Confessions of Faith: The Bible, therefore, the Creed

Confessions of Faith: The Bible, therefore, the Creed

The Bible is a big book with numerous themes and doctrines. Consider the following four realities that drive us to summarize the doctrines of the Bible in a confession of faith.

1. The Progressive History of Graphe Drives us to Doctrinal Summary

Faithfulness to the Bible as the Word of God, singular in its meaning and authoritative for mind and heart, means that creedal formulas of doctrine serve the cause of real biblical knowledge. They neither detract from it nor substitute for it. When all the varieties of biblical literature are put together, from historical narrative to closely reasoned doctrinal instruction, the confidence of the biblical writers themselves and of believers through the centuries affirm its full truthfulness throughout the canon. Each verse and word has an immediate context that contributes to the literary intent of each specific writer. Each passage and book exists within a larger context and contributes to the progressive development of divine revelation. Paul assumed this process of increasingly full revelation that could be synthesized into doctrinal propositions when, in Thessalonica, “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2, 3). By the end of Scripture, the whole of written revelation has yielded all that is needed for saving knowledge of God and a comprehensive world view. One necessary element of Christian discipleship is the clear confession of the matured teaching of the Bible on as many subjects as possible. This is exactly the purpose of a creed or a confession of faith.

2. Clarity and Consistency Drive us to Doctrinal Summary

With no pretension of exhausting its content, a careful interpreter can present in summary fashion a truthful profile of the biblical teaching on God—that there is only one God and he is a trinitarian being existing eternally as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such an interpreter can present the teaching on humanity—that it is created by God as male and female in a state of innocence, fell by disobedience to a state of sinfulness, may be redeemed by grace manifested in the person and work of Christ, and will finally be judged and sentenced righteously according to all the things done in the body. Further, conscientious interpretation discerns a profile of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God who embraced human nature for the purpose of redeeming a people that were given to him by the Father. To accomplish this, he died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and presently intercedes as an advocate for those who trust him for salvation. This kind of summary of biblical teachings, isolating necessary points of doctrine (especially ideas under challenge by a false teacher), has been the historical prompt, biblically justified, for creeds.

3. Gifts and Illumination from the Spirit Drive us to Doctrinal Summary

Creeds transfer from one generation to another at least two vital elements of Christ’s intercessory ministry to the church: the giving of gifts and the granting of illumination (Ephesians 4:7-13; 1 Corinthians 12:1-7; 1 Peter 4:10, 11; 1 Corinthians 2:14-16; Ephesians 3 the entire chapter). Both of these operate in fitting ways toward the world, the individual believer, the particular churches, and the whole body of Christ. Certain aspects of gifts and illumination have a cumulative effect. For example, Augustine is more than just the bishop of Hippo, who died in the fifth century. He is a teacher of the whole church through the ages and we continue to reap benefits from the peculiar gifting he received from the ascended Christ through the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards is far more than the underappreciated pastor at Northampton in Massachusetts; he is a never-ending fountain of instruction and insight for all Christians, though many may not even be aware of it.

Also illumination operates, not just to give individual insight into revealed truth, but to establish in the corporate consciousness of the church advances in understanding. Through the hard work of gifted teachers under the hidden guidance of the Holy Spirit, pivotal breakthroughs in biblical teaching occur that become, subsequent to that event of illumination, virtually self-evident meanings of the biblical text, useful for correction and instruction. J. P. Boyce, noted that “he does not obey the Apostolic injunction by receiving men simply because they profess to adopt the same canon of Scripture, but by requiring assent also to the particular truths which he knows to be taught therein.”

4. The Goal of Unity Drives us to Doctrinal Summary

Those syntheses of truth clarify those issues for future generations and encourage further advances in understanding. When the age of revelation had culminated, the stewardship of the church in exploring its riches and giving expression to the meaning of all its powerful, but delicate, textual inter-relations had just begun and will continue until Christ returns. Creeds summarize in chaste and circumspect language this corporate illumination so that every generation can benefit from its insights into the revealed text. Because of the process of exegesis, comparative reflection, and careful expression involved in these advances, a cumulative rationality develops that allows a closely guided reflection on the theological ideas involved. Even when creeds or confessions conflict, such as Catholic and Protestant confessions on the doctrine of justification, or various Protestant confessions on ecclesiology, the respective summaries provide a sound platform from which to investigate the competing claims. Creeds do not hurt, but enhance, the goal of true Christian unity.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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