The people of God have always been a confessional people, offering short summaries of their beliefs and convictions about who God is and what he’s done. Israel’s foundational confession, known as the Shema, is recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The New Testament likewise contains short distillations of the Christian confession, sometimes in the form of poetic hymns (as in Colossians 1:15–20 and Philippians 2:6–11) and sometimes in the form of “trustworthy sayings” (as in 1 Timothy 1:15 and other passages in the Pastoral Epistles).
Since the first century, the church has been marked by disputes and controversies that have inevitably produced confessional statements — from the Apostles’ Creed to the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, to the Definition of Chalcedon, to the multiplication of confessions around the Reformation with the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the London Baptist Confession, all the way to the present day, with documents such as The Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement. My own institution, Bethlehem College & Seminary, has an Affirmation of Faith that it shares with Bethlehem Baptist Church and other like-minded churches. Indeed, from the beginning, the people of God have been in the business of crafting creeds and confessions.
But should we? It’s one thing to confess the words of Scripture. The Shema and Paul’s hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 and his “trustworthy sayings” are all well and good. But isn’t it obvious that these short biblical statements are significantly different from the lengthy, detailed summaries of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Confession and the Bethlehem Affirmation of Faith?
If we have the Scriptures, do we need these additional statements? And if we do need them, do we need them to be so long? The Shema is eleven words; some confessions are more than eleven pages. Are there good reasons for having creeds and confessions of different lengths?
No doubt many answers could be given to these questions. I want to dwell on two of them. First, confessions summarize and clarify the truth for new contexts. Second, confessions serve the unity of the church.
Clarifying the Truth
At their best and most basic, confessions are faithful summaries of the beliefs of the people of God. The Shema itself was one such summary. Israel believed far more about Yahweh than that he was one. But the confession of God’s oneness was a distillation and summary of a fuller array of beliefs and affirmations about God.
The Shema isn’t the only example. The Law of Moses in some measure could be summarized in the Ten Commandments. And Jesus himself further summarized the Law by reducing it to two: love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–40). In like manner, written confessions summarize the church’s belief about God, man, Christ, and the way of salvation.
In this respect, confessions are like suitcases; they enable us to pack a lot of content in a small amount of space. They flow from a recognition that, as creatures, we can’t say everything all of the time. And so we must condense. We must distill. We must fold our doctrines into tightly defined statements and package them together into our confessions. Confessions are a way of summarizing the teaching of the whole Bible and putting it into a usable form.
Now, it’s important to recognize that while such summaries ought to be grounded in Scripture, they are not identical to Scripture. Scripture is unique. Scripture alone is inspired by God, without error, and infallible. As a result, Scripture alone has supreme and final authority for testing all claims about what is true and right. Confessions, on the other hand, have a derived and dependent authority. This means that a confession of faith should be embraced only insofar as we understand it to be a faithful summary and distillation of what God himself has said in the Bible.
But confessions don’t merely summarize what the Bible says. They also can clarify what the Bible teaches. Scripture is authoritative because it is the word of God. God reveals himself and his intentions in and through the words of the biblical authors. This is crucial — God’s intentions are revealed through the intentions of the human authors.
In other words, to understand what God has said, we need to understand what Paul and Peter and Isaiah and Moses have said. We understand divine meaning by paying attention to the meaning of the human authors of the Bible. This meaning is a public fact — a fixed, objective, historical reality. Meaning is what authors do in public by means of words. Paul recounts events, asks questions, issues commands and exhortations, expresses desires and purposes by means of words. And by understanding Paul’s meaning and intention, we understand the divine meaning and intention that God inspired.
Discovering this divine intention is not easy. It takes effort. In fact, it takes careful, humble, prayerful, and collective effort. It takes care with language and an understanding of grammar and syntax and vocabulary, a grasp of poetry and prose, metaphor and analogy. Most importantly, it takes the illumination of the Holy Spirit, who can overcome our creaturely limitations, our cultural assumptions, and our personal sin so that we rightly understand what God has said in the Bible.
But once we’ve discovered (at least in part) what God has said in the Bible, we may then express what God has said in a variety of ways. We may exposit what God has said, using many words to unpack, express, and apply his meaning. We can fill libraries with sermons and books unpacking the inexhaustible riches contained in the Scriptures. On the other hand, we can distill, summarize, and clarify for new contexts what we find in the whole Bible, using fewer words to synthesize what God has said in 66 books, so that the truth can be known and loved by more people.
This is the first reason that the church writes creeds and confessions. The truth is inexhaustible. There are depths and riches in the word of God that we will be plumbing for ages. By summarizing and distilling the doctrines of the Bible in a condensed form, confessions clarify for us who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ. Confessions distill doctrines into a usable form.
Serving the Unity of the Church
This brings us to the second reason why we write confessions (and to the reason for the vast differences in length between the Apostles’ Creed and the Westminster Confession). Confessions serve the unity of the church, and they do so by helping us to see what is essential.
Essential for What?
When we say that something is essential, we should ask, “Essential for what?” There are different ways of thinking about what is essential. Certain doctrines are essential for the life of the church; if you don’t confess such a doctrine, you lack life; you’re outside the Christian faith. Other doctrines are essential for the health of the church; denial of such a doctrine doesn’t mean you’re spiritually dead, but you might be spiritually sick. Finally, some doctrines are essential for the practice of the church, subjects on which church members need to agree because they are tied closely to the way that we order our churches.
Asking “essential for what?” explains why certain confessions are longer than others. Many of the shorter confessional statements — from the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicene Creed to the membership affirmations of most churches — are seeking to identify what is essential for life, what is essential for salvation. The longer statements — like the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the Bethlehem Affirmation of Faith — typically identify not only what is essential for salvation, but what is essential for health and practice. This means that not everything in the larger statements is of equal importance; some things are “of first importance.”
Nevertheless, longer confessional statements are valuable. They frequently define the teaching boundaries of a church or a school or a ministry. While members of a congregation or students at a college might have more leeway in terms of what they may believe, pastors and faculty might be expected to affirm the full confessional statement. Such fuller statements strengthen the church for mission and ministry by lifting up what this corner of Christendom believes and by inviting others to rally to it.
Love Across the Fences
But how do these longer statements serve the unity of the church? The shorter creedal statements seem to do so; they establish the minimum (so to speak) that must be believed in order to be a Christian. In doing so, they unite all Christians everywhere around the creedal affirmation. But the longer statements seem to cut in the other direction, dividing us from one another across confessional and denominational lines. How then do such longer confessional statements serve the unity of the church?
They do so precisely because we recognize that different confessions have different uses. Our fundamental unity is a spiritual unity in Christ by faith. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ and to each other as one universal church. And this unity is expressed in our basic confession of the triune God and the person and work of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
But within that larger spiritual unity, there is room for various fences. Some fences will be geographical or national or linguistic (the American church, the Irish church, the Chinese church). And some fences will be doctrinal. But as the saying goes, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Considered rightly, confessional statements can serve the unity of the church by providing the opportunity for us to love one another across our doctrinal fences.
This, then, is the dual function of confessions. The importance of the truth is served by the existence of doctrinal borders, and unity is served by the way we love others across those borders. But this is only possible when we rightly relate Scripture and confessions. Scripture is our ultimate and final authority. Confessions are servants of God’s word and of his church, summarizing and clarifying the truth for our use, and serving the unity of the church for the sake of her mission.