Considering the Confessions


Barry M. Gray

(Click Here for the complete "Considering the Confessions booklet published by ECO)

One of the main problems the church at large faces in these times is a disconnection with our historical roots. We have been carefully taught by our modern society that what is old is outdated and useless, while what is new is the best that can be. On this worldly premise we have mistakenly sought to build our churches, but this is a foundation of shifting sand rather than the solid rock of the historical, orthodox foundations that God has laid for us down through the ages.

We claim to believe and obey the Bible, but many of us depend on only modern interpretations of the messages and commands of the Bible; forgetting that for over 2,000 years, faithful believers have wrestled with what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, and they have left us a written account of their battles to preserve the truth of Holy Scripture in the face of the same old errors that seem to pop up in every generation.

By ignoring the controversies of the past and the godly wisdom that was applied to overcome the errors of past false teachings, that sought to corrupt the orthodox faith (orthodox means right belief), we have allowed error to slip into the church unchallenged; causing the church to be weakened, and the gospel to be blunted through the wrong beliefs that we have either embraced or simply consider to be unimportant.

Jay Rogers, editor of “The Reformed Reader” has written, “To Christians of past centuries, preserving orthodoxy [right belief] was something worth dying for. When Athanasius refuted Arianism in the fourth century, many held to a heresy which made Jesus Christ a lesser god than the Creator. Athanasius was persecuted for what he believed, but he stood for the truth and prevailed… Throughout history, orthodoxy has not always been popular, but it has always defined what the true Christian believes. And the truth has prevailed.”

Many churches today proudly proclaim that they believe the Bible and it is the only creed, confession, or catechism they need. But many of those churches find themselves in deep conflict because they have been taught to pull particular Scriptures out of their original context and apply them in ways that create and endorse error in the life of the church. They call it “the leading of the Holy Spirit” but the Holy Spirit, being the one who inspired the biblical writers to write, will never lead anyone to espouse a teaching that is not firmly rooted in the context of the biblical record.

The historical creeds, confessions, and catechisms were carefully prepared and distributed, to teach the orthodox faith to believers, and to refute the theological errors of the past that continue to raise their heads time and time again. Today, we see resurgences of teachings, that their purveyors claim to be new revelation, that were successfully refuted by the church long ago. These are errors that are the result of bad biblical scholarship habits that they have adopted, and because these “pick-and-choose-what-feels-good preachers” have failed to test their scholarship with the orthodox creeds, confessions, and catechisms, that have been written in the past, to preserve the truth of Holy Scripture, concerning the essential tenets of the Christian Faith, they have gone off into unnecessary error and have led many astray from the real truths of Holy Scripture.

As I have said, this is not just something happening in our age, but these kinds of error have been rampant down through the ages. Thank God that time and time again, he has raised up teachers and preachers, who have held to good biblical scholarship, to address and refute error wherever and whenever is has appeared. And whenever deep error has appeared to threaten biblical truth, the faithful have responded with written creeds, confessions, and catechisms to refute those errors and proclaim the truth of Holy Scripture.

On July 2, 1824, Samuel Miller, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Theological Seminary, from 1813-1849, gave a lecture to Princeton Seminary students entitled “The Utility and Importance of the Creeds and Confessions.” Here is a quote from that lecture that I think is important for everyone to hear: “I doubt whether any denomination of Christians ever existed, for half a century together, destitute of a public creed, however united and harmonious it might have been at its commencement of this period; without exhibiting, before the end of it, either that stillness of death, which is the result of cold indifference to the truth; or that miserable scene of discord, in which parting asunder was the only means of escaping from open violence.”

While modern, liberal and progressive scholarship believes that the creeds, confessions, and catechisms are simply the preserved remains of what the church used to believe, and that they are bound by the times and circumstances in which they were written; we believe, along with the church down through the centuries, that the creeds, confessions, and catechisms, while they address certain problems that are, and were, time-bound, contain a written account of the essential tenets of the Christian faith, which have been drawn out of Holy Scripture, for the purpose of teaching the great doctrines of the church, and uniting believers in the fundamental principles of Christianity, so that we can function together, as the living body of Christ, to do the work of God in the world, in peace, unity, and purity. With this as the overall purpose, I will now address some of the particular reasons why we need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms.

We need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms because they pull specific truths out of Holy Scripture to help us remember what is most important. The Jewish community took Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” To be the bedrock of their proclamation that there is only one God in the midst of a world where many, so-called gods, were worshipped. The Ten Commandments have functioned as a creed of behavior for both Jews and Christians, and became the foundation of our American legal system at its inception. One of the earliest Christian creeds was pulled from Philippians 2:11 “Jesus is Lord” to proclaim to the world that no power can ever eclipse the claim of Jesus Christ on our lives. I’ll come back to these pre-cursers of the creeds and confessions a little later.

We need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms because they reflect our common core values as disciples of Jesus Christ. These writings define for us what is most important to our community of faith, as they affirm what we believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, and about ourselves and our condition, both apart from God, and in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Secondarily, they also reflect the cultural battles that were being waged against the faith in certain eras.

We need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms because we human beings are fallible and prone to error. We often forget who we were before Christ, and who we are in Christ. These writings serve as guides to biblical truth about ourselves and God. When believers affirm that “Jesus is Lord” we stand against the current culture that proclaims that our feelings rule and reign over us, or that some political faction or necessity guides our lives.  

When questions arose in the early church about who, exactly, Jesus was and why should he be worshipped, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds proclaimed the mystery that he was the fully human and fully divine Son of God, an equal part of the Trinity of God – One God in 3 persons. When the church became mired in political intrigue and was run by false teachers, and politicians instead of true believers, part of the church rose up in protest (hence we are called Protestants) to proclaim through the Scots Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, that the church must come back to the biblical principles that made us the true church of God. When Hitler came to power and proclaimed his lordship over all, causing many professing believers in Germany to follow his lead, the true church in Germany responded with the Declaration of Barmen to proclaim the sovereignty of God and the true Lordship of Jesus Christ over all.

We need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms because faith has an intellectual component as well as an experiential one. God gave us a brain and he expects us to use them. In Ephesians 4:15 the apostle Paul admonishes us: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, that is Jesus Christ.” If we are going to grow up into Christ we must have a firm foundation of truth that is based on the essential tenets of our faith so that we understand what is important about the Ten Commandments, the persons of the Trinity, the Bible, and how God offers and secures our salvation. Without these we will be adrift in a sea of simply human opinions (of which everyone has a few).

We need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms because we are an evangelical church. We are called by Jesus to preach the Gospel to every creature and nation, and to tell of the difference that Christ makes in our lives. (Tell Vicky’s story about the Heidelberg Study.)

We need to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms because they help us to stay on track with the Reformed Faith. At a time when there is so much diversity of religious thought (Christian and otherwise) these writings remind us of who we are, as being a part of the Reformed Family of Faith; that we are children of the truths of Scripture that had been forgotten and ignored for so long, but in the 16th century was brought forth to change the world and lead us back to biblical faithfulness. These are our roadmaps and our heritage as we hold fast to a faithful way of understanding Scripture that will make us ever more faithful in our relationship and service to God.

As an introduction to the work of the ECO Theological Task Force, our chair, Richard Gibbons has written the following:

When ECO was in its infancy, there was considerable discussion about the nature of the confessions within ECO. There were many views about what should be included and what should not be included in our confessional standards. After considerable and prayerful discussion, there was a consensus on the following:

Presbyteries and congregations should engage in substantive theological reflection in order to rediscover the significance of what it means to be a confessional church.

The essential tenets allow for a clear and shared understanding so the environment could be created where we could wrestle with the confessional questions.

ECO has adopted the confessions that had been in the PCUSA Book of Confessions at the time of our inception. As the PCUSA makes changes to its Book of Confessions, those newly adopted confessions are not applicable to ECO. While ECO has the Essential Tenets (which every officer and minister must subscribe to) the confessions still have weight and validity in ECO. Here is what the Essential Tenets say about the confessions: Essential tenets are tied to the teaching of the confessions as reliable expositions of Scripture. The essential tenets call out for explication, not as another confession, but as indispensable indicators of confessional convictions about what Scripture leads us to believe and do. Essential tenets do not replace the confessions, but rather witness to the confessions’ common core.

Our current Book of Confessions includes:

  • The Apostles Creed
  • The Scots Confession of 1560
  • The Heidelberg Catechism
  • The Second Helvetic Confession
  • The Westminster Standards, including the Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms.
  • The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • The Confession of 1967
  • A Brief Statement of Faith (Presbyterian Church USA)

As you read these Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, I hope you will treat them as devotional materials – that you will enter into your reading prayerfully, asking the Lord to show you what is there and why it is important. Please write down any questions or insights that you have so when we gather, you will not forget to share and ask.  

Let’s take care of a couple of definitions:

Creed – A creed is a brief statement of religious belief, a basic rule of faith in which the most important doctrines of the faith are written out, in a way that is easily remembered, to protect the body of believers from error. In our current Book of Confessions, we have two: The Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed.

John Leith, in an article in the “Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith” had this to say: “The people of God have always paused at critical historical moments to summarize and declare who they are and what they most deeply believe. These high moments are remembered and passed on to succeeding generations to preserve the identity and vitality of the community.” He then goes on to list some precursors of creeds in Scripture, as well as some ancient creeds of the Church.

In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, after God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and now they were poised to finally enter the “Promised Land.” They had received the Law from God on Mt. Sinai, but now they needed to figure out how to actually keep the Law in the midst of all the pagan nations that surrounded them.

Through the inspiration of the Spirit of God, Moses summed it all up in one succinct sentence: “Hear O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” Then he told them how to apply this great understanding: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And then followed that up with the exhortation to teach this to their children, building it into the foundation of the community.

In Matthew16:15-16 Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he really was. Peter’s inspired reply became foundational for who the church came to understand exactly who Jesus is: “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God!” In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and in Romans 1:3-4, Paul makes a couple of summary statements about the significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our sake that have helped us to anchor ourselves in these basic truths, encouraging us to verbally confess what we believe. And while there are no formal creeds, confessions, or catechisms listed in Scripture, Philippians 2:11 actually became one of the earliest confessions of the church: “Jesus is Lord!” All of this set the stage, so to speak, for the development of formalized and congregationally repeated creeds, confessions, and catechisms in the first centuries of the church.

Whether a church subscribes to one or more creeds, confessions, catechisms, statements of faith, or lists of doctrines, is it all, simply, a formal statement of the group’s set of beliefs. We have held to creeds, confessions, and catechisms because we believe that there are doctrinal nuances that need more than just a simple list to confess our faith.