Scripture and the Church

What Is the Proper Place of Creeds & Confessions in the Church?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Church history often shows times of over-emphasis on confessions and catechisms that, while inculcating a form of orthodoxy, actually distracted people from the ultimate goal.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Church history often shows times of over-emphasis on confessions and catechisms that, while inculcating a form of orthodoxy, actually distracted people from the ultimate goal that the Apostle Paul, the greatest systematic theologian in Scripture, stated so clearly: "the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord."

The fact that Scripture contains a God-breathed system of doctrine, consistent from Genesis to Revelation, must be one of the Bible believer's key guiding principles. When we devalue or abandon this principle, as much of the post-evangelical church does, the result is a growing ignorance of the system of doctrine contained in Scripture.

Under such conditions it is all too easy to abandon systematic presentation of Bible doctrine through chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse preaching of the Word, and to focus instead on pet doctrinal, psychological, social, or political theories allegedly supported by pet passages. Isolated and narrow treatment of doctrinal subjects can easily lead to un-Biblical treatment of them. That, history shows us, is also how cults are born. Some schools of thought in post-evangelicalism evince cultish traits.

Christian academia and the church need to regain lost discernment about the systematic nature of Bible doctrine. But they also need to be carefully constrained in the use of confessions and catechisms. In the context of the classroom or the church these can be helpful tools for understanding the systematic nature of Bible doctrine and studying that system. But they are no substitute for the immersion of all Christians - professors and students, ordained men and church members - in the Word of God itself, and in an ever more intimate knowledge of the Living Word, Jesus Christ. That is the way the people of God will come to think God's thoughts after Him.

Confessionalism vs. Scripturalism

Practically speaking, a way of thinking that puts confessions and catechisms above Scripture is inculcated into the minds of many Reformed ministers from the beginning. Men who come before presbyteries and other bodies for licensure to preach and ordination to the ministry are often coached to simply recite passages from their denomination's confession and catechisms in response to questions during their theological examinations, rather than to cite Scripture itself and expound the system of doctrine directly from it. This practice plays into the hands of neo-liberals by helping to conceal men's true positions as well as their lack of grounding in Scripture itself, permitting error to cloak itself in the language of orthodoxy.

I can well remember, when I was in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, that candidates for the ministry often visibly blanched when, during their examinations, someone would ask, "Prove from Scripture alone that [such-and-such doctrine] is true." A shocking number could not do it - even when dealing with the most foundational, irreducible fundamentals of the faith such as the doctrine of the atonement, justification by faith, the doctrine of sanctification, or the doctrine of the security of the believer in Christ. Men in other denominations and independent churches have told me of similar experiences with pastoral candidates in their circles. Such is the state of post-evangelical academia. It often prepares future pastors to be mere preachers of the words of other men, not the Word of God itself.

In this regard, it is telling that the OPC, the Presbyterian Church in America, and other Reformed bodies have often taken refuge in rote recitation of passages from the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the Heidelberg Confession, the Canons of Dort, and other historical confessional documents when dealing with great issues. In recent decades these have included the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of justification by faith, and the sin of homosexuality. Neo-liberals profess loyalty to the words of those confessions, while preaching another gospel that is contrary to the system of doctrine revealed in Scripture. They get away with it because of widespread ignorance of that system of doctrine.

The Effect on the Church

It is no wonder, then, that such problems among men of the pulpits also affect people in the pews. Many members of Reformed churches who have memorized long portions of their catechisms cannot quote from memory more than a bare handful of Scripture passages such as John 3:16 and the Lord's Prayer.

Many who have spent untold hours being instructed from a confession of faith could not find God's covenant with Abraham in the Bible on their own, or explain what it means from Scripture itself. Many do not know where to find the New Testament's frequent warnings concerning false teachers. Many do not know enough Scripture to lead someone to Christ. In fact, many know relatively little about Christ. Many in today's churches simply do not know how to use their Bibles to understand God's revealed system of doctrine. They have not been equipped to search the Scriptures to see if the things they are hearing in the church and classroom are true.

The remedy for this is direct, continual, intimate contact with the written Word of God itself, in prayerful reliance on the Author of every word of it, God the Holy Spirit. Every Christian can pray, "Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things from Your law" (Psalm 119:18) with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will answer that prayer.

The Nature of Creeds & Confessions

We must always remember that creeds and confessions are historical documents. They often reflect an emphasis on particular issues that were in controversy in the church in a particular time period. Believers in the truth were moved to take a Biblical stand. But even the best of these documents, if used wrongly, can lead to a spiritual imbalance in the life and teaching of the church in another time, including our own time. Church history often shows periods of over-emphasis on confessions and catechisms that, while inculcating a form of orthodoxy, actually distracted people from the ultimate goal that the Apostle Paul, the greatest systematic theologian in Scripture, stated so clearly:

I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord...that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death" (Philippians 3:8, 10).

Academia and the church must not place confessions and catechisms between the people of God and His written Word, Scripture, or His living Word, Jesus. This is what Roman Catholicism does with its traditions and pronouncements. Confessions and catechisms, rightly used, are tools for teaching the Word itself, and for teaching submission to it.

The Preeminence of the Word of God

God's Word must be preeminent, with nothing else even a close second. It is the Word of God that is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), not the words of men. It is the Word of God that is forever settled in Heaven (Psalm 119:89), not the words of creeds and confessions. It is the Word of God that is alive and powerful, and the discerner [in the original, the critic] of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). It is the Word of God that we are instructed to commit to memory so that we might not sin (Psalm 119:11), and so that we can discern truth from error (Psalm 33:4, 1 John 4:1-6). It is the entrance of the Word that gives light and understanding (Psalm 119:130). It is the Word of faith preached, heard, and believed, that saves sinners by bringing them to the knowledge of Christ (Romans 10:8-9). It is the Word of God that sanctifies those who believe on Christ for life in this world, and for the glory to come (John 17:17).

Christian academia and the church must continually remind the people of God that the best thing men can do is to understand and believe the system of doctrine revealed in Scripture, and submit to its authority in every area of life. They must also remind God's people that the best confession men have devised, or ever will, is a moon having no glory of its own. Even if it is totally faithful to the Word, it merely reflects the blazing sunlight of Scripture. But there is no substitute for that blazing Sun itself.

We must always remember two key facts about Scripture: It is complete, and it is univocal. These principles underpin systematic theology. Employing these principles means that we must approach and understand Scripture as a whole, not as a collection of disjointed parts. The believer's interest can never be merely in what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, James, or Peter has to say about a given matter of doctrine in a particular book or passage, because not a single word of Scripture is the mere word of man. In and of themselves, each of the human writers had nothing authoritative to say; but the Spirit of God spoke through every one of them, and therefore they wrote with one voice, without contradiction or paradox, from Genesis to Revelation. God the Holy Spirit gave one, and only one, system of doctrine to His people - and we find it revealed in His Word alone.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron [1 Timothy 4:1-2].

For a bishop [overseer] must be...holding fast the faithful Word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict [Titus 1:7-9].

[The Bereans] received the Word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so [Acts 17:11].

Be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior [2 Peter 3:2].

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, 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. I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry [2 Timothy 3:16-4:5].



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