Confessions are like suitcases; they enable us to pack a lot of content in a small amount of space. They flow from a recognition that, as creatures, we can’t say everything all of the time. And so we must condense. We must distill.
The people of God have always been a confessional people, offering short summaries of their beliefs and convictions about who God is and what he’s done. Israel’s foundational confession, known as the Shema, is recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The New Testament likewise contains short distillations of the Christian confession, sometimes in the form of poetic hymns (as in Colossians 1:15–20 and Philippians 2:6–11) and sometimes in the form of “trustworthy sayings” (as in 1 Timothy 1:15 and other passages in the Pastoral Epistles).
Since the first century, the church has been marked by disputes and controversies that have inevitably produced confessional statements — from the Apostles’ Creed to the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, to the Definition of Chalcedon, to the multiplication of confessions around the Reformation with the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the London Baptist Confession, all the way to the present day, with documents such as The Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement. My own institution, Bethlehem College & Seminary, has an Affirmation of Faith that it shares with Bethlehem Baptist Church and other like-minded churches. Indeed, from the beginning, the people of God have been in the business of crafting creeds and confessions.
But should we? It’s one thing to confess the words of Scripture. The Shema and Paul’s hymn to Christ in Philippians 2 and his “trustworthy sayings” are all well and good. But isn’t it obvious that these short biblical statements are significantly different from the lengthy, detailed summaries of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Confession and the Bethlehem Affirmation of Faith?
If we have the Scriptures, do we need these additional statements? And if we do need them, do we need them to be so long? The Shema is eleven words; some confessions are more than eleven pages. Are there good reasons for having creeds and confessions of different lengths?
No doubt many answers could be given to these questions. I want to dwell on two of them. First, confessions summarize and clarify the truth for new contexts. Second, confessions serve the unity of the church.
Clarifying the Truth
At their best and most basic, confessions are faithful summaries of the beliefs of the people of God. The Shema itself was one such summary. Israel believed far more about Yahweh than that he was one. But the confession of God’s oneness was a distillation and summary of a fuller array of beliefs and affirmations about God.
The Shema isn’t the only example. The Law of Moses in some measure could be summarized in the Ten Commandments. And Jesus himself further summarized the Law by reducing it to two: love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–40). In like manner, written confessions summarize the church’s belief about God, man, Christ, and the way of salvation.
In this respect, confessions are like suitcases; they enable us to pack a lot of content in a small amount of space. They flow from a recognition that, as creatures, we can’t say everything all of the time. And so we must condense. We must distill. We must fold our doctrines into tightly defined statements and package them together into our confessions. Confessions are a way of summarizing the teaching of the whole Bible and putting it into a usable form.
Now, it’s important to recognize that while such summaries ought to be grounded in Scripture, they are not identical to Scripture. Scripture is unique. Scripture alone is inspired by God, without error, and infallible. As a result, Scripture alone has supreme and final authority for testing all claims about what is true and right. Confessions, on the other hand, have a derived and dependent authority. This means that a confession of faith should be embraced only insofar as we understand it to be a faithful summary and distillation of what God himself has said in the Bible.