Why Creeds and Confessions?
In the month of October we will be remembering the Reformation in the history of God’s Church. The Reformation through its successors and those who were faithful to the basic and foundational doctrines of the Bible gave us the three Forms of Unity to which our churches subscribe, along with several other Reformed denominations originating in the Netherlands. Many who have grown up in churches that subscribe to these creeds: the Heidelberg Catechism (1561), the Belgic Confession (1563) and the Canons of Dort (1618-19), hardly know their contents. They don’t know that these creeds were the result of attacks by God’s enemies on the church and were formulated to defend the church against apostasy and heresy. Some think they’re just dry doctrines and even think it is wrong to have such confessional or creedal statements. They have the Bible and that is enough, they think. Their motto is:
No creed but Christ, no law but love!
Doctrine divides, love unites!
Down with doctrine, up with love!
The Origin of Creeds
A negative view of confessions may be born of ignorance but it can also reflect lack of interest in or concern for precise formulations of biblical truth. Living as we do in an era when mega churches are vying to attract huge crowds by giving people what they want rather than what they need, it may seem useless to stress the importance of returning to a more confessional way of doing church.
The practice of confessing the Christian faith by means of formal statements is of ancient origin. We find the Old Testament believers affirming their faith in the one true God in Deuteronomy 6:4 in the words of the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” The New Testament Christians likewise affirm their belief in Jesus as Son of God and their Lord and Christ (Mark 8:29).
Paul reminds the believers in Rome that “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Romans 10:9
The Apostles’ Creed
The earliest creed to summarize the essential articles of the Christian religion is the so-called Apostles’ Creed. In its oldest form it goes back to around A.D. 150, while its present form dates from about A.D. 500. Although the name “Apostles’ Creed” is, technically speaking, a misnomer, as the apostles are not likely to have had a hand in formulating it, there is a certain legitimacy to this name because the “Twelve Articles” do reflect the teaching of the apostles and may thus be regarded as a faithful summary of the apostolic doctrine as it has been handed down through the centuries. Having its roots in the ancient baptismal formula of Matthew 28, it can be said that the Apostles’ Creed arose out of the sacramental liturgy of the New Testament Church, particularly baptism. But we must not overemphasize the role of baptism in the creed-making process. The New Testament also contains many references to solemn expressions of faith in the forms of hymns, prayers and devotional exclamations, which suggests that there were additional factors that led to the production of creeds.
The Ecumenical Creeds
The Apostles’ Creed represents the first of three so-called ecumenical creeds, i.e., creedal statements that are recognized and subscribed to by Christians throughout the world.
The second of these worldwide creedal affirmations is the Nicene Creed. This creed was the product of the first ecumenical council held at Nicea in A.D. 325. This council convened to settle the Arian controversy regarding the co-equality of God the Father and God the Son. Arius (c.250-c.336), a presbyter in the church of Constantinople (Istanbul), taught “that Jesus Christ was the Word, a created being, which God called into existence before all times in order to create all other creatures through him.” The Council took issue with Arius and condemned his views, the controversy centering on the terms homoousios (of one substance with), which Arius rejected, and the term homoiousios (of similar substance) which he favoured. The majority opted for homoousios and thus a major decision in the history of Christian doctrine hinged on the use of one Greek letter. Homoousios became the password of orthodoxy.
The last of the three classic creeds is the one associated with the name Athanasius (c.296-373), bishop of Alexandria, although this “father of orthodoxy,” as he has been called, was not its author. The Athanasian Creed was the product of individual or private confessions of faith, but since it reflects the teaching of Athanasius, his name was attached to it, no doubt to give it authority. This creed was eventually adopted by the entire church as official doctrine. It consists of two parts, the first one dealing with the equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the double procession of the Spirit, namely from the Father and the Son; while the second part deals with the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one Person of Christ.
The Reformation Creeds
There have been only two periods in church history which may truly be called creed making ages. These are the fourth and fifth centuries during which the so-called ecumenical creeds were produced, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which saw the writing of the great Reformation Confessions. We may see the guidance of the Spirit in this. The Church wrote her confessions in times of great need, when she was facing tremendous opposition, both from without and from within, so that her very existence was at stake. The great creeds of the church were not merely the fruits of theological or liturgical reflection but they were born in times of tremendous struggle.
Another reason why no new creeds were made for more than a thousand years is that there was almost universal agreement on the doctrinal statements contained in the Ecumenical Creeds. During the Middle Ages few dared to challenge the church’s teaching regarding the deity of Christ or the Trinity. But while Medieval Christendom was in basic agreement with these creedal pronouncements relative to the doctrine of God, there were other doctrines on which by the sixteenth century there was considerable disagreement, at least among scholars.
I’m referring to those doctrines that have to do with salvation, particularly the key doctrine of justification. That doctrine had never been the subject of intense ecclesiastical reflection since the time of the apostles and by Luther’s time the biblical teaching on this vital subject had almost been forgotten. The Reformers therefore, although able to quote such men as Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux in support of their teaching on justification, had to go back beyond the Church Fathers and councils to the New Testament itself for their authority to speak on the issue of salvation and its appropriation by grace alone and through faith alone.
The Reformation, more than anything else, represented a call to return to Scripture. Not what the Pope said or church councils decreed, but what God says in His Word – that was decisive for Luther and the other Reformers. How beautifully our fathers stated this principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) in Article 7 of the Belgic Confession!
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein...
The Purpose and Function of Creeds
What are creeds for? In his Creeds of Christendom, Philip Schaff sums up the value and use of the creeds this way: “They are summaries of the doctrines of the Bible, aids to its sound understanding, bonds of union among their professors, public standards and guards against false doctrine and practice.” As summaries of the Bible the creeds are very useful, especially in the teaching ministry of the Church.
What is necessary for a Christian to believe?” the Heidelberg Catechism asks. And the answer is: “All things promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic undoubted Christian faith teach us” (Q. & A. 22). Rather than referring the student to the Bible itself, the Catechism points him to the Apostles’ Creed as a brief statement comprising the essential truths which must be known for salvation, and then proceeds to expound each article in Lord’s Days 8-22.
Creeds have always been seen as helps to a better understanding of Holy Writ. Experience shows that, generally speaking, people who know their catechism and other confessional standards, will also have a good grasp of Scripture, while those who claim to have “No Creed but Christ” and profess a high regard for the Bible, often know very little of its contents and meaning. The danger facing creedless churches is that preachers will select only those Scripture passages and themes that make people feel good about themselves and avoid subjects that may offend their hearers.
Since creeds and confessions cover the full range of biblical truth, we may by using them as our guide, be better equipped to present the whole counsel of God to the congregation. This is especially true of the Heidelberg Catechism but also the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. All three, each in their own way, can be of great help to preachers to keep nothing back from their flocks that is profitable to them (see Acts 20:20).
The Unifying Factor of the Creeds
This function of the creeds may be illustrated by the Heidelberg Catechism. Although written for Frederick II of the Palatinate to be used as an instruction manual for the youth in his realm, this catechism was destined to become more than just a teaching aid. The Synod of Dort (1618-19) was so impressed by its contents that it adopted the Heidelberg Catechism as an official standard of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, along with the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. To this day these Three Forms of Unity serve as a binding factor for Reformed believers wherever they are found, not only in the Netherlands but also in churches all over the world that trace their origin to the European continent. They are often used as a platform or foundation for discussions among churches of the Reformed persuasion as they seek to establish and maintain ecclesiastical relations with one another.
The Creeds Serve to Defend the Truth
As Schaff makes clear, creeds are also public standards, which guard against false doctrine and practice. As such one may speak of an antithetical aspect of creeds and confessions. Already in the New Testament the confessional “yea” was accompanied by the equally confessional “nay.” For instance, in 1 John 4:2, 3 the apostle reminds believers,
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.
Accordingly, both the Ecumenical and the Reformed Confessions contain antithetical elements. The Athanasian Creed, for instance, begins like this:
Whosoever will be saved, before all it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
The Reformed Confessions are no less antithetical. Taking issue with both Rome and Anabaptists, the Reformers reject “whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule of Scripture” (Belgic Confession, Article 7). It was inevitable that in the course of time creeds and confessions came to be regarded as standards of orthodoxy or rules of faith in terms of which candidates for admission to the church were examined. Also, as early as 325, those holding the office of bishop in the church were required to subscribe to the creed set forth by the Council of Nicea held in that year.
A similar development took place after the Reformation. At the Synod of Emden it was decided that candidates for the ministry should be asked whether they agreed completely with the doctrines contained in the Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. After the Synod of Dort, the Canons of Dort were added to the other two official standards of the Reformed churches, and subscription to these Three Forms of Unity became a requirement for all who held offices in the church.
This mandatory requirement has not gone unchallenged in the history of the Reformed churches since the Synod of Dort. Already at this Synod the Remonstrants warned that forcing office bearers to subscribe to confessional standards implies putting that standard on the same level with Holy Scripture. It is easy to see why they objected to this procedure. For them to sign would mean agreeing with doctrinal statements they had come to Synod to oppose.
When some two hundred years later the Reformed Church under King William I had become liberal both in government and doctrine, candidates for the ministry were given the option of signing the Form of Subscription whole heartedly or with mental reservations. They were allowed to subscribe to the Reformed Confessions either because they agreed with the Word of God or in so far as they did. With this loophole the door was opened to complete freedom of doctrine (leervrijheid) and this became one of the issues that contributed to the Secession of 1834, led by Hendrik de Cock.
But also in later years many continued to voice objections to certain aspects of the contents of the Reformed Confessions, especially the Canons of Dort, which have always borne the brunt of the attacks.
The Religion of the Confessions
What the opponents were and are still opposing is not really the confessions as such but the religion of the confessions. As J. VanderGraaf writes:
You can only bind yourself to a confession if you know yourself to be bound to its religion. With all the discussions which are currently being held relative to the confessions, I cannot rid myself of the impression that many no longer feel that the confessions reflect their religion. They have a different religion. What the confessions say sounds strange to them. The truths confessed in them are foreign to their spiritual experience.
The confessions speak the language of faith; more specifically faith in a sovereign God in whose hand are the destinies of men; who has mercy on whom He will have mercy and who hardens whom He will. The Confessions, moreover, are admittedly exclusivistic and intolerant. If there is one word that characterizes them it is the word “sola” – alone. Christ alone; the Word alone; grace alone; faith alone.
The natural man does not like the word “alone.” To insist upon it brings out his resentment and enmity. Man does not want to be saved by grace alone and guided by the Word alone, but will always try to add the word “and.” He simply cannot resist this very natural tendency to add something originating with man to the revelation and work of God.
This explains why so many, also in Reformed circles, have problems with the Confessions. It is because the Confessions reflect what Graafland calls “theonomic” thinking, that is thinking which results from complete submission to what God has revealed in His Word. Those who find fault with the Confessions, on the other hand, show that they have been influenced, if not brainwashed, by a radically different kind of thinking, namely that of autonomous man who relies on his own reason and preferences and refuses to bow before divine revelation.
The Roots of Autonomous Thinking
We often trace this kind of thinking to the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, but actually we need to go back to the New Testament where Paul speaks of the Gospel as being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. Both these negative reactions stem from the same source, really: natural man’s pride.
The Gospel is a threat to man’s self-esteem. He wants to remain autonomous. He wants to decide for himself and work out his salvation in his own way, not with fear and trembling, relying on the power and good pleasure of God, but self-confident and in full charge of the process. He is not against religion as long as it will not reduce him to helpless dependence.
The Jew believed in God and was willing to live by the letter of His law in an effort to establish his own righteousness before God. And the Greek relied on his reason to control his lower passions, in order to attain to the virtuous life. Both, in other words, rejected the word “sola.” Each in his own way chose a religion of God and man.
If we want to trace this kind of thinking to its very beginning we have to go back to the Garden of Eden. There we find the roots of the conflict between theonomic and autonomous thinking. This conflict determines and characterizes the history of mankind. There are, consequently, only two kinds of people in the world. Those who live out of the Adamic principle of self-will and rely on their own understanding, despite their claims to believe in God and His Word; and those who by grace have learned to renounce their own ‘wisdom’ and to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
They are people who are willing to be called foolish and backward by those who claim to be more progressive and sensitive to the needs of the present time. They are prepared to bear the reproach of Christ because they understand this has always been the lot of those who wish to remain faithful to the infallible and inerrant Word of the living God and to the Confessions based on that Word.
May we belong to that people! May we never be ashamed of the great heritage left to us by our Reformed fathers! They have handed down to us these great creedal statements in which we possess an authentic expression of the God-centred character of the Christian faith. They are worth defending, therefore, because they reflect “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” and which will be necessary unto salvation as long as there are sinners who need to be saved.