While Protestants were formulating their doctrines and publishing them in a systematic manner, the Roman Catholic Church found it necessary to clarify its own teachings and to defend them against the Reformers. The most comprehensive and enduringly influential effort of this character was the work of the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent, which Pope Paul III (1534–1549) convened in 1545. By that time scholars from the new Society of Jesus had become papal theologians, and that status enabled the Jesuits to shape the theological course of proceedings at Trent.
Trent compiled and organized decisions of medieval councils, papal decrees, and patristic and Scholastic writings as the means to rebut Protestantism. To the regret of some Catholics as well as Protestants, the council showed little interest in Augustinian teachings. In soteriology, therefore, a semi-Pelagian view remarkably similar to that of later Arminianism prevailed and precluded a return to Augustine’s teaching about grace. The Canons and Decrees of Trent (1563), ratified by Pope Pius IV (1559–1565), became the creed of the Counter-Reformation Roman church. The decrees of Trent comprise the Catholic defense against the Reformers, and the canons express anathema against their alleged heresies. The decisions of Trent amounted to a declaration of war against Protestantism. There would not be another general council of the Roman church until 1870, when Vatican Council I declared the infallibility of the pope a dogma of the faith. Papal approval of the Tridentine decrees placed them alongside the ancient creeds as possessing divine authority of revelation, which means the church can never abrogate them.1
Trent rejected sola scriptura, the formal principle of Protestantism, by asserting the equal authority of Scripture and tradition. This meant that a lack of biblical evidence is no impediment to the promulgation of new dogmas. Thus, in 1854, Pope Pius IX (1846–1878) made it mandatory for all Catholics to believe in the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, despite the absence of any scriptural support for that teaching. In a similar way Roman Catholics were obliged to affirm that the body of the Virgin was taken into heaven at the end of her earthly life. This was a declaration of Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) in 1950. Roman Catholic scholars in general admit there is no New Testament basis for this claim.
Although the Council of Trent called for some wholesome reforms in ecclesiastical finances, moral supervision of the clergy, and improved education, it left medieval doctrine in place and pronounced severe condemnations upon anyone who teaches to the contrary. The council’s decisions comprised the most extensive and systematic statement of Roman Catholic teachings which had ever appeared, and the church required all clerics and converts from other churches to subscribe to the Tridentine Canons and Decrees. A militant anti-Protestantism was to be the posture of the Roman church well into the twentieth century.
The climax of Protestant efforts to compose adequate statements of belief may have occurred when the Westminster Assembly convened in London at a summons from Parliament to revise the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Between July 1, 1643, and February 22, 1648, English and Scottish Protestants studied and debated how best to express their understanding of Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and the Shorter Catechisms are the products of their methodical deliberations.2
Although Episcopalians and Independents attended the Westminster Assembly, a large majority of the participants were Presbyterians. The assembly met at a time when Arminian influences had infiltrated the Church of England, and Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645) promoted the movement away from Reformed theology and toward authoritarian church government under the direction of bishops. Parliament, however, was in the control of Calvinists who resented the policies of the king and archbishop. Charles I was king of Scotland too, and there he tried to impose the Anglican form of worship and to encourage departure from the Reformed faith. This led the Scots in 1638 to affirm the National Covenant by which they vowed to defend the true religion. When the Scots rebelled, Charles used force against them, but this required him to summon Parliament in 1640 to raise funds, and that body had not met since 1629. The ruler’s Puritan-Presbyterian critics controlled the legislature, and it convened the Westminster Assembly to advise it in matters pertaining to religion. The Westminster Assembly presented the Westminster Confession of Faith to Parliament in 1646, and the General Assembly of Scotland adopted it the next year. By 1648 the English Parliament and the Scottish Assembly had ratified the Westminster Standards, as the confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms became known. The Westminster Confession then was the doctrinal standard for England, Scotland, and Ireland until 1660, when, after a period of civil war. England restored its monarchy and the Church of England returned to episcopal government and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
When the printing of the Westminster Shorter Catechism occurred, the Apostles’ Creed appeared at the end of the booklet to link the work of the Westminster Assembly with the faith of the ancient church. Presbyterians in the British Isles and those who migrated to the New World maintained allegiance to the Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster Standards, even though the Church of England did not. The theological precision and clear biblical support which characterize the Westminster Standards reflect the Reformed concern to expound the faith in logical, coherent terms. In this way Presbyterians obtained a comprehensive statement of their doctrines and an instrument with which to rebut the Canons and Decrees of Trent. American Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Standards at Philadelphia in 1729.
Although the Westminster Confession and its attendant catechisms are Presbyterian documents, their influence has spread far beyond that denomination. Baptists in England, for example, admired the work of the Westminster Assembly and soon modified their own confession to make it conform to the Presbyterian statement in almost all particulars. The First London Confession (1644) was a vigorous affirmation of Reformed beliefs about sin and salvation, as the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists espoused them. In 1677, a Second London Confession appeared for which the Westminster Confession was the model. The mode and subjects of baptism and the form of church government are the only features of the Second London Confession which differ substantially from the Presbyterian standard. This was the case with a Baptist catechism compiled by Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) also.
When Baptists came to America, they, like the Presbyterians, brought the Reformed faith with them, and in 1742 they adopted the Philadelphia Confession and Catechism, which contains only slight modifications of the Particular Baptist Standard (1677). Arminianism eventually diluted the Calvinism of Baptists in America with the result that their statements of belief in the nineteenth century were less precise about human depravity and the sovereignty of grace. This is evident in the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833), which soon gained broad acceptance in Baptist circles across the United States.3
The history of creeds and confessions shows that Christians, since ancient times, have taken doctrine seriously and have often displayed great erudition in compiling their beliefs. Some of the finest minds in church history have engaged in this task, prompted by their love for truth. Even though diverse confessions reveal disagreements among churches, they all contain a core of beliefs about which there has been almost unanimous concurrence. No professedly orthodox church would, for example, deny the Apostles’ Creed, which with other ancient creeds continue to enjoy the endorsement of a wide variety of ecclesiastical bodies. The appearance of later confessions is evidence of intellectual vitality among Christians, as they have endeavored to clarify their understanding of biblical truth.
Some churches have assigned to creeds and confessions only descriptive, rather than normative, significance. That is, such statements relate the general beliefs which prevail within a church, but they do not constitute dogmatic pronouncements to which its officers must adhere. This has been so with some Congregational and Baptist bodies, and it has gained popularity in others which once required strict subscription. The Church of England, for example, does not bind its pastors to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion but instead stresses uniform liturgical practices. Rationalists within various denominations have decried strict subscription as an impediment to wholesome development of belief and practice.
Since historic Protestants affirm sola scriptura, the supreme authority of Scripture, they do not ascribe to creeds and confessions the same authority with which the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have invested them. For Protestants, Scripture possesses inherent authority because it is the Word of God. Creeds and confessions are witnesses to the truth of the Bible. They are necessarily subordinate standards. Scripture is the regula fidei, the rule of faith. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, on the contrary, regard the ancient ecumenical creeds as components of infallible tradition and therefore coordinate in authority with the Bible. The Orthodox churches attribute this dignity to only the first seven ecumenical councils, but the Roman church ascribes infallibility to the Council of Trent and to ex cathedra papal pronouncements along with the decisions of Vatican Council I (1870) and Vatican Council II (1965). Protestant churches have revised their confessions at times in order to address matters which earlier statements did not consider or to clarify the position they have taken on historic doctrines. Protestant bodies have demonstrated willingness to subject their statements to scrutiny with the possibility of improving them.
To insist upon no creed but Christ may appear to be the zenith of piety, but soon the question must arise, “Which Christ?” Heretics, ancient and modern, have professed to believe in Christ, but their conception is not that of the God-Man who is the center of the historic Christian faith. In the centuries since the Protestant Reformation many issues have arisen, often as consequences of deviations from biblical teachings even within Protestant ranks. Sometimes pseudo-Christian cults have revived ancient falsehoods such as the Arian view of Christ. Such challenges require occasional revisions of the creeds to meet new threats as they appear. Today, for example, it is necessary to affirm the sole authority of Scripture in opposition to the rationalism which has infected many churches and in opposition to charismatic groups that regard emotional experience as the keystone of genuine Christianity. Confessions are proclamations of orthodoxy which provide instruments for personal and congregational declarations of faith in Christ and the historic truths of his Word. They are excellent bases for thorough instruction in biblical doctrine. Those churches which have been overtly confessional and have required their officers to subscribe to their creeds have thereby helped to preserve Christianity against dilution of its teachings and defection from its God. Conscious adherence to historic creeds links current church bodies with their predecessors and with other bodies of like belief. It enables congregations and denominations to practice genuine catholicity among the churches of the Reformation.
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Rom. 10:9–10).
This article is reprinted by permission from Reformation & Revival 10 (spring 2001).
1. H. J. Schroeder, trans., The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (reprint ed.; Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1978).
2. John Leith, Assembly at Westminster (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973). This is a helpful analysis despite the author’s neo-orthodox perspective, which is evident in his judgments. David W. Hall, Windows on Westminster (Norcross, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1993) is a readable account by an orthodox author.
3. W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), is a valuable resource. On Baptist origins, see James Edward McGoldrick, Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1994).
Dr. James Edward McGoldrick is professor of church history at Greenville Presbyterian Seminary in South Carolina.