The Role of Creeds and Confessions in the Church
In the summer of 1824, Samuel Miller, long-time professor of church history at Princeton Theological Seminary, offered this counsel to students preparing for ministry: His words were meant to impress upon them the necessity of creeds and confessions for maintaining the unity, peace, and purity of the church.
No church can hope to maintain a homogeneous character; no church can be secure either of purity or peace, for a single year; nay, no church can effectually guard against the highest degrees of corruption and strife, without some test of truth, explicitly agreed upon, and adopted by her in her ecclesiastical capacity: something recorded, something publicly known, something capable of being referred to when most needed, which not merely this or that private member supposes to have been received, but to which the church as such has agreed to adhere, as a bond of union.
Without publicly agreed-to creeds and confessions, he argued, it was only a matter of time before the church degenerated into tribalism or schism or, worse, into heresy or even apostasy. Why is this so? What role do confessional documents play within the church, especially in regard to ecclesial disputes and controversies? These are the questions we will attempt to answer in this article. We will begin by looking at what confessions are and then continue by examining a few examples of what they do for the church.
What Are Creeds and Confessions?
In a basic sense, creeds and confessions are simply statements of biblical doctrine. When we take the words in this way, we can readily see that all Christians necessarily have a creed or a confession of their own, because all Christians have a “statement” of doctrine they believe is representative of the Bible’s teaching. These kinds of statements are usually private and unwritten, but they exist at least in the mind of every Christian. All churches also have a creed or a confession, and far too frequently these kinds of statements also remain private and unwritten. When they do, they are unhelpful for the church and may even be downright harmful, as we will see. In order to be helpful, creeds and confessions must be, as Samuel Miller says above, “test[s] of truth, explicitly agreed upon, and adopted” by the church; and they must be “recorded” and “publicly known,” so that they function as a standard to guide God’s people at all times but especially in disputes and matters of controversy. That is what Miller intended when he said creeds and confessions must be “capable of being referred to when most needed.”
The point is that creeds and confessions must be more than simple statements of biblical doctrine—although they are certainly not less. They must also be written, public documents that have been agreed upon and accepted by the church to be an expression of what it has historically believed the Bible teaches. In this sense, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Augsburg Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the London Baptist Confession, and many others are all considered creeds and confessions of the church.
Within the tradition of the Reformation, creeds and confessions have always been considered as authoritative ecclesial standards. Their authority, however, has been regarded as only being secondary and derived. The Bible alone holds pride of place as the one standard that rules over all others (norma normans). It is primary in its authority. Creeds and confessions are secondary (norma normata); their authority flows from the authority of the Bible. This means that confessional documents speak with the Bible’s authority when and where they faithfully express the Bible’s teaching. It also means that confessional documents can be amended or updated whereas the Bible, as God’s infallible rule of faith and practice, cannot be.
In the seventeenth century, the followers of the well-known Dutch theologian James Arminius were convinced that no one should ever be forced to embrace or subscribe to confessional documents that were merely human compositions. Instead, they believed that creeds and confessions should only and always be written in the express words of Scripture. Philip Van Limborch perhaps articulated this position most explicitly when he said that “no Man” should ever be “tied up” or required to embrace “such Words and Expressions as are not contain’d in the Holy Scripture, but are only of Human Invention.” This view is still prevalent in many circles today, especially within the fundamentalist tradition, although it usually is articulated slightly differently. The version we typically hear today goes something like this: “The Bible is our only creed or confession.”
The problem with these pious-sounding approaches is that they overlook the necessity of creeds and confessions as expressions of what the church understands the Bible to be teaching. It is not enough for us to say that the Bible is our creed or even to express our creed or confession wholly in the words of Scripture. We must go beyond that and actually spell out what we think the Bible is saying. Church history is replete with examples of false teachers and heretics who appealed to the Bible in order to justify their unorthodox theological positions—often by ascribing different meanings to tried and true passages of Scripture. Beginning with at least the fourth century and the onset of the Arian controversy, the church has consistently advocated for and relied upon creeds and confessions as secondary standards “to preserve its commitment to the New Testament proclamation” by distinguishing accepted and orthodox interpretations of the Bible from every other alternative.
The “no creed but the Bible” approach is misleading at best and dishonest at worst, because it hides the fact that it really does have a creed or a confession—in the most basic of senses discussed above—so that it doesn’t have to make that creed or confession available for all to see and examine. It thus puts itself beyond accountability and at the same time offers no help for church members in disputes and controversies, and it may actually leave them open to harm. This will be seen more clearly in the following section, where we will explore three main ways confessional documents help the church. They promote unity, ensure peace and purity, and provide protection for all of God’s people.
What Do Creeds and Confessions Do?
They Promote Unity
First, creeds and confessions promote unity in the church. They do this in at least two ways: (1) by providing a set of standards around which we can all come together and to which we can all agree, and (2) by providing a moderated standard or consensus document that allows for some amount of diversity in strategic areas. In regard to the first idea, it is important to point out that unity always assumes some kind of standard or common bond. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed may well provide for a broader unity than the Westminster Confession of Faith or London Baptist Confession. But the fact remains that all creeds and confessions are designed to provide unity among Christians and among Christian churches.
This may be most helpfully seen when we consider the second way that creeds and confessions work to secure unity: They provide a moderated standard or consensus document that allows for diversity of thought. Chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is a good example. This chapter does not explicitly take a position in regard to the debates over supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, for instance, even though these debates were so prevalent in the church at the time. Rather, it offers a consensus view that could be easily embraced by both sides.
Another example of consensus building in the Westminster Confession of Faith can be seen in its chapter on the covenants (ch. 7). The second paragraph of this chapter mentions the “first covenant” and calls it a “covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” Interestingly, the confession does not say “eternal life.” It only says “life.” The reason is that there was some amount of disagreement among the members of the Westminster Assembly as to whether Adam received merely an extended natural life in the Garden of Eden or an eternal life in heaven. Rather than coming down on one side or the other, however, the members of the assembly sanctioned a consensus view that could be embraced by all sides in the debate.
Chapters 3 and 7 are just two examples of how the Westminster Confession of Faith functions as a consensus document. J. V. Fesko points out that the members of the assembly “incorporated doctrinal flexibility into the document to accommodate a pluriform orthodoxy.” They understood that the purpose of every creed and confession is “to codify the corporate faith of the church . . . not to be a manifesto that binds every individual on every doctrinal question.”
But besides offering a consensus view on the lapsarian debate, chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith also employs moderate language to frame the whole topic in question and does so in such a way that, as Warfield has argued, it simply takes up the fundamental theistic position:
The most remarkable thing about the chapter introduced into the Confession [i.e., chapter 3] . . . is the fine restraint and simple directness of the language in which it gives expression to this divine teleology which governs the occurrence of all events. The Confession, to be sure, is not written in a philosophical but a religious interest. . . . He who has affirmed, with section 1, that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass,” has affirmed nothing but one of the most immediate implicates of a consistent theism . . . and hesitation or doubt as to it . . . is hesitation or doubt as to the most fundamental implicates of common theism.
As consensus documents that intentionally employ moderate language in moderate terms, creeds and confessions promote the unity of the church by allowing for diversity of opinion in regard to specific doctrines or the ways in which those doctrines are expressed. This eliminates needless disputes in the church over minor points of doctrine and reminds us that unity is not uniformity. Some doctrines are of fundamental importance in the church, while others are not. By allowing for some diversity of opinion, creeds and confessions unite Christians around fundamental doctrine while giving them some freedom in secondary or tertiary matters.
They Ensure Peace and Purity
Second, creeds and confessions ensure the peace and purity of the church. They do this in at least two ways. First, they provide a standard to which all church officers and all church teaching must conform. Every church that is governed by a creed or confession—which, as noted, is every church—must ensure that its incoming officers are examined to ensure adherence to what it believes. Otherwise, a universalist congregation or denomination could potentially end up with a pastor who embraces Calvinism, or a pastor who embraces Calvinism could potentially end up being called to a congregation or denomination that adheres strictly to Arminianism and dispensationalism. Creeds and confessions thus ensure the peace and purity of the church by proactively establishing a benchmark on the front end that must be met by every incoming church officer.
But creeds and confessions also proactively establish a benchmark for all the teaching that will take place within the church. Since they are public records of what the church believes, they provide every person in their midst with a statement of doctrine on the front end. Every person will therefore know not only what to expect from the teaching that they will receive but also the expectations in regard to the teaching that they will provide. Creeds and confessions bring all of this out into the open. There are no hidden surprises, at least in terms of the teaching ministry of the church.
One consequence of creeds and confessions establishing a proactive benchmark of the church’s teaching is that they also provide a standard of discipleship for every church member. If someone is curious what doctrinal commitments and priorities will shape their Christian experience and growth in grace as a member of a particular congregation, all they need to do is to look at its creed or confession. It will tell them everything that congregation believes to be important. As a case in point, the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on baptism clearly avoids a mandate on pouring or sprinkling and acknowledges the validity of “dipping” or immersion. The obvious takeaway from this is that the confession doesn’t regard the mode of baptism as an important doctrinal distinctive or priority in the church. Anyone looking to join a congregation subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith would therefore expect to be discipled along these lines.
The second way creeds and confessions ensure the peace and purity of the church is by providing a standard to resolve conflicts that may arise over doctrine. They are never the final court of appeals in matters of dispute. The Bible alone serves in that capacity. But confessional documents are, as previously indicated, secondary standards designed to provide a public record of what the church has understood the Bible to teach for centuries on end. It is precisely this historical connection that gives confessional documents such a weight of authority in the church. It is not one or two isolated individuals who are responsible for crafting confessional documents, but the church down through the ages. When conflicts arise over points of doctrine, it is therefore appropriate to appeal to creeds and confessions in order to resolve the disagreement, and to do so with an attitude of self-suspicion and humility that regards the church’s confession as weightier than one’s own theological conclusions: “Could I alone be right in this matter, and the wisdom of the church down through the ages be wrong?” When that is our attitude in approaching matters of dispute, we will not be so quick to leave and start a new church when things don’t go our way. Creeds and confessions help to resolve disputes and controversies with this kind of humble and teachable spirit—or at least they ought to.
They Provide Protection
Third, creeds and confessions provide protection for everyone in the church. They do this in at least three ways. First, they provide a public and permanent record of what the church believes. They do this because they typically cannot be changed without great difficulty and near-unanimous agreement. In the Presbyterian Church in America, for instance, amending the Westminster Confession of Faith requires a three-fourths majority vote at its annual national meeting (called the General Assembly), followed by the approval of three-fourths of the presbyteries in the country, and then another three-fourths majority vote at a subsequent General Assembly.
This kind of confessional permanence gives protection to ministers and church leaders insofar as it means that the requirements for ordination are not a moving target. What is required today for church office will be required tomorrow and the next day. Church leaders can exercise their callings in confidence, knowing that the standards to which they are held accountable will remain the same. But it gives protection to church members as well, because it ensures that the teaching they receive will not be constantly changing.
The second way creeds and confessions provide protection is by limiting the authority of the church. No rogue minister or church officer can impose his will concerning any number of matters relating to the Christian life, because the church’s creed or confession limits what can be imposed upon its members. The church governed by “no creed but the Bible” may respond to these kinds of situations in the same way a confessional church would. But the members of that church wouldn’t have the same assurances and protections going in that the confessional congregation does, because creeds and confessions protect people from abuses and errors in regard to church authority and the ways in which it is imposed on them.
The third way that confessional documents provide protection is by allowing for diversity of conviction and practice within a context in which the peace and purity of the church are preserved. Let me give an example of what I mean here. When my son was first learning to walk, my wife and I lived in a house that had a staircase in the kitchen that went up to an extra room over our garage. To ensure his safety at all times, therefore, we decided to put up a gate in front of the staircase to limit his access to them. Our son had the freedom to play as he wanted in the rest of the house without fear of serious injury. The gate protected him from the areas that were most dangerous. Creeds and confessions work in much the same way as that gate. They protect church members from those areas where the church has concluded it is theologically or practically dangerous for them to go, while giving them genuine freedom of conviction and practice everywhere else without fear of serious spiritual injury. They do this by virtue of taking up moderated topics and practices with moderated language and by serving as consensus documents within the church.
Summary and Conclusion
Creeds and confessions promote unity, ensure peace and purity, and provide protection within the church. But they don’t do all this by themselves. It is not enough for a church or a denomination to have a creed or a confession. Traditionalism, which Jaroslav Pelikan so helpfully defined as “the dead faith of the living,” and formalism are ever-present realities within the church of every generation. Creeds and confessions must be embraced and wholeheartedly adopted in order to serve the three ends we discussed in this article. That is the challenge presented to every generation of Christians. We must all seek to understand why the church has needed confessional documents and then to study the theology of those confessional documents for ourselves. Then and only then will we be able to persuade others in the church to do the same.
In closing, it bears mentioning that creeds and confessions have been employed to great benefit by the majority of God’s people over the centuries. Only a small minority in the church have considered them unimportant. This may not be definitive proof of the necessity of creeds and confessions, but it certainly does add considerable weight to the persuasiveness of the argument for them. For at least fifteen hundred years, the church of the Lord Jesus has recognized what Samuel Miller stated so clearly at the beginning of this article:
No church can hope to maintain a homogeneous character; no church can be secure either of purity or peace, for a single year; nay, no church can effectually guard against the highest degrees of corruption and strife, without some test of truth, explicitly agreed upon, and adopted by her in her ecclesiastical capacity.
It is my hope and prayer that the church will be characterized by the same recognition for the next fifteen hundred years—all to the praise of God’s glorious grace (Eph. 1:6).
Guy M. Richard (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is president and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, and is author of four books, including Baptism: Answers to Common Questions and Persistent Prayer.
Footnotes:1. Samuel Miller, Doctrinal Integrity: On the Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions and Adherence to Our Doctrinal Standards (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1989), 10–11.
2. Philip Van Limborch, A Compleat System, or Body of Divinity (London, 1713), 1:22. See also James Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, trans. J. Nichols and W. Nichols (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 2:422.
3. Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 13. Trueman tells the story of a friend who frequented a church in which the pastor would regularly take the Bible in his hand, raise it high above his head, point to it, and say, “This . . . is our only creed and our only confession.”
4. A. E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 7.
5. I have argued this point extensively in “Samuel Rutherford’s Supralapsarianism Revealed: A Key to the Lapsarian Position of the Westminster Confession of Faith?,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59:1 (2006), 27–44.
6. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2.
7. See the discussion in J. V. Fesko, The Need for Creeds Today: Confessional Faith in a Faithless Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2020), 84–85.
8. Fesko, The Need for Creeds Today, 84.
9. Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Significance of the Confessional Doctrine of the Decree,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 1:95–97.
10. Westminster Confession of Faith 28.3.
11. The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (Lawrenceville, GA: Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PCA, 2021), 23–26.
12. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 43.