Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms

Steve JolleyCommunity News

The way some people talk about creeds, confessions and catechisms, makes them sound like something found in our great grandparents’ garage: outdated, old, dusty, and useless. For some young, hip evangelicals the creeds of the church seem like unhelpful man-made additions to the Bible, nothing more than hindrances to authentic, relational faith. Sounding very spiritual they maintain, We have no creed or confession but the Bible! Still others see the use of creeds and catechisms as a Catholic Church practice having little place in Protestant churches. Some object to the way they are written. In an age that is enamored with narrative and story, the creeds and confessions can feel way too linear, systematic, and rigidly propositional. Such anticonfessionalism often ignores church history and tradition.

This reaction is not new. With the rise of modern theological liberalism in the nineteenth century, there was a call for, deeds not creeds! In other words, acting out the gospel was much more important than worrying about the actual theological content of the gospel. Action trumped truth. Of course, what happened is that churches, denominations, and Christian colleges, untethered from the truth of the Bible and the creedal statements that sought to explain that biblical truth, drifted far from their theological moorings. In the end, they were left, by and large, with neither deeds nor creeds.

If you have been around Santa Barbara Community Church very long you are aware that we often use creeds, confessions and catechisms to help direct our worship of God. You may wonder why. The use of creeds gives us a framework with which to think about God and the truths found in the Bible. They remind us of what we believe about Jesus. They help us to stay anchored. In a time in which Christians worship at the altar of relevance and give attention mainly to what is personally engaging to them, the creeds place us in a context that is much bigger than our individual felt needs. As pastor Kevin DeYoung says, The chief theological task now facing the Western church is not to reinvent or be relevant but to remember. The creeds help us to remember.

No, the creeds are not perfect. They are not even remotely on an equal footing with the Bible as an authority in our lives. They were written by fallible people and at times bear the marks of that imperfection. They sometimes miss important doctrines and at other times spend too much time on that which is not as important. The creeds of the church were discussed, argued over, hotly debated, revised, and even politicized. But, in the end, they were labored over extensively and written by people who cared deeply about the truth of the Bible and sought to guard the church against heretical teaching. They were written for the church’s instruction but also for her protection, well-being, and joy. Churches that ignore the creeds put themselves at a disadvantage and miss out on a rich and wonderful tool of discipleship.

If you are unfamiliar with the creeds don’t feel badly! You are not alone. Many Christians, especially in the low church tradition (think, Baptists, recent renewal movements like Calvary Chapel, SBCC, etc.) have been somewhat in the dark when it comes to the knowledge and use of creeds. You also may wonder what the difference is between a creed/confession and a catechism. Creeds and confessions are statements of belief, often written in response to teachings that were straying from the Bible and orthodox Christian belief. Creed comes from the Latin word credo, which simply means, I believe. Catechism is a word that means to teach or instruct. Catechisms are teaching tools, sometimes written for children or recent converts, most often in a question-and-answer format, to help educate Christians on the basics of Christian doctrine. Here is a very brief explanation of just a few of the more prominent creeds used at Santa Barbara Community Church. Hopefully this will help us understand a little of their background and purpose.

apostles creed

The Apostles Creed is usually thought of as the oldest and most widely accepted of the creeds. It was not intended to be a complete summary of Christian doctrine but rather a brief statement about the Trinity and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

nicene creed (325)

The Nicene Creed was written by the Council of Nicea to defend against Arianism, a popular heresy that was spreading at the time which taught that Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father, and hence not fully God.

westminister confession & westminster catechism (1643-1646)

This confession is one of the more influential creeds that reflects a Reformed (think Protestant Reformation) understanding of the Bible. Originally written for Presbyterian churches in England and Scotland, it was then adopted (and at times modified) by Presbyterians worldwide, as well as Baptists, Congregationalists, and independent churches.

baptist confession of faith (1689)

This confession is also called the Second London Baptist Confession, and was patterned after the Westminster Catechism and written by Puritans. It reflects Baptist views on church organization and baptism. This confession, while originally written in England, has been widely adopted in Baptist churches in America and around the world.

heidelberg catechism (1563)

Written in a question-and-answer format, this is probably the most loved catechism in the Reformed theological tradition. It was written in Heidelberg Germany as a tool to educate children, as well as those who had come out of Roman Catholicism into the Reformed church. Besides the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, and Thomas a’ Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, the Heidelberg Catechism is the most widely circulated document in the world. The catechism is primarily a commentary on three things: the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

The writing of the Heidelberg Catechism was commissioned by Elector Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) in 1562. While Fredrick tasked a group of theological professors and pastors to write the catechism, its chief author was Zacharias Ursinus, a professor from the University of Heidelberg. The catechism reflects the author’s theological inclinations and is decisively Protestant with Calvinistic leanings.

One of my favorite parts of the Heidelberg Catechism is the way it begins with a succinct summary of the gospel.

  1. What is your only comfort in life and death?

That I am not my own, but belong —body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His Precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

The answer to the second question of the Catechism continues to outline the essence of the gospel and how Christians are to live in light of this truth. And, it is a very simple statement.

  1. What must you know to live and die in this comfort?

Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

In other words the gospel is all about guilt, grace and gratitude. Each Sunday this fall, we will be using the Heidelberg Catechism to help anchor us as a church in the central teaching of the Bible and to bring greater clarity and joy to our worship.