10 Things You Should Know about the Church’s Historic Creeds and Confessions
This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. Creeds are honest.
Honesty is the original impulse behind almost every statement of faith. Cults hide what they believe until you’re so far into the riptide that you can’t do anything about it. Honest churches do the opposite: they announce what they do believe and (in the best creeds and confessions) even a few things that they don’t. We want everyone to know the most important facts and ideas revealed in the Bible and denied by the Bible, so we summarize them in our creeds.
2. Creeds promote unity.
The best doctrinal summaries promote church unity. They help us to identify, through a common set of priorities and teachings, what we have in common with other Christians. And that is not all. These summaries also have the potential to create peace in the church, since people coming to the church will readily be able to see what it teaches, and will be able to compare it with the Scriptures, which is the only basis on which Christian teaching should be built. Avoiding doctrinal disguises minimizes unhappy surprises.
ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions
The ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions includes 13 historic creeds and confessions along with introductions for each, making it easy for today’s Christians to regularly reflect on these articulations of Christian doctrine in order to grow in understanding of the truth.
3. Creeds are old.
The classic Christian Creeds were written in the early history of the church. Most confessions were written sometime during the Protestant Reformation. This is useful. When it comes to doctrinal statements (and much else besides!) age is more of a benefit than a liability—it is good to study texts which remind us that Christianity was not invented last Tuesday.
4. Creeds and confessions can be long.
Lengthy creeds and confessions are a good thing! Evangelical statements of faith are often too short and not sufficiently theological. As I see it, the church needs to experiment with theological maximalism, in place of its current minimalism, if we are to maintain a faithful witness to Christ in our generation. A dozen doctrinal points on a website is probably inadequate for the church’s thriving, for its mission not only to evangelize but also to teach the nations. Big creeds and confessions hold out a large faith for us to own, offering a welcome view of the triune God and his work and more robust statements of the gospel of Christ.
5. Creeds remind us we are not alone.
Classic creeds remind us that we don’t simply read the Bible by ourselves. We read the Bible as one body and find unity in so doing. Reciting a creed as a church declares that we read the bible in ways similar to other Christians in the depth and in the breadth of the church—over time and around the world.
6. Creeds and confessions expose disagreements.
Creeds also show how we disagree. This, too, is good. Discussing our differences is better than papering over them and pretending they don’t exist. By the time of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, so much had been learned—and so many doctrines were disputed between the Reformers and Rome—that the category of creed was supplemented by longer lists of doctrines that Christians confessed. Creeds were still in use, most often in worship, but now confessions were written to expound what Lutheran and Reformed Christians believed. These confessions carefully articulated what doctrines were shared in common with the old faith of Rome, and where the Reformers were forced to disagree with Rome in their recovery of the teachings of the early church, and most basically, of the Bible. They also explain where Reformers disagreed with one another. This is helpful, for knowing where we disagree allows us to talk at the curb. Living with labels, but without understanding, results in verbal grenades being lobbed over walls.
Creeds function not only as a teaching tool but as a worshipping tool as we remember why it is that we gather together: it is because of who God is and because of what he has done.
7. Creeds and confessions help us learn.
Creeds and confessions pay careful attention to precise wording. They provide the kind of labeling that allows for Christian learning. These documents function as teaching materials that lead us deeper into the Christian faith. With texts like these, Christians no longer need to be content with speaking of “salvation”, for example, only in general. Once alert to fuller teaching, Christians can then celebrate justification, discover adoption, and bless God for sanctification, perseverance, and glorification.
8. Creeds and confessions help us to avoid error.
Even as creeds and confessions served as bulwarks against doctrinal error in time past, they continue to do so in the present. Errorists and heretics are often uncreative. The basic shape of their faults remain the same over the centuries. Creeds set doctrinal parameters that safeguard the principles of the church against the increasingly common tendency to be inclined toward everything new and fancy. Tip: It’s helpful for pastors to read the relevant section in a creed or confession before preaching a tricky doctrine, or one that is easy to state incorrectly.
9. Creeds and confessions help us worship.
Creeds function not only as a teaching tool but as a worshipping tool as we remember why it is that we gather together: it is because of who God is and because of what he has done. While not usually used in worship, confessions are also useful for worship. Careful distinctions provide richer material for praise than do broad generalizations. Saying more about the character of God and the grace of the gospel encourages more confidence in prayer and praise.
10. Creeds and confessions are biblical.
From the beginning, the word of God has offered, and the people of God have employed, statements of faith. Old Testament readers encounter such a statement in the capstone of the books of Moses: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:3). It is what New Testament readers see when Paul provides the Corinthians with a summary of his own teaching: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). In Paul’s instruction to Timothy, he reminds Timothy to follow the pattern of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13) so that the church would not be tossed about in uncertainty. Biblical summaries are biblical!
Craig Van Dixhoorn is a contributor to the ESV Bible with Creeds and Confessions.
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