In this issue, Dr. James McGoldrick begins a two-part series on the historical necessity for creeds and confessions. There are those who claim that churches that have creeds require their ministers to preach from the creed. The church order of most Reformed churches instructs ministers to preach from the Heidelberg Catechism regularly. Two complaints quickly arise when ministers try to follow this directive:
1) They read from the catechism and never refer to it again in their sermon.
2) They read from the Bible but never refer to it again in their sermon.
How often haven’t ministers been accused of preaching the Heidelberg Catechism apart from the Word of God? The claim then is made that ministers who preach the confessions have a closed Bible. Are they substituting a human invention for the God-breathed Word?
I once visited a church in Pennsylvania that boasted that it had “No creed but Christ.” They went on to explain in their bulletin that they believed that Jesus was the Christ who was born of a virgin. He died on the cross and rose from the grave. He ascended into heaven and would one day return to punish the wicked and save those who believed in Him. While they declared that they proclaimed only the pure Word of God without man-made creeds, they confessed their belief in the twelve articles of the Apostles Creed.
It is strange how so many people will fall for such a superficial slogan about man-made creeds. A little sober thinking would reveal the hollowness of such a phrase.
When making profession of faith or baptizing a child, the question is asked, “Do you heartily believe in the doctrinal standards contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?”
The creeds and confessions of a true church of Jesus Christ are an interpretation of the fundamental teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Their purpose is not to supplement the Word of God but to safeguard the church from error. The charge is often made that creeds and confessions are man-made. That certainly is true. Sermons are man-made, as well, and yet we declare them to be “Thus saith the Lord.” Lectures at Bible conferences are man-made. The commentaries that fill my study are man-made. The footnotes and headings in our Bibles are man-made. All the translations of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek are man-made. It cannot be otherwise.
The misgivings that some people may have about creeds and confessions may be rooted in the fear that they may conflict with the Bible on certain points. They would argue that even the best creed or confession would be a fallible formulation of the infallible teaching of God’s Word. Even so, every church and every person must hold to some interpretation of Scripture whether they admit it or not. Some may choose to ignore its teachings, while others mine the Scripture for the great jewels contained therein. Even the atheist holds to a certain view of Scripture.
Doctrinal standards are always composed with great care. They embody the fruit of centuries of diligent study of Scripture by men noted for their profound wisdom, knowledge of the Bible, and godliness. Some of them, like Guido De Brès, author of the Belgic Confession, gave their lives for the faith they professed and penned. They were men who believed that they could not build up a system of doctrine from the Holy Bible without availing themselves of the light that had been shed upon that Word in former centuries.
Our creeds and confessions are built upon the conviction that the Lord leads His church as one generation builds upon the foundations that have been laid by former generations. There is far more likelihood of error in the fly-by-night creeds of sectarian groups whose leaders claim they have no creed but Christ. Whatever “truths” they discover have either been taught or refuted in the historic creeds of Christendom.
The creeds and confession of the church do not close the Bible for us. Rather, they open our eyes to the riches contained in the Bible. For example, a single paragraph from the Belgic Confession on the satisfaction of Christ can teach us more about the completed work of Jesus Christ than we could ever hope to learn in an unaided study of Scripture. In one paragraph we receive a summary that contains several verses from the Bible that focus on a particular aspect of the atonement.
Like the rest of the Belgic Confession, that one paragraph has been studied time and time again. Theologians have discussed its contents in theological conferences and ecclesiastical gatherings. They have written on its teaching and expressed their findings in books and magazine articles. It has stood the test of time.
Even as theologians marvel over the depth of the Three Forms of Unity, it is simple enough to be understood by ordinary people. Who has not derived comfort in reading the Heidelberg Catechism? Who has not been strengthened in the faith by the Canons of Dort?
Our creeds and confessions are brief enough to leave room for differences on minor points yet broad enough to prevent the proclamation of false views. They serve to give us a thorough understanding of God’s Word and widen our vision of revealed truth.
A look at the history of the church will reveal that churches lose their moorings when creeds and confessions are not taught and proclaimed. They begin to drift into broader evangelicalism and become indistinguishable from churches that reject the authority of Scripture. By closing their eyes to the confessions, they have closed the Bible in their teaching.
A church cannot present a practical message on a scriptural truth until that truth has been mastered. Nothing deepens and widens an understanding of God’s Word as diligent and prayerful study of the creeds and confessions of the church. To keep an open Bible, the church must teach and preach the creeds and confessions.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.