Articles

Creeds, the Believer, and the Sufficiency of the Scriptures (2)

Previous article in this series: February 15, 2009, p. 220.

As stated in the last issue, the recently produced video about the PRC's high regard for the confessions as statements concerning God's truth, as well as our emphasis on the vital importance of church membership, prompted a response by a viewer. 

The respondent had a couple of questions, to our mind questions worth responding to because they represent what has become to an alarming measure the trend in the 'Christianity' of our day—men and women cutting themselves loose from the creeds (in the name of freedom and liberty of conscience) and the disparaging of membership in the church institute (reflecting the anti-authoritarian spirit of our age). 

In connection with the Reformed confessions, the question asked was, "Why would you need these other writings if the Bible is the absolute truth, straight from God?? I believe that Scriptures are enough, sufficient, authoritative, and God-breathed." 

And when it came to the importance of church membership as underscored by the sacraments' being entrusted by Christ to His church, the respondent stated: "I can't find a passage of Scripture that states we must do anything other (or additional) than believe on Jesus Christ for our salvation." For proof he quoted Romans 10:9

Due to the popularity of these sentiments, a response is warranted. We intend to offer a brief response to the correspondent's second 'question' in the "Letters to the Editors" department in a futureSB

The question asked is, Why do Christians and Christ's church "need [!] these other writings [the creeds]?" We like the wording. Not simply, of whatuse are the creeds? Or, will churches that decide to use creeds find them of value? But, "Are the creedsneeded (of vital necessity) for the New Testament church (and by the twenty-first century church in particular)?" That is the question. 

The answer is—you had better believe they are needed, which is to say, they are necessary, vital for the well-being of New Testament believers, and not to be laid aside or ignored. Why? Because the creeds are the work of the Holy Spirit of the ascended Lord Jesus, both through His New Testament church and for her. And if that is what they are (and we contend they are), then New Testament believers set them aside at their own peril, and a church would do so at the cost of her faithful witness and the right to call herself the continuation of Christ's church. 

We do not say that the creeds are the work of the Spirit in the same way as the Scriptures are His work through selected "holy men of God" (II Pet. 1:21). The writings of the apostles alone are infallible and inspired as the foundation of all true revelation concerning Jesus Christ and spiritual things. But, for all that, the great creeds of the historic Christian church are the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Consider. It is one thing to read the Holy Scriptures; it is another thing to read them aright and to desire to be in full accord with them. Could anything be plainer from New Testament church history? Did (does) everyone read the Bible aright? Did (does) everyone want to read God's Holy Word aright? Has the Arch-Deceiver been active since the days of the apostles in trying to sow confusion concerning what God's Word says, or has he not? The answers are obvious. 

And who can dispute that the ability to read God's Word aright comes from Christ's Spirit? The disciples themselves were deficient in their reading of the Old Testament until the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of their understanding. 

The question is, how has the Holy Spirit chosen to combat those who would corrupt the doctrines of God's Word, leading many astray? 

The answer is, He has done so by working in the hearts of faithful officebearers (men knowledgeable of God's Word) who came together in church councils to spell out for the church (that is, to draw up statements, propositions in writing, so that there could be no disputing) what is the correct understanding of the apostolic Word and what is false and to be rejected. 

That this refutation of pernicious errors (which have varied from age to age) is the special province of officebearers is clearly scriptural (apostolic). The apostle Paul made this plain in Acts 20:17ff. Having explicitly called for the elders of Ephesus, he expressly stated, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock [!], over the which the Holy Ghost [!] has made you overseers" (v. 28). Why? "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter among you, not sparing the flock" (v. 29). Can there be any disputing that elders (teaching and ruling) were placed in the apostolic church for the express purpose of defending congregations of believers from heretics and their teachings? 

That was Paul's apostolic charge back in the first century. Can anyone honestly dispute that the same charge holds for the twenty-first? 

But there is also biblical pattern for great church councils being assembled at crucial times in church history when fundamental apostolic teachings are under assault. This is laid out in Acts 15, a passage most instructive for the church of all ages. 

First, note that biblical, apostolic doctrines were being challenged within the churches while the apostles themselves were still on the scene. The Judaizers were busy demanding that Gentiles turn themselves into Mosaic Jews, contrary to what the apostles were teaching. In response, leaders of the church convened at Jerusalem. 

Second, significantly, the apostles did not simply take it upon themselves to answer the heresy, but included elders as well. Acts 15 makes a point of this. Reference is made to "the apostles and elders" four different times (vv. 2, 4, 6, 22). As well, reference is made explicitly to James, Christ's half brother, and to Barnabas, as contributors, neither of whom was an apostle. We are dealing here with a church council. 

And third, after the Holy Spirit (!) (v. 28) had led them to a proper understanding of the error confronting them and to the answer of God's Word (arrived at through the unified decision of officebearers—not just left to the judgment of individual believers scattered here and there to try to combat the error), they committed their doctrinal decision and application of God's Word to writing (v. 23), to be sent through the churches. 

The initial church council of the New Testament committed its decision to writing, the first creed—Gentile believers were under no apostolic commandment to be circumcised; the Christian church was not to return to the Mosaic law (v. 24). To be sure, these are words recorded in the Scriptures. But this is exactly the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Here is the pattern for the New Testament church when the apostles were no longer on the scene. The Spirit knew that the Judaizers would not be the last heretics to trouble the church. Many would follow, challenging nearly every apostolic teaching found in the New Testament. 

The question was, what was the church to do when heresy challenged apostolic doctrines once the apostles had 'departed'? 

Acts 15 is given exactly to make plain what the New Testament church was to do. By Acts 15 the Holy Spirit is assuring the New Testament church (which was going to be around for some time after the apostles died), that when Bible-believing officebearers would gather to bring God's Word to bear on some error (or host of them), errors threatening the very gospel of grace itself, He, as the Spirit of truth, would be in the midst of them to enable them to articulate what was in accordance with God's true Word. And thus the error of Satan on a particular doctrine would be identified for generations following and the gate against that error locked. 

This the Holy Spirit has graciously done again and again in the centuries intervening between the apostles and our present age. He has done so via the writing of confessions and creeds. 

In reference to that spirit that would disparage the need for the historic Christian creeds, old A.A. Hodge, in his book The Confession of Faith (a commentary on the Westminster Confession), states it well.

The real question is not, as often pretended, between the Word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God's people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.

That lays bare in clearest terms what is at issue in this debate over the Bible vs. 'mere man-produced' creeds. It comes down to the "proved faith of the collective body of God's people" vs. "the unassisted wisdom" of self. To borrow a scriptural phrase—"Choose you this day with whom you intend to cast your lot"—with the collective wisdom of the church of all the ages, or the unassisted wisdom of self. 

Surely the latter is folly personified. 

We are compelled to put it in blunt terms. 

As I have told my teenage catechumens more than once, for a present-day believer to refuse to subscribe to the great creeds and confessions of the historic Christian church is nothing less than an act of spiritual arrogance. It would be so for me, and for them also. As if there has not been any 'body of believers' going back through the ages who have understood and confessed the same fundamental truths that I (and maybe a few close friends) do. Or at least I cannot be sure there have been. As if we as believers in the twenty-first century must determine each for himself what is the truth for today, isolated from the church of Christ of the past. As if what our spiritual fathers by the Holy Spirit in them were led to confess and write down for the generations following, generations who would have to face the same Deceiver in a host of disguises but with the same bag of tricks, is of little value for you and me. 

Such, we say, amounts to spiritual arrogance and is really to dishonor the Spirit Himself, who what is at issue in this debate over the Bible vs. 'mere man-produced' creeds. It comes down to the "proved faith of the collective body of God's people" vs. "the unassisted wisdom" of self. To borrow a scriptural phrase—"Choose you this day with whom you intend to cast your lot"—with the collective wisdom of the church of all the ages, or the unassisted wisdom of self. 

Surely the latter is folly personified. 

We are compelled to put it in blunt terms. 

As I have told my teenage catechumens more than once, for a present-day believer to refuse to subscribe to the great creeds and confessions of the historic Christian church is nothing less than an act of spiritual arrogance. It would be so for me, and for them also. As if there has not been any 'body of believers' going back through the ages who have understood and confessed the same fundamental truths that I (and maybe a few close friends) do. Or at least I cannot be sure there have been. As if we as believers in the twenty-first century must determine each for himself what is the truth for today, isolated from the church of Christ of the past. As if what our spiritual fathers by the Holy Spirit in them were led to confess and write down for the generations following, generations who would have to face the same Deceiver in a host of disguises but with the same bag of tricks, is of little value for you and me. 

Such, we say, amounts to spiritual arrogance and is really to dishonor the Spirit Himself, who is the one who led these spiritual forbears to understand and articulate God's Word aright. 

It is as simple as this, if what one confesses is the biblical truth (and the proper refutation of Satan's corruptions), then one may be sure that it will stand in basic harmony with what Christ's faithful church and people have declared to be their confession in days gone by. If such a harmony cannot be found, one had better reconsider what one is confessing. 

Of one thing a twenty-first century believer may be sure, the Holy Spirit did not wait until you or I came along to make His truths clear. If what we are confessing is biblical, it will be consistent with what believers have been confessing all along. 

You ask, how is one to know what it is that the faithful have confessed in days gone by? Read the creeds! 

To be sure, there may come a time when few stand any longer for what is biblical and true, and one finds oneself standing all but alone, but that is not the same as standing isolated and separated from the church of the past and at odds with what believers confessed through the ages. If one finds self in the latter position, something is terribly wrong, namely with self, and one had best reexamine one's interpretation of the Scriptures again. 

In fact, it is exactly in times of apostasy that the great Reformed confessions are so valuable, strengthening one to maintain one's convictions as biblical. Exactly by means of them it can be demonstrated that what we hold is in accordance with what God's church has confessed as truth through the ages. And therefore not we, but those teaching some new thing, have departed and are no longer listening to what the Spirit has said to the churches. 

To the objection that not all the creeds were written by church councils (by officebearers in concert), but some, like the Belgic Confession, were written by individuals, we respond: first, those individuals wrote what they did only after having taken into consideration what many other faithful Bible-expositors had taught and wrote; and second, and more importantly, those documents written by individuals, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, did not become confessions to subscribe to until church councils (vis-à-vis the Synod of Dordt) had studied them carefully, compared them with the Scriptures, and declared them to be standards of the faith for those who would be true to the Scriptures. 

We follow Proverbs 24:6 as wisdom: "...in the multitude of counselors there is safety." 

If one should say, "But there are a great number of confessions out there—Reformed, Lutheran, Romish—all claiming to be biblically faithful. How can one know?" Quite simple: Read the various confessions and compare what they say with the Scriptures point by point, and one will discover which are sound and faithful and which, on various biblical teachings, go astray. And once convinced, a believer is called to join himself with those who make this common confession (Eph. 4:3, 11-14) and to place himself and family under Christ's rule through His officebearers there. 

We say again, not to do so is disobeying the very Lord and Scriptures one claims to esteem. 

To the argument that the writing of the great creeds and confessions is an assault on the sufficiency of the Scriptures, we respond: "No, it is not a calling into question of the sufficiency of the Scriptures at all. Rather, their very writing is proof, demonstration, that the Scriptures are sufficient to meet every error, no matter how these errors may mutate like deadly viruses, and it is sufficient to enable every generation of believers to give clear, well-reasoned answers to every new error that arises to infect the church." 

He who will not adopt the great historic and Reformed confessions as expressions of his very own faith is bound to fall into the very errors they were written under the leading of the Spirit to safeguard against.

Koole, Kenneth

Rev. K. Koole (Wife: Pat)

Ordained: December 1977

Pastorates: Randolph, WI - 1977; Hope, Redlands, CA - 1982; Faith, Jenison, MI - 1989; Grandville, MI - 2002

Website: www.grandvilleprc.org/

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