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Why Do We Have Creeds and Confessions?

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Faith Church believes that the Bible is the only guide to life, showing us what to believe and how to live. In light of that conviction, one might wonder why our church refers to creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed and confessions like the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism in sermons, other teachings, and in worship services. Aren’t creeds and confessions examples of human traditions that Jesus confronted in his ministry? Should we echo the statement that some Christians and churches make: “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible”?

I addressed this question in a recent “Deep Dive” at Faith Church Beecher (which you can find here), but I thought it would also be helpful to post some ideas on this topic here on the blog. In particular, I want to highlight five key truths about creeds and confessions that I believe show why they are useful and are not like the traditions that Jesus opposed in his ministry.

Creeds and Confessions are Inevitable
It would be useful to pause and define what I mean by “creeds and confessions.” These documents are essentially formal statements of Christian belief, with confessions often viewed as comprehensive statements while creeds address a particular issue and in context of worship. These documents state either directly or indirectly, “We believe” and then address these beliefs. This understanding of creeds and confessions shows that these are inevitable; everyone has beliefs and will make statements about such beliefs at various points. In fact, one could even make the claim that the statement “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” is a creed! Therefore, the question is not whether you will utilize creeds and confessions, but rather what creeds and confessions you hold to. Are they created by you, or have they been written and held by others?

Creeds and Confessions are Biblical
People sometimes think that creeds and confessions stand in opposition to the Bible, but this is not the case for a couple of different reasons. First and foremost, the creeds and confessions found in the Reformed tradition would maintain that they are not meant as replacements for or additions to the Bible, but rather stand as explanations of what is found in the Bible. This is reflected especially in the use of footnotes of biblical references in the confessions, showing that what is being said is found in the Bible. They typically try to use biblical language as much as possible, but at times may need to introduce terms that are not found in the Bible to explain the phenomenon that we see in the Bible (a key example is the word Trinity – it does not appear in the Bible but the idea behind it does as you read that there is one God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct and equal persons).

In addition, we discover that the Bible contains statements that more or less are “creeds” or “confessions.” A prominent example is Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which says “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (CSB). At various points in Paul’s letters in the New Testament, we see him appearing to quote some statement of the early church – what you might call a “confession.” One of these is 1 Timothy 3:16:  “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (CSB). There are other places where Paul will use words that speak about “traditions” being passed down (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5; Colossians 2:6), a word that points to a set of central beliefs that were being taught. In fact, even the statement “Jesus is Lord” is something of a creed or confession. Therefore, while we do not see the creeds and confessions of our church in the Bible itself, we do see the foundation for such statements in the Bible and in the practices of the early church. 

Creeds and Confessions are Fallible
Since creeds and confessions are human attempts to explain what the Bible teaches, they should not be considered inspired writings like the Bible. This means that the Bible is infallible and inerrant, but these documents are not. This is recognized and affirmed by the writers of the creeds and confessions. For example, the Belgic Confession notes the inspired nature of the Bible and how it is the guide for life, but does not give such a status to itself or the writings of the church. A later confession in the Reformed tradition makes this point even more clear, as the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly notes: “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 Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10), that “[i]t belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His church….which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission….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.” Therefore, one can employ the creeds but still affirm that there is “no book but the Bible.”

Creeds and Confessions Are Clarifying
Most of us have probably witnessed people use the same word but with different meanings. The same thing can happen concerning language from the Bible; people can use the same words but have very different ideas. A critical case in point would be Jesus’s title of “Son of God.” Over the years, some people have thought that this phrase points to Jesus being a created being and less than God. However, others contend that this phrase actually points to Jesus having the qualities of God, just as a human son is like his human father. What does the Bible mean when it says, “Son of God?” This was the very debate that led to the Council of Nicea and then the Nicene Creed, pointing out that the major purpose of the creeds and confessions was to clarify what the Bible was teaching in certain expressions. Not only do creeds and confessions clarify controversial and potentially misunderstood expressions, they also help us to avoid falling into such errors in our own reading. Another way creeds and confessions work to clarify our faith is by pointing out the most important and pivotal elements of our faith, helping us see the major points we need to stand in agreement on and more minor points in which a correct understanding may be less critical or less important.

Creeds and Confessions Are Unifying
Although many people say that creeds and confessions lead to divisions in the church, I actually think it is a bit of the opposite – creeds and confessions lead to unity. When two churches hold to the same creeds and confessions, it shows both of them (and also to the world) that these churches do not stand alone; it shows that though there is not organizational unity, there is spiritual unity. In addition, when a church or believers hold to the historic creeds and confessions of the church, they show themselves to share the same beliefs of Christians in other times and places. This reveals that the faith did not begin with this church and they do not think of themselves as the only correct church. 

Bottom Line: Don’t Be Afraid of the Creeds and Confessions, But Rather Acquaint Yourself With Them
Hopefully these truths about creeds and confessions show that utilizing them does not undercut one’s reliance on the Bible alone as the rule for faith and practice but actually reinforces it. Instead of being afraid to read and explore these documents, let us turn to them to help us understand God’s Word and the faith that we share with others.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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