Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on confessions. Previous post.
As I wrote in my first post, the creeds and confessions of orthodox Christianity are the necessary, written responses of the church to the revelation of God in the Bible. Far from the cold and formulaic scribbles of dead orthodoxy, as critics sometimes call them, creeds and confessions are the lifeblood of healthy, humble, and historic Christianity. To further highlight why Christians should love creeds and confessions, we need to look at both their limitations and practical uses.
Recognize the Limits of Confessions
Confessions don’t pretend to be more than they are. In fact, they have two requisite limitations. First, a confession is not an extension of Scripture, as if it were God’s Word itself. It is a human response to God’s Word, an acknowledgment that He has spoken. As such, we value a confession only to the extent that it is faithful to Scripture. Thus, a confession is to be assented to whole-heartedly as a confession of God’s truth only when it accurately declares the truth of Scripture.
Second, confessions cannot contain the whole counsel of God or the full compass of everything those who subscribe to them believe. As a response to God’s Word, the confession points to and guides us toward the whole truth found in the Scriptures. A confession points beyond itself. Therefore, the view that confessions limit growth in the knowledge of God and His gospel is a view that misunderstands the intention of a confession. Confessions are not self-sufficient, doctrinal cages, but guides, witnesses, and safety nets.
In particular, confessions describe essential beliefs that command broad assent. They often remain silent on secondary matters or on doctrines that are not relevant to their confessional perspective. For example, it is appropriate and important for the London Baptist Confession of Faith to limit the mode and subjects of baptism according to Baptist principles. For other confessional perspectives, such details are not required. Functioning in this way, confessions promote “unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things.”1
Revel in the Unity of Confessions
In acknowledging that God has spoken clearly and specifically, confessions also bind our allegiance to what God has said. A confession is more than an obedient response to God’s Word; it also calls Christians to an ongoing obedient response to God’s Word. Written confessions presuppose that we are fickle people. We naturally stray from what God has said to follow the siren voices of our imagination and our culture. If we want to remain loyal to the gospel, we must bind ourselves to it. This is what confessions do; they fasten confessional Christians to the gospel so that those Christians keep on confessing gospel truth. Confessional fidelity guards against confessing something else. Committing to a confession nails your colors to its mast. You define yourself publicly by that allegiance. Without this commitment, it is much easier to shift allegiance without even noticing. Confessional commitments make it difficult to change our minds on the fundamental matters of the confession. Confessions help define and protect our theological identity.
Confessions also protect us from theological drift by binding us not only to the gospel but to our fellow confessors as well. Subscribing to a confession is both public and corporate. The prefix con- in confess means “together.” Confessions bind us together in fellowship under the gospel. Through confession, the gospel becomes our common ground and shared vision. Confessions are fundamentally unifying.
Let Your Confessions Pick Fights with Heresy
Our confessions shape our perspective of the Bible and the gospel. Our confessions not only show us where we might be tempted to leave the gospel or compromise it, but they also show us where we need to act and what we need to proclaim. They order our values and priorities.
More strongly than that, however, confessions involve us in the conflict between the gospel and all that is opposed to it, both in our hearts and in the world. We’ve never needed confessions more, even as we witness the extraordinary doctrinal retreat of the church in the face of an increasingly aggressive culture. Specifically, for God’s people to remain loyal to what God has said, they will need confessions that dare to take a stand. A real confession acknowledges truth with authenticity only inasmuch as it acknowledges such a thing as falsehood. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The concept of heresy belongs necessarily and irrevocably with the concept of a creedal confession.”2 When the notion of heresy seems anachronistic, so must the notion of truth.
Confessions of faith are never neutral or abstract. They are spoken in specific situations and address particular issues. Loyalty to them requires an active rejection of the heresies they condemn. It is not possible for Christians today to confess the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds alone. Even these two early creeds were responding to the theological issues of their day. That is not to say that the ancient creeds no longer have any validity. They maintain all their validity. But we cannot simply turn back the creedal clock. New theological issues and errors have always required new confessions to deal with them.
Confessions and Christian Integrity
Confessions do not typically dictate Christian behavior. Confessions are, after all, testimonies to the faith, not testimonies to our response. To an age that sees doctrine as a cerebral nicety, this inevitably makes confessions look somewhat irrelevant to “real life.” But the very existence of confessions testifies that there is truth that demands a response. Confessions demand that we have the integrity to respond appropriately to the truth being confessed. In this way, doctrine becomes profoundly life shaping. For example, to confess with integrity that Jesus is Lord and that the Spirit works in us to make us Christlike necessarily means rejecting sin and altering every aspect of our lives. By demanding integrity, confessions forbid nominalism or empty, intellectual assent.
In sum, confessions draw us, body and soul, into obedience to God’s Word. Through confessions, we challenge our bent toward rejecting divine revelation. We are taught the gospel with ever-greater clarity. We join with the gospel and there find unity with others who have done the same. We defy and deny what our confessions oppose. We mold our lives, thoughts, ministries, and teaching to the unchanging standard of God’s Word. In the end, we stand with our confessions and proclaim that God has spoken.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on September 29, 2017.