back to theology main page
back to the first article on Sola Scriptura
and Creeds, Confessions and Tradition
by Daniel HC Chew
The importance of Creeds and Confessions
In conservative churches, especially Reformed churches, Creeds and Confessions play an important role in the life of the church. This has been the case since the days of the early church through the various church councils and synods, and the Confession of faith and Apologies of the faith written by people such as Justin Martyr. This continued on into the Middle Ages and onto the the Reformation whereby the Christian churches define and defend the Faith and various other denominational distinctives through the use of various Creeds and Confessions, which helped in keeping heretics out, and in uniting the body of believers in the common biblical truths they adhere to.
Creeds and Confessions have been historically seen as important, due to their nature of demarcating the boundaries of the faith which are used to separate believers from unbelievers, and Christians of one doctrinal persuasion from those of another. For the former case, creeds and confessions become necessary since heretics often twist the words of Scripture to mean what it does not mean. As obedience to her Lord, the leaders of the Church need to protect the flock from the teachings of these wolves (Acts 20:29-31; 1 Tim. 6:3-4; Tit. 1:11, 13) and thus the creeds and confession were needed. An example of such a case where just 'citing the Bible' was insufficient is Arianism, where the eternal sonship of deity of Christ was denied by Arius and his followers. This teaching is implicitly derived from Scripture where for example it talked about Jesus being the Alpha and Omega, but the exact words nor phrases teaching it could not be found in the Bible, and the heretics exploit that in an attempt to destroy the Faith. Only the council of Nicea and the adoption of its creed (slightly different from the famous Nicene Creed), followed by years of struggle before it was fully implemented, remove that toxin from most of the visible Church.
With regards to the latter case, creeds and confessions are used to put forward the doctrinal distinctives of a group of Christians (i.e. believers only baptism versus infant baptism) which the group thinks is the most biblical. This is due to the fact that some issues in Scripture are not as clear cut as the essentials of the Christian faith are, and thus a certain degree of differences of opinions would emerge. Definitely, both groups strive to be biblical, and their convictions would thus be put forward in their particular creed or confession that they wrote up and/or believe in, as both sides strive to be biblical in their doctrines and convictions.
During the Reformation, the Protestant churches broke away from the apostate Roman Catholic church, in a move that causes much conflict in Europe. As the Roman church embraced heresy in the form of transubstantiation and salvation by faith and works, not forgetting the infamous indulgences and purgatory, God raised up His prophets and preachers who thundered forth the Word of God and broke the power of the Roman church over His people. The conflict was fought mainly on the doctrinal area since both claimed to be faithful to Christ, and it is in this climate that many of the famous Protestant creeds and confessions were written. Creeds and confessions like the Ausberg Confession, the Heiderberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the 39 Articles of the Church of England and the Second Helvitic Confession were written. The Westminster Confession, Shorter and Larger Catechism, the Canons of the Synod of Dordt, the second London Baptist Confession of faith soon followed. All of these were written to combat heresy and to lay out the doctrines of which the godly framers in prayer believe to be the Truth found within the pages of Scripture.
Of course, sadly, this godly heritage has been neglected by most Evangelicals today, to their detriment, in the spirit of anti-intellectualism which has caused a disaster within the churches, as churches are forced to either allow heretics in which destroy them, or to re-invent the wheel which creates a lot of heartaches in those who have to endure the destructiveness of heresies within the church before they are finally purged. The importance of creeds and confessions thus cannot be denigrated.
That said, the other extreme is just as bad, which we shall look at now.
Sola Scriptura: The ultimate primacy of Scripture
Through the ages of time, it is the practice of almost all Evangelical churches to teach and catechize their children in the faith, as one generation passes the Faith down to the other. Due to the importance of doctrine, and the fact that the creeds and confessions clearly demarcate the Faith and doctrinal distinctives of the particular church/ denomination, they were and still are emphasized as being of importance for the health of the church. Over time, such creeds and confessions, and even the liturgy, become traditions in the church, as evidence of how church ought to be 'done'. Furthermore, due to their effectiveness, heresy by and large was kept away from the church, and thus the original intent of the creeds and confessions slowly was forgotten, or at least only remembered in an abstract sense. When controversy finally hits the church, or when contact with other Christians or non-Christians challenges the 'status quo', the tendency to fall back on the creeds and confessions or other traditions is very high. It is to this phenomenon that we now turn to.
First of all, I would like to mention that there is nothing wrong in turning to the creeds and confessions. However, we must realize that they were written to express the truths which at least the framers believe are found within the pages of Scripture. Therefore, when settling doctrinal controversy, turning to the creeds and confessions should be an aid and not an authority. The creeds and confessions quote Scripture to substantiate their points, and we should use Scripture also to substantiate our points. Of course, whether any particular point in any creed or confession can be substantiated by the verses quoted is besides the point here. For the time being, it is conceded that the creeds and confessions are in fact absolutely 100% biblical. Even then, does that mean that they are our final authority, that we just quote them as per Scripture? This is the very present danger that conservatives need to seriously take note of.
If Sola Scriptura is correct, which I have shown it is, and we know that this principle was recovered in the great 16th century Protestant Reformation and enshrined in the various creeds and confessions that we hold so dear, shouldn't we be consistent and uphold that even in our churches? Even if any particular creed or confession is 100% biblically and absolutely true, should we not treat it as having secondary authority, inasmuch as conforms to the Word of God, which have primary authority? What then must we make of the phenomenon that elevates creeds and confessions, holy as they are biblical, to a status approaching the Word of God, other than 'idolatria de confessio' — the idolatry of creeds? Granted, they have been very useful, and will continue to be useful in its proposed function, but that does not give anyone a right to place them on par with Scripture in any meaningful fashion. While defending the faith or even discussing doctrine, Scripture should therefore be used as our primary authority, NOT the creeds or confessions or any 'book of church order' etc (they can be used as secondary authority though). Any doctrinal instruction that therefore goes only to the creeds and confession, instead of using that as secondary sources, thus goes against the very grain of Sola Scriptura and is in fact a violation of the Reformed creeds which they teach from.
Now, it is to be said that many Protestant and Reformed churches do not in fact elevates their creeds and confessions even on par with Scripture, but practically some of them at least seem to do so. Since Scripture should be our final authority, and not the creeds and confessions, clinging on to the creeds and confessions while ignoring biblical evidence to the contrary would definitely be one practical example of the idolatry of creeds. We must always keep in mind the fact that the creeds and confessions were written by Man. Though they are filled with the Spirit, that doesn't mean that whatever they wrote are definitely 100% correct or that they have all the answers to all the possible questions of the faith. The Lutheran, Reformed and Presbyterians, together with the Anglican and Methodists affirm the practice of Infant Baptism, while the Baptists deny it, and all of these groups have their own statements of faith propping up their beliefs which they all believe is correct according to Scripture. Definitely, both groups cannot be correct; one group must be wrong and the other correct. Within the groups affirming Infant Baptism, there is a difference between the Anglican understanding as compared to the Reformed and Presbyterian understanding, and the same logic applies. Thus, it can be seen that creeds and confessions may not be totally correct, and to suppose they do is practically elevating them above what they were written for. All creeds and confessions must therefore always be held and examined in the light of Scripture to see whether what they say conforms to the Word of God. The Reformation motto Reformata et semper reformanda — 'Reformed and always reforming', should always be our call as children of the Reformation. Somehow, the conservative churches tend towards Reformata, non reformanda — 'Reformed, not reforming', where we just look back at the glorious days of the Reformation and thus live in the past.
This of course holds true also for the practice and liturgy of the church. We should not just say that we are doing this because things have always been done a particular way, which is dead traditionalism. Rather, we should first know why things are done in a particular way; whether they are biblical or just a temporal or cultural application of a biblical principle. If biblical, they should NOT be changed. If they are just temporal or cultural applications of a biblical principal, we should see whether the times warrant a change in how we apply this principal. Of course, if the practice/ liturgy is extra-biblical, we are free to alter it within Scriptural boundaries or remove it altogether (especially if they impinge on the regulative principle of worship).
With this, it is my hope that we conservatives recover for ourselves the essence of Sola Scriptura and apply them consistently. May we not follow the Roman church into elevation of our traditions (councils, creeds, confession, liturgy etc.) on par or even above Scripture, whether in word or in deed. May we be willing to examine our own traditions, and not elevate the creeds and confessions of the church to such a high standing that they practically obscure the Scriptures.