Creeds and Confessions

Many churches have a “Statement of Faith.”  They’re often found on websites.  Sometimes they’re up front and readily discovered.  In other instances, you have to dig.  But it isn’t unusual for a church to provide a summary of its beliefs.  This is actually an ancient practice, dating back to the time shortly after the apostles.  For centuries Christian churches have held forth their creeds as summaries of what they believe to be the Bible’s most important teachings.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century continued that practice.  After centuries of medieval spiritual decay and biblical ignorance, the Reformation sought to bring Christians back to the teachings of the Word of God.  Yet there was a recognition that the creeds of the early church were valuable summaries and touchstones of orthodoxy.  The earliest Reformed churches retained ancient and time-tested documents such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

However, they also went on to produce new confessional documents.  It was important for the Reformed churches to clearly hold forth their beliefs on important issues.  For instance, what did they believe about the authority of the Bible?  What did they believe about how a sinner can be right with God?  What did they believe about baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  These sorts of issues were controversial and they still are today.  Therefore, the early Reformed churches produced confessions such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort.  These documents (together with the early creeds) represent a comprehensive “Statement of Faith” for historical and contemporary Reformed churches, including the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, well, the history is nice, but what does the Bible say?  Shouldn’t the Bible alone be our “Statement of Faith”?  Such a sentiment is common.  There are those who maintain that they have “no creed but Christ,” or that the Bible alone tells them what they believe.  They have little time for creeds and confessions.  These just get in the way of the Bible.  These are good points to raise.

To begin answering them, Reformed churches recognize three things.  First, we fully agree that the Bible alone is to be our ultimate authority for everything we believe.  One of the mottoes of the Protestant Reformation was Sola Scriptura (the Bible Alone) and we steadfastly hold to that principle.  Only the Bible is inspired by God and only the Bible can authoritatively tell us what to believe (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Our Belgic Confession says exactly the same thing in articles 3-7.

Second, we recognize the inevitability of confession.  What we mean is that everyone has a “Statement of Faith” whether it’s written or not.  Everyone has an understanding of the important points the Bible teaches.  As mentioned at the beginning, many churches do in fact have a “Statement of Faith.”  This is essentially a creed.  Even churches that don’t have a formal document have certain ideas about what the Bible teaches.  For instance, many “creedless” churches won’t allow the baptism of the infant children of believers.  That’s a theological position they hold based on a certain understanding of the Bible.  Reformed churches have a different understanding and it’s explicitly stated and argued in our confessions.  We believe that it’s most honest to be forthright about what you believe are the important points of biblical teaching and the best way to do that is through the ancient practice of maintaining creeds and confessions.

Third, we believe that the Bible itself compels us to confess our faith.  There are short confessional formulas found in the Scriptures.  The most-oft quoted example is from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one!”  This is called the Shema (after the first word in Hebrew) and it has long functioned as a creed for the Jews.  Similar formulas are found in the New Testament – one example is in 1 Timothy 3:16.  But most compelling of all are the words of our Lord Jesus in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore everyone who confesses me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven” (NASB).  Similarly, Paul says in Romans 10:10 that one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  It is eminently biblical to hold forth your faith in words.  We do that with the words that proceed from our mouths, but those words can and should also be formulated on paper.

There are two helpful ways to think of creeds and confessions.  One is that they’re like a road map to the Bible.  A road map shows you the important places.  A road map won’t necessarily show you every single detail on every single street, and maybe not even every single street.  Yet the map will generally help you to find your way around.  A map isn’t infallible or inerrant.  A map can be mistaken.  But it’s still helpful.  So are confessions – they help us find our way around this large book we call the Bible.

Another analogy would be to compare the confessions to grammars.  When we’re learning a new language, a grammar is helpful so that we can understand and begin to employ that language.  The grammar doesn’t take the place of the language.  If you’re studying Hebrew grammar, it’s not because you want to know Hebrew grammar, but so you can read and understand Hebrew, and in particular probably the Old Testament.  Confessions provide us a sort of grammar for the Bible in general.  They help us learn the language and thought-world of the Scriptures.[1]

That brings us to another point:  how do the creeds and confessions function in Reformed churches?  I can mention four ways:

  • For teaching. The confessions function as teaching tools for Reformed churches.  When we want to help people understand the important teachings of the Bible, we can use the confessions as a guide.  They’re also used this way in our preaching and in the catechism instruction for the youth of the church.
  • For unity. We call the Reformed Confessions “The Three Forms of Unity.”  These are the biblical truths which we rally around.  We agree that these are the important, non-negotiable parts of biblical doctrine and that agreement forms the basis of our fellowship.
  • For a testimony. When others outside our churches want to know what we believe, we may direct them to our Confessions.  They are indeed our “Statements of Faith.”  They function as an indicator of what we believe, both for complete unbelievers and for those elsewhere in the ecclesiastical world.  The Confessions present the biblical gospel to the world.  In this sense, we also see the Confessions as having a missionary significance.
  • For praise. The Confessions also have a doxological purpose and function.[2]  The church lays out these doctrines from the Bible so that her members would grow in praise and adoration of God.

My prayer is that you can see from all of this that there is no problem with a Bible-believing church holding to creeds and confessions.  In fact, these documents can be and are very helpful!

[1] James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist, 52.

[2] “Omgang met de belijdenis in de kerk – 1,” B. Kamphuis, De Reformatie, 30 Sept. 2006.