The Role of Creeds and Confessions in Doing Theology

A wise traveler makes preparations for a trip (Matt. 10:8–10). Any traveler who attempts a difficult journey without a map risks not arriving or worse. The Christian life is a journey to the heavenly city (Heb. 11:8–15). A map is a record of the journeys of travelers who have gone before us. Strangely, however, many Christians attempt the Christian journey without the benefit of maps—in this case, the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions.

Our word creed comes from the Latin word credo, “I believe.” A creed is typically a short statement of faith. The ecumenical creeds, including the Apostles’ Creed (developed during the first four centuries AD), the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed (often called the Nicene Creed; AD 325/381), the Athanasian Creed (after AD 428), and the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451), have been widely accepted across the ages by multiple church traditions. In them, the ancient church responded to some of the great heresies of the Christian religion. For example, in the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed, the church defended the biblical doctrine that God the Son and God the Spirit are of the same substance (consubstantial) with the Father. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father. (The Third Council of Toledo in 589 added the so-called filioque clause that says the Spirit proceeds also from the Son. This revision has been received by the Lutheran and Reformed Churches.) Thus, according to the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed, the Son and the Spirit are not merely like God—they are God. Yet, though God is one in nature, He also exists in three distinct, coeternal persons who share equally in that one nature. Nowhere are the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ more clearly taught than in the Athanasian Creed. The Definition of Chalcedon teaches us how to keep Jesus’ humanity and deity united in one person without confusing them. The Apostles’ Creed serves as a summary of the consensus of the ancient church on the great doctrines of the Christian faith. These are boundary markers beyond which no Christian may safely go. As the Athanasian Creed says, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [that is, universal] faith.”

Our noun confession comes from the Latin verb confiteor, “to confess.” The great Reformed confessions include the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1648). The idea of creeds and confessions did not originate in church history, however.

First, there are creeds and confessions in Scripture itself. One of the first examples occurs in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” It is known as the Shema, after the Hebrew word translated as “Hear!” in the verse. This most basic Israelite confession was repeated weekly in the synagogue during the intertestamental and New Testament periods. Our Lord Himself quoted it in Mark 12:29, and Paul refers to it in Romans 3:30 and Galatians 3:20. James alludes to the early Jewish Christian practice of reciting the Shema in James 2:19.

There are also confessional expressions in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:16, the Apostle Paul quotes a confession used in the churches:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He [Christ] 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.

The Shema and 1 Timothy 3:16 are brief accounts of the faith that touch on key aspects of the Christian faith. God is one. Jesus is God the Son incarnate, the ascended Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit raised Him from the dead, and we are united to Him by grace alone through faith alone. Paul calls these formulas “trustworthy saying[s]” (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8), short summaries of Christian faith and practice.

Second, our Lord Himself commands us to confess the faith. He said, “So everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33). We know that there was pressure on early Christians not to confess Christ (John 9:22). The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to confess the faith (1 Tim. 6:12). The Apostle John called the churches of Asia Minor to confess the incarnation of Christ against the dualists who denied it (1 John 4:15; 2 John 7). Confession of Christ and His truth is so important that it is something all believers will do at the last day (Phil. 2:11) and even in heaven (Rev. 3:5).

Confessions and creeds are good, but they are also unavoidable. Even our friends who reject creeds have one. “No creed but Christ” is a very short and inadequate creed, but it is a creed nonetheless. Thus, the question is not whether we will have a confession but whether it will be biblical, ecumenical, and sound. Read more»

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One comment

  1. Excellent apologetic of the Christian creeds Scott. Very useful as a map of the creedal maps and one I’ll be saving for future reference. Thank you!

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