Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Suggested Resource: The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman
Also suggested: Lutheran Satire: Learning the Creeds are Bad
Note: These "Being Baptist" posts have been the topic of our mid-week discussions at Trinity. It was asked during our conversation on this topic, "What is the difference between a creed and confession?" While they are treated as virtually synonymous in the notes below, the difference is nicely summed up by Justin Holcomb in his book "Know the Creeds and Councils." He states: "The creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways." We concluded that, in other words, creeds describe those things you must believe in order to be a Christian. They separate orthodox believers from false teachers. Confessions describe what we believe as Baptists. They serve to distinguish what we believe from other Christian denominations whom we call "brothers and sisters" and yet with whom we have differences of opinion on certain doctrinal matters.
“No creed but the Bible!” is a phrase that is often associated with Baptist churches. As a description of Baptist history and practice, however, it is not at all representative of what we actually find.
This is just a sampling of Confessions that have been produced by Baptist churches over the years (courtesy of “The Reformed Reader” http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/hbd.htm).
English Baptist Associational Confessions:
· JOHN SPILSBURY AND HIS CONFESSION
· THE FIRST LONDON BAPTIST CONFESSION OF FAITH, 1644 CURRENT TRANSLATIONS: ENGLISH SPANISH
· THE FIRST LONDON BAPTIST CONFESSION OF FAITH, 1646 Edition
· AN APPENDIX TO A CONFESSION OF FAITH, 1646, Benjamin Cox (Coxe)
· THE FAITH AND PRACTISE OF THIRTY CONGREGATIONS, 1651
· THE TRUE GOSPEL-FAITH DECLARED ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES, 1654
· THE MIDLAND CONFESSION OF FAITH, 1655
· THE SOMERSET CONFESSION OF FAITH, 1656
· CARTER LANE DECLARATION OF FAITH, 1757
· JOHN GILL'S DECLARATION OF FAITH, 1757
English Baptist General Confessions:
· THE STANDARD CONFESSION, 1660
· THE ASSEMBLY or SECOND LONDON CONFESSION, 1677 AND 1688, approved 1689 WITH SCRIPTURE REFERENCES
· A SHORT CONFESSION OR A BRIEF NARRATIVE OF FAITH, 1691
· THE COALHEAVER'S CONFESSION, 1745
· ARTICLES OF RELIGION OF THE NEW CONNEXION, 1770
· THE GOATYARD DECLARATION OF FAITH, 1792
American Baptist Confessions:
· THE PHILADELPHIA CONFESSION, 1742
· THE SANDY CREEK CONFESSION, 1758
· THE NEW HAMPSHIRE BAPTIST CONFESSION OF FAITH, 1833
· TREATISE ON THE FAITH AND PRACTICE OF THE FREE WILL BAPTISTS, 1834 AND 1948
· THE ABSTRACT OF PRINCIPLES, 1858
· ARTICLES OF FAITH PUT FORTH BY THE BAPTIST BIBLE UNION OF AMERICA, 1923
· BAPTIST FAITH AND MESSAGE, 1925
· BAPTIST FAITH AND MESSAGE, 1963 Report of Committee on Baptist Faith and Message, May 9, 1963 Report of the Presidential Theological Study Committee, June, 1994 Report of Committee on Baptist Faith and Message, June 9, 1998 1963 and 2000 Amendment Comparisons
· CAMBRIDGE DECLARATION, 1998
Everyone is Confessional
The concern of those who argue for “no creed” claim that their concern is for the priority of Scripture and a desire to protect the church from “man-made” doctrines which will steer the church away from its biblical foundations. “Baptists are people of The Book!” they argue, “Not man’s words!” Ironically, it is their position that has led many churches to discard orthodox belief for modern-day liberalism.
We should note, first, that those who argue for “No creed but the Bible” have just uttered a creed. It impossible to not be confessional. It is impossible to not hold to some sort of creed. It may not be written down, but they live by it nevertheless.
Creeds/Confessions are not “Man’s Words Above God’s Word”
The other thing we should note is that a confession or creed is not intended to be put above Scripture. The whole point is to ensure that the teaching of the church matches the Scriptures as closely as possible. The Baptists from past generations did not believe those confessions listed above were to be held above the Word of God. They believed these statements “confessed” the core teaching of the Scripture with the particular points they made speaking to areas where they felt that true biblical faith might be attacked by those with a less robust view of Scripture. The confession’s authority does not reside in itself but resides in its faithfulness to articulating biblical truth and good confessions always point us back to the Scriptures.
Paul’s and the Early Church’s Use of Creeds and Confessions
Theologians argue that we can find the use of confessions in the Bible itself. Paul, when he was saying farewell to the elders in Ephesus, declared, “I am innocent of the blood of you all, because I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27); he said to Timothy, “Guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20); he told the Christians in Rome, “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17) and in 2 Timothy 1:13-14 he tells Timothy to “follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me” and “guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” In each of these places, Paul is pointing to some kind of unified summary of biblical truth. The Bible itself seems to demand that we have some sort of creed or confession.
Indeed, as we look at the early church we find from the first century a document called the Didache which covered a series of topics including issues relating to church government. We find several church fathers, such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, promoting a summary of core Christian teachings called “the Rule of faith.” The third century saw the drafting of the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed in 325 AD and the Athanasian Creed in 500 A.D. Each of these creeds standardized orthodox belief, protecting it from false Christologies and teachings related to the Trinity.
Protecting the Church from false teaching.
If you look at the history of creeds and confessions, you’ll see that human-created creeds and confessions arose out of the church’s desire to be faithful to Scripture’s clear teaching. Whenever false teachers were appealing to the Bible and twisting it to suit their own purposes, Christians defended the truth by clearly articulating their scriptural convictions with the most faithful language they could muster—and which the false teachers could not affirm.
John Piper says of this time:
It was a great education for me to do a study of Athanasius and realize that in the debates that he had with the heretic Arius, both sides affirmed the authority of Scripture and both sides did extensive quoting of the Bible. And so “No creed but the Bible” in that case would simply be used to cover the fact that the denial of the deity of Christ doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And somebody has to stand up and say: That is not what the Bible teaches.
And so, Baptists, followed this tradition and produced a long list of confessions to protect the church.
Unfortunately, the early 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of liberal theology and a number of groups began to drift from orthodoxy. Suddenly, “No creed but the Bible” became popular. It certainly sounded good as it implied a high view of the Scriptures. But the truth was the exact opposite. Liberal theologians were retreating from the inerrancy of Scripture, questioning the Bible’s authorship and denying its miracles. No creed or confession with support them in this drift. “No creed but the Bible” was utilized to keep their critics at bay. The average person in the pew thought that, since the Bible is inerrant and fully God’s Word, “no creed but the Bible” was a declaration that “We stand on the truth unmixed with human error.” But it was the opposite. The “creed” promoted by liberal theologians was an error filled, culturally insensitive “bible.”
Owen Strachen talks of the liberal drift that the Northern Baptist denomination has followed.
You realize as you read up on the 20th-century controversies between evangelicals and Protestant liberals that “No creed but the Bible” was used over and over to steer churches away from sound doctrine. When seminaries and colleges hired professors who taught liberal ideas, evangelicals in the Northern Baptist movement—for one example—tried valiantly to lash their movement to a confession of faith in the 1920s. The motion failed. Why? “No creed but the Bible” won the day.
We can think of the practical use of a confession between Reformed Christians. Baptists and Presbyterians disagree on whether we should baptize infants or not. How one answers this question effects much more than it appears on the surface. It effects our view of church membership and how we nurture our children. Both Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians hold to a high view of Scripture and appeal to many of the same passages to make their case. It is clear that “no creed but the Bible” will not suffice when someone who holds to paedobaptism declares that they will teach the meaning and mode of baptism in a Baptist church and should be free to do so because they affirm the Bible just as we do.
What does it mean to be “confessional”?
To say that we are “confessional” is to say that we are defined by our affirmation of faith in accordance with the historical confessions of the church. In our case, the ecumenical creeds (including The Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, and Chalcedonian Creed), and certain Baptist Confessions.
We use creeds and confessions in three ways:
First, they define and defend doctrine and thereby protect the church from false teaching.
Second, they are used for training and equipping believers with a well-rounded overview of Bible teaching on the main points of religion.
Third, they are used for doxology and worship. We will occasionally affirm the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed in public worship and portions of other creeds and confessions as well.