There are certain errors in the Christian community and repeatedly they confront the Reformed believer. One of these is the challenge to the very existence and use of our creeds and confessions. This is sometimes expressed as the slogan “No Creed but Christ.” This expression is not new, but has been used since about the middle of the last century. Its implication of course is that the speaker believes only in Christ, while those who have creeds believe something else. “We just believe the Bible,” is another of these slogans, which of course suggests that those who hold creeds and confessions believe something other than the Bible.
Assuming the speaker is sincere, such a pronouncement reveals a profound ignorance of the spiritual reality of the church in the world. Such statements are not pious, though they may be piously intended. Every church, sect and cult, from the church of Rome to the Mormons, claims to believe in Christ in some sense, as their creed. Every sect from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to snake-handling Pentecostal sects in the Appalachian Mountains claim to believe the Bible.
The fact is, that as soon as one begins to answer the question, “Who is Christ?”, one forms a creed. The Apostle Peter’s statement of faith, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” in Matthew 16:16 involves a doctrinal confession. Creeds and confessions are simply the corporate expression of our faith in Christ, in obedience to the calling to confess our faith before men (Matthew 10:32). This is not only our calling personally but also as the church of Christ (Jude 3). Likewise our approach to the Bible is founded on the fact that as the Word of God it is to be believed, preached and taught according to the command of Christ to preach and teach the gospel (Matthew 28:19). Now as soon as one opens the Scriptures to preach or teach, he is explaining the doctrine contained in Scripture in the words of men. He is, in fact, setting forth a creed or confession. If it is improper to set that teaching down in writing in creeds and confessions, then it is also improper to preach the gospel. We should just read the Bible. Certainly, creeds and confessions are the writings of men. They are not infallible. Nor do they stand above the Word of God. Nor does any writing, preaching or teaching of men. The very fact that the Word must be preached and taught however, testifies that the Scriptures themselves are not a ready-made handbook of doctrine.
What this means for us is important. The man who says, “I just believe the Bible,” must be required to prove it. The man who says, “I have no creed but Christ,” must answer this question: “Which Christ? The true Christ of the Scriptures or a false Christ of your own imagination?” The Reformed believer in fact makes both these statements: “I believe in Christ alone as my only comfort in life and death” (Lord’s Day I, Heidelberg Catechism) and “I believe just what the Bible teaches,” and he can add, “And here is the proof, our Three Forms of Unity. This is a clear statement of what the Bible in fact teaches us to believe and in it is contained a full statement of Who Christ is, what He has done, and how we are saved by Him.”
Slogans like “No Creed but Christ,” and “I just believe the Bible,” are just that—slogans, but with no substance. They have always been a smoke screen for a whole system of doctrine which those who hold to these slogans hesitate clearly and plainly to state, lest it be exposed for what it is, a corruption of the truth. Similarly, the accusation which often accompanies these arguments, that creeds and confessions separate the church of Christ or are the cause of divisions in His body, is false. It is not the presence of creeds, but of false doctrine, which divides the body of Christ. Creeds exist to preserve and teach the truth, to confess and defend it over against the lie, to expose error (I Timothy 1:3; 4:6; Titus 1:9; 2:1). They form the basis of a genuine unity of the church, a unity founded upon the truth of God’s Word, not upon the artificial mergers of men.
All of this underscores the need for us to know our confessions and their contents. They are a statement of our faith, hope and confidence in Christ over against serious errors that would take from us the gospel. They are the fruit of the work of the Spirit of truth in the life of God’s believing people who have fought the battle of faith before us in the world (John 16:13). They are not Scripture, but set before us in summary what we believe is the unity of the truth of God’s Word. They do so clearly and precisely, with careful wording, that by them we might give a faithful confession to the whole counsel of God. We live in an age of ignorance, ignorance of God, of Christ, and of the wonder of His grace. It is not less precision, a vaguer understanding of the truth, a simplistic conception of God’s Word and works, but a thorough grasp of the truth in all its aspects which is needed by us today.
Why then do young people need to know the creeds of the church, to know them well and with increasing understanding? The reasons are many. Here are but a few:
- They are the confession of our faith, not just mine or your parents’ but yours.
- They set forth the whole counsel of God in Jesus Christ, Whom to know is eternal life.
- They are a summary of the central teachings of the Scriptures, the unity of the truth found in the Bible, the fruit of the church’s study of the Word of God in the past upon which we build, and the antidote to doctrinal ignorance.
- They protect us from falling into the errors of the past, that we might continue in the heritage or inheritance of the doctrine of God’s covenant which we have received and communicate it to our children, also yours to come.
- They point to answers in the Word of God for the reason for the hope within us, our faith and practice.
- They address the spiritual problems with which God’s children have always struggled and point us to the answers for them in God’s Word. Our problems are not unique.
- They expound the basis of the reality of sin, grace and gratitude in the Christian life, direct us to the principles of God’s law, the way of godliness and the limits of Christian freedom, and to the way of prayer as the chief part of gratitude.
It is in this way that our creeds will be preserved, not as dead documents, but as the living confession of God’s people.
Rev. Miersma is home missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is presently laboring in the San Luis Valley in Colorado.