The Historical Necessity for Creeds and Confessions of Faith (1)

No creed but Christ, no law but love! Doctrine divides, love unites! Down with doctrine, up with love!

The above contention may well appeal to Christians today who, like their unbelieving neighbors, have lost interest in truth. In a time when megachurches are competing with one another to give people what they want rather than what they need, a plea for confessional Christianity must appear strange and badly out of step with the trends of church life. Perhaps it is time to reconsider those trends in the light of history and thereby to ask why creeds and confessions are necessary. That is the objective of this article.

The practice of Christians proclaiming their beliefs is an ancient one. Even in Old Testament times it was customary for the Hebrews to affirm their monotheism by frequent recitation of the shema, the first Hebrew word in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Public recitation of that text remains the most prominent feature of synagogue worship until the present. It is evident that Jesus required his New Testament disciples to confess him publicly, for he said, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33).

The earliest Christians readily proclaimed Jesus as “Lord” and “Christ,” as when Peter asserted to the Savior, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). The apostle Paul admonished believers in the Roman congregation, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Affirming Jesus’ messianic office and lordship was the practice of believers individually, and it soon became customary when they congregated for corporate worship. Their faith led them to confession. A proverb among Latin Christians was credo, ergo confiteor: “I believe, therefore I confess.”

Confessing the faith is an intelligent act, one which indicates the specific content of what a person or an ecclesiastical body believes. It goes beyond acknowledging the existence of God and declares a personal confidence in him, as he has revealed himself. Early Christian creeds affirm acceptance of the historic realities of God’s actions and of the doctrinal implications which those realities entail. When an early Christian stated credo, “I believe,” he or she thereby expressed gratitude to God and rendered to him appropriate adoration. Often new believers made their first public confessions at baptism. On that occasion converts recited a brief summary of Christian doctrine and avowed their allegiance to Christ and the church. Ancient baptismal formulas then became precedents for more elaborate statements of faith, among them the Apostles’ Creed. When heresies challenged the integrity of Christian teaching, the church responded with precise declarations, and the emphases of such documents reflect the issues in dispute at those periods.


Creeds and confessions have been necessary because God left the task of organizing and explaining his revelation to believers. This has been the work of individual scholars, or at times, of small groups or large assemblies. In order to combat heresies, to provide systematic instruction for her own members, and to keep teachers of doctrine united in their instruction, the church adopted the creeds and regarded them as standards of orthodoxy. This insistence upon sound doctrine distinguishes Christianity from most other religions, which often stress cultic duties more than precise theology. As a consequence few non-Christian religions have produced creeds comparable to those of Christianity, although contact with Christians has sometimes led other religions to compose and issue statements of belief.1

The first Christian creeds enjoyed only local acceptance, and in large cities distinguished bishops promoted their own confessions, with Rome in the forefront because of its prestige as the church in the imperial capital. Although such creeds were diverse in wording, their contents were closely similar. References to a regula fidei—a rule of faith—appeared in the third century, but by the second half of the fourth century, a Roman creed had acquired broad acceptance in the West. This became the Apostles’ Creed, although the present form of that document is from the eighth century. Contrary to ancient legend, it was not the work of the apostles but a summary of their teachings.

Latin Christians, like their Hebrew predecessors, showed little interest in speculation about mysterious aspects of belief. Greek Christians, however, were less inclined to accept doctrines by faith, and they sometimes subjected the more arcane ones to rigorous analysis. This led to controversies, requiring the church to produce definitive statements about issues in dispute. By the fourth century, the key example was the person of Christ. When Arius of Alexandria (c. 260–336) denied the essential and eternal sonship of Jesus Christ, the church rebuked him and his followers by promulgating the Creed of Nicea as an unequivocal declaration that Christ is fully God and fully man. The Council of Nicea (325) condemned Arianism as heresy. In 381 the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the decision of Nicea and responded to later errors in Christology. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed became the official statement of the Eastern church and remains in frequent use there. The Apostles’ Creed continues to be the most popular affirmation of faith in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of the West. Since the Creed of Nicea was the first such confession authorized by an ecumenical council of bishops it gained acceptance throughout Christendom. Had the ancient church allowed heresies such as Arianism to go unanswered, the damage to the faith would have been incalculable. The crisis required a clear, definitive confession.2

The third ancient confession of great distinction is the Athanasian Creed. Although it is not the work of the famous theologian Athanasius (c. 300–373), it upholds his doctrine as he defended it at the Council of Nicea. The Athanasian Creed originated early in the sixth century, perhaps in Gaul, as a vigorous defense of the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ in detailed, exact terms even more precise than those of the Apostles’ Creed and the Creed of Nicea. It appears that the compilers of this statement were familiar with Augustine of Hippo’s exposition and defense of the Trinity, which appeared about 420. The Athanasian Creed, more than any previous confession, is strongly polemical in denouncing heretics. It contends that belief in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation is necessary for salvation, and it pronounces damnation upon those who teach otherwise.

Between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, criticism of church traditions and authoritarian policies became increasingly common. Followers of Peter Waldo (d. c. 1216) and others sought to return to New Testament simplicity. Such movements found discrepancies between Scripture and some ecclesiastical practices, so they desired internal reform. Papal authorities often responded with persecution of the dissidents, and that led to schism. By this time there was much controversy about the number and significance of the sacraments. The Roman church replied to dissenters academically through the writings of Scholastic theologians and juridically by means of the Inquisition. The Waldenses, in the fourteenth century, met papal opposition with their Seven Articles of Faith and a catechism to instruct their adherents in doctrine and morality. Supporters of John Hus (c. 1375–1415), after the martyrdom of their leader, issued a Confessio Taborintarum as a statement of beliefs for which they suffered persecution. In 1503 the United Brethren of Bohemia presented to their king a confession in which they denied the traditional role of departed saints as mediators with God, purgatory, and transubstantiation as the correct understanding of the Eucharist. These and other pre-Reformation nonconformists drafted and published confessions to justify their dissent from Rome by showing the scriptural character of their principles.

The growing disaffection from the papacy is evidence that Christians needed confessions that would address matters about which the ancient creeds are silent. The Protestant Reformers undertook that task with relish. While they revered the ancient creeds and often declared their concurrence with them, the Protestants realized that those documents do not assert the sole authority of Scripture, nor do they explain biblical teaching about sin and salvation in any detail. They are silent about supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they make only passing references to the sacraments.

By the sixteenth century Christendom had become confused about many doctrines of the faith, and the Roman church of the Middle Ages had never taken a dogmatic stand with regard to some beliefs Protestants discovered in the Bible, doctrines which for centuries the medieval church had ignored or distorted. The Protestants invoked the principle of sola scriptura, and as they did so, they rejected some traditional teachings of the papal church as incompatible with clear biblical revelation. The Reformers therefore found it necessary to clarify their understanding of Scripture in new confessions of faith. The Lutherans led the way, and their Augsburg Confession of Faith (1530) became the first of several Reformation creeds. Since the ancient statements do not address specific aspects of soteriology, such as original sin, election, regeneration, and justification, the Protestant Reformers stated their beliefs about these matters boldly and in explicit terms.

Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Martin Luther’s closest associate on the faculty at the University of Wittenberg, was the major author of the Augsburg Confession, which he presented to the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire in order to explain the biblical basis of evangelical (Lutheran) doctrine. He did not include a specific affirmation of sola scriptura because that had not yet become the fundamental item of contention with Rome, and some papal theologians were arguing that traditional Catholicism was entirely faithful to Scripture. The emperor and the imperial Diet rejected the Lutheran position, and Charles V (r. 1519–1556), the monarch, threatened military action against accused heretics in Germany. Melanchthon later issued an Apology for the Augsburg Confession in which he answered Roman charges in belligerent terms. The Augsburg Confession rather quickly gained recognition in all the Lutheran bodies of Europe, and it remains, in principle, the official statement of Lutheran beliefs around the world.

By 1577 disputes within Lutheran ranks required a fuller, clearer expression of doctrine, and the Formula of Concord supplied that need. This thorough statement of evangelical theology acknowledges the ancient creeds as accurate summaries of Christian belief, to which Lutherans adhere heartily, but the challenges of the sixteenth century required them to offer more extensive and precise declarations. The Formula affirms sola scriptura as the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. In 1580 Lutherans published the Book of Concord as a compendium of their major doctrinal affirmations. This tome contains the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon’s Apology, Luther’s two catechisms, and the Smalkald Articles (1527), which Luther compiled for an organization of evangelical states, together with the Formula of Concord and the three ancient ecumenical creeds.3

As Protestants applied the formal principle of the Reformation, they developed some disagreements among themselves, especially with regard to the sacraments. This led to a contentious debate between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), the reformer of Zurich, and the confessions of faith they helped to produce reflect their divergent views. In 1523 Zwingli published the Sixty-seven Articles as the first confession to express the distinctive beliefs of that branch of Protestantism which became known as the Reformed churches. He sent his own confession to the Diet of Augsburg while Melanchthon was there, even though neither the Catholics nor the Lutherans had invited him to participate.

When the Reformation spread to Geneva, John Calvin (1509–1564) came into prominence as the leader, and he soon established the reputation of that city as the fountainhead of Reformed theology. Unlike Zwingli, Calvin maintained fine relations with Luther, and at one point he signed a version of the Augsburg Confession as a display of Protestant unity. Calvin had published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, a treatise for which the Apostles’ Creed was the outline—further evidence of the Reformers’ eagerness to align with the Catholic church of antiquity. Their frequent citations from Augustine of Hippo (354–430) also demonstrated this desire.

In 1549 the churches of Zurich and Geneva established fraternal relations on the basis of a joint confession, the Consensus of Zurich, due to the work of Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), the successor to Zwingli as chief pastor in Zurich. Although Philip Melanchthon expressed disapproval of the Reformed view of the sacraments, he was well impressed with the Consensus and discarded his suspicions toward the Swiss Protestants after reading it.

Both Lutheran and Reformed influences spread to England and Scotland during the reigns of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547) and Edward VI (r. 1547–1553). Henry despised Protestantism, but Edward, his son, embraced it heartily. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) eventually became a convinced Protestant, and he composed the Forty-two Articles of Religion as a confession for the Church of England with the king’s approval. This statement reflects both Lutheran and Reformed influences, but the articles about soteriology are Calvinistic. In the Book of Common Prayer Cranmer incorporated Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed elements and provided Englishmen with a manual of worship in their own language. In that way the Church of England preserved catholic, but not papal, traditions in harmony with Scripture.4

During the reign of the Catholic Queen, Mary I (r. 1553–1558), there was a violent repression of Protestants. Many Protestants fled to the continent, some to Geneva, where they became vigorous Calvinists. When the Protestant Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) ascended the throne, they returned to England, where some became bishops in the Anglican church. Cambridge University became a center for the teaching of the Reformed faith, and there Calvin’s Institutes was the principal textbook in theology.

Elizabeth’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker (1504–1575), supervised a revision of Cranmer’s confession to include some more Lutheran elements, and that project became the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which remain the official statement of the Anglican and Episcopal churches.

When Protestantism arrived in Scotland, it was the evangelical doctrine of Luther, but, as in England, the Reformed faith quickly supplanted it. In 1544 George Wishart (c. 1513–1546) returned to Scotland from Switzerland and brought the Helvetic Confession of Faith (1536), which a number of Reformed theologians had drafted. The popularity of this statement in Scotland is difficult to explain, but it gained acceptance readily and led the Scottish Reformation away from its Lutheran foundation. Wishart was a close friend of John Knox (c. 1513–1572), who was the chief author of the Scots’ Confession (1560), a strongly Calvinistic statement. The stridently anti-Roman language of this confession reflects the suffering Protestants had endured at the hands of Catholic authorities.5

The Netherlands was another site of great persecution of Protestants, as Spain conducted an Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) to reduce the Low Countries to obedience and to eradicate heresy by means of the Inquisition. In the midst of this struggle, Protestants adopted the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), the principal author of which was Guy de Brès (c. 1523–1567), an evangelist whom Spanish officials hanged for his efforts to spread the Reformed faith. De Brès addressed the Belgic Confession to King Philip II (r. 1556–1598) in the hope of convincing the monarch to stop persecuting his Protestant subjects. De Brès failed in that objective, but his composition became the official doctrinal statement of the Dutch Reformed Church, a confessional monument to the heroes of the Dutch struggle for freedom.

Late in the sixteenth century, the Netherlands experienced the first challenge to Protestant soteriology to arise within Reformed ranks. The appearance of Arminianism led to the publication of opposing confessions of faith and to a permanent division among Protestants. Disciples of the late James Arminius (1560–1609), a professor at the University of Leyden, in 1610 published a Remonstrance to express their objections to the Reformed doctrine of sin and salvation. A national Synod of the Dutch Reformed church met at Dordt in 1618–1619, and representatives of several other Reformed bodies attended. This synod replied to each assertion of the Remonstrance with a reaffirmation of undiluted Calvinism which became the Canons of Dordt, often cited as the Five Points of Calvinism. The same assembly ratified the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, which had originated in the German state of Palatine in 1562. By requiring strict adherence to its confession, the Dutch Reformed church repulsed the Arminian challenge.

This article is reprinted by permission from Reformation & Revival 10 (spring 2001). 1. The texts of almost all historic creeds and confessions appear in Philip Schaff and David S. Schaff, eds., The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 reprint of 1931 edition). For an excellent brief review of the creeds and confessions, see W. A. Curtis, “Confessions,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 3, ed. James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928), 831–901. 2. Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982) and Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis: A History of General Councils, 325–1870 (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1961) are helpful accounts from Roman Catholic authors. R. J. Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972) and Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils, and Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984) are Protestant treatments. 3. Theodore G. Tappert, trans. and ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959). 4. James Edward McGoldrick, Luther’s English Connection (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1979) covers the first stage of Protestant development in England. 5. James Edward McGoldrick, Luther’s Scottish Connection (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989) is an account of the earliest Scottish Protestants.

Dr. James Edward McGoldrick is professor of church history at Greenville Presbyterian Seminary in South Carolina.