doctrine, some reproof, some correction, and some training in righteousness. In other words, you expect the pastor-teacher to exegete, illustrate, and apply the words of the Bible. So the Bible alone is sufficient for its God ordained role, but the Bible alone not “omni-sufficient” for every task.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the nature of Scripture’s sufficiency is to view the Bible as the foundation upon which the super-structure of Christian doctrine and practice is built. As a foundation for our faith the Bible alone is sufficient. And yet, like a foundation, the Bible was never intended to stand by itself. It’s meant to be interpreted and applied. And that’s precisely what a confession does.
Or, as another illustration, think of the analogy of the doctrine of faith alone. Faith alone is sufficient for the sinner’s justification. Nevertheless, justifying faith was never intended to stand alone, but rather to be accompanied by good works. In the same way, special revelation, though sufficient as our ultimate authority and standard of faith, always calls for a human response of interpretation and commitment, which is precisely the nature of a confession of faith.
3. Confessions intrude upon liberty of conscience.
When creeds exceed the bounds of Scripture, there is the possibility that liberty of conscience may be infringed upon. Certainly, we must be careful that our creed does not “add” to Scripture (Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18). Furthermore, we must beware of requiring premature or word-for-word agreement with the Confession. We should give each conscience a sufficient amount of time to be instructed and an appropriate degree of latitude with respect to the actual wording or even some non-essential teachings of the confession.
Moreover, as I hope to address in another post, when you have a confession as detailed and comprehensive as the Westminster Confession or Second London Confession, the church may allow its officers to take exception to wording or propositions that are not deemed essential to the Confession’s overall system and distinctive. For example, I wouldn’t consider a confession of the Roman Pope as “that Antichrist” essential to one’s commitment to the 2LCF.27
However, if the creed or confession of faith is an accurate guide to what the Bible teaches, it cannot be viewed as an intrusion upon our liberty of conscience. Our minds have been freed from the shackles of sin, so that they might freely embrace God’s truth, not reject it. In fact, according to Scripture, the rejection of biblical truth is actually an indication of a bad conscience (1 Tim 1:19-20; 2:17-18). As one writer has wisely observed, “Men are seldom opposed to creeds, until creeds have become opposed to them.”28 Consequently, the rejection of a creed may not reveal a problem with the creed, but rather a problem with the heart.
In conclusion, a public confession of biblical truth in the form of a creed need not be inconsistent with the liberty of conscience. Nor is a confession, when viewed and used rightly, inconsistent with the sufficiency and ultimate authority of Scripture.
THE VALUE OF A CONFESSION OF FAITH
In pointing out the value of a confession of faith, we are in reality presenting another argument for a confession. According to 1 Timothy 3:15, God has ordained that the church function as “the pillar and support of the truth.”
This does not mean that Scripture’s authenticity or authority depends upon the church, as Rome claims. In that sense, God’s truth does not need a pillar or support. What the text does mean, in the words of Albert Barnes, is that the church “is entrusted with the business of maintaining the truth, of defending it from the assaults of error, and of transmitting it to future times.”29 And a confession of faith is of great value in assisting the church to carry out this task.
A CONFESSION’S VALUE QUALIFIED
Now before we look at some specific ways in which a good confession can assist the church in its task of being the “pillar and support of the truth,” I feel constrained to make an important qualifying remark: Adopting and using a good confession of faith does not guarantee you’ll have a vibrant and healthy church.
Orthodoxy is an essential element of vital Christianity. That’s one of the main reasons we need good confessions of faith, just as we need good sermons and solid Christian literature. However, orthodoxy (right doctrine) is not the only element of vital Christianity. Jesus’ commends the church of Ephesus for its orthodoxy but rebukes it for having lost its “first love” (see Rev 2:1-7).
The reference to “first love” may be a reference to a loss of affection for the person of Christ. It may be a reference to a loss of affection among the brothers. Or it may be referring to a loss of concern for the lost. In any case, Jesus underscores the need for something more than mere orthodoxy. We also need orthopraxy (right practice) and orthopathos (right affections).
Thus, we can’t assume that simply having the right confession or adopting the right confession will result automatically in a vibrant and healthy church. We cannot assume that theological proficiency and correctness necessarily results in a closer walk with God. As Roy Taylor cautions
Any Christian who takes theology seriously should realize that there is a danger of concentrating on theological precision so earnestly that we fall into the trap of loving theology as a formal academic discipline more than loving the Lord God himself. We can become so enamored of the system of theology we espouse that we do not grow in our love for the triune God.30
Now Taylor is not suggesting that we can have a genuine relationship with and love for God apart from propositional truth. Propositional truth is the vehicle through which God reveals himself to us, communicates to us, and communes with us. In that sense, we can say, “No creed, no Christ.”31
But Taylor’s concern is that we not make mere head-knowledge and theological precision an end-in-itself. I like to put it this way: when the Confession of Faith engenders within us stronger love for and devotion to the Person, Word, and Works of Jesus, we are using the Confession rightly. In that sense, we may liken the Confession to John the Baptist: the Confession is not itself “the Christ” but only a pointer to the Christ.
However, when our devotion to the Confession of Faith exceeds our devotion to the Person, Word, and Works of Christ, we have begun to misuse the Confession. The Confession no longer functions in the role of John the Baptist since it has “increased,” whereas Christ has “decreased.” This sort of “hyper-Confessionalism” becomes an enemy to vital Christianity and subtly undermines the very “solas” of the Reformation it was written to affirm and promote.
So adopting and using a good confession of faith does not guarantee you’ll have a vibrant and healthy church. By itself a good confession is not the “silver bullet” or the “panacea” for all the church’s needs. Nevertheless, with that important qualification aside, there are a number of ways in which a good confession of faith can assist the church in her task of fulfilling the Great Commission.
A CONFESSION’S VALUE AFFIRMED
There are numerous ways in which confessions can serve the church. Below I highlight three areas.
1. A doctrinal standard for church membership and interchurch fellowship
If two are to walk together, they must be agreed (Amos 3:3). True fellowship and harmony exists when God’s people are of “one mind” (1Cor 1:10; Phil 2:1-4). The “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3) will not be achieved apart from the “unity of the faith” (Eph 4:13), which, in the context, includes doctrinal agreement. And ideally, the more agreement, the better! The ecumenical notion that doctrine divides is an unbiblical notion. B. H. Carroll is on target when he writes,
A church with a little creed is a church with little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree upon, the greater the power, and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness. The modern cry, ‘Less creed and more liberty,’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy.32
Thus a substantial amount of doctrinal agreement is necessary for biblical unity. A confession of faith can be a helpful tool in achieving this unity.
1) A standard for church membership
In the first place, it provides a written doctrinal standard by which potential members may be admitted into the church. Churches that do not have a statement of faith or that do not consult the one they have are more liable to admit the wrong people into the church. Often, people are admitted into churches on the basis of a mere confession that the Bible is God’s word or that Jesus is one’s Savior. But this is not a sufficient standard for membership since even cultists profess such convictions. Such a loose practice leaves the church vulnerable to division and heresy (1 Cor 1:10-11; Jude 4). For, as Jesus reminds us, “A house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matt 12:25b).
But a confession of faith provides a doctrinal standard for membership that can help promote a greater degree of unity within the church (see Eph 4:11-14). At a minimum, those permitted into membership should be in full agreement with the essentials of the faith contained in a good confession. Furthermore, there should be a submissive and teachable attitude towards those teachings in the confession and policies of the church that they may not yet fully understand or in good conscience affirm.
Pastors and church officers, on the other hand, should be in full agreement with the entire confession or at least in substantial agreement. I plan to discuss the question of whether pastors or elders may take “exceptions” to the wording or any of the doctrines in a confession in more detail in a later post. But, as I already noted above, I don’t believe confessing the Pope to be that eschatological Antichrist (2LCF 26:4) is essential to affirming the Confession as a whole. So in principle, exceptions to non-essential phrasing or propositions in the confessions can be allowed. More about this later.
At this point, someone may ask, “Is it biblical to make a distinction in the level of commitment to a church confession one requires of a member as opposed to the level of commitment one requires of a pastor or church officer?”
Some, like the Reformed scholar R. Scott Clark, believe that the same level of commitment to the church’s confessional standards should be expected of the clergy and the laity. In his book Recovering the Reformed Confession, Clark remarks,
It is not obvious that establishing two levels of subscription, one for laity and another for ordained officers, is either biblical or consistent with the Reformation…. If the Reformed confession defines what it is to be Reformed, then establishing two distinct relations to the same constitutional document would seem to be a recipe for confusion and effectively two churches within one.33
In my opinion, Clark’s position is neither biblical nor confessional for the following reasons:
(1) In the New Testament, baptism and church membership usually precede a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; Eph 4:11-14). Thus, while a fuller affirmation of the church’s confession may be the goal for membership, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for membership. This places the cart before the horse.
(2) This approach is inconsistent with the 1689 Baptist Confession. According 26.2 (“Of the church”), which reads,
All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are any may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
The prerequisite for church membership is, simply, a credible profession of faith that is not contradicted by serious doctrinal error or ungodly behavior. Mastery of the Confession as a requirement for membership is conspicuously absent from the Confession itself.
(3) Confessions and creeds are designed to protect the church from false teachers, not from new or immature believers. The 18th century Reformed Baptist scholar Andrew Fuller underscores this point:
If a religious community agrees to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the Word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person’s becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of articles [of faith] is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are its avowed enemies.34
(4) A creed or confession is an extension of human, specifically, ecclesiastical authority. Many church constitutions require members to be teachable and submissive to the church’s constitution, confession, and covenant. God’s requirement that we submit to such authority does not necessitate that we fully agree with the authority, especially on matters that are non-essentials.
For these reasons, I believe we should not require full subscription to a larger confession like the 2LCF of our members. An affirmation of and commitment to the essential truths of the gospel is the minimum requirement. As a matter of prudence, we should make them aware of our distinctives (Calvinist, Reformed, Baptist, etc.). Moreover, we should make sure they’re not decidedly opposed to the distinctive doctrines and polity of the church and that they’re teachable.35
One sensible approach some churches employ is to use a larger creed like the 2LCF for the church as a whole and for its officers but a smaller, more succinct summary of that confession, such as the Abstract of Principles or New Hampshire Confession, for its members.36 This two-level approach is, I think, consistent with the biblical and confessional principles highlighted above.
2) A doctrinal standard for inter-church fellowship
Second, a confession can also provide a doctrinal standard for inter-church fellowship and cooperation. Christ never intended local churches to work alone. One local church cannot carry out the Great Commission by itself. Instead, it should unite together with other like-minded churches to carry out such cooperative efforts as benevolence, evangelism, missions, ministerial training, and the publication of Christian literature (Acts 15; 2 Cor 8:18-24; Gal 1:2, 22; Col 4:13-18). And in a day when denominations and cults abound, substantial doctrinal agreement is important if such cooperative efforts are to be healthy and productive. As Robert Lewis Dabney has remarked,
As man’s mind is notoriously fallible, and professed Christians who claim to hold the Scripture, as they understand them, differ from each other notoriously, some platform for union and cooperation must be adopted, by which those who believe they are truly agreed may stand and work together.37
Now we need to qualify this point as well. According to the Confession, we are to have some level of “communion” with “all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord” (2LCF 27.2; WCF 26.2). This is in keeping with Christ’s prayer for unity among all true disciples (John 17).38 So I’m not advocating a kind of “sectarian” spirit in which we only have inter-church fellowship with other Christians and churches that dot their “i”s and cross their “t”s precisely in the same manner we do. Many of the 18th century Calvinistic Baptist churches didn’t experience the fruits of the English “evangelical revival” because they became too ingrown and doctrinally exclusive, refusing to acknowledge God’s blessing on the labors of men like George Whitefield because he was an Anglican.39
We should pray for and exercise brotherly love to all true Christians and true churches of Christ. We may engage in larger or broader kingdom endeavors with Christians and churches that may not adhere to the same confession we affirm. Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition are examples of believers from different denominations and slightly different confessional traditions working together to advance the kingdom.
Nevertheless, when we’re talking about kingdom endeavors with a more narrow focus, such as church planting, missions, theological education, and the publication of solid Christian literature, I believe a solid confession of faith can provide a helpful “compass” to ensure that we’re traveling in the same direction and pursing the same goals.
2. A doctrinal help for church discipline and defending the faith
The church is called not only to maintain the truth, but also to defend it from error. So Jude, the “bondservant [and half-brother] of Jesus Christ, and brother of James,” makes the plea:
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3).
The Greek word translated “contend” denotes an intense struggle or fight.40 It is a battle waged for “the faith once for all handed down to the saints,” that is, the body of divinely revealed truth, which we now possess in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
In this case, our enemy consists of those who pervert the truth, reject authority, cause divisions, and live ungodly lives (see vv. 4-19). Such, according to Jude, “have crept in [and may creep in today] unnoticed” (v. 4). And as a consequence, God’s people must contend for the faith. The present tense of “contend” suggests the need for an ongoing struggle until the end of the age.41
Historically, creeds have been the weapons, forged by the church from the Scriptures, used to wage this ongoing war. As the passage above and several others demonstrate, the battle began in the apostolic church. As heresy attacked the church from within and without, the church responded with doctrinal formulations, which may be viewed as the beginning of creeds.
For example, the Jerusalem council formulated and published certain dogmas designed to protect the churches against the heresy of the Judaizers (Acts 15:1-30). The apostle Paul confronted a denial of the resurrection with an elaborate defense and exposition of the doctrine (1 Cor 15:1-58; cf. 1Tim 1:19-20; 2:17-18). And the apostle John fortified the church against the attacks of incipient Gnosticism with an apologetic for Christ’s full humanity (1 John 1:1-3; 4:1-6; 5:1-6).42
The early church continued the polemic and responded to the Arian, Apollinarian, Nestorian, and Eutychian heresies with such confessional formulas as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the so-called Athanasian Creed.43 In time, the doctrinal decay and corruption of the Roman church provoked the reformers to defend the faith. The many creeds, confessions, and catechisms that grew out of the Reformation bear witness to that defense.44
Unfortunately, the ecumenism of our day has blinded many churches and denominations to the duty of defending the faith. Consequently, many modern creeds require a minimal amount of doctrinal homogeneity and allow for a great amount of doctrinal diversity. Such an approach not only rejects the church’s duty to expose and refute error, but it misses one of the primary functions of a creed. Concerning this modern approach to creeds, J. Gresham Machen remarked in the early part of the twentieth century,
The historic creeds were exclusive of error; they were intended to set forth the biblical teaching in sharp contrast with what was opposed to the biblical teaching, in order that the purity of the church might be preserved. These modern statements, on the contrary, are inclusive of error. They are designed to make room in the church for just as many people and for just as many types of thought as possible.45
We must resist this modern over-emphasis on doctrinal latitude. God’s people should not embrace deviant forms of doctrine, but they should reject them. We are explicitly warned “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings” (Heb 13:9). And again, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out in to the world” (1 John 4:1).
One of the ways that we can test the spirits is to compare their views of Scripture with the tried and proven creeds of historic Christianity. A good creed or confession of faith will serve as a check to prevent the church from too hastily adopting doctrines that are novel and that deviate from mainstream Christian thought. Furthermore, “Creeds help to preserve the essential core of true Christian faith from generation to generation.”46
Thus, the ongoing assault of error and heresy calls for the continued use of older creeds, as well as the formulation of newer creeds that address the specific errors of our day. One such error, I think, is “evangelical feminism,” which is just a “baptized” version of secular feminism. It confuses equal dignity between male and female, which is biblical, with equal or identical roles, which denies the complementary roles God has assigned. So now it’s not uncommon to find a woman serving in the role of “senior pastor” in a church. What’s worse, this compromise on the biblical teaching of male and female roles has opened the door to further compromise on the biblical definition of marriage so that some churches and Christians are now questioning whether or not “same-sex” marriage is really sinful after all.
This is the kind of error that calls for a creedal response from the church. Thankfully, some in the church have responded. Several leading evangelicals formed the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and prepared the “Danvers Statement,” which expounds biblical complementarianism.47 More recently, the Southern Baptist Convention also responded to feminism by revising their 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message to include an article on “The Family” (Revised June 9, 1998). Article XVIII defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime,” affirms the “equal worth” of men and women before God, and articulates the distinct yet complementary roles God as assigned to the man and the woman. I would like to see Reformed Baptist churches append a similar statement to the 1689.48
My basic point is that creeds and confessions can be helpful tools to promote the truth and to protect the church from errors. As the Scottish theologian James Bannerman perceptively notes,
Had the adoption of confessions and creeds not been a duty laid upon the Church by a regard to her own members, it would have been a necessity laid upon the Church by a regard to those not her members, but her enemies.49
3. A doctrinal guide for evangelism, education, and worship
Prior to his ascension, the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned the eleven apostles with the awesome task of making disciples and then of teaching them everything that he had commanded (Matt 28:19-20). The Apostle Paul also received this commission, and he endeavored to fulfill it by faithfully teaching God’s people “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:18-27). And this same commission has been passed on to the church to carry out until the end of the age.50
Now as one writer has pointed out, the overwhelming volume of biblical truth makes this quite a formidable task. The Bible consists of 66 books divided into 1,189 chapters containing over 773,000 words. It would be impossible either to convey or to comprehend all of that huge mass of truth at once. Consequently, it becomes necessary for the church to isolate the most basic and fundamental truths, and then to systematize them in summary form so that they can be easily taught and easily learned.51
Historically, this has been one of the functions of a creed.52 Creeds or confessions of faith are comprehensive, yet concise summaries of biblical doctrine. Like good sermons or Christian literature, they distill gospel truth in expository form. As pointed out above, their accuracy is enhanced since they are in many cases the product of many minds. This makes creeds and confessions valuable aids to assist the church in carrying out its commission.
Not surprisingly, this is the reason Charles Spurgeon gave for reprinting the 1689 Confession. In the second year of his ministry at New Park Street Chapel, he wrote,
I have thought it right to reprint in cheap form this excellent list of doctrines, which were subscribed to by the Baptist Ministers in the year 1689. We need a banner because of the truth; it may be that this small volume may aid the cause of the glorious gospel by testifying plainly what are its leading doctrines…. This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.
Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers and saints. Above all, it is the truth of God, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.
Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example adorn your creed. Above all live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God, which is here mapped out for you.53
We concur with Spurgeon. A confession of faith can be a valuable summary of that glorious truth, which is contained in God’s word. In fact, many of the churches I’ve served in have used the 2LCF as a guide to teach the members systematic theology. Within the space of one year, you can work through the paragraphs of each chapter and expound the proof texts for those paragraphs in an adult Sunday School class, for example. When you’re finished, you’ve basically given your people an entire course on systematic theology in a fairly comprehensive yet concise form.
In this respect, let me commend the new modern English version (2012) that the Founders Press has recently published: Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century, which is available in paperback or e-book format.54
Some creeds have even been put to song and can be used for worship. The most common creedal song is probably the Apostles’ Creed, which one can find in several different versions and tunes.55 “Catechism Songs” is a project to put the Shorter Catechism into song that can be used in public or private worship.56 One might even classify many of the great hymns we sing, such as “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” or “Come Thou Almighty King,” as creeds put to song.57
Those who oppose the use of creeds or confessions sound quite pious. One anti-creedal publication, for example, makes the following assertion,
To arrive at truth we must dismiss religious prejudices from heart to mind. We must let God speak for himself…. To let God be true means to let God have the say as to what is the truth that sets men free. It means to accept his word, the Bible, as the truth. Our appeal is to the Bible for truth.
The same publication goes on to attack creeds as “man-made traditions,” “the precepts of men,” and human “opinions.”58 That approach to creeds may sound more biblical than my attempt to defend them. However, once it is discovered that those words are drawn from a Jehovah’s Witness publication, the biblical sounding veneer is removed.
You see, “No creed but the Bible” has never been the historical position of orthodoxy. Rather it has always been the pious cloak of heretics, cultists, and modernists. It should be no surprise, then, that the Northern Baptist Convention opened the door wide for modernism when it voted to reject Riley’s motion to adopt the New Hampshire Confession and to approval Woelfkin’s proposal that “the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice.” That denomination has since become apostate.59
Unfortunately, some Christians have failed to see this danger, and have rallied against creeds. My goal in this study has been to insure that we don’t make that mistake. My aim has been to persuade you of the validity and value of a confession of faith. I hope I have succeeded!
- David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville: Unusual Publications, 1986), 206.
- Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 volumes (New York: Harper and Row, 1931; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990)
- The Apostles’ Creed was once thought to be of apostolic origin. More correctly, it should be viewed as a summary of apostolic teaching, which eventually reached its final form by the end of the fifth century. See Schaff, 1:16-20.
- Schaff, 1:3, 4.
- Ibid. 1:7.
- Of course, I acknowledge that our Presbyterian brethren would view these later confessions as aberrations rather than improvements to the WCF. Nevertheless, I know of no evangelical Presbyterian that would defend the WCF as infallible or incapable of improvement.
- If a doctrine or teaching has no bearing whatsoever upon the spiritual health of a Christian or church, then, in my opinion, it has no business whatsoever in a creed.
- Millard Erickson offers a more concise definition. He defines a creed as “a summary of the beliefs of a person or group, often a denomination.” Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 39. This definition is too general for our purposes.
- I don’t intend to be exhaustive. For a more developed argument for the legitimacy of creeds, see Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 21-80.
- All Scripture citations are from the New American Standard Bible updated version (The Lockman Foundation, 1995) unless otherwise indicated.
- Accordingly, the verse parallels Christ’s lordship with his resurrection, which marked Christ’s installment as the Messianic king and Son of Yahweh (cf. Ps 2:6-7; Acts 13:33; Rom 1:4; Eph 1:20-23; Heb 1:5, 8). See further John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. II (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 55.
- The Greek term employed for “Lord” (i.e., κυριος) is commonly used in the Septuagint for Yahweh. Paul brings out this connection in this very passage when he quotes an Old Testament passage referring to Yahweh (Joel 2:32) and applies it to Jesus (Rom 10:13). Thus, to confess Jesus as Lord is to worship him as Yahweh (cf. John 5:23).
- Such was the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
- Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 343. Along the same lines, Murray writes, “Confession without faith would be vain (cf. Matt. 7:22, 23; Tit. 1:16). But likewise, faith without confession would be shown to be spurious.” The Epistle to the Romans, 2:56.
- A few examples included Nehemiah 8:5-8; Matthew 12:18-27; Acts 8:26-35; 28:23; Ephesians 4:11-14; 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17; 4:2.
- Archibald Alexander Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadephia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1901), 19.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith was the product of over one hundred ministers.
- Since the Reformation, most Protestant commentators have avoided identifying the “rock” as Peter (a Roman Catholic interpretation), and instead they have identified it as Peter’s confession. However, the play on words—“You are Peter [Πετρος], and upon this rock [πετρα] I will build My church” (18)—makes it likely that Peter himself is the rock. Yet, it is not upon Peter merely as an individual, but upon Peter as the spokesman for the apostles, bearing witness to Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that Jesus builds His church. Thus, Peter’s confession of faith is an inseparable part of the church’s foundation. This interpretation does not demand that we view Peter as the first pope.
- Even if this confession is a later interpolation, it still reflects an early practice. See F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 178.
- Commenting on Romans 10:9, C. E. B. Cranfield writes, “In view of the evidence of this verse, in which the presence of ‘confess’ is suggestive, and of 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:11, it seems clear that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was already an established confessional formula. It is probable that it was used in connexion [sic] with baptism, but also in Christian worship generally.” Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 257.
- Newport White writes, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what follows is a quotation by St. Paul from a primitive creed or summary of the chief facts to be believed about Jesus Christ.” The First and Second Epistles of Timothy in The Expositors Greek New Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 118; cf. J. J. Van Oosterzee, The Two Epistles of Timothy, trans. E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood, in A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, ed. John Peter Lange, trans. Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1869), 45-46; William Hendricksen, Thessalonians, Timothy, and Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 137-141.
- Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
- Schaff, 1:4-7; 16-20.
- Schaff, 1:7-8.
- Schaff, 1:7.
- From an unpublished lecture, “Why should the church hold to a confession of faith?”
- Though a good case can be made that the Roman Pontiff is an antichrist. And as C. H. Spurgeon is alleged to have said, He should at least be arrested on suspicion.
- Samuel Miller, Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (reprinted, A Press, 1987), 40, quoted by Robert P. Martin, “The Legitimacy and Use of Confessions,” in Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1995), 14.
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1962), 1142.
- L. Roy Taylor, “Practical Benefits and Dangers of Subscription,” PCS, 317.
- Carl Trueman develops this point in some detail in The Creedal Imperative, 52-66. See also John Frame who argues that we can have no personal and saving relationship with Christ apart from propositional revelation. “No Scripture, No Christ,” in The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 563-66.
- Colossians, Ephesians and Hebrews in An Interpretation of the English Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 140, cited by Martin in A Modern Exposition of the 1689, 16.
- Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 179.
- Andrew Fuller, Complete Works, 3 vols. (1832; reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 450.
- For a further development of this position, see Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 171-75.
- Bethlehem Baptist Church, where John Piper once served as a pastor, has a fuller and more comprehensive “Elder’s Affirmation” for the church officers and a small, more concise “Members’ Affirmation” for the church members. These are available in PDF format here: http://www.hopeingod.org/about-us/who-we-are/our-beliefs (accessed October 27, 2014).
- Quoted by Kenneth Gentry, “In Defense of Creedalism,” Penpoint, (December 1998), 2.
- See my five-part blog series “Toward a Catholic Christianity,” the first of which is available here: http://bobgonzal.es/index.php/2018/01/09/toward-a-catholic-christianity-its-essence-and-importance/ (accessed January 9, 2018).
- See Michael Haykin’s One Heart and One Soul: John Sutcliffe of Olney, his friends and his times (Durham, U.K.: Evangelical Press, 1994), 26-28. Certainly, they were right to be wary of the Arminian elements of the revival promoted by men like John Wesley. But as Iain Murray argues, a Reformed Christian may even learn some helpful lessons from an Arminian like Wesley. See his The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths For A New Awakening (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005). Chapter five is entitled, “What Can We Learn From John Wesley?”
- The word is επαγωνιζομαι, which is the intensified form of the Greek verb from which we derive the English verb, “to agonize.” The more common form of the word, αγωνιζομαι, “was much used in connection with athletic contests to describe a strenuous struggle to overcome an opponent, as in a wrestling match.” D. Edmond Hiebert, Second Peter and Jude (Greenville: Unusual Publications, 1989), 218.
- Ibid, 218-19.
- Because Gnostics viewed matter has inherently evil, they denied that Christ had a material body, thus denying his full humanity. This view has also been called “Docetism,” from the Greek word δοκεω, “to appear.” They argued that Jesus only appeared to have a body.
- Schaff, 1:24-42; Archibald A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 115-19.
- Schaff, 1:203-813.
- “Creeds and Doctrinal Advance,” Banner of Truth (November 1970), quoted in A Modern Exposition of the 1689, 21.
- Kenneth Gentry, “In Defense of Creedalism,” Penpoint, vol. 9, no. 4 (1998), 2.
- A PDF of the “Danvers Statement” as well as other helpful resources on biblical complementarianism are available here: http://cbmw.org/why-we-exist/ (accessed October 27, 2014.) Many of the signers of the statement also articulated the biblical rationale for complementarianism in a book of helpful essays edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, entitled, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991).
- The 1689 Confession affirms the heterosexual nature of marriage. But it does not provide a clear definition of marriage. Samuel Waldron refers to this as “a significant omission” and “no longer so harmless as it was in past generations.” A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd edition (Durham, U.K.: Evangelical Press, 1995), 299. Moreover, simply affirming that God instituted marriage “for the mutual help of husband and wife” fails to delineate the distinct yet complementary roles of the husband and wife. Egalitarians could easily twist “mutual help” to serve their cause. Furthermore, the Confession’s use of the masculine pronoun (“he”) when referring to candidates for the office of bishop or elder is no longer adequate, in my opinion, to address the encroaching danger of feminism that’s invading the church. The masculine pronouns “he” or “his” may serve as generic pronouns. Of course, we know that the Puritans didn’t intend them as generics in this context. But it’s wise to be more precise in our day in the light of the rise of gender inclusive language. I acknowledge that many Reformed Baptist churches articulate their position on male and female roles in the local church constitution. But since this is not just an issue of local church polity that’s limited to one’s particular cultural context but rather an issue that transcends historical and cultural boundaries, it deserves to be given confessional status in my opinion.
- James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (reprint, Still Waters Revival Books, 1991), 301.
- The fact that Christ promises His special presence “until the end of the age” proves that the commission was intended to extend beyond the life span of the eleven apostles.
- Gentry, 2.
- Schaff, 1:8.
- Quoted in the forward to The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Carlisle, PA: Grace Baptist Church), 7-8.
- Available for purchase online at press.founders.org.
- It’s hymn #741 in the 1990 Trinity Hymnal published by Great Commissions Publications: http://www.gcp.org/Products/CategoryCenter/HYMN!PEW/hymnals.aspx (accessed October 26, 2014). Contemporary versions of the song have been done by Steve Green (“We Believe), Rich Mullins (“Creed”), and Hillsong (“This I Believe”).
- For more on this point, see Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 156-57.
- Quoted by Gentry, 1.
- The Northern Baptist Convention has since become the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA). A statement of its beliefs is available online here: http://www.abc-usa.org/what_we_believe/ (accessed October 27, 2014). For more about its history and decline, see Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 171-229.