Carl R. Trueman
Despite claims to the contrary, the Christian world is not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who just have the Bible. It is actually divided between those who have creeds and confessions and write them down in a public form, open to public scrutiny and correction, and those who have them and do not write them down. The reason is simple: every church (and indeed every Christian) believes the Bible means something, and what it thinks the Bible means is its creed and confession, whether it chooses to write its beliefs down or not.
Of course, those who argue that they have no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible are usually trying to protect something important and biblical: the supreme authority of Scripture in all matters of Christian faith and practice. They rightly fear allowing unbiblical traditions or ideas to impact the substance of what the church believes. Yet for all of the good intentions that they may have, I believe that that which they want to protect—the unique status of Scripture—is actually best protected through explicit confessional documents, connected to a carefully thought-out form of church government.
In fact, and somewhat ironically, it is those who do not express their confession in the form of a written document who are in danger of elevating their tradition above Scripture in such a way that it can never be controlled by the latter. If a church has a document that says it is dispensational in eschatology, then we all know where such a church stands on the issue of the end times, and we can do the Berean thing and test the position by Scripture to see if it is so. The church that tells you simply that its position on the end times is the same one as that taught in the Bible appears to be telling you everything, but is actually telling you nothing at all.
In short, creeds and confessions, connected to a biblical church polity, are a vital part of maintaining a healthy New Testament church life. Here are seven reasons why every church should have them.
In an age when words, especially words that make truth claims, are always suspected of being part of some manipulative power game, it is perhaps counterintuitive to think of confessions as delimiting the power of the church. Yet a moment of reflection makes it clear that this is exactly what they do. An elder in the church has authority only relative to those matters that the confession defines. Thus, if someone in church declares the Trinity to be nonsense or commits adultery, the elders have both a right and a duty to intervene. Both issues are covered in the Westminster Standards. But if someone wishes to turn up at church wearing a bright yellow suit or decides to become a vegetarian, the elders have no right to intervene. They might have personal reservations about the person’s sense of appropriate dress or wonder how anyone could live without the occasional burger, but it is not the church’s business to address either matter. Indeed, this is what stops churches from becoming cults: clear and open statements about where church authority begins and ends, connected to transparent processes of exercising that authority.
If you have on your bookshelf or in your pocket a copy of the Westminster Standards, you have more theological punch per page than anything other than the Bible. Theological tomes often seem vast and forbidding, and few have the time to read them. Yet the Shorter Catechism can be carried in a pocket, read through in a few minutes, and easily memorized. It is an entire theological curriculum in an easily digestible form. Of course, there are other books out there that do similar things. But are there any that do it so efficiently and in such an easily digestible form? The church with a good confession and a good catechism has a ready-made pedagogical tool for instilling the truth into its people.
History has proved this over and over again. Here, for example, is a quotation from B. B. Warfield in 1909:
What is “the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism”? We have the following bits of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at the time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface, “What is the chief end of man?” On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”—“Ah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder. (Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1, 383–84)
And Warfield’s laconic postscript to that story is, “It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God.” The reason, of course, is that the Shorter Catechism is arguably an excellent and concise statement of the whole counsel of God.
There is some debate within Reformed circles over exactly how much doctrinal knowledge should be required for membership in a church. For myself, I believe Romans 10 indicates that the bar should be set toward the lower, rather than the higher, end of the spectrum. A basic confession, as long as it is combined with a humble and teachable spirit, is enough.
Even if some disagree with setting the bar low, however, all should agree that there is to be a difference between the degree of knowledge required of an office-bearer and a new member. Where one starts in the Christian life should not be where one finishes. There is to be growth in maturity, one aspect of which is growth in doctrinal knowledge, and the confessional documents of a church offer a road map or aspirational framework that gives substance and structure to this growth. The church with no confession or with only the most minimal of doctrinal statements has the disadvantage of not being able to set before the people any biblically ambitious vision of what a mature Christian’s theology should be.
One could perhaps express this point in negative terms: if it is not in the confession, it is going to be difficult to argue that it is of any great importance. This is one reason why confessions should be somewhat elaborate. If, for example, a church has a ten-point doctrinal basis or confession, the problem the elders are going to face is how they are ever going to convince their people that an eleventh doctrinal point is really that important. If it is not in the confession, then the church is functionally allowing for liberty of conscience on the matter. For example, if the statement does not reference baptism and thereby allows both paedobaptists and credobaptists to hold office, then baptism as an issue has been made a matter of practical indifference. The same applies to any doctrine—perseverance, sanctification, eschatology: if it is not mentioned, then the church has no official position on it and it is relegated to being a matter of minor importance.
Again, to return to the former point: the new convert or the new member is not necessarily going to know at the moment of joining the church what is important and what is indifferent. A good, elaborate confession provides the church not only with a great pedagogical map, but also with a fine resource for teaching the people about what really matters and why.
We all know that Christianity is not reinvented every Sunday. We all stand on ground that has been laid for us by many brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us. Yet often we can be tempted to live as if this were not true. This is hardly surprising, as we live in an age where the antihistorical forces of the wider culture are powerful and all-pervasive. Whether it is a commercial telling us that the next purchase we make will bring us happiness or science promising some great breakthrough that will ease our lives, everything around us points to the future as that which is most important and certainly as vastly superior to the past.
By contrast, Christianity is a religion rooted in history. It was constituted by God’s historical actions culminating in Christ, and it comes to us through the faithful articulation and preservation of its message by God’s church throughout the ages. That is profoundly countercultural and something of which we need to be constantly reminded. Ironically, it may well be that those who claim no creed but the Bible are actually reflecting merely the spirit of our age in all of its antihistorical triumphalism.
In this context, the use of creeds and confessions is one intentional means of connecting ourselves to the past, of identifying with the church of previous ages, and thereby of relativizing our own significance in the grand scheme of things. The recitation of ancient creedal formulas in the worship service is one practical example of such. The affirmation of historic confessional standards, as expressing the doctrinal commitments of the church’s office-bearers and the content of the church’s pedagogical ambitions for her membership, is another.
When I teach my course on the Ancient Church, I always emphasize that the dynamic of early Trinitarian and Christological debates is doxological and inextricably connected to Christian worship. Put simply, the early church’s cry of worship, “Jesus is Lord!” and the conjunction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the baptismal formula point toward a foundation of deep theology. They provided the context for the discussions that would ultimately bear fruit in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. The church’s confessional tradition begins with reflection upon the meaning of acts of worship.
For two millennia, the worship of the church has not changed relative to the fundamental points—that it is a declaration that Jesus is Lord and that salvation is an act of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and our confessions explicate the content of these points.
Thus, we should not think of confessions and the doctrine they contain as being antithetical to vibrant worship. The possession of a confession, of course, does not equate to vibrant worship, nor does it guarantee it, any more than the mere existence of a legal code guarantees a civilized society. Yet confessions are prerequisites of vibrant and thoughtful worship, the things that make sense of what we do as Christians.
This confessional function is likely to become more obviously important in years to come. As other religions collide with Christianity, and especially as some of those religions use the same kind of biblical vocabulary that we use, it is going to be more and more crucial that we understand not only what words to use, but also what those words actually mean. Your friendly Mormon neighbor might well agree with you that Jesus is Lord; he may even sing some of the same hymns at his worship service. Thus, you are going to need to know what exactly your church means when it says “Jesus is Lord” or performs baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Good confessions enable you to do that with greater ease than anything else.
As Paul wrote from prison to his protégé, Timothy, his mind was focused on how the church was to manage once he and the other apostles had passed from the scene. His answer had two components: a structure in which the governance of the church was put in the hands of ordinary but faithful men, and a form of sound words. Both were necessary. Without structure, the church would have no leadership; without a form of sound words, she would drift from her theological moorings, losing touch with her past and with other congregations in the present. A form of sound words, a confession, was crucial for maintaining both continuity with the apostles and unity among Christians in the present. And that is what our confessional documents do today: they bind us to faithful brothers and sisters in the past and with the same in the present.
The cry “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible!” has a speciously pious and biblical ring to it, yet we should not be ashamed of being confessional Christians, for confessions enable us to maintain certain biblical priorities. We should give thanks for this, even as we try to show nonconfessional brothers and sisters a better way of preserving the things that are of value to all Christians.
The author, an OP minister, teaches church history at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. He has written The Creedal Imperative. New Horizons, February 2013.