On Church Statements of Faith (and Historic Creeds)


My appreciation for the Reformed confessions continues to grow, especially from interacting with the anti-creed, anti-confession attitude — and the consequent superficial, shallow and even false teaching — so prevalent in evangelicalism today.

As noted in Brian Borgman’s series (sermon audio here) from 18 years ago, the historic creeds and confessions provide valuable information to the church as Christ’s body, teaching preserved for future generations.  These statements were carefully developed to refute various heresies, and down through the centuries, the next generation of the church learned its doctrine from the wisdom of past ages.  Then, the 19th century American pioneering culture of ‘rugged individualism’ along with the bad part of the Second Great Awakening revival movement (Charles Finney and others) started us down the wrong path: a view that thinks what is new and modern is better than what came before, a view that does not learn from history, and instead proclaims “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” (originally said by Alexander Campbell of the “Disciples of Christ” group in the early 19th century).

Christians in the 20th century did provide several Christian declarations, often focused on particular causes/issues of our day, such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant on World Missions, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and the 1980s Danvers Statement (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).  Then came the controversial, doctrinal compromising ECT and ECT II (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) in the 1990s.  Since 2000 we have seen more of the specific purpose statements such as the Manhattan Declaration  and now the Nashville Statement.  Borgman’s series from 2000 ended the final lesson (about modern day creeds) on a positive note: the Cambridge Declaration of 1996, the origin of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

In response to the increasing anti-creedal attitude prevalent today, Founders.org has provided a few recent articles that make the positive case for why churches should (still) use creeds and confessions, as with these two:

The problem that comes up in churches that do not reference the historic creeds and confessions can be seen when an independent church with a relatively small congregation attempts to come up with its own “statement of faith” — a (supposedly) simple, not complex or lengthy, original document.  In desiring to use their own statements – apart from the careful analysis and wording used by the large assemblies and church councils in years past – and trying to say things briefly in their own words, their resulting statements have a tendency to be incomplete, misleading, and in some cases stating actual error.  (I realize that this is not their intent; they believe that they are trying to be faithful in expressing Christian truth.  It is their method, and the underlying presupposition to not reference historic creeds, that is problematic.)

As an example, a local church’s statement of faith mentions the inerrancy of scripture “in the original writings” – yet is silent on the related issue of scripture in translations, leaving the topic open to be challenged by others.  Since the original writings are not in common use by most of us, the Reformed confessions, as well as the recent Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, felt it was important to address the attributes of scripture in our translations.  From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X (emphasis added):

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

The Reformed confessions of a few centuries ago also expressed the point, in language less technical, for the purpose of the edification of the saints.  From the 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 1 (Of the Holy Scriptures, paragraph 8):

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

More troubling is when a church’s statement of faith includes faulty hermeneutics, with sentences such as since all Scripture points to Christ, the Old Testament should be interpreted through the New Testament.  Such an idea has serious implications:  if the Old Testament cannot be understood on its own, apart from the New Testament, then no one who lived in the Old Testament age, or in the early church before the NT was written — when the Old Testament was their Bible – could possibly have understood God’s word on its own basis, since the ‘key’ to explaining what the Old Testament ‘really means’ did not yet exist.  Consider that the apostle Paul himself taught the truth of Christ and the resurrection by directly quoting from the Old Testament.  What about the believers in the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:16-18), or any of the other believers who lived before the New Testament was written?

Here again, we do not have to look back very far in history, as the Chicago statement also was clear regarding the hermeneutic of how we understand and interpret scripture.  As Article V explains (emphasis added):

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.
We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. 

The 17th century Reformed confessions (including the WCF, the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 London Baptist Confession) were written by those who saw the importance of doctrine for all of life, those who saw the need to provide detailed answers to the many questions, and to provide instruction to the common people.  The first chapter provided many paragraphs on Scripture , and these hold up very well, to this day, as excellent summaries of the faith, useful for instructing local congregations in Christian truth.  The modern-day attempt to “reinvent the wheel” regarding definition of doctrine manifests the very problem with trying to do so – belief statements lacking in detail and with faulty doctrine.  We would all do well to remember church history, and learn our doctrine — and how to say it clearly and accurately — from those who went before us.

  1. alf cengia
    April 27, 2018 at 6:53 am

    Great thoughts, Lynda.

  2. johntjeffery
    April 27, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    This really resonated with me, eliciting an “Amen!”: “if the Old Testament cannot be understood on its own, apart from the New Testament, then no one who lived in the Old Testament age, or in the early church before the NT was written — when the Old Testament was their Bible – could possibly have understood God’s word on its own basis, since the ‘key’ to explaining what the Old Testament ‘really means’ did not yet exist. Consider that the apostle Paul himself taught the truth of Christ and the resurrection by directly quoting from the Old Testament. What about the believers in the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:16-18), or any of the other believers who lived before the New Testament was written?”

    I would add the following as examples in New Testament accounts of Old Testament saints’ successful use of the Old Testament independent of the New Testament:

    1) Simeon (Lk. 2:25-35), and Anna (Lk. 2:36-38).

    2) the commendation of the Berean Jews for their employment of the Old Testament as the canon to test the truth of what Paul and Silas were preaching, with the blessed result (Acts 17:10-12).

    3) Timothy, in 2 Tim. 3:14-17, where “from a child” limits “the holy scriptures” contextually to the Old Testament while granting not only the knowledge of them, but also their impartation of saving wisdom.

    I would also add the rebukes of Christ concerning failure to understand what the Old Testament taught as only having merit, or being warranted, if such an understanding were feasible prior to the advent of the New Testament. For two outstanding examples of such rebukes consider the following:

    1) Nicodemus: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (Jn. 3:10)

    2) the two disciples on the Emmaus Road: “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:25-27)

    • April 27, 2018 at 3:27 pm

      Yes, great references. Thanks!

  3. Neil Schoch
    April 27, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    Hi Lynda,
    Just a few thoughts in relation to creeds! There are two verses in the Bible that stand out in my mind in relation to this subject, and it is:- 2 Timothy 3:16-17:- “ALL scripture is given by inspiration of God, (literally God breathed) and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” This includes the Old Testament Scriptures as declared in Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:11. The OT is vitally important and must not be ignored.
    Some have claimed that Paul was only referring to his own writings, but this is false.
    As to Alexander Campbell of the “Disciples of Christ” group in the early 19th century), if you study the reasons behind his declarations you may find yourself in agreement with him. One of his concerns was that the church leaders had to give a “token” to each member of the church stating that they were worthy to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread. This went against the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:28:- “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It is a personal responsibility and not the role of church leaders to sit in judgement, unless there is known unconfessed sin in the life of the believer that must be judged. It was not his intention to start another denomination but they are known and respected as “Churches of Christ” and are found world wide to this day.
    I have drafted “statements of faith” but have always found them inadequate. Respect should be shown to all creeds if they are doctrinally correct according to the Word of God.
    Above all be a Berean and “search the scriptures daily to see if these things are so.”
    Many thanks and God bless.

    • April 27, 2018 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks for the comment Neil, and hope you are doing well. Thanks for the interesting information about Alexander Campbell and that part of history. Yes, too often “statements of faith” are inadequate compared to the robust theology summarized so well in the creeds and confessions.
      Lynda

  4. Robert
    April 28, 2018 at 9:44 am

    Well written, Lynda.
    It does seem odd to try to reinvent the wheel in this way.

    There must somehow be a balance between the old (e.g. the great teaching and confessions of the past) and new (me and my Bible and the Holy Spirit), right?

    There is the danger of arrogance in esteeming the “old” too highly and the danger of arrogance in esteeming the “new” too highly, right?

    God has given us teachers and church history for our benefit — yet teachers and church history cannot replace the Bible and the Holy Spirit.

    It is a balance between the “one and the many”

    Am I my own totally independent church answering only to Jesus
    or am I part of a big, historical denomination and all church history (which isn’t perfect).

    There seems to be a lot of value in education and maturity and godliness, which (as I understand) the creators of our historic creeds and teaching had much of.

    — But of course at the end it all comes down to God and me — Jesus Christ and me …

    Who I can only know by the Bible …
    ….which didn’t come to me out of thin air but through history …

    and the way I understand the Bible through the Holy Spirit
    ….didn’t come to me “out of thin air” but by the teaching I have heard

    and the teaching I have heard
    ….didn’t come out of thin air, but down through history, etc.

    We can’t separate ourselves from history.

    Jumbled thoughts prompted by your well organized and delivered article.

    • April 28, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. Here is a good quote I keep and often refer to – from Arden Hodgins: “The idea that I don’t need pastors and teachers, what I need is just my Bible and the Holy Spirit – I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken, because the Spirit uses means. That’s like saying I don’t need to get a job, all I need is an appetite and an empty cupboard; if God wants me to eat He’ll put it there. … Don’t ever adopt that anti-intellectual, anti-historical view of Christianity that says, ‘I don’t need to know what Matthew Henry thought, that dead man; I don’t need to know what all these other dead men said and thought; all I need is the Holy Spirit and the Bible and He will give me insights.’ How do you know that it wasn’t the Holy Spirit’s purpose all along, to give you insights THROUGH John Owen, THROUGH Charles Spurgeon? Why are you assuming that the Holy Spirit’s going to reinvent the wheel just for you? If He gave insights to these gifts that he gave to His church then, why, if He’s preserved them in His providence, are you ignoring it and acting like it doesn’t matter. That is to be disrespectful to the Holy Spirit Himself. Why do you value YOUR insights so much more than the insights of these other men, who I dare say, knew the word of God better than you do. … We’re not talking about new revelation, He gave no new revelation to any of those men. But He did give insights, and the Holy Spirit can use those insights in our lives, just as He uses pastors and teachers today and our fellow Christian believers.”

  5. Robert
    April 28, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    Great quote, Lynda.
    …….
    “Why do you value YOUR insights so much more than the insights of these other men, who I dare say, knew the word of God better than you do”
    ….. (and often much more educated, mature,gifted, and godly, too!)

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