Scripture not only speaks of the personal faith of every believer in Christ, but also of “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Paul gives us the proper coordinates in 2 Timothy. After reciting the
gospel of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, he exhorts his young apprentice to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:8-14).
We confess the faith together, across all times and places. From the beginning, the early Christians summarized the faith together in creedal formulas. Paul speaks of such a formula as something that was passed on to him and, through him, to the whole church. These are the things “of first importance: that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
The magisterial Reformers preached, taught, and defended the catholic faith defined in the ecumenical symbols of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and the Apostles’ Creed. At the same time, they interpreted this common faith according to the evangelical insights and emphases rediscovered in the Reformation. Lutheran and Reformed churches bore witness to this faith in confessions and catechisms. Instead of reducing the Christian faith to a few fundamentals or private opinions, these rich statements offer a systematic way of understanding, experiencing, and living God’s truth. This evangelical interpretation of catholic Christianity is confessed by Lutherans in the documents included in the Book of Concord. Continental Reformed churches adopted the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort, while the Church of England adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles, and Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Confession and Small and Larger Catechisms. Calvinistic Baptists also drew up confessions and catechisms.
As is especially evident in today’s context, it’s one thing to adopt a confession and quite another to be confessional’to think, witness, live, and worship consistently with our profession. A confession can be a historical document that we leave in the vault most of the time, or it can be a living witness to God’s unchanging gospel from generation to generation. Furthermore, a confession can be reduced to a legal contract we use to exclude brothers and sisters, or it can be a family covenant that unites us, a hymn that the saints sing to lure others to the feast. In the first use, a confession threatens to usurp Scripture’s normative authority; in the second approach, it is the “amen” of Christ’s body to the Word of its Living Head.
Although it places boundaries on what we affirm and reject, being confessional liberates us from the peculiar teachings, rules, and forms of worship that are promoted by charismatic leaders and powerful personalities. There are many things the confessions do not settle that are left to Christian liberty. We are not at the whim of persons or movements; no less than the rest of us, our leaders are bound to the Scriptures as they are confessed according to the settled judgment of many churches across diverse times and places.
The gospel has a particular form for its faithful repetition in the life of God’s people. In Paul’s advice in 2 Timothy 1, the church today hears its own imperative: “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” There are sound ways of stating our common faith. “Hold fast” is a command to preserve, not to innovate. “Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us,” he concludes (v. 14). The truth must be guarded so that it may be dispensed to others in ever-widening circles as the life-giving Word that it always is in its very essence. Every generation needs to return to the wells of God’s Word, not merely nodding to the confession of others but making it our own. Far from exhibiting sectarianism, the “form of sound words” serves the unity and mission of the church in the world.