Last time we looked at the biblical basis and now we will look at the historical use.
Historical UseHow are confessions beneficial? They are beneficial to restate Scripture. There may be many texts that stand behind a reiteration of biblical truths. There are two main categories for their benefit. 1) They defend the truth of Scripture from those who want to distort it and 2) confessions are positive in promoting sound doctrine and training up our children and members in our congregations. Creeds help us renew our minds. They are intelligent statements of what we believe. They create boundaries doctrinally.
To further show the value of a confession, one example from church history will be used. Extra biblical language was necessary to guard the truth of Scripture. When Arius was being examined it was very difficult for those interviewing to get a satisfactory explanation of his views. He said he believed the Bible, and he used all the Scriptural language. When pressed what he meant by such language, “a disposition to evade and equivocate, and actually, for a considerable time, baffled the attempts of the most ingenious of the orthodox to specify his errors, and to bring them to light.” Many detailed conversations ensued. The orthodox still unsatisfied did what they had been taught and expressed what they believed in their own words, i.e. they wrote a confession of faith. This Arius could not affirm and his heresy was revealed.
Most of the opponents to confessions throughout church history have been those who wanted to hide heresy. They have been the proponents of the “we just believe the Bible” idea. They use biblical language in unbiblical ways. They do not want a public written doctrinal statement. Confessions have been used to draw out these unbiblical ideas.
As one author provocatively writes “If you believe in the Trinity then you believe in the legitimacy of Christian confessions….” The word Trinity and the meaning of Trinity, that there is one God who eternally and simultaneously exists in three persons, is not a verse in the Bible. Rather it is an agreed upon interpretation of Scripture. Those who wrote confessions were not trying to reinvent the wheel. They had “no itch to clog religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words which hath been in consent with the Holy Scriptures used by others before us.” Confessions alluded to and stood on creeds and confessions prior to them. There is a unity formed throughout the centuries. There is a healthy tradition that can be identified with. Confessions give us roots. There is a tradition and heritage with a faith that has been handed down.
Churches that only go back a few years in their history, and have no tie to the past are missing an important piece for a healthy church. “…lack of tradition often means that a church has no anchor to hold it secure in the faith in the midst of the changing winds of culture and theology.”
Here is Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, on the Second London Baptist Confession:
To The Church in New Park Street, Among Whom It Is My Delight To Minister,
This ancient document is a most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us. By the preserving hand of the Triune Jehovah, we have been kept faithful to the great points of our glorious gospel, and we feel more resolved perpetually to abide by them.
This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be lettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here, the younger members of our church will have a Body of Divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. “Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient gospel of martyrs, confessors, Reformers, and saints. Above all, it is the truth of God, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail.
Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example recommend your creed. Above all, live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God, which is here mapped out to you.
May our Father, who is in Heaven, smile on us as ever!
Brethren, pray for --
Your affectionate Minister,
Charles H. Spurgeon
Creeds and confessions are helpful means for the church to fulfill its mission. Ambiguity and imprecision are not traits to be celebrated.
A church with a little creed is a church with a little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power, and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness. The modern cry, “less creed and more liberty,” is a degeneration from the vertebrae to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy. Definitive truth does not create heresy--it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but none the less deadly.
Churches too often have doctrinal statements that are never looked at. Some have statements that are not worth looking at. Sometimes the leadership cannot explain what the statement means in a given place or where it even came from. Some make exceptions for everything anyway so the doctrinal statement becomes almost pointless at all. Imagine if the church had a robust confession that was useful in training up children and members and leaders and useful in defending the faith from within and without. Imagine if they had an agreed upon subscription. Imagine if you confessed a Protestant standard with churches all over the world past and present. It seems this would make for a lively, doctrinally unified, loving place to worship.
The church has always had creeds. From biblical history to church history theological reflection and statements of faith have been a part of the Christian tradition. While the biblical statements are inspired and our confessions today lack the authority of Scripture, they are nonetheless helpful and a responsible stewardship to protect what has been handed down.
A confession provides clear content of what a church believes, it is a basis of unity, it provides stability as different teachers come and go and over years of time, it gives identity, protects from internal and external threats, gives a foundation for instructing the church young and old in the faith and provides a basis of cooperation with others. It is not stale doctrine, rather it is intellectual and devotional. Holding a confession helps us hold onto Scripture.
Jay Wipf is a former student of Coalt Robinson and attended Grace University where he earned his degree in Christian Education. Jay is currently studying at Reformed Baptist Seminary in the comfort of his home in Huron, SD. By grace and at Grace he met his beautiful wife Rachel, and they now have three young children. Jay and his family live in Huron where he works in facilities at a local credit union and serves within the local church.