The Church and Her Creeds
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Rev. Ronald Hanko and published in the February 15, 1983 issue of the Standard Bearer.
The Church and Her Creeds (1)1
There is an essay by a well-known British author of this century entitled "Creed or Chaos?"² In the essay the author defends the use of creeds in the church, and the title of the essay very aptly describes the urgency of maintaining and defending our creeds. The only alternative is ecclesiastical chaos. History has proved that, especially in the last century. The church has moved off her creedal foundation, has separated herself from the church of the past and from the word of God, and is no longer protected from the chaos that the floods and winds of doctrinal change, spiritual ignorance, and worldliness bring.
Many actively oppose the use of creeds and the doctrines taught in the creeds, but an even greater problem is that of neglect of the creeds. Whether this neglect is the fault of the leaders or of the laymen is really a moot question—the fact is that the creeds are neglected by both pulpit and pew. The creeds have become dusty archives because the church is silent concerning them. And where silence rules, ignorance follows. Also among those who still subscribe to the great creeds of the Reformation, the prevailing attitude is one of embarrassment when the creeds are mentioned, perhaps because they have heard too often that the creeds are not "relevant." But such an attitude is very wrong.
We must defend our creeds unashamedly as the living confession of the church of Jesus Christ concerning the word of God. Now it is not my purpose in this article to defend the scriptural basis for creeds or to fight for our creeds, but rather to encourage the faithful use of our creeds. This is important because the creeds are not just dead documents but the LIVING confession of the church of Christ. Those scripture passages which are used to defend the creeds make it very clear that the creeds are indeed this living and believing response of the church to the revelation that God has given in his word (Psalm 116:10, Matthew 10:32, 12:34, Romans 10:9, 10, 2 Timothy 2:12, 1 Peter 3:15).
Listen once to what the Reformer John Knox says in the preface to his "confession":
For we are most certainly persuaded that whoever denies Jesus Christ, or is ashamed of Him, in the presence of men, shall be denied before the Father, and before His holy angels. And therefore, by the assistance of the mighty Spirit of our Lord Jesus, we firmly promise to abide to the end in the Confession of this our Faith.³
Remember that this is Knox's justification for writing a creed. He makes it very clear that this creed is not just a doctrinal statement on paper but a confession of faith. And because it is a confession of faith in the Savior himself, Knox speaks of "abiding" in that confession and refers to Matthew 10:32 as his biblical warrant.
We too must "abide" in our confession and must do that not only by keeping our creeds, but also by making faithful use of them. There are many different ways in which our creeds can and must be used. In the remainder of these articles it is my intention to distinguish and discuss seven different usages of our creeds: constitutional, juridical, apologetic, liturgical, homiletical, pastoral, and devotional.4 We certainly do not claim that these are the only ways in which our creeds can be used, but they are nevertheless basic both in the life of the church and the members of the church.
We shall see too that some creeds are used more in one way than in another—that is, in fact, the reason why we have creeds in the plural and not just one creed. Some of these different uses also overlap, but the point is that in these and other ways we must make a conscious and deliberate effort to retain our creeds as our living and abiding confession of faith concerning the word of God.
The first and most basic use of our creeds is the constitutional use. By this we mean that the creeds are the basis for the organization of the church. This is not apart from the word but in connection with it, for the creeds are the confession of the church concerning God's word. A key scripture reference in this connection is Matthew 16:16–18, where Jesus himself tells Peter that on the rock of Peter's confession concerning the living word of God, Jesus will build his church. By such a confession the church separates herself from all those who do not confess the same faith, whether in heathendom or in apostate Christianity, for how "can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3). At the same time this confession of the church concerning the word of God becomes a basis of unity with all those who are agreed in faith and hope. Through her creeds the church declares her purpose to unite in fellowship with all who make the same confession, in order the better to realize her calling to be a light in the world.
Our own three major creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt are even called sometimes, in this connection, "The Three Forms of Unity." Also our "minor" creeds, however, are "forms of unity." By our minor creeds I mean such things as our forms for the sacraments and for the ordination of pastors, elders, and deacons. These creeds also are "confessions" concerning important practices and principles of Christianity, and thus a basis for unity and fellowship with those of like faith. This constitutional use is the basis for all the other uses of creeds. Only if the church is constituted and built upon a specific confession concerning the word of God will the creeds be part of her life and practice.
The second use of the creeds follows from this first use, then, and that is the juridical use of the creeds. This means that in connection with the word of God the creeds have a place in settling disputes and guiding the affairs of the church. The creeds are not the final arbiter of truth and practice. The final arbiter is the word of God. The creeds themselves must always be tested by scripture and submitted to authoritative inspection of scripture. Nonetheless, through use of the creeds the church has the guidance of the past history of the church and of the Spirit who certainly worked in the church of the past. It would be both foolish and very wrong to ignore that guidance as though the church of ages past was not Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.
We must remember that in all disputes, whether of doctrine or practice, the church's calling is not to run after every new thing, but to "stand . . . in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and (to) walk therein" (Jeremiah 6:16). Thus the members of the church find rest for their souls.
Again, it is not only the Three Forms of Unity which have juridical significance, but also our minor creeds stand as the testimony of the church of the past concerning the doctrines of the sacraments and of the offices in the church. It is here also that we must be admonished and encouraged to make full use of our creeds in our consistories and other ecclesiastical assemblies. We must not be ashamed to use our creeds in relation to the problems and difficulties which arise out of the life of the church.
Very closely connected with this legal or juridical use of the creeds is the apologetic use. Here we refer to the calling of the church to contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). An apology is what Peter speaks of in 1 Peter 3:15: "an answer concerning the hope that is within us." We are commanded to be ready always to give such an answer, and it is in obedience to that command that many of our creeds were written. The old ecumenical creeds of Nicea and of Athanasius, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, and other creeds such as the Westminster have this as their primary purpose. The Belgic Confession even quoted 1 Peter 3:15 on its original title page as an explanation of its existence.
That apology or answer which is demanded of the church and her members has both a positive and a negative side. The positive side is the calling to give a positive witness to the truth of God's word, and the negative side is the calling to do this over against all error of doctrine and life. The creeds mentioned above do both. None of them is completely or even especially negative, though they do witness fearlessly against the errors of Romanism, Arminianism, and Anabaptism. Nor have they in their defense of the faith become outdated.
These three errors are still those that "trouble Israel" today, and our creeds stand as a mighty bulwark against the errors of Rome and of reformed apostasy. The world has not changed, but still lies in darkness, and the lie also works by its power in the world as it did from the very beginning. We may not, therefore, turn our backs on the church's witness from the past, but be encouraged by it to a love of God's word and courage for the battle. These first three uses of the creeds have to do especially with the church's official life. The remaining four are more closely connected with the worship of Christ's church and the spiritual life and walk of the child of God. To these we turn in a further article. In the meantime may we remember that "we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him" (Hebrews 2:1–3).
1 Much of this article is taken from a speech given on this subject in May, 1982 in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.
2 Dorothy Sayers in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, pages 31–45, (Eerdmans, 1969).
3 Twentieth Century Edition of Knox's History and Confession, page 342 (Revell, 1905).
4 The credit for these distinctions must be given to Rev. Peter De Jong who used most of them in a speech given in Northwest Iowa several years ago.