In June of 1922, the Northern Baptist Convention convened under the theme, “Agreed to Differ, but Resolved to Love.” Some may debate whether the resolution was successfully carried out. No one will dispute that they “agreed to differ.” Perhaps one of the sharpest differences came to a head when William Bell Riley motioned that the Convention adopt The New Hampshire Confession of Faith as its doctrinal standard. Riley was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, and he represented the Fundamentalists in the Convention. Riley’s motion, however, was challenged with a substitute motion from Cornelius Woelfkin, pastor of Park Avenue Baptist, New York. Woelfkin, a moderate, replied that “the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.”1
If you were there and had to take sides, which side would you have taken? Would you have agreed with the position that said in essence, “No creed but the New Testament” (or no creed but the Bible)? Or would have voted with Riley to adopt a confession of faith? To bring the question to bear upon the ecclesiastical polity of our churches: should our churches be confessional or non-confessional? In the next few posts, I’d like to argue for the validity and value of creeds and confessions of faith.
Before we venture too far, let’s start with a definition.
One of the most thorough and helpful studies on this subject is Philip Schaff’s three-volume work, The Creeds of Christendom.2 According to Dr. Schaff, both a confession of faith and a catechism are a form of creed.3 The term “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which means, “I believe.” In fact, it is the first word that appears in the so-called Apostles’ Creed,4 which begins, “I believe [credo] in God the Father Almighty.” Thus, confessions and catechisms as creeds are expressions of faith. That is, they indicate what a Christian or church understands and believes the Bible to teach regarding faith and life. But Schaff offers us a more formal definition as well. “A Creed,” he says, “is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church.”5
Dissecting the Definition
Let’s clarify a number of elements in that definition.
(1) Schaff refers to a creed as a “confession of faith for public use” (emphasis mine). And since creeds are intended for public use, they are usually written.
(2) Schaff acknowledges that creeds set forth articles of faith “with authority.” Later in his work, he specifies the kind of authority that he has in view. Comparing the authority of creeds with the authority of Scripture, Schaff writes, “The Bible is the rule of faith (regula fidei); the Confession [is] the rule of doctrine (regula doctrinae). The Bible has, therefore, a divine and absolute [authority], the Confession only an ecclesiastical and relative authority.”6
Now as Protestant Evangelicals, we agree with Schaff’s position. Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox churches, we do not accord our creeds equal authority with Scripture. There are at least two ramifications that follow:
(a) The Confession’s authority must always be subordinate to the authority of Scripture. Because the Bible is God’s word, it is our supreme authority in matters of faith and practice. The Confession, on the other hand, represents the church’s interpretation of God’s word and is an expression of human authority. Therefore, we must always view our Confession as subordinate to the Bible.
(b) Confessions, unlike the Scripture, are fallible. Therefore, confessions are subject to correction, modification, and improvement. A case in point is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The WCF is probably the greatest creed ever written. Yet the Congregationalists and some Baptists felt that certain doctrines in that Confession needed to be corrected or revised. As a result, they produced the Savoy Declaration and the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (1689 LBC) respectively. These two confessions may be viewed as modified versions of the Westminster.7
(3) Note that creeds or confessions, with respect to Schaff’s definition, may contain articles of faith that vary in level of importance. Some of the articles are very important, being “necessary for salvation.” Whereas other articles are of relative importance for “the well-being of the church.”
This will be important for us to remember. The 1689 LBC articulates, as do all good creeds, some doctrines that are essential to the credibility of one’s profession of faith. Some of those doctrines would include the divine authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, man’s depravity and need for salvation, the vicarious atonement of Christ on the cross on behalf of sinners, justification by faith alone, and the bodily resurrection. Disavowing these doctrines would call into question one’s Christian profession.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t insist that one must agree with all the doctrines in the WCF or the 1689 LBC in order to have a credible profession of faith. In fact, it’s possible to be a genuine Christian and to disagree at various points with an overall sound confession. Of course, a rejection of the non-essential or peripheral teachings of a good confession can, in my view, be detrimental to one’s well-being or the well-being of the church (assuming those rejected teachings are accurate).8 Nevertheless, we shouldn’t argue for full agreement with a confession like the WCF or the 1689 LBC as a requisite for salvation.
To Sum It Up
With these things in view, let me offer you a modified and modernized version of Schaff’s definition:
A creed or a confession of faith is the church’s doctrinal standard in written form, identifying and expounding those doctrines of Scripture that are essential for salvation, as well as those doctrines of Scripture that are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the Christian and of the church.9
In the next installment (Part 2), we’ll attempt to defend the validity of adopting a confessional standard as defined above.
- Cited in David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Unusual Publications, 1986), 206. [↩]
- Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (Harper and Row, 1931; reprint, Baker Book House, 1990). [↩]
- The primary difference between a confession and catechism is that the latter, derived from the Greek katechein, “to teach with the mouth,” is written in question-and-answer form. By the middle of the fourth century the term, “symbol,” came to be used of creedal statements. [↩]
- The so-called Apostles’ Creed was once thought to be of apostolic origin. More correctly, it should be viewed as a summary of apostolic teaching, which eventually reached its final form by the end of the fifth century. See Schaff, 1:16-20. [↩]
- Schaff, 1:3, 4. [↩]
- Ibid. 1:7. [↩]
- Of course, I acknowledge that our Presbyterian brethren would view these later confessions as aberrations rather than improvements to the WCF. Nevertheless, I know of no evangelical Presbyterian that would defend the WCF as infallible or incapable of improvement. And a number of Presbyterian denominations have adopted forms of the WCF that have been revised or augmented since its original publication. [↩]
- If a doctrine or teaching has no bearing on the spiritual health of a Christian or church, it probably has no business in a creed. Indeed, some confessions may be too extensive, excluding believers from churches or denominations over issues that are relatively minor. [↩]
- Millard Erickson offers a more concise definition. He defines a creed as “a summary of the beliefs of a person or group, often a denomination.” Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Baker Book House, 1986), 39. But this definition is too general and vague for our purposes. [↩]