The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith…These are just a few of the many creeds and confessions of the Church. In fact, the local church I pastor collectively embraces these creeds and confessions. But why do we need them?

As someone who holds to Sola Scriptura (a doctrine recovered/reasserted in the time of the Reformation having to do with the sufficiency of Scripture), you may find yourself wrestling with that question. The question is further complicated by pithy and quotable one-liners from well-meaning Christians such as “no creed but the Bible” (ignoring the obvious and ironic reality that the saying is itself a creed).

Nevertheless, the question is a legitimate one and it is one that I run into often as a pastor. And I have found in conversations that usually the question behind that question is really, “Is the sufficiency of Scripture in any way jeopardized by those who would defend not only the usefulness of creeds and confessions, but the necessity of them?”

Most of my conversations regarding the necessity of these creeds and confessions is with people who have great reverence for the Bible, but are misguided on the role of creeds and confessions. So, in this short article, not only do I want to answer in the affirmative on needing creeds and confessions, but I want to demonstrate to you the fact that everyone subscribes to a creed or confession in some way.

In Carl Trueman’s excellent work, The Creedal Imperative, he aptly summarizes the issue in this way:

“Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (pg. 16).

According to Trueman, the divide is between those who have public Scripture-tested and confined creeds and confessions, and those who have private arbitrary creeds and confessions. As I write this, I am reminded of a man who visited the church I pastor. Before the service started, he hunted me down, introduced himself, and then gave me a list of things (his private creed) that he expected to be present in my preaching. He was sorely disappointed with me and never returned. Ironically, he could have been spared his disappointment had he read the public creeds and confessions of the local church I pastor.

I find this categorization by Trueman to be crucial on this issue. People being clear on these two categories (private arbitrary creed vs public, Scripture tested one) is the difference between the abuses of Rome (traditions of men elevated to and contrary to Scripture) and the necessity of the Reformation.

As Trueman says elsewhere, “[John Calvin, and thus the Reformers] understood the Reformation not as Scripture verses tradition, but as scriptural tradition versus unscriptural tradition.” (pg. 17, emphasis mine).

What we must be after is a sort of Reformed Catholicity—a Scriptural tradition that unites us. Confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and the creeds sought to articulate biblically faithful traditions. They show us “the ancient path; the good way” (Jeremiah 16:16). These great documents were drafted by men who feared God, cherished Christ, reverenced His Word, and were watchful over His Church for that very purpose.

These public creeds and confessions were written in the trenches of adversity, to rebuke and guard against those who sought to twist and ignore Scripture, reduce hermeneutics to proof-texting (biblicism), dismantling doctrines such as that of the Trinity, and thereby preaching a different and damning gospel. Therefore, these creeds and confessions were polemical as much as they were affirmations of understood orthodoxy, around which the Church could be unified. The very existence of these texts demonstrate not only a commitment to the Scriptures, but a commitment to a certain hermeneutic—a certain interpretive approach to Scripture. Namely, one that gives particular priorities to text (such as those that speak ontologically about God) and an interpretative approach that doesn’t single out verses from the context of the whole counsel of God’s Word. These creeds and confessions teach us how to read the Bible in context and how to use Scripture to interpret Scripture (the analogy of faith).

The creeds and confessions run from the Patristic time period to the Reformation. They should be viewed as short (when compared to the breadth of Scripture) orthodox statements, summarizing for us the great, glorious doctrines of Scripture as Scripture as a whole speaks to those various doctrines. And while they are not God-breathed, they have as their source the God-inspired Word. These historic creeds and confessions are not something imposed on Scripture, but they are lifted from the whole counsel of God’s Word and provide for us the riverbanks of orthodoxy; boundaries to guide our understanding of the Word.

That is why most local churches have a “Statement of Faith”—a system of beliefs the membership must collectively confess to be considered a member in good standing at the church. Consequentially, this means those that move beyond the agreed upon statement should not continue as members.

Three Reasons Local Churches Need Creeds and Confessions

Now, if you still aren’t convinced on the necessity of creeds and confessions consider these last three points. Firstly, pastors utilize the vocabulary of creeds/confessions as they preach and teach every Lord’s Day, exhorting the glories of God’s Word. The very task of preaching is itself a creed—a declaration of what the whole counsel of God’s Word teaches. Trueman says, “As soon as one uses the Word “Trinity” from the pulpit, one is drawing on tradition [scriptural tradition] and not Scripture [alone]” (pg. 17). Furthermore, pastors utilize various translations with particular translationary traditions that underly them. And they use commentaries to help prepare their sermons that operate within an understood creedal riverbank.

Secondly, confessions and creeds allow for accountability. This accountability is for elders, deacons, and members—no one is off limits. There is clarity where there is an understood public creed and confession. Therefore, when there is a drift, it is easily spotted and can be addressed. This is why these documents were drafted in the first place—to confront error and assert biblical orthodoxy.

Thirdly, confessions and creeds connect us to our roots. We aren’t some isolated 21st century church floating out in the ether alone. Western evangelicalism is plagued by individualism. I can’t help but wonder if that is because we have neglected these public, historic, biblically-faithful creeds and confessions. We have a long, rich faith interpretive tradition and these time-tested documents remind us of that.

Your Homework

This is by no means a comprehensive article and perhaps you are finishing it with more questions than you began with. So, allow me to sign off by assigning you some homework. First, pay attention to your unspoken creeds/confessions. What are they saying to you?

Lastly, spend some time reading some of these rich, enduring creeds/confessions. Start by reading the ones I have mentioned in this article. And from there allow me to commend to you, Carl Trueman’s helpful work, The Creedal Imperative.

References and Recommended Resources:

  1. The Apostle’s Creed
  2. The Athanasian Creed
  3. The Nicene Creed
  4. The Canons of Dort
  5. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)
  6. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
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