In our previous installment of this series (Part 1), we defined a creed or confession as 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. The question we want to address now is whether the Scripture provides any biblical support for a church’s use of creeds and confessions. The three following considerations support, in our opinion, their validity:
The Bible commands us to confess our faith publicly.
Christ expresses this duty very pointedly in Matthew 10:32-33. In the context, the Lord has warned His twelve disciples that they’ll be persecuted because of their commitment to Him. He exhorts them not to fear those who only have power to kill their body but have no power over their soul. Rather, they should fear God, who has the power to destroy both the body and the soul. Then, to enforce that exhortation, He adds these thought-provoking words: “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).1
Obviously, Jesus wants His disciples to do more than “mouth” the right words. Merely reciting the Apostles’ Creed will not guarantee anyone a place in heaven. Certainly, Christ is calling for a genuine heart commitment. But when the heart is truly committed to Christ, the mouth ought to confess Christ publicly. Should the mouth refuse to confess Christ publicly, we have reason to question whether there’s true heart commitment. Plainly then, Jesus wants His disciples to confess their faith publicly.
Is this not the apostle Paul’s teaching as well? In Romans 10:9-10, the apostle, like Jesus, connects a public confession of faith with a heart commitment of faith:
That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
Note the following: first, confessing Christ as Lord entails some degree of understanding of and agreement with what His lordship means. Both the immediate and larger context of Scripture indicates that Christ’s lordship includes both His Messianic kingship2 and also His deity.3 Thus, when a first century Jew or Gentile confessed Christ as “Lord,” he was publicly affirming that Christ was His king and His God.4 Second, a public confession of Christ’s lordship apart from a heart commitment to that lordship is insufficient for salvation. Many who say, “Lord, Lord,” will be rejected in the Last Day because their lives did not match up to their public profession (Matt. 7:21-23). Third, a public confession of faith, like good works, is a necessary evidence of saving faith. Charles Hodge highlights this point when he writes, “The public profession of religion or confession of Christ is an indispensable duty. That is, in order to salvation, we must not only secretly believe, but also openly acknowledge that Jesus is our prophet, priest, and king.”5
How does this square with the claim that faith and religion are personal and private matters? Many people today, especially politicians, claim to have faith and religion; yet they studiously avoid any public affirmation of what that means. Contrary to this practice, the Bible calls God’s people to confess their faith unashamedly and publicly. This is precisely what we do by publishing and affirming a written confession of faith. We are proclaiming to the world and to one another both the reality and the substance of what we believe.
The Bible commends the interpretation and application of Scripture.
As Archibald Alexander Hodge points out in his defense of creeds:
While, however, the Scriptures are from God, the understanding of them belongs to the part of men. Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole.6
For our purposes, let’s simply consider one passage that supports Hodge’s thesis:7
Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas (Acts 17:1-4a).
When Paul preached in the Synagogues, he did not merely read the Old Testament and sit down. Rather, he “reasoned . . . from the Scriptures.” And according to verse 3, his reasoning included interpretation and argumentation.8 Furthermore, verse 4 implies that Paul applied his conclusions to his audience, calling upon them to receive Jesus as the Messiah. Obviously, Paul did not hesitate to go beyond the mere text of Scripture and offer his own explanation of what Scripture meant.
Someone may object that Paul was an inspired apostle. Certainly, he may tread where others may not. However, Ephesians 4:11-14 indicates that non-inspired pastor-teachers, as well as apostles, have been given to the church in order to equip the saints with sound doctrine until the unity of the faith is attained. No one in the history of the church has ever argued that pastors fulfill that duty by merely quoting or reading passages of Scripture. On the contrary, pastors do exactly what Paul did. They interpret and apply God’s word. And if interpreting and applying God’s word is appropriate, then creeds are appropriate. A creed or confession of faith is no different than a sermon except that it usually is the product of several minds and, as a result, it is often more precise.9
The Bible contains seminal creeds and confessions of faith.
By “seminal creeds and confessions of faith,” we’re not referring to full-blown creeds or confessions of faith. We’re referring to creeds or confessions in seed form. Sometimes they’re called “rudimentary” creeds. As we peruse the NT, we can sometimes find these seminal creedal statements. For instance, when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered on behalf of the others with a confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This miniature confession of faith was an essential part of the “rock” on which Jesus would build His church (Matt. 16:15-18).10 Furthermore, there’s some evidence that this brief confession of faith later became a standardized formula and prerequisite for baptism. When the Ethiopian Eunuch said to Philip, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip replied, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” To which the Eunuch responded, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”11
Many of scholars believe that the confession “Jesus is Lord” was a rudimentary Christian creed (Acts 10:36; Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11).12 In time, this creed may have expanded to include various elements of Christ’s person and work stated in concise form. We may have an example of such a creed in 1 Timothy 3:16:
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
Paul did not compose these words on the spur of the moment. Nor do they reflect his private opinion. Rather, he says, “by common confession, great is the mystery of godliness.” Then follows a summary of several important truths related to Christ’s saving work. Because of the symmetrical structure of the phrases, some commentators believe that this was part of an early creed or perhaps even a hymn,13 and modern versions format the verse accordingly (e.g., NAS, NKJ, NIV, ESV). According to F. F. Bruce, Ephesians 4:4-6 also “has the nature of an early Christian credo, …”:14
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
These and other rudimentary creeds became the models for later, more fully developed creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed.15 So the biblical writers planted the seeds of what would later blossom into the great symbols of the faith.
To summarize, a confession of faith is valid because (1) the Bible commands the public affirmation of our faith, (2) the Bible commends the interpretation and application of Scripture, and (3) the Bible contains seminal creeds and confessions of faith. Far from discouraging creeds, the Bible validates their composition and use. In the next installment (Part 3), we’ll attempt to identify and address some common objections to the use of creeds and confessions.
- Biblical citations come from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. [↩]
- Accordingly, the verse parallels Christ’s lordship with His resurrection, which marked Christ’s installment as the Messianic king and Son of Jehovah (cf. Ps. 2:6-7; Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4; Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 1:5, 8). See further John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1968), 2:55. [↩]
- The Greek term employed for “Lord” (i.e., κυριος) is used in the Septuagint for Yahweh. Paul brings out this connection in this passage when he cites an Old Testament passage referring to Yahweh (Joel 2:32) and applies it to Jesus (Rom. 10:13). Thus, to confess Jesus as Lord is to worship Him as Yahweh (cf. John 5:23). [↩]
- Such was the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). [↩]
- Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (repr., Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 343. Along the same lines, John Murray writes, “Confession without faith would be vain (cf. Matt. 7:22, 23; Tit. 1:16). But likewise faith without confession would be shown to be spurious” (56). [↩]
- Archibald Alexander Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1901), 19. [↩]
- Other passages supporting Hodge’s thesis include Neh. 8:5-8; Matt. 12:18-27; Acts 8:26-35; 28:23; Eph. 4:11-14; 2Tim. 2:15; 3:16-4:2. [↩]
- The first Greek participle derives from the verb διανοιγω, which literally means, “to open.” Applied to Scripture it refers to opening up the meaning of a passage; hence, interpretation. The second participle derives from the verb παρατιθημι, which literally means, “to put forth.” Here, it refers to the putting forth of arguments. [↩]
- The Westminster Confession of Faith was the product of over one hundred ministers. [↩]
- Since the Reformation, most Protestant commentators have avoided identifying the “rock” as Peter (a Roman Catholic interpretation) and instead have identified it as Peter’s confession. However, the play on words—“You are Peter [Πετρος], and upon this rock [πετρα] I will build My church” (18)—makes it likely that Peter himself is the rock. Yet, it is not upon Peter merely as an individual, but upon Peter as the spokesman for the apostles, bearing witness to Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that Jesus builds His church. Thus, Peter’s confession of faith is an inseparable part of the church’s foundation. This interpretation does not demand that we view Peter as the first Roman Pontiff. [↩]
- Even if this confession is a later interpolation, it still reflects an early practice. See F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Eerdmans, 1989), 178. [↩]
- Commenting on Romans 10:9, Cranfield writes, “In view of the evidence of this verse, in which the presence of ‘confess’ is suggestive, and of 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:11, it seems clear that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was already an established confessional formula. It is probable that it was used in connexion [sic] with baptism, but also in Christian worship generally.” Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Eerdmans, 1985), 257. [↩]
- Newport White writes, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what follows is a quotation by St. Paul from a primitive creed or summary of the chief facts to be believed about Jesus Christ.” “The First and Second Epistles of Timothy” in The Expositors Greek New Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (repr., Eerdmans, 1988), 118; cf. J. J. Van Oosterzee, The Two Epistles of Timothy in A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, ed. John Peter Lange (Charles Scribner & Co., 1869), 45-46; William Hendricksen, Thessalonians, Timothy, and Titus (Baker, 1990), 137-141. [↩]
- The Epistles to the Colossians, To Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Eerdmans, 1984), 335. [↩]
- Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1:4-7; 16-20. [↩]