Creeds and Confessions

Having wrapped up Daniel, we are due to switch gears and take up a New Testament book for our next series. We will do that soon by walking through 1 and 2 Thessalonians, but before we start a new book, the Session thought that it would be a good idea to mix things up and run through a relatively brief topical series. Thus, for the next several weeks, we will walk phrase by phrase through the Apostles’ Creed by way of key texts that touch on the important doctrines summarized in this ancient creed.

But you might be wondering why we care about the Apostles’ Creed in the first place. Why do we concern ourselves with ancient words from an ancient context when we have our own modern problems to deal with? Al Mohler provides helpful context:

From its earliest beginnings the church has faced the dual challenge of affirming the truth and confronting error. Over the centuries, the church has turned to a series of creeds and confessions of faith in order to define and defend true Christianity. The confession of faith we know as the Apostles’ Creed is one of the most important of these confessions. For long, unbroken centuries it has stood as one of the most crucial teaching instruments of the Christian faith—along with the Ten Commandments and the Lord's prayer.[1]

We care about the Apostles’ Creed, then, because it connects us with the history of the church and preserves us from falling into many of the same errors that have already surfaced in the history of the church.

But you might then wonder, “Why can’t we just refer to the Bible instead of the Apostles’ Creed?” Here, Carl Trueman is helpful:

All churches and all Christians have a creed or confession. What I mean by this is that no church or Christian simply believes the Bible. The Bible in itself is a collection of various genres of literature. I believe it ultimately communicates a coherent message, but no Christian, if asked by a friend what the Bible teaches, is simply going to start reading aloud at Genesis 1:1 and not stop until Revelation 22:21. Instead, when asked by friends with the Bible teaches, we all try to offer a synthesis, a summary of what the Bible says. And as we move from biblical text to theological statement, we offer what is, in terms of content, something akin to a creed or confession.[2]

And so, if creeds and confessions are inevitable, it is worthwhile to defer to the historical work of the church in crafting creeds and confessions rather than making up our own.

So, then, we can’t help but interpret the Bible, which is why we have creeds and confessions to help codify our interpretation for the sake of clarity. But we also have to acknowledge the other side of this idea, namely that creeds and confessions do not exist on their own. Rather, they depend on the Scriptures for their content. Now, this means that there is an asymmetrical relationship between the Scriptures and our creeds and confessions. The Scriptures stand alone as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, while creeds and confessions derive their authority from the Scriptures. To say it another way, we do not fit the Bible to what our creeds and confessions say; rather, our creeds and confessions fit what the Bible says.

This brings up a final question: what happens if we don’t think a creed or confession fits what the Bible says? One example from the Apostles’ Creed might be the phrase, “he descended into hell.” Here again Carl Trueman is helpful. “We need to understand that subscribing to a creed or confession does not mean that we believe every phrase in the document was as well expressed as it could have been or that if we wrote it today we would use exactly the same vocabulary and phrasing…Thus, confessional revision is not justified simply on grounds of verbal clumsiness.”[3]

Our goal, then, is to figure out what a creed is reflecting in its potentially awkward language before we excise it or ignore it. In some cases, what appears not to fit with what the Bible says is actually a revelation of a blind spot in our own theology. Therefore, it behooves us to have a reverence for what has come before us, even if it is a critical reverence, so that we might be open to being taught by prior generations. Therefore, we are going to take some time to work through the Apostles’ Creed to stoke this sense of historical reverence.

[1] R. Albert Mohler, The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019), xvii. [2] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 159–60. [3] Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 192–93.

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