Why Do We Use Creeds and Confessions in Worship?
I am a pastor of Harvest Community Church. We are a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, a Christian denomination in the Reformed tradition. Among other things, being Reformed means we believe that God teaches us how to worship him.
Therefore, we have neither the authority to add to or to subtract from what God commands for our worship (Ex. 25:9; Lev. 10:1–2; Deut. 4:2; 2 Chron. 29:25; Matt. 15:1–9; Col. 2:16–23). This is called the Regulative Principle of Worship.
Why We Confess our Faith
But what about confessing our faith with creeds and confessional statements outside of the Bible? Is it appropriate in worship to use the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, or something from the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms? Are these creeds and confessions merely the traditions of men, so that we should exclude them from worship?
Certainly, our creeds and confessional statements are subordinate to God’s word. Only the Bible is the breathed-out word of God for our teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). The Scriptures alone are our final authority in all matters of faith and practice.
The Scriptures, however, command us to confess our faith. The first confession of faith occurs in Deuteronomy 6:4, when Moses teaches Israel to confess that Yahweh is one God. In the New Testament, God explicitly instructs his new covenant people to confess important points of doctrine about the person and work of Jesus Christ:
- Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father (1 John 2:23; 4:15)
- Jesus Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:2)
- God raised up Jesus from the dead (Rom. 5:9)
- God has exalted Jesus Christ as Lord over all (Phil. 2:11)
Think, then, about the range of items we must confess. In the Old Testament, God’s people confessed that Yahweh is one God. In the New Testament, God calls us to confess that Jesus also is God—the Son of the Father. How do we confess that God is one and that Jesus is the Son of the Father?
Furthermore, the New Testament commands us to confess that Jesus came in the flesh, suffered, died, and rose from the dead. Finally, the New Testament commands us to confess that God the Father has exalted Jesus Christ as Lord over all. How do we confess that Jesus is God and that he suffered, died, and is now exalted?
Confessing the Full Deity of Christ
As we look at the history of the Church, it is remarkable how often these very elements become the source of false teaching. Some false teachers undermined the full deity of Jesus Christ by arguing that the Son is inferior and subordinate to the Father. Other false teachers argued that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the same person who merely manifests himself in different ways at different times.
It is very hard to confess truthfully and simultaneously that God is one and that God exists as three Persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Confessing the Full Humanity of Christ
Still other false teachers undermined the full humanity of Jesus Christ, arguing that he didn’t really come in the flesh. Many taught that Jesus wasn’t fully human at all, but that he only seemed to live, suffer, die, and rise from the dead as a human being. Or, they taught that he didn’t have a full human mind and soul along with his body.
It is very hard to confess truthfully and simultaneously that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father and that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, suffered, died, rose from the dead, and has been exalted as Lord.
The Creeds and Confessions
Therefore, early Christians devoted themselves to studying the Scriptures, praying, debating, and formulating accurate ways to confess all that the Scriptures command us to confess. The fruit of their work is the three major ecumenical creeds: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These creeds give us language to confess our faith accurately and faithfully.
The later confessions (like the Westminster Standards in my own tradition) give us deeper reflections on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and on a variety of topics. They help us learn how to speak about other parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand.
Giving the Sense of our Confession
The creeds and confessions, then, are something like God’s word preached. The preacher is not adding something new to God’s word. Instead, he simply gives the sense of God’s word so the people understand and apply it accurately (Neh. 8:8).
In the same way, the creeds and confessions do not add new doctrine. Instead, the creeds help to give the sense of what God commands his people to confess in worship. We use the creeds to fulfill the command God gives us in the Scriptures to confess our faith in worship.