What do Presbyterians believe about confessions?
Why Do We ‘Confess’ Our Faith?
By Perky Daniel
Reprinted from the May 1996 issue of Presbyterians Today
Every Sunday, in many of our Presbyterian congregations, we reaffirm our faith using all or part of one of our confessions--often the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed, or A Brief Statement of Faith. The first part of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the Book of Confessions, which contains 11 formal statements of faith structured as creeds, confessions and catechisms. Elders throughout the denomination, training for leadership, study each of the confessions, its historical origins, and its theological emphases. Our candidates for ministry must demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the confessions on ordination exams and before their presbyteries.
Why do we have and use such statements of faith?
We have confessions because of the Scriptural precedent of being confessional.
Presbyterians claim Scripture as the primary rule of faith and life, and Scripture quotes confessions from the early communities of faith. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of the covenant people affirming in worship the "shema" "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4 9). The New Testament records the earliest Christian creed: "Jesus is Lord" (Philippians 2:11).
We have confessions because we are a community of believers, not a random collection of individuals.
The Confessions both form and reflect our sense of community by describing our shared story and our common values.
Confessions define what we as a community believe. These statements of faith proactively affirm our beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and about humanity, the church and the world (the context in which God, humanity, and the church interact). They also reactively counter understandings prevalent in the surrounding culture that do not coincide with our faith.
We have confessions because we are fallible human beings, prone to error, and inclined to forget who and whose we are. We need guidance and continual reminders about what we believe.
Confessions develop out of a need to clarify beliefs and to contradict heresies. For the covenant community of Israel, the "shema," the affirmation of one God, stood over against the surrounding culture that offered various gods or idols. For the earliest Christians to say that "Jesus is Lord" was a clear renunciation of the Romans' claim of Caesar's lordship.
The church soon found it necessary to say more than simply "Jesus is Lord." By the fourth and fifth centuries the church had become far removed from the direct disciples of Jesus and any eyewitnesses to the events of the crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost. The Nicene and Apostles' Creeds emerged in response to concerns about whether or not Jesus Christ could be both divine and human.
The core of the Apostles' Creed reinforces the historical life of Jesus the Christ, underscoring the fact that he was "born of the virgin Mary," that he suffered "under Pontius Pilate" (a historical figure), that he "was crucified, dead, and buried." The Nicene Creed emerged as correction to the heresy of the theologian Arius, who declared Christ unequal to God. It reaffirms the historical Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ and confirms the Trinitarian nature of God.
Three of our confessions (the Scots, Second Helvetic, and Westminster Confessions) and all three of our catechisms (the Heidelberg and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms) developed out of the conflicts between newly emerging Protestantism and medieval Roman Catholicism. The Scots Confession condemned such medieval church abuses as the selling of indulgences, in which church members could pay sums of money to atone for sins prior to committing them. The Scots Confession also emphasized the faithfulness of God's Word in Scripture.
John Calvin inspired the writing of Second Helvetic Confession, which, like the famous technical precision of Swiss watches and clocks, describes the specifics of church work and administration. The Second Helvetic also outlines our doctrine of salvation, contrasting the Reformed understanding of salvation as God's gift in Jesus Christ with medieval Roman Catholicism's stress on human merit (see specifically 5.053). The Scots, Second Helvetic and Westminster Confessions all strongly assert the centrality of Scripture.
Nearly four centuries passed before the church formed and adopted another confession. Within the past six decades the church has embraced three new confessions: the Declaration of Barmen, Confession of 1967, and A Brief Statement of Faith.
The Declaration of Barmen raised its voice against Hitler's in post-Weimar Republican Germany. It reaffirms the church's profession of the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, and the salvation of Jesus Christ. In those affirmations we hear a resounding denial of Hitler's hostile, Nazi claims of sovereignty, authority and salvation.
The Confession of 1967 frequently repeats the term reconciliation. In response to civil rights struggles, American involvement in Vietnam, and our first view of our planet from outer space, the church expressed a renewed commitment to reconciliation: with God, with each other (within and outside of the church), and with the planet (God's good creation, of which we are stewards).
The Presbyterian Church's reunion of Southern and Northern branches in 1983 prompted yet another 20th-century confession: A Brief Statement of Faith. This newest of confessions, says the Preface, "celebrates our rediscovery that for all our undoubted diversity, we are bound together by a common faith and a common task."
We have confessions because we believe faith has an intellectual component as well as an experiential one.
Christians need instruction in the faith, because faith is not just a matter of the heart and soul; it is also a concern of the mind. "Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). The Second Helvetic Confession states that "the pastors of the churches act most wisely when they early and carefully catechize the youth, laying the first grounds of faith, and faithfully teaching the rudiments of our religion by expounding the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the doctrine of the sacraments, with other such principles and chief heads of our religion" (5.233) .
The catechisms in our Book of Confessions (the Heidelberg and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms) were written specifically as teaching tools, putting in question-and-answer form the common elements of faith according to the Reformed tradition. Not only the content but also the very existence of catechisms underscores the importance of teaching believers. Many Presbyterians over age 40 spent hours in childhood memorizing the Shorter Catechism and can still cite at least the first question: "What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
Our growth in faith of course ideally extends beyond our youthful learning of the basics and into regular, intensive study of our Scriptures and confessions throughout our lives.
We have confessions because we are an evangelical church.
We who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ have a mandate to share that Good News for the sake of the world. Matthew 28:19-20 cites our mandate, in Jesus' final words to his first disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."
To our own contemporary experiences of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, the confessions add continuity, expressions of faith that reach back through the centuries to the earliest believers. The confessions offer not only continuity, but also the content we have to define our community.
The Book of Order states these purposes for our confessions: "These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation" (G-2.0100b).
Our confessional statements serve as road maps to the Reformed faith.
At a time when there is such a diversity of religious options, when there are so many "cities of faith" populated by various kinds of believers, it is important to have a well-drawn map of our faith. The confessions serve as a map that briefly describes us as a community and sets boundaries on the territory of the Reformed faith.
If we travel outside those boundaries, we find ourselves in another city of faith. For example, a person who does not remember his infant baptism might request rebaptism. But rebaptism lies outside our boundaries, and instead we would affirm our understanding of the once-and-for-all nature of baptism, that is, the sacrament takes effect whether or not we remember it. "The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered to any person" (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.160).
When we are newcomers to a city we rely on a map to help us find our way around and avoid getting lost. As we live in that place and frequently travel from point to point, we become more and more familiar with its features and refer to the map less often. We know the highways and byways, the side streets and dead ends, the safe areas and the places of danger.
In any vital city there is growth, development and change. Certain parts of the city of faith also change with historical circumstances, so we create new maps (write and adopt new confessions) to help those who travel here find their way.