I grew up in, and now serve in, a Presbyterian church. One of the things I really appreciate from my younger years is the catechism class my church ran. These classes ground and orient people in the Christian faith. I later learnt that these catechisms borrowed heavily, or were explicitly based on, historic creeds and confessions. At my conversion, I realised that they had given me a strong doctrinal foundation.
My Christian walk is both richer and surer thanks to my church’s use of catechisms, creeds, and confessions
Over the years, I have not only built on that foundation, but regularly returned to it. I can confidently say that my Christian walk is both richer and surer thanks to my church’s use of catechisms, creeds, and confessions.
Today, much of my ministry involves discipleship of young people with no church background. Thus, there is an obvious need for a robust doctrinal foundation and formation. Creeds and confessions can help to do just that, no matter your church affiliation.
What Are Creeds?
- You only live once
- Life is about seeking happiness
- You should do what your heart desires
- We will all go to heaven
- There is a personal God
These statements are creeds. The word ‘creed’ is derived from the Latin credo. It means “I believe.” Historically, creeds are short statements that summarise Christian teaching and beliefs.
The word ‘creed’ is derived from the Latin credo. It means ‘I believe.’
Let’s say a friend just asked you what do you believe as a Christian? What would you say? Of course, the best thing to do would be to read the whole Bible with them, from Genesis to Revelation. But that would require more coffees than our budgets typically allow. Thus, a very effective way to answer your friend would be to turn to one of the church’s tried and tested historical creeds or confessions.
Finding Creeds In The Bible
Creedal statements can actually be found in the Bible, though the Bible is obviously much more than a creed. Nevertheless, certain short statements throughout both the Old and New Testaments capture what the people of God believe.
Creedal statements can be found in the Bible, though the Bible is obviously much more than a creed.
One of the most famous examples is Israel’s shema. “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). We find another example in 1 Timothy 3:16. “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” Then there is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20); 1 Corinthians 15:3-7; Philippians 2:6-11; and Colossians 1:15-20.
The Historical Purposes of Christian Creeds
Since the early church, creeds have been very important in the life of God’s people. We can summarise their purpose under two points. We will then explore the benefits of having and using them below.
Grounding New Believers
Creeds and confessions teach new believers the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith.
Guarding Against Heresies
Initially, the Christian faith was passed on through oral tradition – similar to our own African cultures. It took some time before the scriptures were collected into one book. Because of this, people were prone to error. Thus, throughout the first four centuries of the church’s existence, Christian leaders met in various councils to formulate common understandings on different doctrines. This led to the drafting of several Christian creeds such as the Nicene Creed (325 AD) and the Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD).
Creeds ground and guard Christians in the faith
In the Presbyterian Church, we usually recite the Apostles’ Creed (circa 70 AD). It opens with, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Historically, this was a biblical response to the heresy of Gnosticism, showing that God values the created world and thus places importance on material life (Colossians 1:15-20).
The creeds set forth the Christian understanding of important doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the atonement among others. Therefore creeds ground and guard Christians in the faith. So it comes as no surprise that the creeds are foundational to the development of later confessions, especially those written at the Reformation.
The Confessions Of The Reformation
In Know the Creeds and Councils, Justin Holcomb observes that “the creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions colour in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways.” If creeds are summarised statements of belief, confessions are longer expositions of those same beliefs. Thus, the confessions expand on foundational Christian beliefs by summarising denominational approaches to the Christian life.
Confessions colour in the picture, tying theology to everyday life.
Rediscovering Abandoned Biblical Truths
The great Protestant Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries involved the rediscovery of many lost or abandoned biblical truths. Not the least of these was salvation as the result of God’s grace alone.
Different families of the Reformed movement would come to different convictions regarding particular doctrines. Yet significant theological truths were held in common, such as the authority of scripture and justification by faith alone. These core beliefs, along with many others, were reclaimed at a time when Roman Catholicism had either distorted or forgotten them.
The Reformers’ task was not innovative or creative. They drove the church back to its biblical and historical roots
The Protestant Reformation was like the breaking of dawn after a dark night. For during the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD) the church had wandered off into superstition. But the Protestant Reformation rediscovered the authority of God’s word, the centre piece of faith, and reestablished other pillars of biblical truth. These have been called the five solas.
Importantly, the Reformers did not see their task as innovative or creative. Instead, they drove the church back to its biblical and historical roots.
Recovering The Knowledge Of God
In What Do Presbyterians Believe?, the notable philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark writes this. “The Reformers knew Scripture in great detail and understood its implications. They took great pains to teach exactly what God had revealed.”
Confessions are a hallmark of the Reformation
The forerunners of the Reformation (such as Pierre Valdo in France, John Wycliff in England, and John Huss in Bohemia) were likewise passionate for biblical truth. They laid the foundations for the Reformation, which would later be attributed to the work of people such as Calvin, Luther, Viret, Bucer, and Bullinger.
Seeking to systematise the unique truths of the Reformation, these leaders developed documents called Confessions. These confessions are a hallmark of the Reformation. Unfortunately, in practice today, the use of creeds and confessions is uncommon in many churches.
The Westminster Standards
The churches that arose as a result of the historical Reformation are called Reformed churches. Reformed churches are those that are continually being renewed by the Word of God. For one of the cries during the Reformation was, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. This is Latin for, ‘the church reformed and always reforming.’
Reformed churches are those that are continually being renewed by the word of God
In 1643, a group of Christian pastors, erudite biblical exegetes, lay leaders, and parliamentarians gathered together in what has been called the Westminster Assembly. The practice of these men was to confess every Monday morning of their duty to scripture and God’s glory. They fasted and prayed once a month in the course of what was almost a 6 year labour of love.
For they had a critical task. To develop documents to unite the churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland in light of political upheavals at the time. Thus, the confession they came up with, summarising the Reformed faith, was called the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The Reformed confessions are invaluable; they expound and arrange doctrines in a way that takes scripture very seriously
Out of the Westminster Confession of Faith, two catechisms were developed. Also produced was the Directory of Public Worship, which details the worship elements for churches; and the Directory for Family Worship, which directs family worship. Together these are called the Westminster Standards.
The Westminster Standards explain the system of doctrine of Presbyterianism. Other well known Reformed Confessions include the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.
But how do these confessions, together with the early church’s creeds, relate to scripture?
How Creeds and Confessions Relate to Scripture
Creeds and Confessions do not possess any authority over the Bible, as some claim. For instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.10) notes this: “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 Spirit speaking in the Scripture”. (Matthew 22:29; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 28:25)
Even while the Bible is enough, it has to be interpreted
One of the major objections against the use of creeds and confession is: “isn’t the Bible enough?” Yet it is clear, from the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Bible is enough. However, even while the Bible is enough, it has to be interpreted.
Taking The Bible Seriously
The different interpretations of the Bible are what lead to different doctrinal emphases and understandings. Yet different interpretations can also lead to error. The Reformed confessions are invaluable, because they expound and arrange doctrines in a way that takes scripture very seriously. Added to this, they were created with the aim of practical Christian maturity and worship.
If Christians today have suffered amnesia and confusion concerning who they are, they will do well to go through the creeds and confessions.
What creeds and confessions help us to do is to organise the teaching of scripture into a systematic form. This enables us to understand the parts in light of the whole. By doing this, it grounds us in what we believe and guards us from heretical teachings. Furthermore, they discuss the distinct doctrines of covenant theology and Reformed ecclesiology.
If Christians today have suffered amnesia and confusion concerning who they are, they will do well to go through the creeds and confessions. After all, the Christian faith is a confessional faith at heart.
How to Use Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms
It is good and right that we are seeking unique African expressions of our faith and unity in our witness today. Yet, we are also called to be firmly rooted in the history of God’s people. Some have said that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide but only an inch deep. Therefore, creeds and confessions can serve to deepen our faith.
Creeds and confessions can serve to deepen our faith.
Here are three recommendations for using creeds and confessions in your personal life as well as church practice:
- Personal study. You can take a day in the week to go through the Westminster Standards. Most confessions and catechisms are available for free online. You can do this individually or as a group.
- Catechisms and the family. These can help both young and old to deepen their understanding of foundational Christian teachings. For fathers who feel inadequate in playing their roles as Christian leaders of their homes, catechisms are an immense help.
- Church Life. Since the Reformation, creeds and confessions have played a prominent role in the worship services of Reformed churches. As we recite them together, let us take hold of their rich meaning. The truths contained in these biblical summaries are a means of grace for the Christian church today.
The Case For Creeds and Confessions Today
Here is a good question: Is there a need to append the confessions to include contemporary issues such as sexuality or African cultural issues? Originally, the confessions were written for church purposes. Therefore, I think addressing these pressing issues is certainly something the wider church should consider.
But, in terms of the Orthodox understanding of the faith, the creeds and confessions already cover good ground. During a time when people have relegated the place of doctrine to the sidelines, there is need for Christians to be firmly grounded in what they believe.
The Holy Spirit has used other Christians in the past, thereby saving us from historical or chronological snobbery
We Can Learn From Christians Past
Underlying this belief is the humble acknowledgment that the Holy Spirit has used other Christians in the past, thereby saving us from historical or chronological snobbery. We are not the sole gatekeepers of truth.
In light of the overzealous anxiety to be tossed by every wind of culture, the creeds and confessions can ground us in robust theology. We need this today. And there is no better place than returning to the creeds and confessions handed down to us by the Church.