There are also confessional expressions in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:16, the Apostle Paul quotes a confession used in the churches:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He [Christ] was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
The Shema and 1 Timothy 3:16 are brief accounts of the faith that touch on key aspects of the Christian faith. God is one. Jesus is God the Son incarnate, the ascended Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit raised Him from the dead, and we are united to Him by grace alone through faith alone. Paul calls these formulas “trustworthy saying[s]” (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8), short summaries of Christian faith and practice.
Second, our Lord Himself commands us to confess the faith. He said, “So everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33). We know that there was pressure on early Christians not to confess Christ (John 9:22). The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to confess the faith (1 Tim. 6:12). The Apostle John called the churches of Asia Minor to confess the incarnation of Christ against the dualists who denied it (1 John 4:15; 2 John 7). Confession of Christ and His truth is so important that it is something all believers will do at the last day (Phil. 2:11) and even in heaven (Rev. 3:5).
Confessions and creeds are good, but they are also unavoidable. Even our friends who reject creeds have one. “No creed but Christ” is a very short and inadequate creed, but it is a creed nonetheless. Thus, the question is not whether we will have a confession but whether it will be biblical, ecumenical, and sound.
The Authority of Creeds and Confessions
One of the great concerns that animates resistance to creeds and confessions is the justifiable concern that human doctrines and traditions should not replace Scripture. The sole magisterial authority of the Word of God was the formal cause of the Protestant Reformation. This is what we mean by the Latin slogan sola Scriptura, “according to Scripture alone.” Where Rome confessed two streams of authority—church and Scripture—the Protestant churches recognized the supreme ruling authority of Scripture alone. To the church they admitted only ministerial authority. The ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions are expressions of that ministerial authority. The Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess what they do about the faith and the Christian life because God’s Word says what it says. The confessions serve the Scriptures. They are ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of God’s Word. Should they be found to be in need of correction to be made more faithful to God’s Word, they may be revised by due process.
In the confessions themselves, the church declares that no other authority can rival God’s Word. In article 7 of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Reformed churches declare that the “Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God” and everything that one “ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.” From the Scriptures we learn “the whole manner of worship,” and Scripture alone is so authoritative that it is “unlawful for anyone,” whether an Apostle or an angel, to contradict it. Merely human writings, no matter how highly regarded or ancient, cannot be of “equal value with” Scripture, which alone is the infallible rule for the Christian faith and life.
It is true that there are churches and even entire denominations that have relegated the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions to the museum or to the dustbin. In such cases, the fault lies not with the creeds and confessions but with infidelity. For those congregations and denominations that still believe God’s Word as it was understood in the ancient church and in the Reformation, the creeds and confessions are the living voice of the church’s understanding of God’s Word on the most important issues of Christian doctrine and living.