Why is it important to study the Christian creeds, confessions, and catechisms?

Steven Lawson & 2 others
2 Min Read

LAWSON: The greatest book I’ve ever read was A Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson. That does not mean it’s the greatest book ever written, but it was the perfect book for me at the pivotal moment in my life. Reading that book started a great change in my theology, and Watson was simply preaching through the Westminster Confession of Faith.

There is enormous value in studying the confessions because they are such profound and concise statements of truth, systematic theology, and sound doctrine. They teach everything from bibliology to theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, angelology, anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology—the ten major areas of systematic theology. The confessions give you a full counsel of God.

I think that everyone should be confessional and know what they believe. The historic confessions are time-tested and involved a plurality of scholars who joined their hearts and minds together, struggling, praying, and wrestling with how to articulate these truths in as few words as possible. We did something like that with “The Ligonier Statement on Christology.”

Studying the confessions helped me move from being Arminian to Reformed. That was the game-changer and the tipping point of my becoming Reformed.

THOMAS: The Nicene Creed of 325, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, and the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 are universal statements of truth. They express the church’s understanding of the Trinity and the relationship between the two natures of Christ. Although all three of those creeds have been challenged multiple times in almost every century, including our own, they still prove to be the most comprehensive statement of what Scripture teaches about the Trinity and the person of Christ.

To try and live without those creeds would be like sailing a boat without sails or driving a car without an engine. They provide stability by telling you what is orthodox and what is not. If you do not agree with those creeds, you are not a Christian or, at least, you are outside the orthodox bounds of fundamental Christianity.

Confessions are a little trickier because they are not universal creeds but statements of certain groups’ understanding of Scripture. Without the Westminster Confession, which I have been studying and teaching for forty years, it would be like reinventing the wheel. What are the fundamental doctrines? What does Scripture teach? If you go back to “no creed but the Bible,” you would constantly be reinventing the wheel without the benefit of what learned exegetes and theologians have said over the centuries to help you understand what is orthodox and what is not.

GODFREY: We should also remember that a number of churches have catechisms. Catechisms were specifically written to teach the faith, while confessions were sometimes written to summarize the faith. The great catechisms that have survived over the centuries, such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism and Westminster Larger Catechism, are huge treasures for the church.

Sometimes people are intimidated by the Larger Catechism because the answers to the questions are long. But if you break those answers down, comma to comma, it’s actually very clear. It is not complicated or difficult, just long. So, if you chop them up a bit, it’s very manageable. It is something of a tragedy that the Larger Catechism has been neglected because it develops important themes on the church and the sacraments, for example, that are not as developed in the Shorter Catechism. Then, there is also the Heidelberg Catechism, the queen of catechisms.

THOMAS: B.B. Warfield used to tell a wonderful story that took place during the Civil War period. He met a soldier as they were passing by each other. Warfield asked, “What is the chief end of man?” The soldier replied, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Warfield said, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism man just by the manner in which you walked.”

This is a transcript of Steven Lawson’s, Derek Thomas’, and W. Robert Godfrey’s answers given during our A Continuing Reformation: Pittsburgh 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.