Why a Confession of Faith?
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23)
The Presbyterian Church in Scotland has long associated itself with a Confession of Faith as its subordinate standard, so much so that Scottish Presbyterianism and Confessionalism have gone hand in hand. The Scots Confession of 1560 (co-authored by John Knox) had been the accepted confession of faith of the Scottish Church up until the time of the famous Westminster Assembly, from which the Westminster Confession of Faith we know today was published in 1646.
That said, it is entirely legitimate to ask the question, “Should we have a confession of faith?” The fact that, historically speaking, we have always had a confession of faith isn’t sufficient in and of itself to answer that question.
Objections to a Confession of Faith
There have been a number of objections made which would call into question the place for a confession of faith in the church today. It is not uncommon to hear statements made by believers along the lines of “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” On the surface such a comment would seem to carry weight particularly, as some would say, in the light of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).
However, there are several problems which become apparent when analysing the above. First of all, “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible,” is in itself a creed, as a creed is merely a statement of belief. Furthermore any time we in conversation begin to explain the meaning of a particular text of Scripture we are of necessity making a confession.
It is necessary that we make clear exactly what it is we believe. It is not enough to simply say that we believe in God. Which God do we believe in? The answer will no doubt be given as “the God of the Bible,” yet there are many who claim to believe in the God of the Bible with entirely contrasting views one to the other. We all have a creed or confession irrespective of whether or not it is formed into a confessional document.
There is an assumption bound up in the statement “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” that those who formed the creeds and confessions didn’t base these documents on the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the inclusion of scripture proof texts in such documents makes clear. Moreover Sola Scriptura asserts that Scripture is the only authoritative source of divine revelation, in opposition to the Roman Catholic view of Scripture plus the tradition of the Church. Therefore Sola Scriptura should in no way lead us to the understanding that we are to avoid the interpretation of Scripture and summary of the faith that we find in the creedal and confessional statements.
It has been suggested that a confession of faith only serves to make a human composition a standard of faith over and above the Bible thus inhibiting the liberty of the Church and dictating what we are to believe. In response to this we can reply that Reformed churches have never considered a confession of faith as an infallible document as we do the Scriptures but as a subordinate standard which summarises the main doctrines of the Bible. Finally subscription to a confession of faith is always on a voluntary basis.
Reasons for a Confession of Faith
Having considered the objections, what would be the positive reasons for the use of a confession of faith in the Church?
Firstly, confessions of faith are often found in Scripture. For instance the apostle Paul states, “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that He was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).
Secondly, a confession of faith promotes truth and refutes error, as the apostle sought to do: ‘If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what that you have received, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:9). Some people in Paul’s day professed to believe and even preach the gospel but in reality it amounted to a false gospel. It is always necessary to make distinctions between truth and error.
Thirdly, history has attested to confessions of faith as a means of witnessing the faith to others. This is seen both in the days of the apostles, ‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,’ (Hebrews 10:23) and from the Early Church onwards. For instance, Irenaeus was a church leader in the second century who heard Polycarp, who himself had been taught by the apostle John. Irenaeus encountered false teaching within the Church and as a result developed a statement of faith in order to affirm a number of truths. Therefore within a matter of years of the closing of the canon of Scripture, statements of faith were being developed.
Fourthly, a confession of faith is an aid to teaching doctrine to the Church. When the Church is being faithful, the doctrines of Scripture will be taught from the pulpit and the preaching will conform to the confession with which it associates itself. Those who are convicted of these truths by the aid of the Holy Spirit who ‘will teach you all things’ (John 14:26) will in turn be diligent in further study of these doctrines to which a confession of faith can be of great assistance. Helpfully some congregations hold regular confession of faith classes where the confession can be studied and discussed informally to complement that which is preached from the pulpit.
Finally, a confession of faith fosters unity. Critics claim quite the contrary and would point to particular instances where they maintain that confessions of faith were responsible for actually dividing the Church. However in reality the problem isn’t confessions of faith as such but those who subscribe to them dishonestly and therefore fail to hold to them in practice or those who change their minds yet continue to hold office without withdrawing from their original commitment. It is difficult to conceive of a denomination that could remain of one accord whilst holding to opposing views on the main doctrines of Scripture. A confession of faith provides a meeting point for like-minded Christians who honestly hold to and practice what they profess, in order to maintain ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3).