"Are Creeds and Confessions Biblical?"

“Are Creeds and Confessions Biblical?”
Scott Wakefield ~ Sep 24, 2023
A couple notes:
  • For a brief discussion on what we mean by “biblical”, see the “Preamble” at the beginning of this previous post.
  • Please note that our online Great Questions Answered posts (fccgreene.org/gqa or “Pulse” on the app) are all my thoughts (Scott Wakefield, Lead Pastor) and are not meant to reflect the thoughts and history of our church and its leaders, unless noted as such, as the second “Note” on this particular post. The reason to make this explicit will become clear as you read, namely that much of my personal theological perspective, though squarely conservative and biblical, is different than the tradition of my youth.
Introduction: Personal Background & Brief Defense of Creeds
and Confessions as Inevitable and Important
Before we answer the question of biblical warrant for creeds and confessions—terms I am using synonymously—we need to lay some introductory groundwork.

A “creed”, which is Latin for “I believe”, or a “confession” (“We confess/proclaim that…”) is simply a statement of faith meant to compile the major doctrinal positions held by a person, church, or association of churches. With reference to our church’s “Essentials–Convictions–Opinions” Chart, it will always have at least the essentials, often many convictions, and usually few opinions.

Frankly, and contrary to what most Christians since the mid-20th century tend to think, in the scope of church history, the repudiation of confessions is a markedly minor view, is quite relatively new, and is found primarily in recently formed church traditions like ours who are staunchly nondenominational, fully congregational, and whose polity has been formed as much by democracy as anything. In fact, our tradition, the Restoration/Stone-Campbell Movement, was formed by dissenting from those our founders perceived as beholding to church confessions in a way that was divisive and that stifled freedom to interpret the Scriptures differently. Thus they penned “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” to withdraw from the Presbyterians with which they disagreed theologically. Eventually slogans like these became our rallying cry and theological hermeneutic: “No book but the Bible. No creed but Christ.” “Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where it is silent, we are silent.”  “Bible words for Bible things.”

While there is some obvious wisdom there about being careful to not go beyond Scripture in our theological claims, there are nonetheless problems with rallying cries from a different and bygone cultural and theological context. The dissolution of sociocultural norms which were once the ground of an environment amenable to the Christian faith, coupled with today’s widespread anti-institutionalism and biblical, theological, and historical illiteracy have made “no creed but Christ” an empty theological guardrail that is functionally meaningless beyond an ever-smaller group of well-versed Stone-Campbellites. Said more simply, in the past nondenominational Christian Churches like ours didn’t feel much need to clearly compile and communicate our basic doctrinal beliefs because people knew their Bible, most held similar enough beliefs to allow for freely and productively practicing Christian faith teaching our kids, and so we experienced little need to protect our doctrinal beliefs. Frankly, those days are long gone. Those who remember them have been dead for well over a generation, and those alive who think they remember them are remembering sociopolitical and cultural vestiges.

In our modern pluralistic context, much more must be said about our biblical and theological claims and even the philosophical and logical first principles on which they are founded. Our children are growing up in a world thoroughly devoid of the assumption that believing in God, let alone Jesus, is normal and accepted. To merely declare “no creed but Christ” doesn’t remotely cut it. Even cults and those in grievous doctrinal error proudly stand behind a generic adherence to the Scriptures as a way to hide their heresy. One writer proclaims proudly, “To arrive at the truth we must dismiss religious prejudices [by which he means human-centered church and religious traditions]. … We must let God speak for himself. … Our appeal is to the Bible for truth.” Sounds great, right?! Problem is this declaration comes from Let God Be True, published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (p. 10)!

In our day, a generic confession that includes little beyond loyalty to the Bible and Christ as Lord is not only insufficient for forming faithful Christians and defending orthodox belief but it is a failure of nerve to do the homework of understanding, teaching, and defending a robust and well-tested

So nowadays, not only do the overwhelming majority of fiercely independent nondenominational congregational churches, who have often formerly been suspect of confessionalism, have at least a basic statement of faith on their website, many are rediscovering the historical precedent and current significance of unifying around a confession of faith. And with apologies to my forebears, while I’m about to sound way more like an Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceeder Scottish Presbyterian than a Stone-Campbellite, not only do I think creeds and confessions are essential and wise, I think they are biblical! #scandal

With all that preamble in mind, though I don’t have time to defend against all the objections and delineate all the positives, here’s why I think they’re Biblical, in bullet point form. While I may someday format the following into pretty and enjoyable-to-read prose, I know myself—it’d be half of a book by the time I’m through. So… bullet points will have to suffice for this GQA. (It’s for the best, believe me—my sanity and yours!)
Seeds of Creeds in God’s Command in The Shema
(“Hear, O Israel”)
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded, by God, to keep “these words” by declaring them!

  • Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41
  • The “Shema” was a functional creed. Every Jew was commanded to pray this everyday at morning and at night.
  • All 3 of these passages speak of remembering God’s words and commands: “these words shall be on your heart,” “teach them,” “write them down,” “remember them,” “bind them on your hand,” “talk of them”, etc.
  • Also, by the way, the Birkat Ha-Mazon, “grace after meals”, was to be recited after every meal.
Old Testament Seeds Grew into New Testament Bushes
While fully-developed confessional statements would come later, (“trees”?), the coming of Christ as fulfillment of Old Testament promises meant the need to transmit and protect newly-forming trustworthy doctrine in the New Testament.

  • Scripture is a “progressive revelation” of God. ‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed’ (Augustine likely the first to say this?) See here for more. (Ex: “Blessing,” “favor,” “mercy,” and “steadfast love” are Old Testament precursors that help inform a well-shaped understanding of New Testament “grace”.)
  • Scripture itself transmitted doctrine that was (a) apostolic/authoritative and (b) a body of beliefs.
    • Jude 3 – “the faith once delivered to the saints”
    • Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)
      • “pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) is an especially good example. “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me.” “Pattern” here means a model, form, or standard intended to function as a trustworthy or reliable guide. Paul does not simply say, “Make sure you stay true to the conceptual content of what you have been taught” (Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 74.) I.e., standardization of doctrine (and not merely practice) has a precedent here, with the following…
      • “the healthy doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9)
      • “the deposit”, “the noble deposit” (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14)
      • “the faith” as a concrete body of beliefs (1 Timothy 1:19; Titus 1:13)
      • “the splendid teaching” (1 Timothy 4:6)
    • Hebrews – “the confession” (homologias, “agreement” or “confession”, literally “same word” in Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 10:23; cf. 6:2). E.g., in 4:14, “let us hold fast our confession” is literally “let us hold fast to our one/same word.” This is about agreement in doctrine.
    • 2 Thessalonians 2:15 – “hold fast to the traditions” (paradoseis, “traditions’, hints at specific doctrine)
    • Romans 6:17 – “the pattern of doctrine” (typon, “type”, of didaches, “teaching”), cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3
  • Matthew 16:15-18 is the 1st Confession of Christ as Lord
    • Peter’s “Confession of Faith” is creedal. – v 16 “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
    • Jesus’ response says that Peter is in agreement with the Father, v 17, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this (this confession) to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” I.e., you agree with the Father. A confession is a statement of agreement, so Peter’s confession here is confessional/creedal because it is a statement of doctrinal belief in Jesus that became a guide not only to future believers but in the New Testament itself (as in the next bullet point…)!
    • There are a bunch of other places throughout the NT that use this specific formula and other variations. These show that Peter’s confession was used as creedal pattern (and actually written down by the New Testament writers!): “Jesus is Lord”, “Jesus is the Christ”, “Jesus is the Son of God”, etc., for baptism, preaching, Christian life, etc. The following are just representative.
    • 1 Corinthians 12:3, … No one can say Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
    • Romans 10:9, If you confess (homologeses, to “agree, say the same thing/word”, see next point for more) with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
    • Colossians 2:6, Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.
  • “Confession” in NT
    • Matthew 10:32-33 – 32 Therefore everyone who acknowledges (homologeo = agree, say the same thing/word) me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.
    • 2 Corinthians 9:13, By their approval of this service, they glorify God for your obedience stemming from your confession in the gospel of Christ...
    • 1 Timothy 3:14-16 – 14 I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. Given that, in the Pastorals “truth” = “gospel” in 11 places, verses 14-15 mean that Paul wrote Timothy because he believed God had entrusted the church with the task of promoting and protecting the gospel. The next verse confirms this, 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: And not only is “confess” (form of homologeo, “one/same word”) obviously creedal/confessional, but many think the rest of the verse might have been a well-known creed/confession in the vein of the next bullet point. “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.” This is language meant to clarify that Jesus was both divine and human, came into time/history, on the earth, etc., as further defense against doctrinal heresy/error, a key purpose of creeds/confessions.
    • 1 Timothy 6:12-14ff might, in part, be an actual confessional formula in the vein of the next point. – 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession…”
    • 1 John 2:23 – Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
    • 1 John 4:2-3 – 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.
    • “Confess” (and “acknowledge”, which is often translated “confess” in versions other than the ESV) in these passages means to “say the same thing,” to “agree”. In Matthew 16:16, Peter said the same thing/word as the Father!
  • Actual Creeds in the NT
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, esp vv 3-5 – 1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: (Actual Creed begins here.) that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and then that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (Actual Creed ends at v 5, where Paul adds himself to the apostolic witness beginning in v 6…) 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. > This was probably used as a teaching statement, to give the basic Christian message in a concentrated form.
  • Others (just to name a few) that scholars believe contain early creedal/confessional statements/formula: Romans 1:3-4; 4:24 (cf. ‘God, who has raised the Lord Jesus from the dead’ in Romans 8:11; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; and 1 Peter 1:21); 8:34; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:6-11 (an early hymn); 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 3:16; 6:13-14; 2 Timothy 2:8; 4:1; 1 Peter 3:18-22.
  • Almost every single one of Paul’s letters begins with some form of “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Similar stock phrases likely drawn from early confessions are also found in 2 Peter and John (i.e., in two additional books written by people other than Paul.)
J. N. D. Kelly, in his well known book on the subject called Early Christian Creeds, says, “The second-century conviction that the “rule of faith” believed and taught in the Catholic Church had been inherited from the Apostles contains more than a germ of truth. Not only was the content of that rule, in all essentials, foreshadowed by the “pattern of teaching” accepted in the apostolic Church, but its characteristic lineaments and outline found their prototypes in the confessions and credal summaries contained in the New Testament documents” (p 30). In other words, creeds and confessions made their way into and developed from the New Testament itself!

Now, the spirit of the main question, “Are confessions and creeds Biblical?” is likely asking whether statements of faith after the New Testament that were used to categorize and compile doctrine are mandated, allowed, or helpful, according to Scripture. Are they mandated? No. Are they allowed? Yes. If they weren’t allowed, for some reason known only to God, because it mattered, we’d likely have direct condemnation of them. Are they helpful? Yes. Since, like the answer to the “allowed?” question, we have no direct statement condemning them and, as cited above, apparently Scripture itself seems to think use and repetition of small confessional statements is warranted, then yes, creeds and confessions are helpful!

Still not convinced? Well, here’s the thing… Everybody’s got a creed, including you. The difference is that some people do the homework of writing them down and preparing to defend them! In my estimation, a church that does not clarify its confession of faith in today’s societal and theological climate has abdicated its responsibility to be honest about its teachings and to train its people, which leaves itself open to doctrinal error and hinders unity of mission and purpose.