Why do Reformed churches use creeds and confessions?

Short article by Joe Vusich

1) They help Christians make sense of the Bible by highlighting what is important and summarizing its essential message (if the Bible is the world, the creeds and confessions are the road maps).

2) They help the faithful memorize the essential beliefs of the Christian faith (especially regarding the work of the Triune God to save us).

3) They promote universal and apostolic unity (connect us to the past and to other churches by summarizing what true Christians around the world have confessed since the days of the apostles, not just what we believe in our local congregations).

4) They provide specificity to our faith and help distinguish us from false teachers and sects (the original purpose of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds).

5) They provide structure for Christians to publicly confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (the original purpose of the Old Roman Creed, which eventually expanded to become the Apostles’ Creed).

6) They are useful for apologetics (equip Christians to give succinct answers for the hope that is within them).

7) They delimit church power (establish where the doctrinal authority of the church begins and ends, and make that authority transparent to all).

8) They clarify the content of our faith to those who may ask (“these are formal summaries of what we believe and teach”).

9) They provide distilled, well-tested theological judgments that fence our thinking and help us not to stray from the biblical faith.

10) Confessing creeds is a biblical practice. The Old Testament saints daily confessed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and the New Testament church was founded on Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-18). Early Christian churches began formulating faithful summary statements of the faith even while the apostles were still alive; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16.

Why Creeds?

sproul877Article by RC Sproul: Avoiding Theological Anarchy (original source while the creeds are norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”).

Historically, Christian creeds have included everything from brief affirmations to comprehensive statements. The earliest Christian creed is found in the New Testament, which declares, “Jesus is Lord.” The New Testament makes a somewhat cryptic statement about this affirmation, namely, that no one can make the statement except by the Holy Spirit. What are we to understand by this? On the one hand, the New Testament tells us that people can honor God with their lips while their hearts are far from Him. That is to say, people can recite creeds and make definitive affirmations of faith without truly believing those affirmations. So, then, why would the New Testament say that no one can make this confession save by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps it was because of the cost associated with making that creedal statement in the context of ancient Rome.

The loyalty oath required by Roman citizens to demonstrate their allegiance to the empire in general and to the emperor in particular was to say publicly, “Kaisar Kurios,” that is, “Caesar is lord.” In the first-century church, Christians bent over backward to be obedient to civil magistrates, including the oppressive measures of Caesar, and yet, when it came to making the public affirmation that Caesar is lord, Christians could not do so in good conscience. As a substitute for the phrase, “Caesar is lord,” the early Christians made their affirmation by saying, “Jesus is Lord.” To do that was to provoke the wrath of the Roman government, and in many cases, it cost the Christian his life. Therefore, people tended not to make that public affirmation unless they were moved by the Holy Spirit to do so. The simple creed, “Jesus is Lord,” or more full statements, such as the Apostles’ Creed give an outline of basic, essential teachings. The creeds summarize New Testament content.

The creeds also used that summary content to exclude the heretics of the fourth century. In the affirmation of the Nicene Creed, the church affirmed categorically its belief in the deity of Christ and in the doctrine of the Trinity. These affirmations were seen as essential truths of the Christian faith. They were essential because without inclusion of these truths, any claim to Christianity would be considered a false claim.

At the time of the Reformation, there was a proliferation of creeds as the Protestant community found it necessary, in the light and heat of the controversy of that time, to give definitive statements as to what they believed and how their faith differed from the Roman Catholic Church’s theology. Rome itself added her creedal statements at the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century as a response to the Protestant movement. But each Protestant group, such as the Lutherans, the Swiss Reformed, and Scottish Reformed, found it necessary to clarify the truths that they were affirming. This was made necessary, not only because of disagreements within Reformed parties, but also to clarify the Protestant position against frequent misrepresentations set forth by their Roman Catholic antagonists.

The seventeenth-century confessional statement known as the Westminster Confession is one of the most precise and comprehensive creedal statements growing out of the Reformation. It is a model of precision and biblical orthodoxy. However, because of its length and comprehensive dimension, it is difficult to find two advocates of the Westminster Confession who agree on every single precise point. Because of that, churches that use the Westminster Confession or other such confessions, usually limit requirements of adherence by an acknowledgment of “the system of doctrine contained within.” These later Protestant creeds not only intended to affirm what they regarded as essentials to Christianity, but specifically to clarify the details of the particular religious communion that would use such comprehensive confessions of faith.

In our day, there has been a strong antipathy emerging against confessions of any stripe or any degree. On the one hand, the relativism that has become pervasive in modern culture eschews any confession of absolute truth. Not only that, we have also seen a strong negative reaction against the rational and propositional nature of truth. Creedal statements are an attempt to show a coherent and unified understanding of the whole scope of Scripture. In that sense, they are brief statements of what we historically have called “systematic theology.” The idea of systematic theology assumes that everything that God says is coherent and not contradictory. So, though these creeds are not created out of pure rational speculation, nevertheless, they are written in such a way as to be intelligible and understood by the mind. Without such confessions, theological anarchy reigns in the church and in the world.

The Ligonier Statement on Christology

In all good conscience I am happy to affirm along with its affirmations and denials.

Firstly, some introductory words from Dr. R. C. Sproul:

Who is Jesus? Nearly every adult person has formed some opinion of Jesus. These opinions may be superficial, uninformed, or downright heretical. The truth about Jesus, not mere opinion, matters . . . and it matters eternally.

Those who bear the name Christian profess to follow Christ as His disciples. They hold a Christology—a doctrine of Christ—that reflects their view of Christ. This Christology may be articulated implicitly or explicitly. It may represent the depth of biblical revelation and historic Christian reflection on Scripture, or it may be novel and disconnected from God’s Word. But no professing Christian lacks a Christology.

Since following Christ is central to Christianity, the church has labored for centuries to proclaim the Christ of history and Scripture, not the Christ of our imaginations. In such historic statements of faith such as the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession, Christians have articulated the biblical teaching on Christ.

Today these statements are often neglected and misunderstood, resulting in widespread confusion regarding the person and work of Christ. For the glory of Christ and the edification of His people, the Ligonier Statement on Christology seeks to encapsulate the historic, orthodox, biblical Christology of the Christian church in a form that is simple to confess, useful to help teach the church’s enduring faith, and able to serve as a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together. This statement is not a replacement for the church’s historic creeds and confessions but a supplement that articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what He has done. May Christ use it for His kingdom.

In the name of God’s Son incarnate, our Prophet, Priest, and King,

R.C. Sproul
Spring 2016

THE LIGONIER STATEMENT ON CHRISTOLOGY

We confess the mystery and wonder
of God made flesh
and rejoice in our great salvation
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

With the Father and the Holy Spirit,
the Son created all things,
sustains all things,
and makes all things new.
Truly God,
He became truly man,
two natures in one person.

He was born of the Virgin Mary
and lived among us.
Crucified, dead, and buried,
He rose on the third day,
ascended to heaven,
and will come again
in glory and judgement.

For us,
He kept the Law,
atoned for sin,
and satisfied God’s wrath.
He took our filthy rags
and gave us
His righteous robe.

He is our Prophet, Priest, and King,
building His church,
interceding for us,
and reigning over all things.

Jesus Christ is Lord;
we praise His holy Name forever.

Amen.

Affirmations and Denials

Explanatory Essay

Confessional Subscription

Tom Chantry has written a series of very helpful blog articles on the subject, “Words and their Meaning: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility.” In part 1 he writes:

Confessions of faith are intended as tools of doctrinal unity within a church or an association of churches. To “subscribe” to a confession of faith is to claim it as a summary of your own theological convictions. Thus when many people subscribe together to the same confession, they profess that they believe the same things about those matters addressed in their confession. Such subscription is necessary at some level; otherwise we would be forced to cooperate with those who have defined Christ and the faith differently than ourselves.

Various approaches to subscription have been taken. Historically, churches that have attempted a generalized “system” subscription have demonstrated the error of such an approach: when subscription to a confession does not mean subscribing to its particular doctrines, then it means nothing. System subscription has proven to be a highway to apostasy. Some have followed a stricter approach, but allowed for various “exceptions.” In most cases there is an agreed-upon list of doctrines to which one may take exception, but defining “acceptable” exceptions may become a far messier process than many would imagine.

Associational Reformed Baptists have followed an approach called “strict” or “full” subscription. This does not mean accepting the Confession as inspired truth in a word-for-word sense, but rather an agreement with every doctrine found in the confession as a true and biblical doctrine. Individuals have voiced objections to certain wordings but have confessed agreement with every doctrine taught in the confession.

However, in order for such subscription to mean anything, one other principle is necessary: we must subscribe to the doctrines intended by those who wrote the confession; otherwise we subscribe to a malleable confession – a living document which might be twisted to mean anything. Just as constitutionalism requires constitutional history, so confessionalism requires historical theology. We cannot knowingly confess unless we know what we are confessing, and for that we must know what the writers of our confession meant by their words.

It is when we find that we cannot subscribe to the words of a confession as its writers intended them to be read that we find ourselves outside of a confessional community. This is why new confessions have been written. If we were at liberty to press the words of our confessions into new meanings, we would never need to separate from an old confession and write a new one. Of course, subscription would once again be meaningless.

As an example, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. The framers of the Second London (1689) clearly respected the work of the Assembly. Why did they not merely adopt its confession? You know the answer: they were Baptists by conviction. But does that really mean that they could not adopt the words of the Westminster Confession? I realize there are other differences, but probably the key difference is found in Westminster 28:4, which reads:

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

Is it really so difficult for a Baptist to confess those words? What if we were to argue that in our understanding this paragraph were teaching that the spiritual children of believers – i.e. those whom they led to faith – are to be baptized? Such a reading is at least plausible. Paul spoke in Galatians 3:7 of those who shared Abraham’s faith as his children, and that principle applied more broadly than only to Abraham. In I Timothy 1:2 he called Timothy “my true child in the faith,” clearly meaning a spiritual descent. Oh, you say, but the framers of the confession covered that by speaking not only of children, but of infants! Except that in I Corinthians 3:1 Paul called immature Christians “infants in Christ.”

Boom!

Why don’t we just confess the words of the Westminster Confession, but say that in our understanding 28:4 means that Christians and all whom they lead to faith, even if they be spiritually immature, should be baptized? What Baptist couldn’t confess that? And after all, we’re using Paul’s own eminently biblical language to say it. Honestly, think about this question: why write a new Confession of Faith?

The reason is that of course we all know that immature spiritual children in the faith is not what the Westminster Assembly meant. As such, it would be dishonest on our part to pretend that we hold their Confession when we neither believe nor practice in accordance with their own meaning of their own words. It would be silly to pretend otherwise. To subscribe to WCF 28:4 we would have to believe what the Westminster Assembly meant by 28:4; our own plausible re-interpretation of their words simply won’t do.

I am not arguing for “historical subscription”, but merely for a sane form of “full subscription.” I did not say that we must be exactly like the framers of our confession in every way; only that we must believe the same doctrines they were talking about when they wrote the confession.

Consider, I do not say that we must be just like them in practice. (Most of them sang no hymns.) I do not say that we must be just like them in every detail of theology. (The Confession does not address the Millennium.) I do not say we must be like them politically. (They were monarchists, of course, which played a role in forming the 1689, chapters 23, 24, and also – if you know the history – 25.) We do not need to adopt their philosophical systems, their form of clerical dress, or (thankfully) their hairstyles. But to subscribe to the 1689 Confession, we must believe what they intended by the words they wrote. That’s really a pretty obvious fact, without which full subscription means nothing at all.

Where it seems less obvious is simply where our knowledge of historical theology wanes. If we didn’t know what the Presbyterians believed about baptism, perhaps the faux interpretation of their words offered above would not seem so absurd. To interpret a Confession, then, we need some historical background; otherwise how will we know what we are subscribing to?

At times, discovering the original meaning of the confessional text even serves to make it easier for us to subscribe. Many Baptists have taken issue with 1689, 26:4, particularly the language, “…but is that antichrist, that man of sin, etc.” To the modern ear, this sounds like an identification of the last, apocalyptic antichrist at the end of the age, and many have balked at assigning that designation to the papacy. Most, though, upon further reflection on the confessional meaning, find themselves easily subscribing. The 17th century did not obsess over the apocalyptic antichrist, being more concerned with the “spirit of antichrist” which, we are told, is already in the world. To them, the word “that” did not indicate a shift from the general antichristness of the pope to some form of eschatological specificity. Once we know what they meant, the phrase becomes a lot less problematic. Continue reading