A Few Creeds Plus the Bible: How to Shepherd a Church toward the Use of Confessions
“I agree with every word, but only Roman Catholics read creeds.”
A member of our congregation said this to me after I’d just finished discussing why our church reads creeds and confessions during congregational worship. To him, the issue was at once simple and decisive: our church shouldn’t read creeds because Baptists don’t read creeds.
His sentiment isn’t novel. The purpose of creeds and confessions in the life of the modern church—in this case, Baptist churches—is the subject of much debate. Unfortunately, many churches fail to see the positive impact of creeds and confessions and, in so doing, disregard them altogether. However, creeds and confessions bring unity to the church in both its orthodoxy and its orthopraxy, thus protecting the church from heterodoxy.
But how does a pastor cast a confessional vision of church for a church that has never been confessional?
THE BIBLE DRIVES THE CHANGE
Confessions did not create the church, the Word of God created the church. Thus, evangelicals prioritize preaching. Calvin would go so far as to say, “The church is built up solely by outward preaching. . . . By his word, God alone sanctifies [churches] to himself for lawful use.” The church is created and revitalized through the Word of God by the Spirit of God.
However, an emphasis on the expositional teaching of the Bible will naturally and organically result in a defined confessionalism. Biblical preaching guides a congregation to a defined confessionalism because terms like “Christ” and “church” carry with them massive theological import and doctrinal content. Christ’s identity is highly particular; it communicates something specific about what Jesus did for us and for our salvation (John 20:31; cf. Matt 1:17; 16:16). In the Apostles’ Creed, “church” appropriately precedes “the forgiveness of sins” because forgiveness of sins does not take place apart from the gospel the church preaches (John 20:19–23; Acts 2:38; cf. Isa 33:14–24).
Christians must know something particular about Christ’s identity, about the nature of Christ’s church. Substantial revitalization in the life of the church best occurs with a renewed interest in expositional Bible preaching and a renewal of the church’s confessional life.
PRACTICAL LITURGY FOR BAPTISTS
The idea of liturgy brings us to our original question: “How does a minister cast a confessional vision of church for a church that has never been confessional?” Here’s what it looked like in our church:
Our elders have led our congregation toward a weekly worship rhythm that integrates biblically reflective statements of tradition into corporate worship. Each week, our congregation has a time where we read aloud from either our confession of faith or a creed.
Since our basic beliefs represent the foundational beliefs of Christianity, we consciously see ourselves as guided by four widely accepted and historically Christian statements of faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
When we read creeds and confessions, it teaches our congregation that we join with all faithful believers across time and throughout the world today in confessing our faith to the glory of God. As the content of doctrine is repeated and taken in as what is true, the church is unified in its worship.
To do so is simply to obey the Bible, where we’re instructed to fill our minds with the knowledge of God:
- Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13).
- Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2).
- For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5).
The Bible tells us to fill and train our minds. The knowledge of God controls our minds so that we can think rightly about God. Thinking rightly about God encourages us to feel rightly about God and act rightly before God.
Creeds and confessions teach our people to fill their minds with right thinking about God, and right thinking creates praise and adoration for the Creator. So, Carl Trueman states,
We go to church each week in part to be reminded by that Word which comes from outside of us who God is, what he has done, and what he will do. The corporate recitation of a creed forces us to engage in the positive action of ascribing to him that which is his: glories of his nature; the marvelous details of his actions; and the great promise of the future consummation of the kingdom. That is worship: giving to God what is his.
Affirming sound doctrine together unifies our congregation so that we can rightly praise the Creator together.
LESSONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
Though creeds and confessions can be read aloud on the Lord’s Day, reflected upon in small groups, and memorized by members, as pastors we must remember that casting a confessional vision requires patience. These moments of corporate confession create space for God to work as members learn to ask good questions of both the Bible and the doctrinal content the church ascribes to and teaches.
So, when a member says, “I agree with every word, but only Roman Catholics read creeds” or “I agree with every word, but I have no creed but the Bible,” it’s an opportunity for an elder to help them see that it’s not just Roman Catholics who use creeds but the church of Jesus Christ as she confesses “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Or if a member says, “I agree with every word, but reading creeds is repetitive,” it’s an opportunity for an elder to explain the value of catechizing. It’s an opportunity to avoid monotony by using a multitude of creeds and confessions that repeat the same truths—and confessing truth is always an act of worship.
Some creeds—like the Athanasian Creed—might be too long for any one worship service. That’s okay; you can divide the creed up to be read over the course of consecutive weeks.
Unfortunately, as a defined confessionalism emerges, some may leave. Others, however, will be drawn to the doctrinal content of Scripture. Therefore, as Wolfgang Capito urged his church when unsettled about the slow pace of reform, be calm and “let the Word work on.”
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John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, Book IV; Chp 1, Section 5, 1019.
The New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833, Adapted).
Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 156.