Throughout the history of Christianity, followers of Jesus have consistently stated what they believe. This makes sense given that Christianity isn’t a vague religion with undefined doctrine. There are specific truth claims and particular doctrinal beliefs that mark Christianity off as distinct from other world religions.
Where are these truth claims found? In the Bible, the written Word of God. Within that Book, we learn about God who is three in one. We are told that humans are created in the image of God but have fallen into sin (e.g., Gen 1–3). We read and come to see God’s unfolding plan of redemption as he seeks to gather a people to himself. Furthermore, we find out that he does this work of redemption through his Son, Jesus Christ. And, in the Bible, men and women find instruction on how to live in light of God’s grace, for the good of their neighbors, and the glory of King Jesus.
In other words, the Bible shapes how we view the world.
Embedded within this grand view of reality, we find granular theological realities. From the nature of the Church, what ordinances we are called to practice, to instructions in marriage, and how men and women are called to relate in the world, there are numerous things God reveals to us. And Christians have labored hard to understand such things and live life accordingly.
All that to say, Christians have taken time throughout history to take God and his Word seriously. Laboring to understand and apply his Word rightly, Christians have often sought to summarize those beliefs in writing. This means that as you study Christianity, you’ll run across historic documents that have attempted to codify Christian belief. Some of the documents Christians have produced that outline their beliefs are known as Creeds and Confessions (for a helpful distinction between Creeds, Confessions, Councils, and Catechisms, see Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils, 9–24).
Some Creeds and Confessions Worth Noting
In the early church Christians developed the Apostles Creed (ca. 140 AD), the Nicene Creed (325 AD), and the Athanasian Creed (ca. late 400’s to early 500’s). These early church documents sought to delineate, often against the backdrop of theological error or persecution, what Christians actually believed. The word “creed” itself comes from the Latin credo, which is translated as “I believe” (cf. Holcomb, Creeds, 11). These early creeds are shorter than later confessions of faith and usually outlined more non-negotiable ideas (e.g. monotheism, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.).
Confessions developed later in the history of Christianity and tended to become longer documents. They, of course, affirmed essential doctrinal beliefs but often sought to define more particularly what a certain sect of Christians believed (e.g., Presbyterians distinguished themselves from Anglicans or Baptists). For instance, in the Reformed tradition, which I am a part of to a degree, you find the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Even reformed Baptists have developed confessions of faith. In 1646, the First London Confession was published by Baptists in England. Then, in 1689, the Second London Confession was issued. Today, hundreds of years later, I am part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which operates according to the Baptist Faith & Message (2000).
In summary, Christians are a people who believe specific truths as revealed in the Bible. Given these revealed truths are from God himself, it has seemed prudent for Christians to set forth in writing what they believe God has said.
Why are doctrinal statements important?
There is a common sentiment today, however, that drawing doctrinal boundaries is archaic and narrow-minded. But the reality is, creeds and confessions have been used throughout the history of the Church to help guard Christian churches and institutions from slidding into fatal error or violating their conscience. Confessional institutions have a better chance of staying faithful to God and his Word than those who adopt some pietistic idea of “no creed but the Bible.”
There are several reasons why confessing our faith is still important. Carl Trueman highlights several in this article (I summarize Trueman below).
- The Bible itself includes certain confessions of faith (e.g., Deuteronomy 6, Philippians 2:5–11).
- Early Christians like Irenaeus and Tertullian refer to confession-like statements (“The Rule”).
- We all believe the Bible means specific things and confessions note those specific beliefs.
- Creeds and Confessions provide succinct summaries of doctrinal convictions.
- Creeds and Confessions are able to speak to essential and important matters implicitly giving Christians freedom in areas where they do not speak.
- These types of historical documents are able to link the modern church with the Great Tradition.
- The theological realities communicated within creeds and confessions help us worship God.
Christians, churches, and Christian organizations are at their best when they operate on a confessional basis. That is, they are well served when they clearly set forth the content of their faith in writing. These documents guard from error and help us stay faithful to convictions in a challenging world.