Concerning Creeds and Confessions of Faith
January 16th, 1974 @ 7:30 PM
CONCERNING CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS OF FAITH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-16-74 Wednesday 7:30 p.m.
Out of all of the things that we shall study, I think tonight will be the most important. It is an introductory lecture; but it is to me the most interesting as I prepared it, and I believe will be the basis upon which we can build for the rest of the course that will extend each Wednesday evening at seven-thirty. Each Wednesday evening until about the second Wednesday evening in May will be The Articles of Faith; what we believe, the doctrines of the church. The first lecture is entitled Concerning Creeds and Confessions of Faith.
There are three different terms that are used to describe what the church believes, the doctrines of the faith. The first word is creed; that comes from the beginning of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe,” the Latin credo. So a creed is something I believe, and that is one of the names that is used to refer to the doctrines of the church. “The creed of the church,” from c-r-e-d-o, credo, “I believe,” which is the first word in the most ancient of all the creeds: the Apostles’ Creed.
All right, a second term used to describe them; they are called “rules of faith”; in the Greek, kanōn tēs pisteōs, “rule, canon.” You remember when we were talking about the inspiration of the Bible; we talked about the canon of the Bible, those books in the Bible that met the rule, a canon, a canonical book; the canon, the rule. So the doctrines of the church are called the rule of faith, kanōn tēs pisteōn, or kanōn tēs alētheias “the rule of truth.” Now this is the oldest term, “the rule of faith.”
It was used by the ante-Nicene fathers. All the fathers of the church who lived before 325 AD are called the ante-Nicene fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, those great apologists and defenders of the faith back there in the first Christian centuries. They used to describe the doctrines of the church that term, “rule of faith.” We would say “confession of faith,” or “articles of faith.” This is the oldest term that is used to describe the doctrines of the church.
There is a third term that surprises me. I did not know it until I began this study, but it shows you how unlearned a man can be, though he has given his very life to the study of theology. A third term for the doctrines of the faith, for the confessions of faith, for what the church believes, a third term is “symbol,” s-y-m-b-o-l. It comes from the Greek word sumballon, sumballon, from the verbal form sumballō which means “to throw together, to put together, to compare.” It means, sumballon, “symbol,” it means “a mark, a badge, a watchword, or a test.”
That word “symbol” to refer to the doctrines of the faith was first used by Cyprian, one of those great ante-Nicene fathers in AD 250. And since then, generally that is the word to refer to the doctrines of the faith, since the fourth century, since Cyprian.
It was first chiefly applied to the Apostles’ Creed, as the baptismal confession by which Christians would be known and distinguished from Jews, heathen idolaters, heretics, and so forth. In this sense the word refers to an authority summary of faith and doctrine, therefore a creed. Isn’t that an amazing thing? The word “symbol” has been used since Cyprian to refer to the doctrines that the church believes.
Let me give you an illustration of that. The most authoritative of all of the encyclopedias of religious knowledge is called Schaff-Herzog, the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. You’ll not find in that encyclopedia a discussion of creeds. You’ll not find in it a discussion of confessions of faith. But you will find the doctrines of the church discussed under the title “Symbolics,” “Symbolics.”
The symbolical books would be books which contained the creeds or the confessions of faith of churches or religious bodies. Well, immediately you would ask, as I did to myself, “How in the earth did the word ‘symbol’ ever come to be used to describe the creed, the doctrines of the faith, the confessions of faith?”
Well, it shows how important the ancient church placed upon the ordinances. It came to be used because that was what a man did when he was baptized. He accepted the creed, the doctrine of faith. He had openly, unashamedly to confess the faith when he was baptized.
Now baptism is a symbol of something. It stands for something. And in the solemn administration of that ordinance of baptism, the ritualistic act, which was a symbolic act meaning something else, came to include the confession of faith that the catechumen repeated when he was baptized. The symbol of baptism was transferred to the confession of faith, and a symbol became a confession of faith; what I believe, what the church believes. That’s one of the most astonishing things that I ever came across.
Now the origin of creeds, one: the creed, the confession of faith, the symbol, the articles of faith, they come out of the desire of faith to express itself before others. It is impossible for a man to accept the faith of Jesus Christ and not have on the inside of him a burning, irrepressible desire to say something about it.
You can’t keep it to yourself if you have ever had an experience with the Lord. You’ll tell your family. You’ll tell your friends. You will tell your business associates. You can’t help that desire to speak of it. The confession of faith, it arises out of the soul of the born again Christian.
Let me give you an instance of one of the biggest disappointments that I ever came across in my pastorate of this church. I was talking to a businessman down here in the middle of town. I was speaking with a businessman. And the subject came up about another man with whom he had done business. And so I said to him, “I know that man well. He’s a deacon in our church.”
And the man I was talking to said, “What? He is a deacon in your church?” He said, “I’ve been doing business with him over twenty-five years. I did not know he was a Christian much less a Baptist.” Why, that killed me. That was said to me about one of the most prominent deacons in this church.
Doing business with a man over twenty-five years, and the man never know that he was a member of this glorious church or that he was even a Christian. Now there’s something wrong with that man. I don’t judge him. I’m not to condemn him. It is God who judges our souls. But I’m just pointing out to you that if you have ever had an experience with the Lord, you can’t suppress that desire on the inside of your soul to confess it, to say something about it. You can’t. And that is the origin of creed, of confessions of faith.
All right, number two in the origin of creeds: they come out of the express duty, mandate, commandment to confess our faith before others publicly. All of us could quote Matthew 10:32-33: “If thou shalt confess Me before men, I will confess you before My Father in heaven; if you deny Me before men, I will deny you before My Father which is in heaven.” Or, Romans 10, verses 9 and 10:
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in thine heart that He lives, that God raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto a God kind of righteousness, a saving kind of righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto that glorious regeneration.
So we have a mandate, an express duty to confess our faith.
Now may I point out to you that the church, from the beginning, has never been without these expressions of faith, from the beginning? You will find them all through the Bible. Now I’m going to turn to some of them. They’re very familiar passages. If you just want to listen, fine, if you want to turn to them also, but these are confessions of faith. These are creeds that you will find in the Bible. One is in Matthew chapter 16.
When the Lord came to Caesarea Philippi, He said to the disciples, “Whom do men say that I, who do men say that I the Son of Man am?” [Matthew 16:13] And they said, “Well, some say you are John the Baptist: some say you are Jeremiah; some say you are Elijah; some say you are one of the other prophets.” And He said, “But whom say ye, but who say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said,” here is a confession of faith in the Word of God, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matthew 16:14-16]. That is a creed. “I believe”; that is a confession of faith.
All right, here is another formula, the baptismal formula, which is a confession of faith. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to keep all the things that I have commanded you” [Matthew 28:19-20]. Here is a confession of faith: “Nathanael said to Him,” this is the first chapter of John, “Whence do You know me? And Jesus said, Before Philip called thee, while you were under the fig tree, I saw thee” [John 1:48]. Evidently he was doing something under the fig tree, praying, talking to God, some spiritual thing, “And Nathanael answered and said,” here is a confession of faith, “Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King of Israel” [John 1:49]. That is a creed, a confession of faith.
All right, here is another one, in Acts chapter 8:
As they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said—
here is a creed, here is a confession of faith—
I believe, credo, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God
Now I’ve chosen one other out of the Bible. This is a creed, this is a confession of faith that was apparently uttered by all the catechumens back there, all of those first initiates in the first church. Paul writes to his son Timothy how he ought to behave in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. Now the creed:
Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up into glory.
[1 Timothy 3:16]
I’ve chosen these as just typical of what you’ll find throughout the Word of God. You find creeds, expressions, confessions of faith throughout the New Testament. Where there is faith there is also the profession and the confession of faith. As faith without works is dead [James 2:26], so faith without confession is dead [Matthew 10:32-33; Romans 10:9-10]. If you have faith, you will confess it.
Now my next discussion concerns the impossibility of escaping creeds, confessions of faith, articles of faith. The cry I hear and have heard all of my life, “We have no creed but the Bible.” That’s fine. But that does not mean you do not have a creed; it does not mean you do not have a confession of faith. It does not mean you do not believe something and avow it.
Now you may shy away from the word “creed” and use some other word, but it is six of one and half dozen of the other. A rose still smells the same by any other name. It is a creed. All right, let’s look at ourselves for a moment.
Back yonder, in the 1820’s back in there, there was a controversy over Alexander Campbell. He was a gifted and tremendous Baptist preacher. He was reared a Presbyterian in Scotland and out of great conviction became a Baptist. Now in America, preaching in our Baptist churches with power, he was a tremendous exponent of the faith.
He began to preach that a man had to be baptized in water in order to wash his sins away. And our Baptist brethren gathered round and said to him, “My friend, it is the blood of Christ that washes our sins away [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5], and the water of baptism is but a symbol of the spiritual regeneration, the cleansing in our hearts” [Romans 6:3-5]. And Campbell said, “No. In the act of water baptism your sins are washed away.”
Now the creed; the Baptists gathered round him and said, “You cannot preach that and stay in the Baptist church and in the fellowship of the Baptist churches.” and they booted him out. They kicked him out; or as we would say it in ecclesiastical gracious parlance, “We withdrew fellowship from the heretical brother.”
Now the Churches of Christ say, “We have no creed,” and they emphasize that. But they have one of the most bickering creeds of any denominational group in the earth. Let me give one point of it, “If you are not baptized by a Campbellite preacher you are going to hell.” That’s one of them. That’s one sentence in it. Yet they decry a creed and say they don’t have any. We all have creeds.
Let’s take the Kentucky Baptist Association. I went to the Green River Baptist Association in Kentucky; sixty quarter time churches, not a single half-time church in it. Now you don’t know “quarter-time, half time.” A quarter-time church is a church where the preacher preaches once a month, and then he’ll have three other churches where he will preach there once a month. A half-time church would be a church where the preacher preaches twice a month in the church. A three quarter-time church would be where he preaches three Sundays a month.
I remember once in a while people will introduce me and say, “You know, I hear that the First Baptist Church is looking forward to full time preaching”; that is, where the preacher preaches there every Sunday. Well, now that’s funny. You’re not supposed to take that seriously. The Green River Baptist Association had sixty quarter-time churches in it. And they were way out there in the hills, in the Knob country.
So I preached to them when I was a student in the seminary, and at the associational meeting they had a discussion, and they said, “We believe…” See, there’s that credo again, “We believe there are three ordinances: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and foot washing, washing of feet. We believe there are three ordinances that the church ought to observe.”
Well, at that time Dr. Thompson was the executive secretary of the Baptist General Association of Kentucky. And so he wrote the brethren a letter down there in the Knob country and said, “I have heard, word has come to me, that you believe that there are three ordinances, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and foot washing. Since you are no longer Southern Baptists, we will not receive you in our general association. And this letter is hereby written to tell you that as of now you don’t participate in the Annuity Board funds any longer.”
Well, all of the brethren who had any experience at all in the Green River Baptist Association were preachers, all of them were preachers. And when they got to a certain age, or they got disabled, or they die—why, the Annuity Board sent them a little money, like ten dollars a month.
Well, I want you to know at the next associational meeting, the district association, the Green River Baptist brethren gathered together and said, “After much prayer and after deeper study of the Word of the Lord, we have come to the faith that there are only two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” So Dr. Thompson wrote them back and said, “My brethren, we welcome you into the fold of the associational Baptists of Kentucky, and your checks from the Annuity Board will immediately be sent out.”
You say, “We don’t have a creed.” That is funny. It is ridiculous! It is inane! “”Credo,” I believe.
Let’s take this Baptist association where we are. We belong to the Dallas Baptist Association. There were two churches here in the association, out there. I’m tempted to call their names, but I won’t. There were two churches in this Dallas Baptist Association, and the pastors were a little independent, and they kind of went their own way. And I want you to know, to my great surprise, the Dallas Baptist Association withdrew fellowship from them, kicked them out, on the basis of non-cooperation.
You see, we put an article in our creed. You’ve got to believe this and this and this. And another article, you’ve got to cooperate! and if you don’t cooperate you’re out. You see the creed, the creed. There is no such thing as a church not having a confession of faith, a body of doctrines, a creed. Even those churches who absolutely disdain creeds have them. They just do.
One of the––I don’t know why things appear funny to me sometimes. There was a woman in this church who had a husband who wanted to join the church, and he was a fine man. She was a first class, garrulous old nut, but she had a fine husband. Well, he belonged to another denomination. So he was coming to join us; he was going to be baptized and be in our church.
About that time, they organized another church out there, and she took her husband, and instead of coming down here to be with us, they joined the church out there. Sometime later—oh, I’d say two years later—I just happened to run into her, the old garrulous bag; I couldn’t escape it. I happened to run into her, and she said to me, “Oh, what a delight to see you.” Well, you have to be a first class, good liar to be a real successful pastor; you can’t say what you believe. You can’t say, “This is a curse I’ve run into you.” You can’t say that. What you’ve got to do is to say, “Oh, how happy I am to run into you! Oh, I’m so glad to see you!” So she said to me, she said, “Oh, you cannot imagine the wonderful church to which we now belong!” And she told me the name of the church out there that she joined. “Oh,” she said, “you cannot imagine what a wonderful church!” She said, “You don’t have to believe anything to join our church!” Those are her exact words: “You don’t have to believe anything to join our church.”
Now, I want you to look at that. Does that mean they don’t have a creed? No. This is their creed: “We don’t believe anything about God. We don’t believe anything about Christ the Lord. We don’t believe anything about sin and salvation. We don’t believe anything about heaven, and hell, and the judgment to come. We don’t believe anything about the Bible. We don’t believe anything about anything. That’s our creed.” You cannot escape it; the confession of faith.
Now we must have the creed; we must have it. We must have the confession of faith; we must have the doctrines of the church. For example, do you believe—credo, “I believe”—do you believe that the acceptance of Christ is necessary for salvation? Is that true or is it not true? What do we believe about that? Can a man join this church and say, “I believe that Christ was an illegitimate son of a Roman soldier and Mary, a Jewish woman in Nazareth,” as the Jews have been taught two thousand years? Would you accept a man into this church that came down that aisle and said, “I believe that Jesus is the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier?” Would you accept a man who even said that, “I believe Christ is a good man, like Socrates, but He certainly is not the Son of God?” Would you? The creed is vital; it is necessary.
All right, take again for an instance, what are you going to do about the ordinances? Let’s take us for example, this church for example. Suppose a man came down the aisle and he said, “I accept the Lord as my Savior, but I want to be sprinkled. And I’ve got a little baby here, and I want the baby to be sprinkled along with me, to be christened.” What would you do? What would you say? What is the ordinance of baptism? What does it mean? What does it teach? How do you administer it scripturally?
Suppose you were to have people come down this aisle and say, “I believe in the mass, credo. I believe in the mass. I believe that this bread is turned, transubstantially, it is turned into the actual body of Jesus by the miraculous hands of the officiating minister. And I believe this fruit of the vine is turned into the actual blood of our Lord by the hands of the officiating minister. Now that’s what I believe, and I want to receive the mass, the bloodless sacrifice of Christ every Sunday.” What would you do? What would you say?
All right, let’s take the organization of the church. What would you say is the scriptural officers in the church? Do we have a pope? Do we have a bishop even? Or, would you ordain a woman? Would you?
What’s the matter with ordaining a woman? There’s nothing wrong with women. I’ve been married to one for thirty-eight years. I’m an authority on one woman. Would you ordain a woman? The Book says that the minister, the presbuteros, the poimēn, the episkopos must be the husband of one wife [1 Tmothy 3:2]. And if a woman ever appears who is the husband of one wife, I say, let’s ordain her. That’s a credo, “I believe.” You cannot escape the creed, the confession of faith.
Or, the message that is preached: is it to be biblical or secular? Suppose the man stood up here in this pulpit and said, “I believe that the Bible is inspired, but I believe that Milton was inspired, and I believe that Shakespeare was inspired, just as I believe Moses was inspired and Paul was inspired.” What would you do? What would you say?
Suppose a man were to stand up here and say––now let’s just pick out a doctrine that many churches preach, most of them do. Suppose a man were to stand up here and say, “I believe that we get to heaven not by the grace of Christ, the blood of the cross, but I believe we get to heaven by doing good works. We work our way into heaven. And when we stand before the Lord, we show the Lord all of our good works. And if our works have been good enough, we’re saved. If our works are not good enough, we’re lost.”
What would you say to a man like that if he stood up here in this pulpit and preached that? You see, you cannot escape the creed, “I believe.” And the more fundamental a church is, the more Bible centered it is, the more you’ll find the people sensitive to those great doctrines of the faith.
Stay with me just a little while longer, and we’ll just hurry. The development and the history of creeds, and we’ll look into that further next time also. At first, the creed, the confession was not written, but it was orally transmitted. For example, Acts 16:30, “What must I do to be saved?” The creed, the doctrine, the message, Acts 16:31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Isn’t that a simple creed? Isn’t that a simple one?
At first the catechumen, the students, the initiates, those who were studying the faith, at first the catechumen were orally taught, and they made the oral confession at their baptism. They were, the creeds were not written down, and for several hundred years they were orally transmitted. Then as time went on, beginning in that first Christian century, the faith was written down by the writers of the New Testament, a pure, unerring record, as we believe.
Then as the years passed, the creeds were expanded in controversy to spell out what the Church believed the Scriptures taught. And they became confessions of faith for public use. They were regarded as necessary for salvation. And here’s where we’re going to lead to the Reformation.
The creeds—as they were worked out and as they developed in the Church—the creeds were regarded as necessary for salvation: if you didn’t believe that creed, that dogma, you were eternally damned. And they were thought necessary for the preservation and the well-being of the Church.
Now what did the Reformation do to those creeds? The Reformation deemphasized the absolute salvation, “to believe,” or damnation, “not to believe” value of the creeds. The Reformation took away from those man-made creeds, the man-made expressions of the doctrines of the church, that all inclusive damnation or salvation side to it. Now in the Roman Catholic and in the Eastern Greek Orthodox churches, the creeds are dogmas to be received, believed, without which no one can be saved.
Let me give you an example of that: in 1950 I was in Rome, and that year the pope announced, enunciated, the papal infallible, the papal doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary. Up until that time the Church did not have that in the creed, the dogma. You could believe what you wanted to about the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven. But in 1950 the pope published the dogma, ex cathedra—infallibly, speaking for the doctrinal life of the Church—that Mary was bodily assumed up into heaven, just like Jesus was. That means that, if you do not believe that dogma, you are damned! It is not optional to you because-what the creed says—you have to believe or be lost! Now that is the substance of the weight and authority of the creeds in those great, national churches; the Roman and the Eastern Orthodox.
Now what the Reformation did was to reduce the authority of man-made creeds to a confession of the doctrines of the Bible. The supremacy of the Scriptures, the Reformers taught, was due to its own inherent authority and not due to the approval of the Church.
You see the basic doctrine of the Roman and the Eastern Orthodox Church is this: that the Church was before the Scriptures; and the Church chose what is Scripture and what is not; and that the Church is the great tribunal of doctrine, not the Word of God. And if you want to base your salvation on a great foundation, you must do it upon the Church!
I remember going to a Catholic service and the priest said, “You stay with mother church, and mother church will take you to heaven.” The Church, in their creed, is synonymous with the kingdom of God. If you’re in the Church, you’re in the kingdom. If you’re out of the Church, you’re out of the kingdom. That’s why excommunication is such a fearful and frightful thing to a Catholic. When he’s excommunicated, when he’s taken out of the church, he is damned in hell forever! The creed says so because to them, the great final authority is the Church, and not the Bible.
Now the Reformation turned that around. The Reformation said the great authority is the Word of God, and the creed is but a confession of faith in the sense that it witnesses to the Bible and to biblical truth. The value of the confession, creed, thus came to depend entirely upon the measure of its agreement with the Holy Scriptures.
If the creed, if the creed—if the confession of faith reflects what the Bible teaches, the confession of faith is correct. But if the creed, if the confession of faith does not reflect what the Bible teaches, then the creed is nothing and the Bible is everything! That is what the Reformation taught: the confession is nothing, the creed, the confession, the rule of faith, the articles of faith is nothing, but our understanding of the revealed Word of God. It is a summary of the doctrine, of the teaching of the Bible. You know the Latin word for “teacher” is doctor, doctor, docere, to teach; doctrina, what is taught. So the doctrine is the teaching of the Word of God.
Now, one last thing: what is “the good purposes of the confession of faith?” Why study the doctrines of the Scriptures? What is the good of having articles of faith, a confession of faith? “This we believe,” what is the good of it? All right, I have five answers. One: it helps us to understand the teachings of the Bible. It’s a summary of the teachings of the Bible. This is what we believe the Scriptures witness to themselves; the first one, the Scriptures. This is what we believe about God, the triune God. This is what we believe about salvation, about the church, about the Lord’s Day, on and on and on. It helps us understand the Word of God, the doctrine, the teaching of the Bible.
Number two: it serves as an instrument for the teaching of our children. Our children need to be taught the truth. Well, how do you take that Book and teach it to a child so the child can understand the great doctrines that the Book enunciates? Well, the confession of faith is a magnificent instrument by which we can teach our catechumen.
All right, number three: the confession of faith is a bond of union between the churches. The creeds are no more responsible for abuses and divisions than the Scriptures themselves, of which it professes to be merely a summary of exposition. Those sects and denominations which reject all creeds are as much under the authority of a traditional system or under the influence of certain favorite writers as the creedal churches, and they fall into as many divisions and controversies and changes as the churches with formal creeds. Because you say, “We don’t have a creed, we just have the Bible,” doesn’t mean––and we’ve already illustrated that––that you’re not following somebody, and that you’re not believing something. And you don’t escape the divisiveness by not having a creed any more than the churches that do have a creed escape division and change. It is a bond of union between the churches; it helps us, “This is what we believe.”
Number four: it distinguishes the denominational church from other churches and other religions. What is the difference between us and a Buddhist? This is the difference. What is the difference between us and a Jew? This is the difference. What is the difference between us and an Islamic Mohammedan follower of Mohammed? This is it. What is the difference between us an a Hindu? This is it. This is what we believe, and it sets us apart from the others who do not believe it.
Number five, last: it points up heresy and heretical teaching. When you are conversant with the doctrines of the Bible, when you are at home with them, why, you can sit out there, or sit over yonder, or sit anywhere in the earth and listen to a man speak. And just like that you can tell whether or not he is true to the Word of the Lord; you’re sensitive to it. And you are immediately sensitive, it isn’t something that you go home and mull over. If you are conversant with the doctrines of the faith, the creed, the articles of faith, what we believe, when you sit out in any congregation, immediately, immediately you have a full response concerning the truth that the man is delivering from the pulpit.
Now this is an introductory lecture on the articles of faith, the rules of faith. As we meet next Wednesday night and the Wednesday nights that follow, we’re going to look at the development of those doctrines and then the doctrines themselves. And if you’ll stay with this and bring your mind and your heart, you’re going to be blessed. Oh, how much in the ableness to sense the tremendous truth revealed in God’s Word! This will be like a course in systematic theology where the teachings of the Book are summarized and we look at them.