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.

Issues for the Western Church in the 21st Century

Dr. Carl Truman

Grace Theological College, New Zealand – July 2015

Session 1 – The Issues Facing Us Today

Session 2: Preaching

Session 3: The Importance of Creeds and Confessions

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

The Guardrail of the Creeds

“While never rising to the same authority as sacred Scripture (which alone is the word of God), the ancient creeds and confessions of the Church have served the people of God through the ages as concise and precise summaries of what the Bible teaches on very vital matters. These include, amongst others, the doctrine of God, the person and work of Christ, how a man is justified in God’s sight as well as the doctrine of last things (eschatology). On today’s Dividing Line, guest host John Samson teaches on the practical value of the ancient Creeds and Confessions of the Church.”

Sound Words

is first known as the Word — the one whom the Father has sent to communicate and to accomplish our redemption. We are saved because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Believers are then assigned the task of telling others about the salvation that Christ has brought, and this requires the use of words. We tell the story of Jesus by deploying words, and we cannot tell the story without them. Our testimony, our teaching, and our theology all require the use of words. Words are essential to our worship, our preaching, our singing, and our spiritual conversation. In other words, words are essential to the Christian faith and central in the lives of believers.

As Martin Luther rightly observed, the church house is to be a “mouth house” where words, not images or dramatic acts, stand at the center of the church’s attention and concern. We live by words and we die by words.

Truth, life, and health are found in the right words. Lies, disaster, and death are found in the wrong words. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” [1 Timothy 6:3-5]

Later, Paul will instruct Timothy that sound words come to us in a revealed pattern. “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” [2 Timothy 1:13-14]

Theological education is a deadly serious business. The stakes are so high. A theological seminary that serves faithfully will be a source of health and life for the church, but an unfaithful seminary will set loose a torrent of trouble, untruth, and sickness upon Christ’s people. Inevitably, the seminaries are the incubators of the church’s future. The teaching imparted to seminarians will shortly be inflicted upon congregations, where the result will be either fruitfulness or barrenness, vitality or lethargy, advance or decline, spiritual life, or spiritual death.

Sadly, the landscape is littered with theological institutions that have poorly taught and have been poorly led. Theological liberalism has destroyed scores of seminaries, divinity schools, and other institutions for the education of the ministry. Many of these schools are now extinct, even as the churches they served have been evacuated. Others linger on, committed to the mission of revising the Christian faith in order to make peace with the spirit of the age. These schools intentionally and boldly deny the pattern of sound words in order to devise new words for a new age — producing a new faith. As J. Gresham Machen rightly observed almost a century ago, we do not really face two rival versions of Christianity. We face Christianity on the one hand and, on the other hand, some other religion that selectively uses Christian words, but is not Christianity.

How does this happen? Rarely does an institution decide, in one comprehensive moment of decision, to abandon the faith and seek after another. The process is far more dangerous and subtle. A direct institutional evasion would be instantly recognized and corrected, if announced honestly at the onset. Instead, theological disaster usually comes by means of drift and evasion, shading and equivocation. Eventually, the drift accumulates into momentum and the school abandons doctrine after doctrine, truth claim after truth claim, until the pattern of sound words, and often the sound words themselves, are mocked, denied, and cast aside in the spirit of theological embarrassment.

As James Petigru Boyce, founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued, “It is with a single man that error usually commences.” When he wrote those words in 1856, he knew that pattern by observation of church history. All too soon, he would know this sad truth by personal observation.

By the time Southern Baptists were ready to establish a theological seminary, many schools for the training of ministers had already been lost to theological liberalism. Included among these were both Harvard and Yale, even as Yale had been envisioned, at least in part, as a corrective to Harvard. Theological concessions in theological seminaries had already weakened the Baptists of the North. Drawing upon the lessons of the past, Southern Baptists were determined to establish schools bound by covenant and constitution to a confession of faith — to the pattern of sound words.

Confessional seminaries require professors to sign a statement of faith, designed to safeguard by explicit theological summary. The sad experience of fallen and troubled schools led Southern Baptists to require that faculty members must teach in accordance with the confession of faith, and not contrary to anything therein. Added to this were warnings against any private understanding with a professor, or any hesitation or mental reservation. Teachers in a confessional school not only pledge by sacred covenant to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the confession of faith, but to do so gladly , eagerly, and totally.

We are living in an anti-confessional age. Our society and its reigning academic culture are committed to individual autonomy and expression, as well as to an increasingly relativistic conception of truth. The language of higher education is overwhelmingly dominated by claims of academic freedom, rather than academic responsibility. In most schools, a confession of faith is an anathema, not just an anachronism. But, among us, a confession of faith must be seen as a gift and covenant. It is a sacred trust that guards revealed truths. A confession of faith never stands above the Bible, but the Bible itself mandates concern for the pattern of sound words. Continue reading

The Athanasian Creed

sproul83by R. C. Sproul:

Quicumque vult – this phrase is the title attributed to what is popularly known as the Athanasian Creed. It was often called the Athanasian Creed because for centuries people attributed its authorship to Athanasius, the great champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy during the crisis of the heresy of Arianism that erupted in the fourth century. That theological crisis focused on the nature of Christ and culminated in the Nicene Creed in 325. Though Athanasius did not write the Nicene Creed, he was its chief champion against the heretics who followed after Arius, who argued that Christ was an exalted creature but that He was less than God.

Athanasius died in 373 AD, and the epithet that appeared on his tombstone is now famous, as it captures the essence of his life and ministry. It read simply, “Athanasius contra mundum,” that is, “Athanasius against the world.” This great Christian leader suffered several exiles during the embittered Arian controversy because of the steadfast profession of faith he maintained in Trinitarian orthodoxy.
Though the name “Athanasius” was given to the creed over the centuries, modern scholars are convinced that the Athanasian Creed was written after the death of Athanasius. Certainly, Athanasius’ theological influence is embedded in the creed, but in all likelihood he was not its author.

The content of the Athanasian Creed stresses the affirmation of the Trinity in which all members of the Godhead are considered uncreated and co-eternal and of the same substance. In the affirmation of the Trinity the dual nature of Christ is given central importance. As the Athanasian Creed in one sense reaffirms the doctrines of the Trinity set forth in the fourth century at Nicea, in like manner the strong affirmations of the fifth-century council at Chalcedon in 451 are also recapitulated therein. As the church fought with the Arian heresy in the fourth century, the fifth century brought forth the heresies of monophysitism, which reduced the person of Christ to one nature, mono physis, a single theanthropic (God-man) nature that was neither purely divine or purely human. At the same time the church battled with the monophysite heresy, she also fought against the opposite view of Nestorianism, which sought not so much to blur and mix the two natures but to separate them, coming to the conclusion that Jesus had two natures and was therefore two persons, one human and one divine. Both the Monophysite heresy and the Nestorian heresy were clearly condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the church, reaffirming its Trinitarian orthodoxy, stated their belief that Christ, or the second person of the Trinity was vere homo and vere Deus, truly human and truly God. It further declared that the two natures in their perfect unity coexisted in such a manner as to be without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, wherein each nature retained its own attributes.

The Athanasian Creed reaffirms the distinctions found at Chalcedon, where in the Athanasian statement Christ is called, “perfect God and perfect man.” All three members of the Trinity are deemed to be uncreated and therefore co-eternal. Also following earlier affirmations, the Holy Spirit is declared to have proceeded both from the Father “and the Son.”

Finally, the Athanasian standards examined the incarnation of Jesus and affirmed that in the mystery of the incarnation the divine nature did not mutate or change into a human nature, but rather the immutable divine nature took upon itself a human nature. That is, in the incarnation there was an assumption by the divine nature of a human nature and not the mutation of the divine nature into a human nature.
The Athanasian Creed is considered one of the four authoritative creeds of the Roman Catholic Church, and again, it states in terse terms what is necessary to believe in order to be saved. Though the Athanasian Creed does not get as much publicity in Protestant churches, the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are affirmed by virtually every historic Protestant church.

Confessions

In an article entitled “The Value of Confessions” in Douglas F. Kelly writes:

To this day, Christian Churches, especially in the Reformation tradition, use a powerful tool for “maintaining the form of sound words” and for spreading the gospel to the world—their confessional documents. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century represented a major rupture in the medieval church, one in which more than one-third of Europe had to go back to the “drawing board” to formulate their testimony to the rest of the world.

That drawing board was Holy Scripture, which consecrated pastor-scholars searched out on the basis of a fresh knowledge of the original languages, and also on the basis of a commitment to traditional Augustinianism and the church fathers. Hence, they saw themselves as true (or Reformed) catholics, not primarily a new denominational grouping, although they did wind up in new denominational connections owing to the fierce resistance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to any serious reform.

It was necessary to define themselves in light of Roman Catholic charges that they had left the true church and were following heretical teachings. They carried out this task as churches with careful and prayerful exegetical work through the entirety of Scripture in order to state coherently the major lines of its teaching on both doctrine and duty. Several synods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fulfilled this task with solid grounding on the Word of God written and in line with the traditional creeds of the first five centuries of Christian history.

The results of their work were developed over time (from the first Reformed confessions in the 1520s and 1530s to the Westminster Confession of Faith in the 1640s). These standards solidly appealed to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. The Bible was their touchstone. Indeed, the framers of the Scots Confession of 1560 stated that if anyone could show them that they were out of accord with Scripture, they would be willing to change. While always respecting the historical church, they clearly stated that Scripture must have the final word, for, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (25.5).

Out of this crucible of controversy came several confessions that, with general brevity and clarity, express the main thrust of the teachings of Holy Scripture on salvation and holy living. Because of their biblical teaching, they have the value of guiding us as much today as they did our forefathers centuries ago. It is a mercy for the church today not to have to reinvent the wheel. Through the creeds and confessions, we abide in the health and safety of “the communion of the saints.”

This doctrinal continuity runs contrary to the relativism of our Western secularized culture, according to which “ancient truth is uncouth.” This relativism suggests that instead of ancient truth, one must feverishly follow the latest fads of the ever-changing intelligentsia. Furthermore, the aggressive relativism of our culture has not stopped at the doors of the church. To refer appreciatively to the confessional standards causes the raising of eyebrows, and, in some cases, open protest in not a few evangelical (and Reformed) congregations and denominations.

Many evangelicals, in order to avoid the clear teachings of these confessions (which are based on the supernatural claims of the Bible) and not offend the reigning relativism of our culture (which, at the end of the day, is anti-supernatural), employ a sort of “nominalistic” interpretation of the standards. A “nominalistic” interpretation means avoiding the plain teaching of these biblically based confessions by formally subscribing to them while employing clever and painful endeavors to make them say something else; something that will be less offensive to the secular culture.

One instance is how theistic evolutionists engage in a sort of “Jesuit casuistry” to force the first three chapters of Genesis to say precisely what they preclude—that there was sin before the fall of Adam and that life gradually developed by chance.

A great value of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on creation, for example, is that in following it, we are not prey to changing paradigms of philosophical science (which is not the same thing as empirical or operational science, which, in my view, is fully compatible with the teachings of Genesis). Here the standards can help us greatly (if we abide in them realistically, rather than nominalistically evading their meaning): they plainly tell the church what the Bible has always said on creation rather than leading us on a wild goose chase of post-Enlightenment philosophies. They help the church to see that approaches such as theistic evolution come not from the Bible but from somewhere else, and need to be identified as such. Their valuable testimony helps us to continue to stand on a solid biblical foundation, which, though offensive to the secular world, is the place where we find intellectual coherence of truth in the context of Word and Spirit, which is life-giving and transformational for all of thought and culture.

– Dr. Douglas F. Kelly is Richard Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is author of Revelation: A Mentor Expository Commentary.

Sola Scriptura and the Reformed Confessions

The Martin Luther was already in hot water with the pope after having posted his Ninety-Five Theses the previous year. But he made things considerably worse for himself when, in a debate with Dominican Cardinal Cajetan, he asserted that the pope could and had erred. He turned up the heat considerably in the summer of 1519 when he confessed to Johannes von Eck that not only could popes and councils err, they had erred grievously in condemning John Huss.

So was born the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. It was not that Luther despised church authority. He merely recognized that Scripture alone was inerrant and infallible, and therefore only Scripture possessed absolute normative authority. This principle is codified in several sixteenth century Reformed confessions which R. C. Sproul excerpts in the first chapter of his book, Scripture Alone.

The Theses of Berne (1528):

The church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God’s Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based and commanded by God’s Word. (Sec. 2)

The Geneva Confession (1536):

First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as a rule of faith and religion, without mixing it with any other things which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word of God, and without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord. (Sec. 1)

The French Confession of Faith (1559):

We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives itls authority from God alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation it is not lawful for men, even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority whether of antiquity, or custom or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these holy Scriptures, but on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated and reformed according to them. (Art. 5)

The Belgic Confession (1561):

We receive all these books, and these only as holy and confirmation of our faith; believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives, and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnessed in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves (Art. 5).
Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule (Art. 7).

The Second Helvic Confession (1566):

Therefore, we do not admit any other judge that Christ himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what is to be avoided (chap. 2).

— R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone (P&R Publishing Company, 2005), 18–20.