Why Confessions? The Case for Doctrinal Standards

This article appeared in Heritage Presbyterian Church‘s quarterly publication, The Heritage Journal. It has been modified slightly for use on this blog.

We have often heard the statement, “No creed but Christ!” Whether or not it is ever explicitly stated, this has become the rallying cry for many evangelical Protestant churches, especially here in America. The sentiment behind the statement is this: “We don’t need doctrine. Doctrine divides. We just need Christ.” While it is certainly true that Christ is our one true need, is it true that we do not need doctrine? The great twentieth century Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof noticed this trend in thought nearly a century ago: “The present age is an undogmatic age. There is a manifest aversion, not only to dogmas, but even to doctrines, and to a systematic presentation of doctrinal truth.”1 One can imagine, then, the horror on many people’s faces when they come to a denomination like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and see that our confession of faith is over twenty pages long! The question we are going to explore here is whether or not there is a place for such statements of doctrine in the Church. Are they helpful, or unnecessarily pedantic?

The first thing we must do is define what we mean when we say “creed” and “confession.” Commonly, one uses the word “creed” when referring to what we call the “ecumenical” creeds of the Church—documents like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. On the other hand, when one refers to a “confession,” they are often referring to the statements of faith that define the beliefs of a particular denomination or sect. The primary difference between a creed and confession is what we call “dogmatic rank.” The creeds tend to have a generally higher dogmatic rank than confessions. This means that they hold more weight in terms of their weight and command for attention and assent. For example, one can dispute with some of the doctrinal distinctives of the Westminster Confession (e.g., infant baptism or God’s decrees), yet still be called a Christian. But no one may deny the tenets of the Nicene Creed and still be called a Christian. One may disagree with the Reformed confessional position on covenant theology, and still be considered a Christian. But one may not deny the Trinity (formally dogmatized in the Nicene Creed in 325 AD) and be considered a Christian. While creeds and confessions are thus different, we are only going to be strictly considering confessions here. After all, we are asking about their value in the Christian Church. Any church that does not affirm the historic Creeds of the Church (e.g., the Nicene Creed) cannot be considered Christian, and is necessarily excluded from this discussion.

We will here consider the following questions: Is there any value to written and precise confessions? Are they even obligatory? Or do they simply succeed only in dividing bodies of believers and causing strife and quibbles about insignificant points of doctrine? In this article I will attempt to demonstrate that confessions of faith are not only good, but necessary for the health and vitality of the Church of Jesus Christ. To do this, I will offer a series of reasons why confessions are good and necessary.

Reason #1: Scripture itself instructs believers to know what they believe, to hold to it, and to teach it clearly. This is by far and away the most important reason. First of all, Scripture is filled with creedal declarations. Perhaps most known among these is found in Deuteronomy 6, where Moses tells the people, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Another example would be 1 Cor. 15:1 ff.

There is also the express command in Scripture to know, remember, and have the ability to confess out loud with clarity what we believe. The clearest expression of this is found in Paul’s words to Timothy, his son in the faith: “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13; emphasis added). We are not only to follow the words themselves, but even their form! This is a strong case for doctrinal standards in the form of creeds and confessions.

Reason #2: Scripture does not express explicitly all the articles of faith we are to believe. While this might on the surface seem like a denigration of Scripture’s authority or clarity, it is nothing of the sort. Rather, all we are saying is that in many cases there are crucial articles of faith that we must believe and yet are not set down explicitly or in so many words in Scripture. For example, nowhere in Scripture do we find: “Here is the doctrine of the Trinity…” This is not to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not biblical. On the contrary, Scripture is thoroughly Trinitarian, but the doctrine itself is not expressly stated. This is why our own Westminster Confession states, “The whole counsel of God…is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6; emphasis added).

For this reason, simply to say, “I just believe the Bible!” is insufficient. First of all, that’s not a terribly helpful statement; every professing Christian except the most hardened liberal says they believe the Bible. Second, it is a statement with no content, and thus is difficult to assess. After all, such a statement begs the question: What does the Bible teach? It is difficult, if not impossible, to answer that question without forming some kind of confessional statement, even if it is a personal one.

Reason #3: We must recognize and appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church before us. This is something that Dr. R. C. Sproul, a great lover and teacher of Church history, used to say to his students. He is absolutely right. American evangelicals are particularly accustomed to thinking that the Christian faith began with them, and therefore that the Faith must be articulated anew with each generation. Even worse, many merely assume that most everything that came before them is necessarily inferior—a belief similar to the doctrines of evolution.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has never ceased working in his Church and through his people. That does not mean great teachers from the past were flawless. For example, Augustine confused justification and sanctification; Tertullian was wrong regarding baptism; Luther was mistaken about the Lord’s Supper. Yet to conclude from this that these great men ought to be dismissed wholesale is a grave error and is, in essence, “a virtual denial of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the past history of the Church.”2  The maintaining of creeds and confessions ensures against this. 

Reason #4: It holds church leadership accountable. This is a very important and often overlooked reason for having confessions. In so many churches today false doctrine is preached and taught, and the congregation, especially if they have not been informed about historic Christian dogma, is defenseless. In a very real sense, these churches’ confessions of faith are whatever is preached in the pulpit from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. That is why many presbyteries within our own tradition require full subscription to the Westminster Confession and Faith and Catechisms before they will ordain a man, or even license him to preach. Otherwise, churches either become increasingly sectarian (as is the case with rampant non-denominationalism today), or they begin to slide down the slippery slope of apostasy. Confessional commitments, while not an impenetrable barrier, prevent this tendency by holding church leadership accountable to a clear, written standard.

Reason #5: They help us to recognize with whom we have genuine Christian fellowship. The primary purpose of confessions of faith is to articulate clearly and positively what a Christian group does believe. Historically, though, they have also had another function. They have also served to allow Christian groups to distinguish themselves from other groups with whom they differ. This is necessary not because we should love division. On the contrary, this is necessary because we love unity. In our fallen world, there will be Christian groups who differ, sometimes greatly.

In some cases, it is impossible for two groups to function together. This is the case for Baptists and Presbyterians on an ecclesiastical level. With two irreconcilable views on baptism, it is practically impossible for these two groups to function within the same church. Who will they baptize? This is not to say they do not share in their Christian faith, but it forms a clear dividing line with regard to which groups cannot practically function together in the same church body.

In other cases, however, Christian fellowship itself cannot be maintained. This was the case historically with the Reformed and the Socinians, who denied crucial doctrines such as the Trinity and divine, authoritative, special revelation. The Socinians of today are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christians ought not—indeed, they cannot—have spiritual fellowship of any kind with such people. Without clear confessions of faith, how will these lines be maintained, or even recognized?

Reason #6: It lets outsiders know what we believe. When I was in seminary, one of my good friends was looking for churches in which to candidate. He came to me for counsel one day. “What do you think of this? I found this church looking for a pastor, but their website, and even the church itself, doesn’t appear to have a statement of faith or a doctrinal statement of any kind.” I advised my friend to avoid such a church. How is a pastoral candidate to walk into a church without clearly knowing what they believe? Even more, how are we to distinguish ourselves from the Mormon or Roman Catholics gathering down the road? It is really the duty of churches to let others know clearly what they believe.

Reason #7: Everyone, whether or not they realize or welcome it, has a confession. This is the bottom line. It is simply impossible not to have a confession of faith, even if it is entirely personal in its uniqueness and unwritten in its form. Even those whose cry is, “No creed but Christ!” have a creed. One need only ask them, “Which Christ?” What would follow the answer to such a question would of necessity be a confessional statement. As Berkhof says, “Every Church has its dogmas. Even the Churches that are constantly decrying dogmas have them in effect. When they say that they want a Christianity without dogma, they are by that very statement declaring a dogma.”3 An un-theological, un-doctrinal, or un-confessional church would not in any visible way be a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. How would we know? A confession of faith is an inescapable necessity. Confessions of faith are necessary. If they are not written, they will be unwritten. They exist regardless. Since Scripture enjoins us to keep the sound pattern of words given to us, and because of all the other reasons given above, it is both helpful and necessary that we have written and clear confessions of faith. As mentioned earlier, unless our churches have these confessions, how will we be doctrinally distinguished as Christians? How will our leadership be held accountable to this pattern of sound words? Hopefully by now the answer is clear: confessions of faith that accurately express the truths in Scripture. As Berkhof said, “They who minimize the significance of the truth, and therefore ignore and neglect it, will finally come to the discovery that they have very little Christianity left.”4

1 Louis Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1932), 26.
2 Ibid., 33.
3 Ibid., 31.
4 Ibid., 29.

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