Article by Dr. Michael Reeves. president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. (Original source here)
Christians have always written and cherished summaries of their beliefs. The Bible records the earliest of these confessions of faith (1 Tim 3:16). Then, the early post-Apostolic church produced definitive statements of essential Christian belief, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, still considered benchmarks of orthodoxy. In the centuries that have followed, Christians have continued to produce confessions: the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), and so on. The church has never been without a confession or creed.
THE RECIPE AND THE PUDDING
However, for all their defining importance in Christian history, confessions of faith have met with mixed reactions from Christians. While many believers have used confessions enthusiastically, others have claimed that confessions replace a vital relationship with God with a desiccated list of doctrine, replacing the Spirit with the letter, leaving only a husk of dead, dull orthodoxy. However, to understand confessions this way is to mistake the recipe for the pudding. Confessions, like recipes, are descriptions of the vital ingredients in the Christian life of faith, not to be confused with the reality itself. That does not mean the description is unimportant: different ingredients will make a different pudding. But, if you try to eat the recipe card rather than the pudding, you will be sadly disappointed.
There is a deeper, more sinister reason for our distrust of confessions. It started in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve refused to listen to God. Ever since then, mankind pretends that God has not spoken to us. If we admit that God has spoken, we must also admit that we knowingly disobey Him—an admission that we are not the lords and gods we daily pretend to be. Vagueness about what the Bible teaches and a lack of specificity in matters of theology maintain this Edenic error. Without confessions of faith, we are speculating in the dark, denying that God has spoken His revealing light into the world (John 1:1–5). Undisturbed by the harsh light of divine revelation, we are free to dwell in the shadows, fashioning idols to our hearts’ content, crafting a self-made religion out of comforting experiences, moralism, or whatever we choose.
History is replete with this tendency. Consider an example. In seventeenth-century England, a group of theologians called latitudinarians, tired of the never-ending theological debates that flowed from the Reformation, sought a Christianity shorn of most of its doctrine. Doctrine became a dirty word. For them, Christianity was essentially morality—the less doctrine it had, the more people could agree and unite. The problem was that this unity was built around the standards of morality rather than Christ.
In many ways, the latitudinarians were heralds of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment skepticism toward all doctrine epitomized by Edward Gibbon. In his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon looks despairingly at the doctrinal disputes of the early post-Apostolic church as nothing but irrelevant bickering. For example, Gibbon dismisses the Arian controversy’s debate over whether Christ is truly God (homoousios) or merely an exalted creature (homoiousios) by saying, “The difference between the Homoousion and the Homoiousion is almost invisible to the nicest theological eye.”1 For Gibbon, it was an immaterial debate over the single letter i. Yet the argument was over far more essential matters. The controversy was about whether Christ is God, whether He is to be worshiped as God. That single i divided orthodoxy from heresy, with one side claiming Christ as Creator, while the other saw Him as nothing more than a created being. Gibbon’s blithe indifference to doctrine could just as easily argue that the difference between Christianity and Islam is merely one of numbers: one (Allah) or three (Father, Son, Spirit). We know, however, that doctrinal precision matters.
HAS GOD SPOKEN?
When natural, Edenic inclinations and mainstream Western intellectual history stand together against confessions, it is easy to see how a love for confessions has become an unthinkable offense. God’s revelation, objective truth rather than subjective sentiment, offends modern culture.
That is precisely the intent of a confession—it refuses to go along with the pretense that God has not spoken. A confession asserts that God has spoken clearly and specifically. Holding to a confession is an act of humility, admitting that we are not, as we would wish, the final arbiters of truth. Instead, in our confessions we proclaim that God has given us absolute, nonnegotiable truth. Confession is our obedient response to what God has spoken. It is an acknowledgment that God is God, and that we are not.
Confessions also indicate the importance of particular doctrines. J. Gresham Machen wrote,
“In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”2
In this way, confessions of faith are at the core of Christianity. The essentials of Christian belief are not sentiments we can happily differ over. Instead, they are matters of objective and historical truth.
Because a confession is a witness to divine revelation, revelation that can only be grasped by faith, the world is incapable of understanding what it finds in Christian confessions of faith. The world only sees the God of our confession as a tyrannical jailer, imprisoning thought with His dictates of what is true and what is false. This view is the only possible conclusion for someone who seeks freedom from the authority of God’s Word. However, the eyes of faith can see the true God in the confessions. True freedom can be found only through God’s Word. Far from being a jailer, the God of the Christian confessions is a liberator. As a witness to the freedom-giving Word of God, the Christian confession exists to show the true work of the Spirit.
THE WRITTEN POSTURE OF ORTHODOXY
Confessions of faith are our written posture before God and His Word—humble before it, submissive under it, studious in it, confronted by it, and walking in it out in the world. Confessional, creedal Christianity isn’t a subset of Christian orthodoxy; it is the chronicling of Christian orthodoxy. In the end, an orthodox confession of faith, tested through the years of Christendom, is something you don’t want to be caught without.
1. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Random House), vol. 1, ch. xxi, n.155.
2. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1923), 1–2.
Article 2: Confessions in Practice
As I wrote in my first post, the creeds and confessions of orthodox Christianity are the necessary, written responses of the church to the revelation of God in the Bible. Far from the cold and formulaic scribbles of dead orthodoxy, as critics sometimes call them, creeds and confessions are the lifeblood of healthy, humble, and historic Christianity. To further highlight why Christians should love creeds and confessions, we need to look at both their limitations and practical uses.
RECOGNIZE THE LIMITS OF CONFESSIONS
Confessions don’t pretend to be more than they are. In fact, they have two requisite limitations. First, a confession is not an extension of Scripture, as if it were God’s Word itself. It is a human response to God’s Word, an acknowledgment that He has spoken. As such, we value a confession only to the extent that it is faithful to Scripture. Thus, a confession is to be assented to whole-heartedly as a confession of God’s truth only when it accurately declares the truth of Scripture.
Second, confessions cannot contain the whole counsel of God or the full compass of everything those who subscribe to them believe. As a response to God’s Word, the confession points to and guides us toward the whole truth found in the Scriptures. A confession points beyond itself. Therefore, the view that confessions limit growth in the knowledge of God and His gospel is a view that misunderstands the intention of a confession. Confessions are not self-sufficient, doctrinal cages, but guides, witnesses, and safety nets.
In particular, confessions describe essential beliefs that command broad assent. They often remain silent on secondary matters or on doctrines that are not relevant to their confessional perspective. For example, it is appropriate and important for the London Baptist Confession of Faith to limit the mode and subjects of baptism according to Baptist principles. For other confessional perspectives, such details are not required. Functioning in this way, confessions promote “unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things.”1
REVEL IN THE UNITY OF CONFESSIONS
In acknowledging that God has spoken clearly and specifically, confessions also bind our allegiance to what God has said. A confession is more than an obedient response to God’s Word; it also calls Christians to an ongoing obedient response to God’s Word. Written confessions presuppose that we are fickle people. We naturally stray from what God has said to follow the siren voices of our imagination and our culture. If we want to remain loyal to the gospel, we must bind ourselves to it. This is what confessions do; they fasten confessional Christians to the gospel so that those Christians keep on confessing gospel truth. Confessional fidelity guards against confessing something else. Committing to a confession nails your colors to its mast. You define yourself publicly by that allegiance. Without this commitment, it is much easier to shift allegiance without even noticing. Confessional commitments make it difficult to change our minds on the fundamental matters of the confession. Confessions help define and protect our theological identity.
Confessions also protect us from theological drift by binding us not only to the gospel but to our fellow confessors as well. Subscribing to a confession is both public and corporate. The prefix con- in confess means “together.” Confessions bind us together in fellowship under the gospel. Through confession, the gospel becomes our common ground and shared vision. Confessions are fundamentally unifying.
LET YOUR CONFESSIONS PICK FIGHTS WITH HERESY
Our confessions shape our perspective of the Bible and the gospel. Our confessions not only show us where we might be tempted to leave the gospel or compromise it, but they also show us where we need to act and what we need to proclaim. They order our values and priorities.
More strongly than that, however, confessions involve us in the conflict between the gospel and all that is opposed to it, both in our hearts and in the world. We’ve never needed confessions more, even as we witness the extraordinary doctrinal retreat of the church in the face of an increasingly aggressive culture. Specifically, for God’s people to remain loyal to what God has said, they will need confessions that dare to take a stand. A real confession acknowledges truth with authenticity only inasmuch as it acknowledges such a thing as falsehood. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The concept of heresy belongs necessarily and irrevocably with the concept of a creedal confession.”2 When the notion of heresy seems anachronistic, so must the notion of truth.
Confessions of faith are never neutral or abstract. They are spoken in specific situations and address particular issues. Loyalty to them requires an active rejection of the heresies they condemn. It is not possible for Christians today to confess the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds alone. Even these two early creeds were responding to the theological issues of their day. That is not to say that the ancient creeds no longer have any validity. They maintain all their validity. But we cannot simply turn back the creedal clock. New theological issues and errors have always required new confessions to deal with them.
CONFESSIONS AND CHRISTIAN INTEGRITY
Confessions do not typically dictate Christian behavior. Confessions are, after all, testimonies to the faith, not testimonies to our response. To an age that sees doctrine as a cerebral nicety, this inevitably makes confessions look somewhat irrelevant to “real life.” But the very existence of confessions testifies that there is truth that demands a response. Confessions demand that we have the integrity to respond appropriately to the truth being confessed. In this way, doctrine becomes profoundly life shaping. For example, to confess with integrity that Jesus is Lord and that the Spirit works in us to make us Christlike necessarily means rejecting sin and altering every aspect of our lives. By demanding integrity, confessions forbid nominalism or empty, intellectual assent.
In sum, confessions draw us, body and soul, into obedience to God’s Word. Through confessions, we challenge our bent toward rejecting divine revelation. We are taught the gospel with ever-greater clarity. We join with the gospel and there find unity with others who have done the same. We defy and deny what our confessions oppose. We mold our lives, thoughts, ministries, and teaching to the unchanging standard of God’s Word. In the end, we stand with our confessions and proclaim that God has spoken.
1. This quote is typically attributed to Augustine, but is in fact probably penned by Peter Meiderlin, a seventeenth-century Lutheran theologian.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology (London: Collins, 1978), 75.