Creeds and Confessions have always been thought necessary and valuable by the Church, above all for the contribution they make to the Church’s four basic tasks: worshipping, witnessing, teaching, and guarding the truth. These tasks, which Jim Packer characteristically describes as doxological, declarative, didactic, and disciplinary, have, throughout the centuries, been highlighted and identified by the Church’s Creeds and Confessions. In fulfilling these tasks Creeds and Confessions have performed the function of ‘helps’, clarifying and exhibiting what the Church is, what it believes, and what it understands the Christian faith to be.
Because they are at best merely human compilations, Creeds and Confessions have, of necessity, a provisional character. They are provisional because they are the product of a particular historical locus and because they reflect the particular limited insights, however insightful, of mere men. We must never forget that Scripture alone is norma normans (has intrinsic authority), and Confessions are at best norma normata (have derived authority). Any Church which believes in semper reformanda will ever be ready to redefine and reshape its confessional formulae in harmony with the new insights the Holy Spirit may be pleased to give the Church, and to better commend the faith once delivered to the saints to contemporary society.
What then is the role of Creeds and Confessions in the Church today? Indeed, do they have a role at all? No-one would deny that we live in an age of great doctrinal unsettlement, in which Western culture is drifting away from its historic moorings into a secularised pluriformity. This contemporary pluralistic confusion in theology, as David Wright recognises, ‘has not been conducive to the writing of new confessions.’ ‘We have reached a point when for many the two ecumenical creeds are downgraded to the category of Christian gang songs, to be sung as a loyal toast rather than recited as declarations of factual truth’ (J. Packer, Towards a Confession for Tomorrow’s Church, 5)
The response of the Church towards this doctrinal pluralism and uncertainty in relation to its Creeds and Confessions has been basically three-fold:
1. Cut out offensive sections c.f. Book of Confessions.
2. Relax terms of subscription. In Scotland this was first introduced by the U. P. Church in 1879, when subscription to the W.C.F. was no longer expected to be simpliciter but to an undefined substance of the faith contained within the Confession. Although the proposed relaxation of the terms of Subscription was to be minimal (‘here and there liberty’) in practice it allowed people to believe almost anything - as the case of Fergus Ferguson proved only too graphically.
3. Relegate Creeds and Confessions to the status of ‘historic’, non-binding documents.
Do we then have to face the fact that we are living in a post-confessional age, an age when confessions of faith are no longer needed? Are the historic confessions and creeds of the church simply engines of division? To anyone who takes biblical revelation and religion at all seriously the answer must surely be, no. A number of reasons compel us to argue for the necessity of confessions in the Church’s life today.
1. A Confession is an appropriate instrument for identifying the Church as such in the world. A Confession is like a banner under which the Church carries on its activities, telling the world what it is, and what it stands for. In this sense it hardly needs to be said, to quote Ab. Kuyper, that a creed is not for the purpose of stating our own surmises or conjectures, but for professing that, of which, on the basis of God’s revelation, we possess most certain knowledge (Pres. and Ref. Review, 1891, 338)
2. Closely allied to this is the confession’s function as an evangelical testimony to those outside the Church fellowship. Norman Shepherd speaks of this as the confession’s ‘apologetic and polemic’ function; since the gospel has come into the world for the purpose of overthrowing the dominion of the father of lies, it is inevitable that the confession will be both apologetic (directed against error outside the Church) and polemic (directed against deception within the professing Church). A confession therefore serves the purpose of making known succinctly to itself, as well as to the world, ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints.’
3. A confession of faith serves the ecumenical unity of the Church. Far from being engines of division, creeds and confessions serve the cause of true ecumenism by honestly exemplifying what different denominations understand by the ‘faith once...saints’. Unity that is not built upon, and is reflective of God’s truth is not Christian unity.
Some have argued that the cause of ecumenism is best served by having a bond of union centring on an arrangement of biblical texts. However, such an arrangement would not solve the problem of language i.e. just what do we mean by such statements? Secondly, the meaning of language is eclectic, it changes from age to age. It was this fact which led James Bannerman to write,
“The unity of the Church as a society of believers requires and justifies human compilations of Divine truth, if it is to be really a unity of faith and not merely a unity of form or formal words” (Church of Christ 1, 298).
4. A confession of faith serves to maintain ecclesiastical harmony. Without a confession of faith anarchy, not harmony would prevail. This fact necessitates the inclusion in any meaningful confessional statement a number of doctrines, which in themselves, do not belong to the substance of the faith e.g. infant baptism, Presbyterian polity.
5. Confessions assist the Church in maintaining internal discipline. This is especially so with regard to those who hold office in the Church. Subscription to a confession of faith would be required as an assurance that the individual’s understanding of the truth is such as to qualify him for leadership and teaching in the Church of Christ.
Where departure from the Church’s confession is discerned it would be necessary to demonstrate departure from Scripture before disciplinary measures may be applied (cf. Macleod Campbell). A confession of faith is then a most helpful tool in guarding the Church’s mission to be ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’, in ensuring that what is taught and passed on is indeed ‘the pattern of sound words’.
Objections to confessions of faith
Usually three objections are raised today against the need for confessions of faith.
1. They detract from the sufficiency and perfection of the Bible as the Church’s supreme rule of faith. This argument completely misses the point. Confessions are ‘subordinate’ standards cf. W.C.F.1.10. Confessions are only binding insofar as they are biblical; and are therefore open to revision and modification, and rejection.
2. They limit and hinder the liberty of Church members. But it must surely be obvious that confessions do not seek to impose any extra burden on Church members that the Bible does not already impose. They no more restrict an individual’s liberty than the rails on a railway track restrict the liberty of the train running on it. Commenting on the Thirty Nine Articles, H.P. Liddon answers the claim that confessions restrict liberty: ‘To complain of a creed as an interference with liberty, is to imitate the savage who had to walk across London at night and who remarked that the lamp posts were an obstruction to traffic’.
3. Confessions limit the progress and development of theology. This objection might have some truth in it if confessions were considered the last word in biblical interpretation, ‘sacred cows’ which must never be altered not interfaced with. James Bannerman wisely wrote Let any part of them (confessions) be proved from Scripture to be false, and we give it up; for we hold them only because, and insofar as, they are true. We invite every man to go beyond them if he can. We encourage and call upon every student of God’s Holy Word to press forward to fresh discoveries of truth, and to open up new views of the meaning of Scripture... Those who have studied their Bibles longest and most prayerfully are most convinced of that. Neither the antiquity, past usefulness, nor honoured status of any confession exempts it from its provisional place in the life of the Church.
Having said that, we cannot escape the fact that confessionalism is considered by many to be a relic of a bygone era. In the Church of Scotland, e.g., commitment to the W.C.F., still the Church’s subordinate standard of faith, is to a purposefully undefined ‘substance of the faith’. Individuals are left to determine for themselves what this substance is. Confessionalism has been effectively replaced by subjectivism. This should not surprise us; whenever God’s truth is relativised the drift into subjectivism is inevitable.
The confessionalism which prevails can be summed up in the phrase: ‘I believe (or more accurately, I will do) whatever the General Assembly is pleased to enact.’ The sine qua non of remaining a minister within the Church is no longer a commitment to the Church’s confession of faith, but a commitment to the Church’s canon law. The issue that most matters is not, ‘What do you believe?’, but ‘What will you practice?’
In the late 1980's, the Church of Scotland discussed a Draft Statement of Faith, produced by the Panel on Doctrine at the instruction of the General Assembly. This Draft Statement was intended to affirm what the Church believes today, and to delineate its place within the one apostolic and catholic Church. While this Draft Statement contained some welcome affirmations, it was an example of the reductionist and ambivalent thinking that prevails within much of the Christian Church today (e.g. there is no mention of God’s sovereign power and purpose, the Fall, repentance, faith, the need for and nature of Christ’s death, the authority of Scripture, evangelism, hell, to name but a few remarkable omissions). The Panel admitted at the time that they had striven to produce a Statement of Faith that would appeal to all segments of the Church. The aim had not been faithfully to reflect the teaching and balance of Scripture, but to reflect the diversity of opinion within the Church.
This is a new kind of confessionalism. No longer is Scripture the locus and definer of our theological perameters; what we confess is determined by the opinions of people. The response of Rutherford House at the time was sadly lacking. By and large the Draft Statement was commended. There was a resolve to present a ‘centrist’ approach to the question, What should be included in such a popular Statement of Faith: ‘It is plainly inappropriate that its character should be one-sided or unbalanced, reflecting sectional interests... The only way to ensure the statement’s objectivity and general acceptability within the church is to draft it as a statement of mainstream Christian faith, as manifest in this our national Church.’
This declaration was a huge disappointment to some and a sign that evangelicals in the Kirk had drifted from their Reformed moorings and had settled for being a “wing” of the national church. Sola scriptura was no longer the evangelicals' ultimate and alone authority. What held sway was the desire to remain in the Kirk at all costs. If this meant adopting a statement “of mainstream Christian faith, as manifest in this our national Church”, albeit one that was conspicuous by its glaring doctrinal omissions, then so be it. Unity, or at least toleration, was more important than unyielding commitment to biblical truth, however “one-sided” others may judge it.
The situation that prevails today within the mainstream Protestant churches is not conducive to confessionalism. Once you depart from Scripture as the Church’s only rule of faith and life, as the song puts it, “anything goes”. What is left is a theological Noah’s Ark, where everyone believes what is right in his own eyes; where confessionalism is relegated to the individual conscience; where no one view is any more, or less, acceptable than any other view.
What remains is a reductionist confessionalism, a confessionalism which confesses everything and negates nothing. This should not surprise us. When truth is de-propositionalised, denied its absolutist character, and subordinated to the modern god ‘tolerance’, it is not surprising that confessions and creeds which propositionalise God’s truth, are considered passé. Such documents are an embarrassment to the Church today, and increasingly relegated to the sidelines of history: documents of historical interest, landmarks in the evolution of the Church, relevant to their own day, but out of touch with the realities of today. This kind of thinking may appeal to the inclusivist thinking that pervades much of the Church and society, but it is light years removed from the N.T. with its categorical affirmations of truth, and its equally categorical denial of error.
Until the Church wakens up to its follies, and is returned to a new confidence in Scripture, it seems likely that meaningful confessionalism will be the preserve of so-called ‘fundamentalist’ remnants.
Without meaningful and biblically substantive confessions of faith the Church will the more easily forget, and ignore, the realities on which it depends. It is not mindless fundamentalism, but faithfulness to the Word of God, that compels honest Christians ‘to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.’ There are few better ways of doing so than by clearly holding out, in language that can be understood, what it is that Christians ‘most certainly believe’.