In our first two installments, we defined creeds and confessions (Part 1) and we attempted to offer a biblical basis for their use (Part 2). In those post, we attempt to respond to various objections that are commonly raised by those who oppose the use of creeds or confessions.
Confessions undermine the authority of Scripture.
This can and does happen. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church extend the claim of infallibility to several of their creeds, elevating the authority of their creeds to a place equal with Scripture.1 The problem is not with creeds per se, but with the church’s attitude towards the creeds. If we venerate our confession of faith and assign to it coordinate authority with Scripture, we have a problem. But the problem is not the creed. The problem is our attitude towards the creed!
We’ve already stated that a creed is merely an extension of ecclesiastical, and therefore, of human authority (see Part 1). As a result, all creeds—except those found in Scripture—must be viewed as expressions of human authority subordinate to Scripture. Our own Confession of Faith, 1.10, articulates this viewpoint:
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.
We need to take the teaching of this paragraph seriously, especially with respect to the Confession itself. Even though our Puritan traditions are much more biblical than those of the Pharisees or those of the Pope, we must resist the temptation to elevate them to a level equal with Scripture. One way we can fall into this pitfall is when Reformed pastors and theologians become more concerned with what “Rabbi Calvin” or “Rabbi Owen” or “Rabbi Spurgeon” say on a given matter, than with what Moses, Jesus, or Paul have to say. We must beware of this pitfall. We must view our Reformed Confession as our guide not as our ultimate master. Calvin, Owen, Spurgeon, and the framers of our own Confession would urge us to make the Scripture alone our highest authority.2
Confessions contradict the sufficiency of Scripture.
Does not Paul assure Timothy that Scripture is sufficient to equip him for “every good work” (2Tim. 3:16-17)? If this is so, then why do we need confessions?
This objection misunderstands the nature of Scripture’s sufficiency. When we say that the Bible is sufficient as a rule of faith, we do not mean to exclude the need for a written confession of faith. As Sam Waldron explains, “The Scripture was not given to be a complete catalog of all the sermons the church would ever need. It is not sufficient for that, and in the same way it is not sufficient to serve the church as a confession of faith.”3
Perhaps the best way to view the nature of Scripture’s sufficiency is to view the Bible as the foundation upon which the super-structure of Christian doctrine and practice is built. As a foundation for our faith the Bible alone is sufficient. Yet, like a foundation, the Bible was never intended to stand alone. In this regard we may also compare the sufficiency of Scripture with the sufficiency of saving faith. Faith alone is sufficient for the sinner’s justification. But justifying faith was never intended to stand alone but to be accompanied by good works. Similarly, Scripture, though sufficient as our ultimate authority and standard of faith, always calls for a human response of interpretation and commitment, which is precisely the nature of a Confession.
Confessions intrude upon liberty of conscience.
When creeds exceed the bounds of Scripture, then liberty of conscience may be infringed upon. Our own Confession, 21.2, warns against this danger:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.
Certainly, we must be careful that our creed does not “add” to Scripture (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18). Furthermore, we must beware of requiring premature or strict word-for-word agreement with the Confession. We should give each conscience a sufficient amount of time to be instructed and an appropriate degree of latitude with respect to the actual wording of the confession and some of the non-essential doctrines of the Confession–especially when the confession in view is, as in the case of the WCF or the 1689 LBC, relatively detailed and extensive.4
If the creed or confession of faith is an accurate guide to what the Bible teaches, however, it cannot in principle be viewed as an intrusion upon our liberty of conscience. Our minds have been freed from the shackles of sin, so that they might freely embrace God’s truth, not reject it.5 In fact, according to Scripture, the rejection of biblical truth is actually an indication of a bad conscience (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2:17-18). As one writer has wisely observed, “Men are seldom opposed to creeds, until creeds have become opposed to them.”6 Consequently, the rejection of a creed may not reveal a problem with the creed. It might reveal a problem with the heart. Of course, it’s also possible that a man isn’t opposed to creeds or confessions per se but to some particular article or articles within the creed or confession. In that case, the brother should be honest about his conflict of conscience, and the church must decide whether his caveat is significant or substantial enough to disqualify him from serving as a pastor of that particular church.
In conclusion, a public confession of biblical truth in the form of a creed need not in principle undermine the authority of God’s Word, contradict the sufficiency of Scripture, or infringe upon liberty of conscience. In our next installment, we’ll consider the usefulness of confessions.
- Phillip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1:7-8. [↩]
- Reformed Christians should be concerned when Reformed seminaries and journals give place a higher emphasis upon historical theology, than upon exegesis and biblical theology. The Reformed theologian John Frame has written a helpful article entitled, “Traditionalism,” in which he cautions against a Reformed version of traditionalism (http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1999Traditionalism.htm; accessed March 2002). [↩]
- From an unpublished lecture entitled, “Why Should the Church Hold to a Confession of Faith?” [↩]
- I presently advocate a two-level subscription in the local church. I think the church should expect a full subscription that allows for a limited number of qualifications or exceptions for elders where any qualifications made or exceptions taken to the language or doctrines are stated honestly and upfront. This may also be called “substantial subscription.” I advocate a looser subscription for members that would entail affirming those doctrines deemed essential for the credibility of one’s profession of faith and a teachable (non-divisive) spirit. I’ll attempt to elaborate on this position and provide a biblical rationale in a later post. [↩]
- Cf. 1689 LBC 21.3. [↩]
- Samuel Miller, The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (reprint, A Press, 1987), 40, quoted by Robert P. Martin, “The Legitimacy and Use of Confessions,” in Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1995), 14. [↩]