Creeds and confessions often get a bad rap. Some object that they are unnecessary or even harmful – unwelcome barriers wedged between the believer and his Bible. Some also say that they embody preconceived systems that strong-arm the Bible to justify them. It is suggested that they don’t really grow out of the Scriptures in any natural, organic way. As such, they should be brushed aside in favor of an unmediated reading of God’s Word.
But the more I study the classic creeds and confessions, and especially those in the Reformation tradition, the more I find these objections hollow. Admitting that there is some creedal language not technically biblical (‘Trinity’ being the classic example), it is striking how biblically shaped and saturated these documents really are. Biblical in content and biblical in form! And by contrast, so much of non- or anti-creedal evangelical discourse today can be so flat – or even foreign to the Bible. To illustrate, let me point to some examples from the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1647).
For starters. Throughout the New Testament, we frequently encounter the basic two-age distinction, “the world” or “age that is” and “that which is to come.” The sin against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven either “in this world” or “in the world to come” (Matt. 12:32; cf. Lu. 18:30, 20:34-35, Eph. 1:21, 1 Tim. 6:7). The “end” or “consummation of this world” (Matt. 13:39-40, 28:20) will unleash what presently is the “coming wrath” (Matt. 3:7, 1 Thess. 1:10). And with the Judgment, the old, fading world will give way to the new and perfect one, “world without end” (Eph. 3:21). Closely related also are the categories of “this life” or “this time” and that “which is to come.” Godliness, unlike physical exercise, has a twofold promise, both “of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8; cf. Lu. 8:14, 1 Cor. 6:3-4, 15:19). In one instance, the ideas of “life,” “this time,” and “the world to come” are drawn together into a single statement. “And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life” (Mk. 10:30).
The theologians at Westminster, being keen students of the Word, noted its very warp and woof. They consequently made this major biblical distinction a controlling one in their writings. “All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever” (Shorter Catechism, 19). “Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come” (Shorter Catechism, 84; cf. Larger Catechism, 152). The fall of man has made us “justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come” (Larger Catechism, 27; cf. 28 & 29). With their ear to the Word, they sensed our place on the redemptive-historical timeline. The “end of the world” is appointed, and the expiration of this order hastens (Confession, 21.7, 25.3, 28.1, 29.1). And sinners, take heed! The “wrath to come” dooming this “present evil world,” is gathering on the horizon (Confession, 20.1, Larger Catechism, 96).
The Reformed fathers also cherished the very richness and diversity of biblical language. While modern evangelicals may (and I emphasize may) speak of “heaven” and “going to heaven,” Reformed confessions and catechisms say that, but also much more. Why? Because the Bible does.
For instance, consider how the Bible sometimes refers to the coming state in royal terms. It is “the kingdom of heaven” that is coming (Matt. 5:10, 7:21, 8:11), the “kingdom of God” (Mk. 9:47, 14:25, Acts 14:22), or sometimes simply “the kingdom” (Matt. 25:34, Lu. 12:32). Or, observe that the coming kingdom is also called an “inheritance,” pledged to the blood-bought children and heirs of God (Acts 20:32, 26:18, Eph. 1:11, 18, 5:5, Heb. 8:12, 15). Well, so spoke the fathers at Westminster. “Jesus,” they wrote, “purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him” (Confession, 8.5; cf. 7.4, 18.2).
Or, consider how often the Bible refers to the future state of believers as one of “glory” or a “glorification” that they are predestined to enjoy “together” with Christ (Rom. 5:2, 8:17, 30, 9:23, 1 Cor. 15:43, 2 Thess. 1:10). Once upon a time, this language of glory was still common coinage in evangelical circles. But do you hear it much anymore? Yet, it is woven through the entire fabric of the Westminster Standards. They speak of our “hope of the glory of God” (Confession, 18.10, Larger Catechism, 83), our “state of glory” that “is to come” (Confession, 9.5, 16.5), and our title to beholding “God’s face in light and glory” (32.1). This glory is assured to believers on account of God’s decree from eternity (3.5, 6) and their “fellowship” or “communion” with Christ’s glory granted to them in time (Confession, 26.1, Larger Catechism, 65, 82-83).
The Bible also often designates the hope of believers as the state of “life” (Matt. 18:8-9, 19:7) and as “the joy of the Lord” (Matt. 25:21, 23). The Confession echoes those ideas too. “For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fulness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Confession, 33.2). True faith embraces “the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come” (14.2).
Heaven and kingdom. Inheritance and glory. Life – indeed, life everlasting – and unspeakable joy! If the Bible is not monotone, then we shouldn’t be either.
Often, too, we encounter in these documents catenae of biblical phrases and clauses, gathered from the fruitful field of the biblical text. Take for example the following declaration on the being of God:
There is but one only, living and true God: who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (Confession, 2.1).
Really, this statement is but a harvest of rich confessions of faith taken straight from the Bible itself. Can you count them? Better yet, can you find them in your Bibles?
Or, speaking of the nature of Christ, the only Mediator between God and man, the Confession writes:
The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified and anointed with the Holy Spirit above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fulness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator and surety. Which office He took not unto Himself, but was thereunto called by His Father, who put all power and judgment into His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same (Westminster Confession of Faith, 8.3).
If you couldn’t tell that this section is chock-full of biblical clauses, one piled on top of the other, then you are either a non-Christian, a new Christian, or a Christian who could stand to read his Bible more!
Coming full circle, just who is speaking the language of Canaan after all? Is it the non-confessionalists? Does their speech and writing (and yes, they use their own words too!) bear the distinct imprint of the Bible, the only rule of a believer’s faith and practice? Or is their grammar more often than not somewhat removed, if not drifting quite far from the shore of God’s Word?
The godly men who wrote these documents were obviously thoughtful, observant, penetrating readers of Scripture. Not just the content, but the very form and categories of Scripture were branded on their hearts. It was written of John Bunyan, a contemporary of the Westminster Assembly, that “if you pricked him, out would flow bibline.” Out of the abundance of their heart, their mouth spoke.
Might I challenge you, reader, to pick up these old confessions and catechisms? Read them carefully and critically, yes. By all means be Bereans. Look up the proof texts and ask yourself whether they do in fact support the statements or not.
But I will leave you with one caution. If you are not yourself a diligent, careful reader of the Bible, you may still find these writings somewhat inaccessible. Yes, there are archaisms – but with a little work, you can manage those. More to the point, though, these documents have a savor that only those with a cultivated taste will appreciate. If that’s you, then maybe a reading of the old creeds and confessions will serve to call you to open your Bibles – more regularly, more expansively, more deeply. To quote the Confession, believers “are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search” the Scriptures (Confession, 1.8). Or, do you prefer a quote from the Bible? Read again.
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Michael Ives is a Presbyterian minister serving in New England. He also regularly blogs at West Port Experiment.