The Validity & Value of Confessions: Their Usefulness

In highlighting the usefulness of a confession or statement of faith, we’re in reality presenting another argument for it. According to the apostle Paul, God has ordained that the church be the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This doesn’t mean that Scripture’s authenticity or authority depends upon the church, as Rome claims. On the contrary, self-attesting and self-authenticating God-breathed Scripture can stand on its own two legs! Albert Barnes better captures the intent of Paul when he summarizes the apostle as teaching that the church “is entrusted with the business of maintaining the truth, of defending it from the assaults of error, and of transmitting it to future times.”1 We believe a confession of faith is of great value in assisting the church to carry out this multifaceted task.

A Confession Provides a Standard for Intra- and Inter-Church Fellowship

True fellowship and harmony exists when God’s people are of “one mind” (1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:1-4). The “unity of the Spirit” will not be achieved apart from the “unity of the faith,” which means doctrinal agreement (Eph. 4:3, 13). Ideally, the more agreement, the better! The ecumenical notion that “doctrine divides” is not a biblical notion. As Southern Baptist theologian B. H. Carroll once remarked,

A church with a little creed is a church with little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree upon, the greater the 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 vertebrate to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy.2

Of course, Carroll’s remark must be qualified. It’s possible for Confessions or Statements of Faith to go beyond the teachings of Scripture in their specificity. They may build doctrines on inferences that are not “good and necessary.” They may apply biblical principles to a particular cultural and historical setting in a way that needs to be qualified or modified when applied to a different cultural and historical setting. Accordingly, churches or communions of churches should resist the temptation of trying to be more precise and exhaustive than the Bible. They should allow for diversity where the Bible warrants it and recognize the difference between unity and uniformity.

Even so, a substantial amount of doctrinal agreement is necessary for biblical unity. A confession of faith can be a helpful tool in achieving this unity. In the first place, a Confession provides a written doctrinal standard by which potential members may be admitted into the church. At a minimum, those permitted into membership should be in full agreement with what are judged to be the essentials of the faith. This doesn’t mean a potential member has to be fully-versed in even the essentials of the faith. But he should possess a basic understanding of core gospel truths. And he should manifest a teachable spirit with respect to the remaining doctrines that are judged to be necessary for the well-being of the church. ((According to Matthew 28:18-20, the order is (1) conversion, (2) baptism and church membership, and (3) indoctrination in the whole counsel of God. Consequently, it would be inappropriate to require a potential member to affirm all the doctrines of a relatively comprehensive confession before he could be admitted into the membership of the church.)) Unless a congregation is united on the basis of a common consensus of core biblical truth, it’s vulnerable to false teaching and heresy (1 Cor 1:10-11; Eph 4:13-14; Jude 4). And as Jesus reminds us, “A house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matt. 12:25b).

Second, a confession can also provide a doctrinal standard for inter-church fellowship and cooperation. Christ never intended local churches to stand alone. One local church cannot carry out the Great Commission by itself. Instead, it should unite together with other like-minded churches to carry out such cooperative efforts as benevolence, evangelism, missions, ministerial training, and the publication of Christian literature (Acts 15; 2 Cor. 8:18-24; Gal. 1:2, 22; Col. 4:13-18). In a day when denominations and cults abound, substantial doctrinal agreement is vital if such cooperative efforts are to be healthy and productive. As Robert Lewis Dabney has remarked,

As man’s mind is notoriously fallible, and professed Christians who claim to hold the Scripture, as they understand them, differ from each other notoriously, some platform for union and cooperation must be adopted, by which those who believe they are truly agreed may stand and work together.3

A Confession Provides a Standard for Church Discipline and for Defending the Faith.

The Scottish theologian James Bannerman notes, “Had the adoption of confessions and creeds not been a duty laid upon the Church by a regard to her own members, it would have been a necessity laid upon the Church by a regard to those not her members, but her enemies.”4 In other words, the church is called not only to maintain the truth, but also to defend it from error. Jude, the “bondservant [and half-brother] of Jesus Christ, and brother of James,” underscores this point in his epistle:

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3).

The Greek word translated “contend” denotes an intense struggle or fight.5 It is a battle waged for “the faith once for all handed down to the saints,” that is, the body of divinely revealed truth, which we now possess in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In this case, our enemy consists of those who pervert the truth, reject authority, cause divisions, and live ungodly lives (vv. 4-19). According to Jude, such individuals “have crept in [and may creep in today] unnoticed” (v. 4). As a result, God’s people must contend for the faith. The present tense suggests the need for an ongoing struggle until the end of the age.6

Historically, creeds have been the weapons forged by the church from the Scriptures used to wage this ongoing war. The battle began in the apostolic church. As heresy attacked the church from within and without, the church responded with doctrinal formulations, which may be viewed as the beginning of creeds. For example, the Jerusalem council formulated and published certain dogmas designed to protect the churches against the heresy of the Judaizers (Acts 15:1-30). Paul confronted a denial of the resurrection with an elaborate defense and exposition of the doctrine (1 Cor. 15; cf. 1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2:17-18). And John fortified the church against the attacks of incipient Gnosticism7 with an apologetic for Christ’s full humanity (1 John 1:1-3; 4:1-6; 5:1-6).

The early church continued the polemic and responded to various Christological heresies with such confessional formulas as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the so-called Athanasian Creed.8 In time, the doctrinal decay and corruption of the Roman church provoked reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin to defend the faith. The many creeds, confessions, and catechisms that grew out of the Reformation bear witness to that defense.9

Unfortunately, the ecumenism of our day has blinded many churches and denominations to the biblical duty of defending the faith. Consequently, most modern creeds require a minimal amount of doctrinal homogeneity and allow for a great amount of doctrinal diversity. Concerning this modern approach to creeds, J. Gresham Machen remarked in the early part of the twentieth century,

The historic creeds were exclusive of error; they were intended to set forth the biblical teaching in sharp contrast with what was opposed to the biblical teaching, in order that the purity of the church might be preserved. These modern statements, on the contrary, are inclusive of error. They are designed to make room in the church for just as many people and for just as many types of thought as possible.10

Once again, qualification is in order. As noted above, it’s possible that churches may craft and adopt confessions or statements of faith that are more detailed and exhaustive than Scripture warrants. For instance, some Christians and churches have separated themselves from the larger body of Christ because they’ve attempted to construct doctrinal teachings about the end times that are more specific in details and comprehensive in scope than the data of the NT actually justifies. In reality, the teaching of the NT on last things is clear with respect to major end-time events (i.e., bodily return of Christ, resurrection of believers, final judgment) but somewhat ambiguous with respect to some of the finer details surrounding these events (e.g., precise timing). So we shouldn’t attempt to be more specific and exhaustive than the Bible.

But we must also resist the modern over-emphasis on doctrinal latitude. God’s people should not embrace deviant forms of doctrine but should reject them. We are explicitly warned, “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings” (Heb. 13:9). Again, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out in to the world” (1 John 4:1). One of the ways that we can test the spirits is to compare their views of Scripture with the tried and proven creeds of historic Christianity. A good creed or confession of faith will serve as a check to prevent the church from too hastily adopting doctrines that are novel and that deviate from mainstream Christian thought.

This doesn’t mean churches should simply consult its creeds and confessions when trying to distinguish truth from error. Scripture itself is the primary and ultimate standard by which orthodoxy is determined.11 However, historical creeds and confessions may still serve a significant and subservient role in highlighting what the church through the ages has deemed orthodox or heterodox. And in this respect, as Kenneth Gentry has observed, “Creeds help to preserve the essential core of true Christian faith from generation to generation.”12 And in light of the ongoing assault of error and heresy, the church should not only continue to use the proven creeds of past generations, but she should also formulate newer creedal statements that address the specific errors of our day.13

A Confession Provides a Summary of Biblical Doctrine for Evangelism and Education.

Prior to his ascension, the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned the eleven apostles with the awesome task of making disciples and then of teaching them everything that he had commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). The apostle Paul also received this commission, and he endeavored to fulfill it by faithfully teaching God’s people “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:18-27). This same commission has been passed on to the church to carry out until the end of the age.14 Yet, as one writer has noted, the overwhelming volume of biblical truth makes this quite a formidable task. The Bible consists of 66 books divided into 1,189 chapters containing over 700,000 words. It would be impossible either to convey or to comprehend all of that huge mass of truth at once. Consequently, it becomes necessary for the church to isolate the most basic and fundamental truths, and then to systematize them in summary form so that they can be easily taught and easily learned.15

Historically, this has been one of the functions of a creed or confession.16 Creeds or confessions of faith are comprehensive, yet concise summaries of biblical doctrine. Like good sermons or Christian literature, they distill gospel truth in expository form. Moreover, their accuracy is enhanced since they are usually the product of many minds. As Proverbs 11:14 reminds us, “In the multitude of counselors there is much safety.” This makes creeds and confessions valuable aids to assist the church in carrying out its commission.

Not surprisingly, this is the reason Charles Spurgeon gave for reprinting the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. In the second year of his ministry at New Park Street Chapel, Spurgeon gave these prefatory remarks to the republication of the Confession:

I have thought it right to reprint in cheap form this excellent list of doctrines, which were subscribed to by the Baptist Ministers in the year 1689. We need a banner because of the truth; it may be that this small volume may aid the cause of the glorious gospel by testifying plainly what are its leading doctrines….This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, 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.17

We concur with Spurgeon that a confession of faith can be a valuable summary of that glorious gospel truth, which is contained in God’s word.

Conclusion

Those who oppose the use of creeds or confessions can sound quite pious. One anti-creedal publication, for example, makes the following assertion, “To arrive at truth we must dismiss religious prejudices from heart to mind. We must let God speak for himself…. To let God be true means to let God have the say as to what is the truth that sets men free. It means to accept his word, the Bible, as the truth. Our appeal is to the Bible for truth.” The same publication goes on to attack creeds as “man-made traditions,” “the precepts of men,” and human “opinions.”18

That approach to creeds may sound more biblical than my attempt to defend them. Once we realize, however, that those words are drawn from a Jehovah’s Witness publication, the biblical sounding veneer is removed. “No creed but the Bible” has never been the historical position of orthodoxy. It has often been the pious cloak of heretics, cultists, and modernists.19 Unfortunately, some Christians have failed to see this, and have rallied against creeds and confessions.

My goal in these studies has been to insure that we don’t make that mistake. My aim has been to persuade you of the validity and value of confessions of faith. True, human creeds and confessions are not infallible. Consequently, Christians and churches should always treat them as subordinate to Scripture and as potentially amendable. They are not beyond criticism and revision. But historically tried and proven creeds and confessions shouldn’t be disregarded lightly. To reject unqualifiedly all creeds and confessions is to call into question the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination throughout the church’s history. Such a posture is neither safe nor right.20

B.G.

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  1. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament (reprint, Kregel Publications, 1962), 1142. []
  2. Colossians, Ephesians and Hebrews in An Interpretation of the English Bible (Baker Book House, 1986), 140, quoted by Robert Martin in Sam Waldron’s A Modern Exposition of the 1689, 2nd edition (Evangelical Press, 1995), 16. []
  3. Quoted by Kenneth Gentry, “In Defense of Creedalism,” Penpoint, vol. 9, no. 4 (December 1998). []
  4. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (reprint, Still Waters Revival Books, 1991), 1:301. []
  5. The word is επαγωνιζομαι (epagonidzomai), which is the intensified form of the Greek verb from which we derive the English verb, “to agonize.” The more common form of the word, αγωνιζομαι (agonidzomai), “was much used in connection with athletic contests to describe a strenuous struggle to overcome an opponent, as in a wrestling match.” D. Edmond Hiebert, Second Peter and Jude (Unusual Publications, 1989), 218. []
  6. Ibid, 218-19. []
  7. Because Gnostics viewed matter has inherently evil, they denied that Christ had a material body, thus denying his full humanity. This view has also been called “Docetism,” from the Greek verb δοκεω (dokeo), “to appear.” They argued that Jesus only appeared to have a body. []
  8. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1:24-42; Cf. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (reprint, Banner of Truth, 1983), 115-19. []
  9. Schaff, 1:203-813. []
  10. “Creeds and Doctrinal Advance,” Banner of Truth (November 1970), quoted in A Modern Exposition of the 1689, 21. []
  11. John Frame questions the practice of some churches and denominations that tend to reduce orthodoxy to one’s full subscription to a confession. He observes, “Many denominations that require subscription, even strict subscription, have fallen away into liberalism and other heresies. And my experience has been that in churches that use confessions as tests of orthodoxy, much time has been wasted trying to exegete the confession that could have been spent exegeting the Bible.” The Doctrine of the Word of God (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2010), 287. []
  12. Gentry, “In Defense of Creedalism.” []
  13. One example of a modern error is so-called evangelical feminism, which is simply an attempt to ‘baptize’ secular feminism and bring it into the church. This is a serious error, in my estimation, and it calls for a creedal response from the church. The “Danvers Statement” is one such a response. Several leading evangelicals who were members of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood prepared the statement and further articulated their position in a book edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, entitled, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Crossway Books, 1991). More recently, the Southern Baptist Convention also responded to feminism by revising their 1963 version of The Baptist Faith and Message to include an article on “The Family” (Revised June 9, 1998). I would like to see Reformed Baptist churches append a similar statement to the 1689. []
  14. The fact that Christ promises His special presence “until the end of the age” proves that the commission was intended to extend beyond the life span of the eleven apostles. []
  15. Gentry, “In Defense of Creedalism.” []
  16. Schaff, 1:8. []
  17. Quoted in the forward to The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, 7-8. []
  18. Quoted by Gentry, 1. []
  19. It should be no surprise that the Northern Baptist Convention opened the door wide for modernism when it voted to reject Riley’s motion to adopt the New Hampshire Confession and rather to approve Woelfkin’s proposal that “the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice.” That denomination has since become apostate. See Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 171-229. []
  20. John Frame seeks to capture the balance between a proper respect for confessions and an improper veneration of them: “When the claims of a tradition are suitably modest, and that tradition facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God, that tradition should be respected, even while being viewed with a critical eye.” The Doctrine of the Word of God, 282. []
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