Imagine a Christian gathering in Alexandria on the night before Easter, 173. A young man who has heard the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is ready to be baptized. He has received some instruction in the faith and has brought his life into conformity with Christian ethics. He stands clothed in white with others near the water for baptism. The bishop and presbyters approach and ask him what he believes. He recites a brief summary of the faith that he has memorized. Others about to be baptized recite the same summary. This summary used by those about to be baptized was written by the bishop himself some years earlier to help prepare new believers for baptism.
The summary grew out of the bishop's sensitive response to Paul's warning that from the very heart of the church would arise some who would proclaim a false gospel: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). The bishop knew that he was an overseer and a shepherd over a part of God's flock and saw his responsibility to preserve the sheep entrusted to him. He saw the dangers that surrounded the sheep. The obvious danger to the flock was the pagan world that not only denied the truth of Jesus the Savior but persecuted His followers. But there were other less obvious dangers as well – dangers from those who claimed to be Christians but taught false doctrines. Some said Jesus had not really been a man with a physical body. Some said Jesus was only a man on whom the Spirit of God had come with unusual power. Many other heresies were taught. Some of the false teachers had organized their followers into churches that they proclaimed were the true churches of Jesus Christ.
The bishop recognized his responsibility to protect the people and the truth from these false teachers. Again he was inspired by the words of Paul, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2Timothy 1:13). The bishop drew up a brief pattern or “form of teaching” (Romans 6:17) specifically to summarize true Christian teaching in a way that would not only affirm the truth, but do it in such a clear way that followers of false teaching could not use it. This summary was then given to candidates for baptism as part of their instruction in the faith. The summary helped define the faith more clearly for the new believer, protected the faith from false teaching, and provided a testimony to the world as to the truth of Christian belief.
The bishop in 173 is imaginary and his precise line of thought is conjecture. But in the second century it is certain that local church leaders began to write brief summaries of the faith to use with candidates for baptism. These summaries are the earliest evidence for the emergence of creeds in the life of the church. (The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, which literally means “I believe” and was the first word in Latin creeds.) These creeds were designed to define the faith, protect the faithful, and testify to the world what the church believed.
In time the creeds moved from being related to the baptismal service to becoming a part of the regular worship service. The whole congregation was united in reciting the creed to express its common faith. Initially local churches developed their own creeds. But gradually they began to show their unity with other orthodox churches by moving toward a common creed. Today among evangelicals the most familiar creed is the Apostles' Creed. Elements in that creed probably go back to those baptismal creeds of the second century, although the Apostles' Creed did not become the most used creed in the Western churches until the ninth century.
The Apostles' Creed is basically Trinitarian, confessing the persons and work of the Godhead. The Creed confesses the Father in His creating work, the Son as incarnate Savior, and the Holy Spirit as the One who applies the work of Christ to gather the church and bring salvation.
The most celebrated creed written in the first 500 years of the church was the Nicene Creed. This creed was the first one adopted universally by orthodox churches. The Nicene Creed was adopted at the first ecumenical or universal council of the churches held in 325. The council held at Nicaea confronted a serious and subtle theological problem. A clergyman of the church in Alexandria - Arius - denied that Jesus was fully and eternally God. The church recognized the need to define carefully the divinity of Jesus and did so in those famous words: “I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light; very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made....” Particularly in the declaration that Jesus was of one substance with the Father, the church specifically rejected the heart of Arius’ teaching and produced a litmus test to protect the church from this false doctrine. The Nicene Creed has been invaluable to the church, standing through the centuries as a clear testimony to the world of Christian commitment to the uniqueness and eternal deity of Jesus.
The Protestant Reformation built upon the creedal work of the ancient church. Reformation churches produced confessions to express and summarize their understanding of the Bible. Lutherans wrote the Augsburg Confession. Anglicans prepared their Thirty-nine Articles. Presbyterians drew up the Westminster Confession.
These confessions differ from creeds in being much longer and more detailed. They are much too long to be used as a whole in a worship service. They are like creeds, however, in the basic functions they fulfill in Christian churches.
Confessions define with care the beliefs of a communion of churches. These confessions reiterate the orthodox doctrines of God and the Trinity and of the person and natures of Christ. They also present the Protestant doctrines of the authority of Scripture, of salvation, and of the church. The confessions of the Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, and others also specify the distinctive doctrines of those communions. In this way the confession not only distinguishes one communion from another but also summarizes for a distinctive communion the common doctrinal commitment that unifies it. For example, the churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition have three confessional documents that together are called the Three Forms of Unity. This title reflects the commitment of those churches to be united doctrinally by the teachings of these standards. That unity means that anyone deviating from those teachings is subject to church discipline. It also means that in areas not covered by the standards there is freedom for diversity in the churches.
Confessions also seek to protect believers from false teaching. Some confessions explicitly present and then refute false doctrines. All implicitly seek to protect believers by presenting the biblical truth. The confession seeks to draw together the whole range of biblical teaching on specific subjects. By doing that it helps protect Christians from the misuse of one verse of Scripture taken out of context. Representatives of cults speaking to a Christian on his front porch may seem to have a few passages to support their heresy. But consulting a confession and checking the scriptural foundations on which it rests will provide the Christian with solid defense against error.
Finally confessions present the testimony of churches to the world. They present the unique biblical interpretation of a communion of churches. Sometimes making that testimony is dangerous. In the sixteenth century Dutch Calvinists summarized their faith in the Belgic Confession. This confession was thrown over a city wall as a testimony to Roman Catholic government authorities. Its author, Guido de Bres, was later martyred for his faith. Today confessions are usually not that dangerous, but they do summarize clearly what a church believes for any inquirer. Churches are fundamentally communities of faith and doctrinal content is an essential element of that faith.
The wealth of biblical and theological material summarized in confessions and creeds makes them ideal subjects of study for all sorts of Christian groups. Too often today they are neglected by Christians. For some they seem too “doctrinal.” For others they are not “practical” or “life-related” enough. But today, nothing is more important for Christians than a clear understanding of the truth of the Gospel. All practical decisions about how to live depend on knowing God and His will and His ways. To understand the truth, to be protected from error, to testify clearly to the world creeds and confessions are an invaluable resource for Christians.
First published in Tabletalk, July 1989.
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