Protestant Creeds and Confessions
by Ryan Reeves
The Reformation was a struggle over the essentials of the faith. First with Luther, and then with other Protestant traditions, the Reformers set biblical faith over against that of Roman Catholic teachings and the papal magisterium. Pointing to the Bible as the exclusive source of doctrine, Protestants nevertheless had to articulate their understanding of biblical teaching. In this sense, the Reformation confessions were a natural flowering of the Protestant commitment to the Bible.
Protestants did not invent the need for confessions. Over the centuries, the church has always confessed the faith in the midst of confusion or crisis. The role of a creed or confession was never to replace Scripture, but rather to sum up the church’s witness to the truth in Scripture over against error.
The most famous examples of this impulse are the historic creeds—such as the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds—written between the third and fifth centuries. These creeds sprang from the same need as later Protestant confessions—namely, the need to clarify what the church holds essential on doctrinal matters.
What is different about Protestant confessions, though, is the desire on the part of the Reformers for root-and-branch reform. The issues of the Reformation were not simply controversies over one doctrine—or one set of doctrines—but rested on the need to reform the church entirely. Some doctrines, such as the Trinity, were retained as biblical, while others, such as justification by faith alone, needed careful articulation. For the sake of the churches in their traditions, Protestant leaders strove to write down in everyday language the thinking behind the acceptance of doctrines such as justification by faith alone or the rejection of the papal magisterium.
So in this sense, Protestant confessions are the same as early creeds, except their depth of focus is more detailed. Like a creed, they do not replace Scripture, nor are they even set on par with Scripture. Instead, they are the articulation of what Protestants find in Scripture.
The first example of this trend in Protestantism is found during Luther’s early Reformation. Having struggled for justification by faith alone from 1517 to 1519, and having been declared an outlaw and heretic at the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther worked immediately to write down the basics of his message in a set of confessional documents. Two were for the church and one was for the public defense of Luther’s message.
In the first two cases, Luther wrote the Large and Small Catechisms in 1529, the first for training adult disciples and clergy and the second for children or new converts. He also wrote an Exhortation to Confession that same year to justify the need for confession. Though the church rests on Scripture alone, Luther argued, the need for corporate confession is essential.
These early catechisms also signal one of the defining characteristics of confessions: they are tools for discipleship, essential to the life of the church.
The third confession was the famous Augsburg Confession (1530), drawn up by Luther and Philip Melanchthon, not in a spirit of corporate confession for the church, but in order for it to be laid before Emperor Charles V and the princes of Europe. It was an apologetic of the Lutheran message, combative at times in its tone, or at least in its implications. It clarifies what Lutherans actually believed over against the charges leveled against them by German Catholics.
The Lutheran catechisms and confessions, then, form a microcosm of the ways confessions were used in the Reformation era: one for church life, the other for public disputation against spurious claims about Protestant orthodoxy; one for every believer in the church, the other for its leaders to clarify what they hold to be orthodox teaching.
REFORMED CONFESSIONS PROLIFERATE
The Reformed tradition was equally committed to the cause of confessionalization. Depending on how wide a net we cast, there were roughly forty to fifty Reformed (or Reformed-influenced) confessions written between 1520 and 1650—by far the most of any Protestant tradition. In 1523, almost immediately as the Reformed tradition began, Huldrych Zwingli drew up the Sixty-Seven Articles in order to provide an articulation of the points at stake in Zurich. This was followed by the Ten Theses of Berne (1528), the First Confession of Basel (1534), and several others as cities began to adopt the Reformed perspective. Others would follow in other countries, with the French Confession of Faith (1559) and the Scots Confession (1560).
The reason for so many Reformed confessions comes as a result of their context. The Reformed faith was always led by a band of brothers (despite the modern impression that John Calvin alone created Reformed orthodoxy). But the Reformed tradition was born in several cities and countries almost at once. From 1520 onward, city after city embraced the Reformation, often piecemeal, and quite a few even before reform came to Geneva. Therefore, there was no singular voice like Luther’s to shape the foundational documents of Reformed confessions.
As a result, church after church, community after community spent a sizable portion of their energy codifying a confession for their local churches. This is why most Reformed confessions identify with the city of their origin: this was the confession for this city, this church, not for all Reformed churches to embrace as one.
Still, as historians and theologians point out, there is a harmonization of these Reformed confessions that unites their diverse voices into a singular Reformed voice. Their differences are not so great that we cannot see their unity on issues of salvation, worship, and practice. Today, many churches recognize a basic harmony of what is called the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism—a unity not of authorship but of witness to Reformed principles.
This is not to say that all Reformed confessions are identical. As the Reformed faith spread from the Swiss cantons to Germany, France, the Netherlands, and then to England and Scotland, there were noticeable differences of emphasis or application. These confessional identities formed the initial steps that would give rise to the diversity of Reformed denominations and communities as we know it today.
THE REMONSTRANTS AND DORT
In the Netherlands, for example, the rise of Arminianism within Reformed churches provided the context of the Synod of Dort (1618–19), a unique application of Reformed principles to the challenges of Jacob Arminius. Having studied in Geneva under Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, Arminius returned to the Netherlands to serve as a pastor. (One great irony is that Beza wrote a letter of recommendation for Arminius as he returned home.) Arminius, though, increasingly had doubts about Reformed scholasticism and its teachings on predestination and grace. In time, his teachings became the rallying cry of several other leaders against the Calvinist establishment.
After the death of Arminius in 1609, the Arminian position—also known as the Remonstrant faith—soon codified five points that were submitted to leaders of the Dutch war to separate from Spanish-controlled Catholic regions of the Netherlands. The Synod of Dort met in response to this and rejected each of the five points. Thus were born the so-called five points of Calvinism, though the synod’s intention was not to reduce the faith to five points, but merely to give answers to the five points of Arminianism.
Moving ahead to the later seventeenth century, we see this same individual expression of Reformed principles in the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). As the creation of Puritan Baptists—or Primitive Baptists—this confession was written by those committed to Reformed doctrine who nevertheless differed with Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Dutch Calvinists in terms of their polity and rejection of paedobaptism. This confession was the culmination of generations of Baptists that emerged in England and would come to define Reformed Baptist views for centuries.
THE WESTMINSTER STANDARDS
The high mark of confessions, though, was the Westminster Standards, which comprises the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Directory of Public Worship, and the Form of Church Government. The confession served as a new expression of Reformed orthodoxy, while the two catechisms mimic Luther’s commitment to providing a manual for both clergy or adults (Larger Catechism) and children (Shorter Catechism). In terms of length and depth, no Reformation or post-Reformation confessional standard rivals that of the Westminster Assembly. Its history, though, comes out of the struggle over Puritanism within the English church.
Since the time of Henry VIII (r. 1509–47), the English church had embraced only an essential confession—first the Forty-Two Articles (1552), later pared down to the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563). Though these articles were fully Protestant in theology, they did not clarify the church’s commitment to principles of worship and did not specify a position on controversial doctrines such as ecclesiological leadership structures or the presence of Christ in communion. Much of the failure in the English church to write a more comprehensive confession was not due to hesitation but to inability created by the violent swings between Protestant and Catholic allegiances under Henry’s two children, Edward VI and Mary I. For much of the sixteenth century, the Anglican Church did not have the luxury to write a lengthy, unified confession.
By the time of Elizabeth I, not a few in England believed the earlier necessity of a limited confession to be a virtue. Shorter confessions might curtail the number of doctrinal squabbles that were emerging, for example, between Reformed and Lutheran leaders in Europe. Bishops such as Matthew Parker—though committed to the Reformed faith—began to express concern at the growing voice for the English church to alter its position on worship, vestments, doctrine, and other liturgical practices.
The result of this tension provoked the emergence of Puritanism, first under Elizabeth and then increasingly under James I. The label applied to the impulse to seek further reform rather than to a clearly defined movement. Yet all Puritans shared in the frustration at the hesitation of bishops and political leaders to reform the English church further.
By the time of Charles I, the situation was rather grim. Under Elizabeth and James, the plight of Puritans was often that they were ignored, though they were hardly persecuted. Charles, though, embodied a more aggressive stance against Puritans. In the end, strife between Parliament and king issued in the English Civil War (1642–51).
The Puritans won the struggle, led by the heroic efforts of Oliver Cromwell—whose statue today still sits squarely in front of Parliament. During the war, Parliament ordered Puritan leaders (and a few Scottish consultants) to convene an assembly to expand the Thirty-Nine Articles into a full confession that matched other confessions in Europe. The Westminster Assembly made an honest effort to base their work on the Thirty-Nine Articles, but it soon found this model too constricting, and so started from scratch.
This context of the struggles against Charles and the need for further reform explain the length and depth of the Westminster Standards. Rather than being seen as an attempt to summarize all doctrine, the Standards should be seen instead as an explosion of pent-up energies within Puritanism to define English Reformed doctrine and practice. Blood had been shed and voices silenced, and now that those voices were loosed from their confines, they felt it their duty to expound not only on their doctrinal position but on worship, discipleship, and a bevy of other issues in the life of the church.
Today, confessions are used in a variety of ways in the lives of Protestant churches. Not all of the trends in evangelical churches are hospitable to confessions. Forces such as the rise of Pietism and the Second Great Awakening have had a withering effect on the role of confessions—corporately and privately—in favor of a more immediate articulation of the faith. At times, confessions are seen as roadblocks to authentic faith.
While these trends are alarming, the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have not passed away. They are used weekly in many churches, both in the context of worship and in catechizing new believers and children. They also are used to verify the fidelity of pastors and elders in a variety of denominations. In this sense, the confessions of faith not only form the boundary fence that helps ensure orthodoxy but are also used as living documents that contour the daily walk of Christian disciples
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