How Do Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms Differ From "Statements of Faith"?

Richard Lints
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Mar/Apr 2001

You may have heard Lutherans, Reformed, and other confessional Protestants criticize parachurch "statements of faith," while simultaneously celebrating the creeds of the early Church, and the confessions and catechisms flowing from the Reformation. Why this distinction? Is it simply a function of a nostalgic attachment to the past, a naive yearning for a lost golden age?

In some of our circles, this could be a danger; it is possible to revere tradition simply for tradition's sake. But there is, nevertheless, a legitimate reason to subscribe to the confessional standards of the Church that have endured, while remaining skeptical of twentieth-century evangelical statements of faith. The reason is this: many American "statements," unlike the older churchly catechisms, make an unwarranted distinction between "essential" and "nonessential" elements of the faith. Emerging from a sociopolitical context (the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century), these statements aim to identify a minimum set of beliefs (typically centering on the miraculous: Jesus' virgin birth, bodily resurrection, etc.) one must affirm to be counted a "good guy." Those who accept our list are labeled "conservatives," and all others "liberals." The statements of faith are intended to be the boundary markers in the culture wars.

But don't miss what sneaks in through the back door when this particular sociopolitical battle (over the obviously important matter of the miraculous) is allowed to draw the key line in the sand: Among those of us who agree on the historicity of these miracles, no further disagreements are to be allowed. As the story goes, we have liberals to fight, so let's not waste our time and energy debating theological issues amongst ourselves. We have a common enemy, and therefore we must minimize anything than could potentially be divisive inside our camp.

Though this plea for evangelical unity sounds prudent upon first hearing, we should recall that it places many important biblical topics beyond the arena of acceptable discussion. Doctrine is being used only defensively (to distinguish "good guys" from "bad guys") rather than constructively and positively. In practice, the Bible can actually become as insignificant in the conservative or evangelical tradition as in the liberal tradition. Consider, for example, the various evangelical Bible study materials that refuse to discuss doctrine. Odd, isn't it, that the Bible isn't permitted to speak to other issues than the ones we've defined? Consider all of the places where evangelicals, given this type of minimalist consensus, cannot speak: the nature of worship, the Sacraments, the relationship of faith to the public realm, eschatology, Church authority, early Genesis and the relation of Christianity and science, hermeneutics, the linkage of Word and Spirit, art and aesthetics, gender and office, sovereignty and free will, etc. If one's faith is devoid of Scripture's teaching on all of these matters, one might reasonably ask what the point of preserving the miraculous was!

"Essentialist" statements of faith reject all that isn't immediately relevant to the battle at hand as unimportant. So-called controversial points-however important in the biblical narrative-are to be passed over for the sake of a superficial unity. Historic creeds and confessions, by contrast, have an entirely different purpose: They are guides to the Text, rather than guards against the Text. Creeds and confessions are aids to reading the Bible, helping readers identify the main themes and categories of the biblical narrative; they urge the believing community to go deeper into the Text. Statements of faith, on the other hand, are basically alternatives to reading. These statements claim to highlight all that matters. The faithful are then counseled to cease their inquiries lest we read deeper into the Bible and arrive at a coalition-dividing dispute.

It might even be fair to say-as Mark Noll has-that evangelical attachment to Scripture is often more totemic than intellectual. But the fact of this tradition's attachment to redemptive history is at least the place for confessional Protestants to start when we urge evangelicals to begin to think and read more theologically. Moving from a shallow to a deep reading of the Bible may be difficult, but picking the Book up is probably a more difficult step.

Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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