September 2020 Credo
The field of hermeneutics — in itself defined as the study of what is happening when effective interpretation or understanding is taking place — when applied to doctrine reveals a surprising finding: rather than perceiving belief as mere intellectual acknowledgement, it is more accurately seen as a “disposition”. The act of saying “I believe” is a self-involving act and comes to be inextricably embodied in patterns of habit, commitment and action. These self-involvement acts not only constitute endorsement for our belief utterances, they represent a fundamental openness on our part to be transformed by that which we believe.
Given this is so, what constitutes the content of Christian belief? To be sure, a true answer is (and must be) “Holy Scripture,” but I suspect that the answer is so broad that it is not very helpful. After all, heretics have similarly appealed to Scripture as their source of authority. The adversaries that our Church Fathers had to face — Arius and Eunomius to name two examples — all quoted from Scripture to support their arguments.
A more specific answer could perhaps be drawn from a scriptural passage like Rom. 10:9 “9 That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV, 1984). True, but herein lies the immediate follow-up question — “What does it mean to confess Jesus as Lord? What lies the content behind that specific confession?”
Here is where the creeds and confessions come in. Both serve as “fixed formula[s] summarizing the essential articles of the Christian religion and enjoying the sanction of ecclesiastical [church] authority,” as church historian J. N. D. Kelly defines it. While creeds distinguish the Christian faith from non-Christian faith (orthodoxy vs. heresy), confessions distinguish one type of the Christian faith from another (denominational distinctives). In other words, creeds enable us to say: “This is us, as Christians”; while confessions: “This is us, as Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran (etc.) Christians.”
One could mount the plausible argument that the creeds arose largely from the first seven ecumenical councils. There are at least three creeds maintained by the Western (Latin) church — the Apostles’ Creed (ca. 140); the Nicene Creed (otherwise known as the Nicaea-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381, an expanded and revised version of the Creed of Nicea of 325), and the Chalcedonian Creed (451), if one considers the stipulations and decisions of the Council of Chalcedon creedal statements. To this list could be added the Athanasian Creed (late 400s to early 500s), accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran churches and some Anglican churches.
As for the confessions, the Anglicans have the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; the Methodist The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church; the Presbyterians the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Lutherans The Book of Concord.
It is certainly not possible within the short compass of this article to elaborate on the content of the creeds and confessions. For now, I merely wish to highlight the general importance of creeds and confessions within our Christian faith.
First, creeds and confessions, especially the former, serve as a summary of what lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The creeds provide a succinct answer to what it means to confess Jesus as Lord. According to the creeds — even in its barest of form — to confess Jesus as Lord means to worship the one God in Trinity, the one who is creator, savior and judge; it is to announce that we believe corporately as part of the
“holy catholic church,” and to declare that our confession brings about a transformation (“the forgiveness of sins”), orienting us to a certain hope expressed as “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
Second, creeds and confessions serve as an interpretive guide to our reading of the Scriptures, even as their statements are drawn from Scripture itself. Since the dawn of the field of study of hermeneutics, it is widely recognized that no one approaches the reading of Scripture from a tabula rasa (“blank slate”), but that we approach the task of understanding the Scriptures with preunderstanding. In this case, creeds and confessions shape our preunderstanding, very often subconsciously and indirectly through our being part of a local church within a certain theological and denominational context. However, it is not solely a one-way traffic. As we read Scripture, what we glean in turn acts as a check in verifying and validating what the creeds or confessions specify. This is the well-known hermeneutical circle between the parts (what Scripture says in its details) and the whole (what the creeds and confession say overall) at play.
Third, creeds and confessions further doctrinal exploration, while regulating its discourse. As theologian Robert Jenson pointed out, one cannot keep saying “Jesus died to save us from our sin” without pondering how that might work, without engaging in the kind of second-level reflection that doctrinal exploration is concerned with. Yet, the statements of the creeds, with their embodied ecclesial authority, delimit our doctrinal exploration by displaying clearly the boundary markers of orthodoxy.
Fourth, the creeds and confessions work hand-in-hand to display the type of unity that underlies the Christian faith, revealing this unity to be a unity-in-diversity rather than a strict uniformity. I am often questioned by non-Christians and Christians newer in the faith as to why there are so many denominations, and whether the presence of so many denominations portray Protestant Christianity with a disunited front. My answer is always to question the inquirer’s understanding of unity and to distill if that understanding is governed by a sense of uniformity. If that is so, little wonder that we see the Protestant Christianity as disunited and perhaps even chaotic. But if our understanding of unity bears more a sense of a unity-in-diversity, or a “polyphonic” unity (as the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin would say), one could argue that amongst the different denominations that we have, the unity is carried by the creeds which we subscribe to in unison while the diversity is carried by the various confessions we maintain as part of own denominational heritage.
A last point on the practical implications of the importance of creeds and confessions. Given their importance, they should feature as a regular part of our corporate worship services. Nothing is more edifying than to have entire congregations confess together and corporately what and, more precisely, who it is that governs our lives on a day-to-day basis. A pulpit series preaching through the statements of one of the creeds or our confessions would facilitate the exposition and consolidation of the tenets of our Christian faith — much needed in our time and age — enabling the church to arrive at a clearer understanding of her general core identity as well as her unique denominational identity. Not to mention my assumption that the creeds and confessions are already a pivotal feature of our catechismal and baptismal classes. May we, as God’s treasured children, be able to articulate more clearly and confidently our Christian identity, expressed in the unique grammar of our Christian belief as contained in our creeds and confessions.
Rev Dr Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.