Why a book on the creeds and confessions of the Church?
I asked myself this question recently while I browsing through a Christian book store looking for such a volume. I found it unlikely that you will find such a book in your local Christian book store. At Christian colleges and seminaries, you might find some books with a chapter or two on the creeds and confessions, but even here, a book containing all the actual texts will not often be found. Out of the thousands of Christian books on the market today, those dealing with the creeds of the Church are scarce.
This is precisely the reason for this book. Someone might ask: Why would modern evangelicals be interested in a book containing nothing but the creeds of the early Church and the confessions of the Reformation period? I must reply that “interest” is not even an issue here. The creeds and confessions of the Church cannot be ignored no matter how obscure and esoteric they may seem to us today. For almost two thousand years, the creeds of the Church – statements defining the core elements of Christianity – have been the basis for determining what it means to be a Christian. If you deviated from these beliefs, you were rightly labelled a heretic. During the Protestant Reformation, various denominations issued lengthier statements of faith, called canons or confessions, which further defined what the Reformed churches believed about salvation, church polity and other issues. The Roman Catholics issued a statement from the Council of Trent which represented the view of Rome on these issues.
On the following pages you will find the texts of the most important creeds of the early Church, the confessions of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent. There are a few notes of explanation, but no lengthy commentaries. My purpose in arranging the texts in this fashion is simply to put into the reader’s hands a book containing the creeds which all Christians throughout the ages – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant – have believed. When we come to the Reformation period, we will see that the matter of salvation and church polity became a matter of debate between Protestant reformers and the Roman Catholic bishops. But even here there is a continuous thread of teaching that all Christians held in common.
This area of common ground for belief is called orthodoxy. The study of orthodoxy is the basis for promoting unity since, by definition, this is what all Christians must agree upon. Orthodoxy means literally “right opinion.” All true believers are orthodox, because they hold to right opinions concerning the most basic Christian doctrines.
To Christians of past centuries, preserving orthodoxy was something worth dying for. When Athanasius refuted Arianism in the fourth century, many held to a heresy which made Jesus Christ a lesser god than the Creator. Athanasius was persecuted for what he believed, but he stood for truth and prevailed. Thus “Athanasius contra mundum” (Athanasius against the world) became a proverb for future generations describing a person who will stand for the truth no matter what the cost. Throughout history, orthodoxy has not always been popular, but it has always defined what the true Christian believes. And the truth has prevailed.
Orthodoxy is the only basis for unity in the Church. Unity is also called catholicity, which means literally “universality.” True believers are, in this sense, catholic, because they hold to the univeral faith. Any form of unity that does not necessitate the preservation of orthodoxy is a false movement.
Modern Dissent from the Creeds
Driving down a country road sometime, you might see a fundamentalist church with a sign proudly proclaiming: “No book but the Bible – No creed but Christ.” The problem with this statement is that the word creed (from the Latin: credo) simply means “belief.” All Christians have beliefs, regardless of whether they are written. The creeds of the early Church were nothing more than scriptural statements of faith put into a systematic format.
The emphasis on creeds and confessions suffered a blow at the end of the last century, when conservative evangelicals reacted against Protestant denominations which fell into liberalism. “Dead orthodoxy” became a term to describe churches that officially held to the creeds and a confession of faith, yet had little fruit to testify to the genuine salvation of their members. To vanquish this apostacy, the evangelical movement (and the fundamentalists a few years later) emerged emphasizing salvation as an individual experience and the “literal” interpretation of Scripture.
The evangelical and fundamentalist movements were bulwarks against liberal apostacy. They did away with most of the public reading of Scripture, creeds and confessions. Liturgical services were abandoned in favor of a less formal, “seeker-friendly” type of evangelical meeting. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. But in abandoning the liturgy, they forgot to teach new church members the core elements of the faith found in the creeds and confessions. Deemphasizing the public reading of creeds was intentionally good, but it had disastrous consequences.
Among Pentecostals and Charismatics – two of the most recent groups to have come out of the evangelical and fundamentalist movements – we see an even greater emphasis on throwing off formalism and dead orthodoxy in favor of freedom of worship and spiritual experience. Yet we most often find heresies among churches that stress experience over doctrine. This is not to say that Christians must now throw off their experience and freedom in order to return to dead liturgical services. Simply, what is needed at this time is a revival of confessional orthodoxy.
We call this movement – “confessionalism” – which is nothing more than the historic faith of the Early Church Fathers, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and the Puritans (in areas which they agree). Through even a casual study of the creeds and confessions in this book, you will find that confessionalism stands in stark contrast to what is being offered today by evangelical Christianity.
Today, we have more options than ever before for becoming heretics. Modern evangelical leaders make all sorts of wild claims and assert teachings which are not orthodox. The 20th century Church has promoted many doctrines which are not historically orthodox. Pelagianism, sabellianism, modalism, antinomianism and gnosticism are frequent heresies. Yet I do not believe that modern evangelicals intentionally hold to heresies. I believe that some have propagated these ideas due to their ignorance or carelessness in what they have written and preached. Today, we all need a greater knowledge of confessional orthodoxy.
I offer the following recovery plan to all evangelicals – and especially my fellow Pentecostal and Charismatic brethren – who wish to build a comprehensive systematic theology based on biblical orthodoxy:
First, avoid the trash that is churned out by the modern evangelical pulp mills! Once this faulty paradigm is demolished, you should begin to build a new foundation for your faith by studying the creeds of the early Church. Then graduate to the more exhaustive and theologically comprehensive confessions of the Reformation period. (We have published just a few confessions here, but we have included a bibliography for further study.) You should then read some select writings of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the Puritans. With an understanding of confessional orthodoxy, you will see more clearly that these giants of the faith were theologically grounded in the creeds and confessions. Then read some of the sermons and writings of great modern Christian leaders such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Charles Hodge.
To help remedy our current anemic condition, I offer this book, entitled simply, Creeds and Confessions of the Church. Let it be a bulwark against the “little foxes that spoil the vineyard” (Song 2:15) – the false and truly heretical doctrines of twentieth century evangelicalism. I hope that by the reading of these timeless, immutable truths, you will strengthen your resolve to press into God in prayer and study of Scripture in order to know Jesus Christ in a fuller, more intimate way.
- Jay Rogers, editor