What does it mean for the church to be “confessional”? This is the question Mark Dever sought to answer during his first session at the Ligonier Pastors Conference.
The title of this lecture, “No Creed but Christ?” represents, unfortunately, a widespread sentiment across the American Christian landscape. Typically, there are two types of critiques of creeds and confessions—one liberal, one conservative.
Liberal attacks on creeds often stem from doctrinal minimalism, or the desire to have just a few doctrines worth upholding. Thomas Jefferson represents this view well. He thought that creeds have been the ruin of the church and the cause of much unnecessary violence throughout her history. These days, we often hear the much lauded liberal notion that “heresy is better than schism.”
Conservative attacks on creeds stem from a more populist sentiment (embodied notably in Alexander Campbell and his heirs, the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ). A great many evangelicals harbor a general skepticism toward man’s formulated creeds on the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. But the weakness of this position is evident almost immediately.
Creeds became important so early in church’s life because of its emphasis on preaching and pastoral ministry. In this, the early church was following the lead of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, where the apostle explores the ramifications of the fact that the gospel is objective: it’s about something Christ did for us (vv. 3–4), quite apart from us. This objective gospel is unassailable; it’s even preached among those who deny it from their pulpits every time they practice communion with the words of institution. Statements of faith have been around since the very beginning, and Christians, rightly, continue to formulate them.
How creeds and confessions work in the everyday life of the church
Doctrinal positions can either be essential or non-essential, matters of first importance or matters of second importance. It’s also important to note here that there are more than two poles in this discussion: it’s not simply that there are matters essential to salvation or matters utterly unimportant. All kinds of shades of importance exists between those doctrines necessary for salvation and those doctrines or practices that are things indifferent.
The following four questions can help us engage the question of how creeds and confessions serve the body of Christ.
- What is the confession for?
Why do we gather? What’s the purpose of the cooperative effort that gives rise to a particular statement of faith? For example, in the midst of outside persecution, church statements may be more broad, since the luxury of more narrowly defined positions are non-existent. What few Christians there are in a persecuted area need to band together.
Another example, say, this Ligonier Pastors Conference, represents another answer to this first question. To speak here, we agree on historic, Christian orthodoxy and Reformed soteriology, but if we were seeking to be members of the same church, more would have to be added to the slate, and these items would no doubt cause some separation among us.
- What must we agree upon?
It’s a dangerous question to decide from Holy Writ what must be prioritized. What can guide us in this regard? Three things:
1. The Bible is the primary means of finding the truth. It is entirely sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. We must get to know it well. We must find delight in it. But God hasn’t designed us to be entirely self-taught, to be lone disciples. We must never decide by ourselves what is to be prioritized when it comes to doctrine.
2. As the church, Christians are to gather together, submitting to each other and to the teaching of God’s Holy Word. All true Christians should know and believe and be discipled in the simple gospel, ever seeking the truth. This happens especially in the community of Christ.
3. Each of our consciences also guide us. The Spirit in us, which is ever renewing us, has promised to lead us into truth. Despite our fallen natures, we do have occasional fits of clarity where we bear witness to the truth. Yet while our consciences are inherent, they are not inerrant. We must be saturated with God’s Holy Word, not least in communion with Christ and His church.
- What may we disagree about?
How can we in a principled fashion cooperate with those with whom we have some doctrinal disagreements? Practical matters often are points of contention (for example, church polity—like the differences between congregational [Baptist] vs. Presbyterian polity). A good example of such differences taking place in Scripture is Acts 15:39, when Barnabas and Paul parted ways after differing sharply on an apparently secondary matter. Neither one was questioning the salvation of the other, but they were exercised enough to separate and (this is important to point out) continue on in the work that they were called to do.
We pastors must remember that not every Christian has to be in our churches. For example, when that congregant comes to you and threatens you with leaving the church, remember Acts 15:39. Sometimes, it is best to part. We have to have unity in the gospel to recognize each other as Christians, but, as we see in another instance in Romans 14 (about whether or not to eat meat that has been offered to idols), two Spirit-filled people can disagree sharply about lesser matters. At the end of day, when we experience such parting, we must get on with the work that we’ve been called to do.
- How do we disagree well?
Let’s assume that we’re going to disagree about doctrinal and practical details. Creeds and confessions, contrary to popular belief, actually help us to apply the popular maxim: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love. Two questions can help understand how to disagree in a Christian manner.
What do I owe the person who differs from me?
We owe people love and respect (Matt. 7:12). We must listen to what others are saying, seeking clarity while giving the benefit of the doubt. This requires wisdom and humility. We must always present the view that we’re opposing in the way with those whom we disagree would; indeed, we ought to present it better than our opponents do. We must find those points of agreements and goals we share so that we don’t accuse others unnecessarily of believing something that they really don’t believe. Starting from a position of unity will help the disagreement move forward in a positive direction.
What can I learn from the person who differs from me?
We must constantly put ourselves in a humble position: Perhaps it is the case, after all, that we’re wrong. Before that final day when all our sins done away, we must have the humility to always maintain this posture. Our reputations are not primary; the truth is. Pride is our greatest enemy and welcomed correction is a good enemy to pride.
Second Timothy 2:24–25a states: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth….”
This is what we’re trying to do with our creeds and confessions, teaching our opponents with patience and humility and gentleness a knowledge of the truth. Creeds and confessions are supposed to be digests of the whole of Scripture, not practices in cherry picking. They’re not a replacement of Scripture’s authority, but a testimony to Scripture’s authority. They promote what is already believed, not what is to be believed.
Any heretic can claim he follows Scripture exclusively in matter of faith and practice. But creeds and confessions help us to unite around the gospel for the sake of God’s glory and the vitality of His church.