No Creed But Christ? The Confessional Nature of the Christian Faith

This article was originally a chapter in an unpublished manuscript entitled Reforming the Modern Church

O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge - by professing it, some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be with you. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:20, 21

One Protestant denomination in North America has the actual motto, "no creed but Christ." "No confession but the Bible." In many contemporary church circles, it is an axiom that doctrine divides. Creeds and confessions are foreign to the spirit of the New Testament, we are told.

The most relevant response to the notion of "no creed but Christ" is that this statement itself is a creed! What is a creed? The word creed comes from the Latin credo, which simply means I believe. Those who proclaim "no creed but Christ" presumably believe the slogan, and thus undercut its intended meaning.

Today, "freedom of religion" means that nobody may tell you what to believe or what to disbelieve. Nobody may forbid you to spread your own brand of Christianity. Supposedly, it is not charitable to shoot down questionable doctrines. The main thing is getting along.

In a spiritual climate such as our own, it is important to ask, and answer biblically, the question: Is doctrine important? As important as unity is, the pages of Scripture are very clear that doctrine is very important. In fact, true unity, although it certainly does not imply uniformity at every minor point, is unity in the truth. Unity is founded upon a sharing of sound doctrine.

What is doctrine? It simply means "teaching." When we speak of "the faith," we are speaking of the body of truth contained in apostolic teaching. The divinity of Christ is doctrine. The Incarnation is doctrine. The atonement is doctrine. The believer's union with Christ is doctrine. All of these doctrines are necessary for true faith. The Christian faith is doctrinal: it is based upon real, objective truth. This truth must be vigorously defended: an elder must be "holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9).

If this is part of the calling of church leadership, we must, at the very least, admit that there are confessional requirements for those who would lead the church.

Some would object that the Bible contains all the doctrine necessary for salvation, and thus further confessions are unnecessary. And although we would agree with the first statement, yet the second does not follow from it. It is altogether true that the Bible is self-sufficient. All that is necessary for life and godliness is disclosed within its pages. However, every pseudo-Christian cult and sect claims to be teaching the Bible. We do not accept a teaching simply because the one who holds it claims to speak for Scripture. Whether our confession is written or not, we, of necessity, judge his confession in terms of our own. Obviously, in such a case we believe our confession to be faithful to Scripture, while his is not. He must demonstrate, doctrinally, that he speaks for Scripture. The only question is, then, whether we will be open and upfront with our confession, stating ahead of time what confession we maintain.

Very early in the history of the Christian church, creeds and confessions of various lengths were formed. Some are quoted in Scripture, especially the pastoral epistles (1 Tim. 3:16; perhaps 1 Tim. 1:15; 2 Tim. 2:11-13). Some were formulated soon after; the so-called Apostles' Creed likely dates back (at least substantially) to the second century. In the centuries that followed, more creeds were written to combat heresy that was creeping into the Church. We think especially of the Nicene Creed, and the Symbol of Chalcedon, which were primarily developed by councils representing virtually all of the Christian Church. These creeds' central purpose was to defend the biblical doctrine of Christ's nature, because Arius and others were teaching heresy under the cover of biblical-sounding language. The Church was serious about her calling which is given in Jude 3: "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints."

It is precisely because the Bible is our sufficient manual of doctrine, then, that we hold to confessions. A good confession is good precisely because it is normed and formed by Scripture, and forbids heresy, which contradicts or twists that Scripture, confessing it to be outside the one true faith.

Confessions, whether written or no, are inescapable. The question is not, will we use a confession? There is no possibility of not using a confession, any more than there is a possibility of having no theology. That choice is simply not before us. The question is, will our confession echo Scripture, or twist and deny it? Will it be a good confession or a bad confession?

How will we determine the content of our confessional basis? Clearly, the confession must be derived from Scripture. That is the only way it can have any force. The confession needs to be biblical in order to guard the truth of Scripture.

God has given to His Church limited, but very real, authority. The Church is the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) - a fact which Paul follows up by citing a contemporary confession of that truth (v. 16). This means that confession is not incidental or optional to the Church. It is the nature of the Church to stand upon a confession of God's Word. The Church, as the pillar and ground of God's truth, has responsibility and authority to maintain the authority of Scripture by maintaining confessions that are formulated in terms of that Scripture.

On the other hand, the confessions, while authoritative, are not themselves the Scripture. The Bible stands over the churches; the confessions do not. The confessions possess authority precisely because the churches possess authority; Scripture possesses authority that is self-authenticating: it is the voice of God. The Bible stands over the churches as God's infallible voice, but the confessions proceed from the Church as man's fallible understanding of Scripture. This distinction is necessary to preserve us from embracing an idolatrous approach to the secondary standards. And it is this distinction which introduces the need for a "sympathetic/critical" approach to the confessions of the Church.

The confessions of the Church stand under the Scripture. This means that Scripture has authority to alter the contents of those confessions. However, this should only be done in the context of a sympathetic understanding of the men who wrote these confessions. This is especially true of confessions that are hundreds of years old, which have withstood the test of time and have guarded the churches for centuries. I think, for instance, of the Belgic Confession, which was formulated in the middle of the sixteenth century, and has served the churches on several continents over a period of four hundred years. We do not pretend it is infallible, but surely, it is the height of presumption to seek to change such a document without a good deal of humility and study, and cooperation among knowledgeable, godly church leaders, who can make decisions on behalf of confessionally-bound churches.

We must remember, confessions are: 1) a declaration of God's truth; and 2) a safeguard against error. If we may change them simply upon our own whims, then they provide no safeguard at all. Likewise, we are charging our spiritual fathers with inability to properly defend and declare the Word of God. It seems to me we ought to be extremely careful about such things. No one individual is greater than the Church. It is true, the majority can be wrong, even among those in authority. But the answer is not individualism, which leads to anarchy. Individualism implies that each person is free to formulate and promote his own confession. He may undermine the teaching of the God-ordained authority of the church. This is not the biblical way, the covenantal way.

God has not left it in the hands of individual Christians to develop and promote their own formulations of Christianity. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. The covenant body is charged with defending and proclaiming the one apostolic faith. Those who cannot submit to that faith, that apostolic doctrine, do not belong in the Church of Jesus Christ.

If we are serious about a long-term commitment to defending the faith, we must return to confessionally-based unity. We must protect the pulpits and the pews by confessing the truth of Scripture. Failing this, we are inviting a descent into error and doctrinal apostasy. We are promoting relativism rather than the absolute Truth of God's Word.

— Tim Gallant

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