(a reflection on & outline of Samuel Miller’s Utility and Importance of Creeds & Confessions)
Those who desire more theological latitude for the inclusion of their own views within the acceptable range of Christian doctrinal opinion, and those who want to disagree with recognized Christian doctrinal affirmations and yet still be considered to be within the bounds of the church (and who sometimes even want to redefine what is acceptable recognized Christian doctrine) often criticize the creeds and confessions of the church as unscriptural, unnecessary, problematic and unduly restrictive, or alternatively attempt to interpret them in such a way as to find latitude where none is to be found. They also will sometimes protest the church’s requirement for her ministry to subscribe to articles of faith, and view the practice as a breach of personal Christian liberty and proper ecclesial catholicity.
However, there are good reasons for the church to publicly state what she believes the Scripture to teach, and to require adherence of her ministry thereunto.
What is a Confession? “A formal statement of doctrinal belief ordinarily intended for public avowal by an individual, a group, a congregation, a synod, or a church; confessions are similar to creeds, although usually more extensive. They are especially associated with the churches of the Protestant Reformation.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
A confession of faith is an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the holy scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity. (Samuel Miller)
A confession of faith is public statement of a church’s official understanding of what the Scriptures teach on whatever topics it addresses, to the ends of (1) expressing clarity in doctrinal conviction, (2) promoting unity in the faith, and (3) protecting fidelity to the Scripture and truth in the church. (Ligon Duncan)
Protestants do not claim that confessions are authoritative in and of themselves. Only the Scriptures are possessed of sole, final authority. The authority of a confession is derivative, consequent and dependent.
Confessions of faith are written and adopted public summaries of important doctrines derived from and founded upon the Scriptures, doctrines whose authors and subscribers view as the basis of their ecclesiastical union.
Confessions of faith cannot make a doctrine to be true. They can only confess a doctrine to be true because and insofar as it is in according with the teaching of Scripture. They cannot create an obligation for a believer to believe something that the Bible does not ask him to believe.
Confessions of faith offer a well-ordered list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches, which all Christians ought to believe precisely because the Bible teaches them; and which a certain portion of the visible church catholic agree in considering as a formula, by means of which they may know and understand one another.
I. What are some of the arguments for the church writing, adopting and subscribing confessions?
1. A confession of faith, adopted and subscribed, is useful and important for helping to maintain theological unity in the ministry of particular churches and denominations.
2. A confession of faith, is useful and important in aiding particular churches and denominations to be a depository, guardian, and witness of the truth of Scripture.
3. A confession of faith, publicly adopted and affirmed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church, particular and denominational, owes to the other churches, and to the world around us.
4. A confession of faith, required of the teachers of the church, is promotive of the study of Christian doctrine and the prevalence of Christian knowledge, among the ministry and members of particular churches and denominations.
5. Confessions of faith have been found to be not only useful but necessary in the course of Christian history.
6. Confessions of faith have generally received their greatest opposition from those in disagreement with the church’s doctrinal affirmations, who want for themselves greater doctrinal latitude or even to be able to contradict, oppose and change the church’s teaching.
7. It should be noted, however, that even those who oppose confessions of faith have their own theological formulations that they want the church to allow for or embrace. Everyone has a creed or confession, the only question is which is more Scriptural, the individual’s or the church’s.
Hence, when an individual opposes the church’s teaching by saying “I want us to follow the Scripture, not the teachings of men” we need to understand the nature of the challenge. It is not in fact Scripture vs. the confession, but that individual’s interpretation of Scripture versus the church’s considered, public declaration of its understanding of Scripture.
II. What are some of the main objections to the use of confessions of faith?
1. Writing a confession of faith and requiring subscription to it is superseding the Bible and making a human composition the final rule and standard of faith and practice.
2. Having a confession of faith and required subscription to it interferes with the rights of conscience and Christian freedom, and can be an instrument of oppression.
3. Having a confession of faith and required subscription to it is inconsistent with “academic freedom” or free inquiry.
4. Having a confession of faith, and subscription to it, has not produced the ends they are purportedly designed to secure: peace, purity, unity, fidelity, witness and mission.
5. Having a confession of faith and required subscription has, far from producing peace and unity, produced strife and division.
1. As long as we have the free and voluntary right of religious association, confessions of faith are no enemy of Christian freedom or instruments of oppression.
2. Subscription to a confession of faith is not a mere formality, but a solemn commitment entailing the most serious obligations.
3. Those who subscribe a confession of faith ought to sincerely and faithful adhere to it in public and private, and to promote the peace and purity of his particular church and denomination.
4. In light of all we have said, we should reflect on how easy it is for a single imprudent or unsound minister to do extensive and irreparable damage in and to the church.
5. Those who are members, and especially ministers, of particular churches and denominations who subscribe a confession of faith will want to spread the knowledge of their public doctrinal standards.
6. Abandoning the use of confessions of faith will not build up a particular church or denomination, nor even increase her proper catholicity.
What is confessionalism? The belief in the usefulness, importance and indeed necessity of a full and unambiguous public statement of and adherence to the church’s official doctrinal belief, founded upon the Scriptures. Those who are confessional believe that interpretations of Scripture and/or doctrinal understandings that contradict especially the core teaching of the church’s doctrinal affirmations, cannot be accommodated within a particular church or denomination, without compromising its peace, purity, unity, witness and mission.