Why Do We Need Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms?

As I sat down in the pew waiting for the funeral service to begin, I noticed a laminated page in the rack in front of me, providing a statement of the church’s beliefs in the basics of the Christian faith.  It was neither extensive nor fancy and could be easily overlooked, but as I examined it I realized it was the positive result of a controversy that racked the church years before.  When I first moved to Northern Virginia, I had attended that very church, a conservative church in a mainline denomination. Because the church was large, the denominational hierarchy insisted it have an assistant pastor and nominated an individual who had previously been an Army chaplain.  As he began to teach, however, the lay leaders of the church detected something was off.  Looking into the matter, they discovered that he denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, denied the virgin birth, denied the resurrection, and held to New Age ideas; his seminary degree, in fact, was from a New Age organization.  Even by the most generous allowances, his views on the Christian faith could only be described as heretical.  The discovery touched off a months-long struggle in the church, ultimately successful, to have him removed.  For me, I long had misgivings about the direction the denomination was going, and this case moved me to break with the denomination for good.  That particular church learned the hard way the importance in being up front about what it confessed about the Christian faith.

The denomination that I grew up in and which I broke with did not use creeds, confessions, or catechisms.  Thus, when I came to the Reformed tradition, I thought it enormously useful to have a short summary of the faith with proof texts that one could look up to see where we found various doctrines in the Bible.  Not everyone, however, shares my appreciation for these symbols, as they are formally called.  Some dismiss them outright saying, “No creed but Christ” and “No confession but the Bible.”  Others, perhaps willing to accept creeds, confessions, and catechisms out of tradition, have a general uneasiness and reticence about it, as if using them would supplant Scripture.  To be sure, such symbols are constraining.  It is one thing to take a handful of verses and say this is my opinion as to what the Bible says; it is quite another to say that this is what the church’s established, collective understanding is on what Scripture teaches.  Such constraint, however, can be a good thing.  It keeps pastors, teachers, and individuals from making the Bible say whatever they want it to say.  Moreover, as we move into a world characterized by rising paganism, honesty toward our neighbor and integrity toward our Lord should compel us to be clear and forthright about the faith we profess as Christians.  Creeds, confessions, and catechisms are vital toward those ends.  What follows in the remainder of this essay is a brief introduction to what creeds, confessions, and catechisms are and why we should use them.

I.  What Are Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms?

A creed is a short summary statement of what a church believes about the main contours of the faith.  The most famous creeds in the Christian faith are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  Both of these creeds go back to the ancient Christian church, at least to the fourth century AD, and in the case of the Apostle’s Creed, possibly as early as the second century.  These creeds are often recited by congregations in the context of the worship service.

A confession is similar to a creed, but more extensive, typically covering a number of different doctrines outlining in more detail the system of faith.  The Reformation period produced a number of confessions, as the Reformers sought to explain to the peoples of Europe what their views really were, so as to correct popular misunderstandings and to demonstrate the truthfulness and Scriptural basis of what they were holding to and defending.  The most well-known confessions are the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646).

A catechism is a set of material used in instruction, typically in a question-and-answer format.  To catechize (from the Greek verb katecheo) simply means to instruct (and is so used in Luke 1:4, Acts 18:25, 21:21 & 24, Rom. 2:18, 1 Cor. 14:19, and Gal. 6:6).  A catechumen is one who is being instructed in the doctrines of the Faith before being admitted to the Lord’s Supper.  Catechesis is the act of instructing people in the catechism.  Within Reformed circles, the best-known catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Longer and Shorter Catechisms (1647).

All confessional Christian denominations throughout the history of the church have produced catechisms.  In the early church (before Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313), adult initiates into the faith had to engage in a period of study and preparation before they could become baptized.  These catechumens were admitted to worship, but were not allowed to take communion until they were baptized.  This period could last two or three years and was a time for the church to teach the individual, assess his or her understanding of the faith, and evaluate the person’s character and commitment to walking in the faith.  This system broke down after Constantine legalized Christianity, since there were too many people to go through such a rigorous process.  In the Middle Ages, with a population that was largely illiterate, the church basically expected Christians to have “implicit faith” in the reliability of the church’s teachings.  Just before the Reformation, the church wanted to raise the level of religious instruction among the laity and summaries of church teaching started to make a limited comeback, coming to full flowering in the Reformation.  In the past century, however, the use of creeds, confessions, and catechisms has fallen off, as Christians have eschewed a doctrinal content to their faith in general.

II.  Are They Really Biblical?

The short answer is yes.  In Scripture itself, we have the earliest recorded creed in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”  Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself recites this creed in a dispute with the Pharisees (Matt. 22:37).  The Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17 and Deut. 5:6-21)—literally the Ten Words—also was treated as a creed.  In 1 Corinthians 15:3-6, the Apostle Paul gives a summary confession of the faith he had taught the Corinthians: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

In addition, summaries of the faith would have been necessary for people throughout most of church history, since it would not be until the invention of the printing press that people would be able to possess their own portable copy of the Scriptures.  Thus, in Ephesians 4:5 Paul speaks of “one faith” and a few verses later he talks about coming into the unity of “the faith,” with the implication that there is one true set of beliefs that Christians were to hold to.  Similarly, in his epistle Jude the Apostle says, “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3), again indicating there was a set of beliefs which had been handed down and which comprised the essentials of the Christian faith.  Other texts certainly could be added to these.

Concerns about creeds, confessions, and catechisms do not supplant the primacy of Scripture, and no one in the Reformed tradition who has taken a high view of these summaries has advocated that they should take precedent over Scripture.  Experience has shown that those churches which are seriously confessional also put more emphasis on Scripture, not less.  Conversely, churches that abandon confessionalism or let it become merely pro forma tend to abandon Scripture.  The Westminster Standards do not aspire to supplant Scripture.  Note this from the Confession of Faith (WCF 1.10):

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (Matt. 22:29, 31; Eph. 2:20; Acts 28:25; 1 John 4:1-6).

Creeds, confessions, and catechisms, thus, are a summary of Scripture, not a replacement for it.  It should be noted as an aside, that this self-limiting trait of the Confession contrasts with the claims of many popular preachers or teachers who claim that their interpretation of the Bible is definitive or even on par with the Scriptures.  Such claims are, more often than not, accompanied by abusive treatment towards those who disagree.  As Carl Trueman puts it,

Despite claims to the contrary, the Christian world is not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who just have the Bible.  It is actually divided between those who have creeds and confessions and write them down in a public form, open to public scrutiny and correction, and those who have them and do not write them down. …In fact, and somewhat ironically, it is those who do not express their confession in the form of a written document who are in danger of elevating their tradition above Scripture in such a way that it can never be controlled by the latter.[1]

III.  Why Should We Embrace Confessional Standards?

Within the contemporary conservative Reformed community, the major doctrinal standards are the Westminster Standards (the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms) and the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort).  Several reasons can be adduced for using creeds, confessions, and catechisms, but three in particular are worth considering.

A. They Are Important in Building Up God’s People in Christ

As the Christian West returns to a pre-Christian pagan culture, and Christian churches are racked by scandal, it may be useful for churches to return to a more rigorous and more doctrinal approach to spiritual formation.  To build people up in the faith, they need to have a framework for reading and understanding Scripture, as well as categories for applying the truths of Scripture to life, both individually and corporately.  Such understanding provides the core for knowing who we are and what we stand for, that enables us to engage non-Christians evangelistically and apologetically.

It may sound spiritual to say that all we need is the Bible, but the Bible comprises sixty-six books written over 1,500 years in a variety of literary genres, and most printed editions of the Bible are close to two thousand pages.  This can be daunting to absorb and difficult to understand.  Nevertheless, can be intelligible even to ordinary people.  As the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7 says,

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16): yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Ps. 119:105, 130; Deut. 29:29; 30:10-14; Acts 17:11)

Reading through the different books of the Bible shows the progressive unfolding of God’s plan, and this gives meaning to our lives by setting the overarching narrative context in which we live.  Systematic doctrines complement this.  Because the doctrines of the faith draw from all of Scripture, they help maintain consistency in understanding the biblical narrative.  As a comprehensive and yet concise summary of the core doctrines of the faith, the confessional Standards are a starting point for grappling with the totality of Scripture.

Doctrine not only provides a framework for understanding Scripture, but enables us to relate our faith to the different facets of our lives.  Over the last several decades, Christians have become increasingly interested in the notion of “worldview,” recognizing that our faith should inform all aspects of our Christian walk and life.  The literature promoting a biblical world and life view is extensive, and yet for all that has been published, we face greater biblical illiteracy now than we have in previous centuries.  In centuries past, a Christian world and life view did not come into being in the West because of academic studies mechanically merging philosophy with Christian theology.  Rather, it came about organically as Christian pastors and teachers thought deeply about the Scriptures and formulated their reflections into a theology that was confessed in the life of the church.  There was a unity of thought and action, of heart and mind.  Thus, recovering the confessional standards can help us recreate a Christian world and life view.  The doctrines articulated in the confessional standards embody rich theology in pastoral expression, and give us a vocabulary and categories that we can then use for making sense of and engaging the world around us.

Because the confessional standards are a summary of the Christian faith, if you were asked by others outside the faith to explain what you believe, then you could use them to provide a response.  You would not need to invent a response out of whole cloth, as the standards reflect the best understanding of the church through time.  The standards can also be important in helping newcomers know if our church is where they are to be.  There should be truth in advertising, so to speak.  In this regard, the confessional standards not only help define what we believe, but also who we are in Christ.  That said, that does put a burden on us to make our practice of faith and grace to be consistent with our profession of faith and grace.  If outsiders know where we stand doctrinally and if we are not consistent with what we profess, they will see that too, to our shame.

B. They Protect God’s People

One cannot tell what is counterfeit if one does not know in the first place what is true.  The Standards make accessible to the average layperson the sum of the Scripture’s teaching about the Christian faith as understood by the collective received wisdom of Christian teachers through the ages.  This democratic aspect often goes unnoticed, even by laypeople.  It gives the laypeople the same standards as their elders and teachers and allows the laypeople to hold their elders and teachers accountable to the truth.  To diminish the Standards makes congregants dependent on whatever interpretations their elders and teachers present.  That would not be appreciably different from the notion of “implicit faith” that the medieval Catholic Church required and which the Protestant Reformers rejected.  In American religious history, liberalism has historically crept into churches by first dismissing catechisms and other creedal standards, and then by undercutting or dismissing the Scriptures proper.  Church leaders then impose on a congregation what amount to private judgments that are at odds with both Scripture and the doctrines of the faith historically understood.  Those who object to the imposition of such judgments are then often ostracized and alienated as rebellious, mean-spirited, and/or unloving.

This underscores a more basic point.  Building people up in the doctrines of the faith is not a matter of making smarter sinners.  False teaching hurts people.  This is seen best in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Paul’s sarcasm, angry words, and harsh tone to his letter are not the result of a desire to make the doctrine of justification nice and neat, but because the Galatians were trading love for each other for pride and self-accomplishment.  Paul acknowledged that he had personally seen and benefited from their love for each other and their grace (Gal. 4:12-20), and he was livid that false teachers took that from them in ways that caused them to attack and undermine each other.  As we are seeing in a number of denominations today, false teaching is causing pastors to become abusive, congregants to feel persecuted, and churches to split—much of which ends up in the secular courts to sort out.  To stand for the truth may entail costs now, but to not grow in or stand for the truth will entail much higher spiritual, relational, and emotional costs later.

C. They Enable Us Bear with Each Other in Love and Truth

These days, Christians from different denominations often partner together in the workplace or in social witness and as a result there is a concern that identifying doctrinal distinctives could undermine such cooperation.  The first thing that needs to be addressed in answering this concern is the fundamental question of whether we really do have fellowship if we have radically different views on matters that we will not talk about.  If we are not taking seriously what another believes, then are we taking that person seriously enough to really love them?  It would be a like a husband and wife having deep-rooted disagreements that they will not air because they do not want to “harm” their marriage.  As has been often shown, the fact that such views are suppressed results in eating away the marriage in the long run.

It should be admitted that while there are people in every denomination who are self-appointed “heresy hunters,” they reflect more of a twisting of a legitimate interest in doctrine rather than the natural expression of it.  Creeds, confessions, and catechisms in fact do help promote peace between denominations and even unity.  In particular, we can more clearly discern what we have in common and more precisely define where we disagree so as to not overstate or minimize our differences.  In addition, we can put our differences into the proper context.  Some doctrines, in fact, are more important than others—our understanding of the natures of Christ, for example, are more important than our understanding of the different millennial views in Revelation chapter 20.  It is partly to bring the English, Scottish, and Irish people together in the 1640s that the English Parliament sought to devise the Westminster Standards in the first place.

Within churches, unity in doctrinal essentials contributes to bearing with one another.  If we know that we and those with whom we disagree are united in the essentials then we know that we need to keep our disagreements on the secondary issues in perspective.  Where there is doctrinal fuzziness, then there is fundamental uncertainty in what it may be that we do have in common.  In such cases, disagreements are more—not less—likely to become personalized, rending the church asunder.  Lack of clarity on what doctrines are key and how they have been rightly understood through the years leads to fighting over secondary issues that become proxies for fundamental issues.  Moreover, if we are not transparent about what we believe, then how transparent will we be about other things?  One can see the ugly fruits of schism that have come about in the mainline churches that are the result of personal opinions and agendas stepping into the void of doctrinal indifference and fuzziness.  It has often been said that fences make for good neighborliness; in a similar way, confessional standards can foster love for our fellow Christians by establishing boundaries.

IV.  Conclusion

The confessional standards do not supplant Scripture, but are an important resource in our spiritual formation as Christians.  They give us a framework through which to consistently understand Scripture, are foundational for establishing a Christian world and life view, and enable us to define our identity in Christ, especially in the midst of our increasingly darkening culture.  They establish limits on the authority of our church leaders, unite us to fellow believers, and enable us to better love one another by helping us to discern what is core in our beliefs from what is peripheral.  Our forebears in the faith were willing to stake their lives on these truths and these symbols have stood the test of time.  In a day and age when contrary views are all too easily dismissed as one’s “personal opinion” there is comfort in knowing that one is not alone in either our day or in the stream of history in holding to the truths summarized by the standards.

V.  Recommended Resources

On confessionalism:

R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008)

Samuel Miller,  “The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions” (Philadelphia PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1839) [Typeset and reprinted by A Press, Greenville SC, 1991]

J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel; Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2010)

Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2012)

Carl Trueman, “Why Christians Need Confessions” (Willow Grove PA: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2013)

On Creeds and Confessions:

Chad Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms; A Reader’s Edition (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2022)

Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vols. 1-3 (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books reprinted 1983)

James T. Dennison,ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vols. 1-4 (Grand Rapids MI: Reformation Heritage Books)

[1] Carl R. Trueman, Why Christians Need Confessions (Willow Grove PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2013), 3.

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