Sola Scriptura—this rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation sounded forth during that great sixteenth-century awakening when the Holy Spirit moved God’s people to return to Scripture and cast off the many unbiblical traditions of men that had been imposed by the Roman Catholic Church. Returning to divine revelation as the final and only infallible rule of faith, the Reformers and their heirs recovered the biblical gospel that had been all but lost under what had been added to Scripture over the centuries. Yet while the Reformers are known for what they cast aside, we must not overlook what they kept. In returning to the Scriptures, they set aside not all church traditions but only the ones that contradicted God’s Word. Traditions faithful to Scripture and that stood as sound expositions of the biblical teaching were kept. Preeminent among these were the ecumenical creeds and confessions of the faith such as the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon.
The Reformers kept these statements of faith and others because they are faithful summaries of the Bible’s teaching on key doctrines of the faith. At their best, creeds and confessions serve the purpose of summarizing what the church believes Scripture to teach, helping believers to know biblical doctrine, to discern false teaching, and to instruct others in the deep matters of God’s Word. While creeds and confessions do not take the place of Scripture and while they operate in submission to Scripture, time-tested creeds and confessions provide invaluable guidance to us as we seek to believe what God has revealed and only what God has revealed.
Everyone, in fact, has a creed or a confession that summarizes what he believes about essential matters of the faith. Even the statements “No creed but Christ” or “No confession but the Bible” are themselves creeds and confessions that communicate core convictions. Moreover, the minute we start trying to relate one part of biblical teaching to another part, we are starting to form a creed.
Creeds are so important that we find basic creeds even in the Bible itself. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is the fundamental creedal statement of biblical monotheism. Throughout the Epistles we find core summaries of the person and work of Christ that were likely recited or sung in the Apostolic Church. Philippians 2:5–11 summarizes the biblical teaching on the incarnation of the Son of God. First Timothy 3:16 masterfully encapsulates the work of Christ. These examples and others show us that summarizing and declaring our faith is a historical and biblical practice.
Protestant Creeds and the Purpose of This Work
From the start, Protestants put into creedal, confessional, and catechetical form their convictions regarding what the Bible teaches, both to instruct their people and to explain their differences with the theological views of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther wrote both a large catechism and a small catechism that summarize essential teachings on faith and practice by expositing the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps the most significant early Protestant confession is the Augsburg Confession, presented to Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg as a summary of Lutheran beliefs and where they differed from both Roman Catholicism and the teaching of the Anabaptists. To this day, the Augsburg Confession remains the fundamental confession of the Lutheran tradition.
Throughout the sixteenth century, Reformed Protestants, who held sway in the Church of England, in Geneva, and elsewhere composed many different creeds, confessions, and catechisms including the Thirty-Nine Arti-cles of Religion, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession. The Thirty-Nine Articles continue to guide the Anglican Communion, while the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession are two of the Three Forms of Unity that are the confessional foundation of the Dutch Reformed Churches. A host of other Reformed confessions written during the same period continue to serve the churches of the Reformed tradition.
One of the most important of the Reformed Confessions, the Canons of Dort, is the third of the Three Forms of Unity and has served to unite Christians from many different traditions who hold to a Reformed understanding of God’s grace in salvation. A high point of Reformed confessionalism is represented by the Westminster Standards, written in the middle of the seven-teenth century to reform the Church of England but which has subsequently been adopted by Presbyterians the world over.
We Believe: Creeds, Catechisms, and Confessions of Faith is a collection of the aforementioned creeds, confessions, and catechisms and several others, providing the church a one-volume resource containing the most significant Protestant statements of faith ever formulated. This volume is offered to help Christians better understand the distinctions and commonalities among different Protestant traditions as well as to become better grounded in the faith once delivered to the saints.