“Are creeds and confessions biblical?”
A couple notes:
- For a brief discussion on what we mean by “biblical”, see Note (3) at the beginning of this post.
- Please note that our online Great Questions Answered posts are all my thoughts (Scott Wakefield, Lead Pastor), and are not meant to reflect the thoughts and history of our church and its leaders, unless noted as such, as the second “Note” on this particular post. The reason to make this explicit will become clear as you read, namely that my personal perspective is exactly the opposite of everything my theological tradition raised me to believe! (“Yay! I love being a theological pariah!”) ← This is sarcasm, in case you’re not tracking.
Before we answer whether creeds and confessions are biblical, we’ll start with some introduction and, to let the cat out of the bag early, some egregiously brief defense of confessions as helpful. A “creed”, which is Latin for “I believe”, or a “confession” (“We confess/proclaim that…”) is simply a statement of faith meant to compile the major doctrinal positions held by a person, church, or association of churches. Within the scope of church history, the repudiation of confessions is a minor view, is relatively new, and is found primarily in recently formed church traditions like ours who are staunchly nondenominational and fully congregational. In fact, our tradition, the Restoration/Stone-Campbell Movement, was formed by dissenting from those our founders perceived as beholding to church confessions in a way that was divisive and that stifled freedom to interpret the Scriptures differently. Thus they penned “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” to withdraw from the Presbyterians with which they disagreed theologically. Eventually slogans like this became our cry: “No book but the Bible. No creed but Christ.”
The problem with this sentiment, as I see it, is this… The dissolution of sociocultural norms which were once the ground of an environment amenable to the Christian faith, coupled with widespread anti-institutionalism and biblical, theological, and historical illiteracy have made “no creed but Christ” functionally meaningless. Said more simply, perhaps we once didn’t feel much need to clearly compile and communicate our basic doctrinal beliefs because people knew their Bible, most held similar enough beliefs to allow for freely and productively practicing Christian faith teaching our kids, and we, therefore, felt little need to protect our doctrinal beliefs, but frankly, those days are long gone. Now, much more must be said. Our children are growing up in a world thoroughly devoid of the assumption that believing in God, let alone Jesus, is normal and accepted. To merely declare “no creed but Christ” doesn’t remotely cut it anymore. To make the point, cults and those in grievous doctrinal error proudly stand behind a generic adherence to the Scriptures as a way to hide their heresy. One writer proclaims proudly, “To arrive at the truth we must dismiss religious prejudices [by which he means human-centered church and religious traditions]. … We must let God speak for himself. … Our appeal is to the Bible for truth.” Sounds great, in theory, right?! Problem is this declaration comes from Let God Be True, published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (p. 10)! In our day, a confession of loyalty to the Bible is not enough.
So nowadays, not only do the overwhelming majority of nondenominational congregational churches, who have more often been suspect of confessionalism, have at least a basic statement of faith on their website, many are rediscovering the historical precedent and current significance of unifying around a confession of faith. And while I’m about to sound way more like an Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceeder Scotch Presbyterian than a Stone-Campbellite, and with apologies to my forebears, not only do I think creeds and confessions are wise, I think they are biblical!
With all that preamble in mind, though I don’t have time to defend against all the objections and delineate all the positives, here’s why I think they’re Biblical, in slightly-complicated-to-follow bullet point form… (Sorry, don’t have time to make all this info into pretty and enjoyable-to-read prose. Plus, it’d be half of a book by the time I’m through it. So… bullet points this time…)
The Seeds of Creeds in the Old Testament in The Shema (“Hear, O Israel”)
- Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41
- The “Shema” was a functional creed. Every Jew was commanded to pray this everyday at morning and at night.
- All 3 of these passages speak of remembering God’s words and commands: “these words shall be on your heart”, “teach them”, “write them down”, “remember them”, “bind them on your hand”, “talk of them”, etc.
- (Also, by the way, the Birkat Ha-Mazon, “grace after meals”, was to be recited after every meal.)
The Growth and Presence of Creeds in the New Testament
- Seeds of creeds in the OT become bushes in the NT. (But not yet trees. Confessional ‘trees’ and long creeds come later, after the NT, when Christians began compiling Biblical beliefs to combat error/heresy and teach doctrine.)
- Scripture is a “progressive revelation” of God. ‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed’ (Augustine likely the first to say this?) See here for more.
- Ex: “Blessedness” and “Favor” are precursors to “grace”.
- Scripture itself transmitted doctrine that was (a) apostolic/authoritative and (b) a body of beliefs.
- Jude 3 – “the faith once delivered to the saints”
- Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)
- “pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) is an especially good example. “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me.” “Pattern” here means a model, form, or standard intended to function as a trustworthy or reliable guide. Paul does not simply say, “Make sure you stay true to the conceptual content of what you have been taught” (Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 74).
- “the healthy doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9)
- “the deposit”, “the noble deposit” (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14)
- “the faith” as a concrete body of beliefs (1 Timothy 1:19; Titus 1:13)
- “the splendid teaching” (1 Timothy 4:6)
- Hebrews – “the confession” (homologias, “agreement” or “confession”, literally “same word” in Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 10:23; cf. Hebrews 6:2)
- 2 Thessalonians 2:15 – “hold fast to the traditions” (paradoseis, “traditions’, hints at specific doctrine)
- Romans 6:17 – “the pattern of doctrine” (typon, “type”, of didaches, “teaching”), cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3
- Matthew 16:15-18 as the 1st Confession of Christ as Lord
- Peter’s “Confession of Faith” is creedal. – v 16 “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
- Jesus’ response says that Peter is in agreement with the Father, v 17, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this (this confession) to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” I.e., you agree with the Father. A confession is a statement of agreement, so Peter’s confession here is “creedal”, perhaps not in the larger sense that developed later, to guide church traditions, but certainly in the sense that it is a statement of doctrinal belief in Jesus that became a guide to the New Testament itself!
- A BUNCH of other places throughout the NT that use this specific formula and other variations show that Peter’s confession was used as creedal pattern (and actually written down by the New Testament writers!): “Jesus is Lord”, “Jesus is the Christ”, “Jesus is the Son of God”, etc., for baptism, preaching, Christian life, etc. The following are just representative.
- 1 Corinthians 12:3, … No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
- Romans 10:9, If you confess (homologeses, to “agree, say the same thing/word”, see next point for more) with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
- Colossians 2:6, Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.
- “Confession” in NT
- Matthew 10:32-33 – 32 Therefore everyone who acknowledges (homologeo = agree, say the same thing/word) me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.
- 2 Corinthians 9:13, By their approval of this service, they glorify God for your obedience stemming from your confession in the gospel of Christ…
- 1 Timothy 3:14-16 – 14 I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (which = God has entrusted the church with the task of promoting and protecting the gospel; in the Pastorals “truth” = “gospel” in 11 places) 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: (An actual creedal/confessional statement may start here, in the vein of the next bullet point.) “He 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.” (Possible creeds ends here. This is all language meant to clarify that Jesus was both divine and human, came into time/history, on the earth, etc., as further defense against doctrinal heresy/error, which is a key purpose of creeds/confessions.)
- 1 Timothy 6:12-14ff (which might, in part, be an actual confessional formula in the vein of the next point) – 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession…”
- 1 John 2:23 – Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
- 1 John 4:2-3 – 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
- Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; and 10:23, already mentioned above, all use homologias/n, “agree, same thing/word
- “Confess” (and “acknowledge”, which is often translated “confess” in versions other than the ESV) in these passages means to “say the same thing”, to “agree”. In Matthew 16:16, Peter said the same thing/word as the Father!
- Actual Creeds in the NT
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, esp vv 3-5 – 1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: (Actual Creed begins here.) that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and then that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (Actual Creed ends at v 5, where Paul adds himself to the apostolic witness beginning in v 6…) 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. > This was probably used as a teaching statement, to give the basic Christian message in a concentrated form.
- Others (just to name a few) that scholars believe contain early creedal/confessional statements/formula: Romans 1:3-4; 4:24 (cf. ‘God, who has raised the Lord Jesus from the dead’ in Romans 8:11; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; and 1 Peter 1:21); 8:34; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:6-11 (an early hymn); 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 3:16; 6:13-14; 2 Timothy 2:8; 4:1; 1 Peter 3:18-22.
- Almost every single one of Paul’s letters begins with some form of “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Similar stock phrases likely drawn from early confessions are found in 2 Peter and John.
- J. N. D. Kelly, in his well known book on the subject called Early Christian Creeds, says, “The second-century conviction that the “rule of faith” believed and taught in the Catholic Church had been inherited from the Apostles contains more than a germ of truth. Not only was the content of that rule, in all essentials, foreshadowed by the “pattern of teaching” accepted in the apostolic Church, but its characteristic lineaments and outline found their prototypes in the confessions and credal summaries contained in the New Testament documents” (p 30). In other words, creeds and confessions made their way into and developed from the New Testament itself!
Now, the spirit of the main question, “Are confessions and creeds Biblical?” is likely asking whether statements of faith after the New Testament that were used to categorize and compile doctrine are mandated, allowed, or helpful, according to Scripture. Are they mandated? No. Are they allowed? Yes. If they weren’t allowed, for some reason known only to God, because it mattered, we’d likely have direct condemnation of them. Are they helpful? Yes. Since, like the answer to the “allowed?” question, we have no direct statement condemning them and, as cited above, apparently Scripture itself seems to think use and repetition of small confessional statements is warranted, then yes, creeds and confessions are helpful!
Still not convinced? Well, here’s the thing… Everybody’s got a creed; only some people write them down! In my estimation, a church that does not clarify its confession of faith in today’s societal and theological climate abdicates its responsibility to be honest about its teachings and to train its people, which leaves itself open to doctrinal error and hinders unity of mission and purpose.