Is there a biblical argument for the existence and use of creeds, confessions, and statements of faith by church? That is, why does a church have the authority to require of its members subscription to a document outside of the Bible? To answer that question I will highlight several presuppositions behind and implications from the New Testament as it relates to false teachers and the proper use of doctrine.
- The authority of scripture is not what false teachers often deny.
In Paul’s pastoral epistles we don’t see any false teachers debating Paul about the authority of scripture. Rather, the authority of scripture is assumed by both parties. However, Paul makes clear that by confessing invalid interpretations, those false teachers have swerved from the faith of the Bible (e.g., 1 Tim 1:19-20; 4:1-3; 2 Tim 2:15-18).
Related to the previous point, Paul assumes that there are valid and invalid interpretations of scripture. We must seek to “rightly handle” the Bible (1 Tim 2:15), and avoid leading people into “further ungodliness” by contorting scripture in an unbiblical way (1 Tim 2:16). There are right and wrong ways to read scripture, which
is a claim that many postmodern sensibilities would find distasteful.
- Confessions help clarify biblical truth by affirming and negating the validity of various interpretations of scripture.
Confessions help churches teach their members how to both spot and avoid those invalid interpretations about which Paul warned his readers. For example, Paul urges the church in Thessolonika to “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Paul has given them a theological interpretive framework and a body of doctrine in the form of his written and spoken tradition.
False teachers are crafty and cunning; they will use biblical language in inventive ways to undermine the very truth that they claim to defend. Confessions allow for the collective wisdom of the church throughout history to be used to edify the saints with biblical truth, to expose false teaching, and to protect against heresy.
- Confessing the faith with a summary of biblical doctrine follows the biblical example.
Several passages in scripture offer us examples of the early church’s confessional summaries that were crafted to clarify valid and invalid interpretations of biblical truth. As D. Matthew Allen writes:
“In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul declared: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (ESV). In 1 Timothy 3:16, he wrote: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (ESV). These are early creedal statements. Creedal fragments are also found in Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Peter 3:18 and 1 John 2:22, 5:1, among other passages. The writer of Hebrews instructs us to “hold fast our confession” and “the confession of our hope” (Heb. 4:14, 10:23; 3:1; ESV).”
Thus we see that having a confession of faith helps clarify what interpretations of scripture are valid and invalid based on the collected wisdom found in church history. Having creeds and confessions also follows several examples that we see found in scripture. Confessions enable congregations to catechize their congregations while at the same time provide an apologetic against false teachings.