The creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church form the core curriculum for teaching Christians the faith. Catechesis is a word that simply means teaching. Catechisms, however, are usually a specific format of teaching through questions and answers. Children learn catechisms at an age where memorization is easy. Later in life, when young people ask lots of questions to work out their personal beliefs, catechisms help provide answers to their difficult questions. Then, as adults, high quality catechisms offer ongoing theological enrichment to continue growing deeper in the faith.
By the grace of God, I grew up in churches that loved the Bible. I have vivid memories of hearing God’s word read, sung, and preached every week. I memorized a good portion of the Bible through AWANA. I still remember specific things I learned about the Bible in Vacation Bible School and Sunday School lessons. In high school, I was introduced to a regular Bible reading plan that I have used since 2000.
I cannot understate the importance of that biblical foundation. I would not be the man I am today without such regular, faithful, careful exposure to God’s word. Upon that foundation laid by my parents and the leaders in my churches, my love for the Bible has continued to grow to this day.
Biblical and Confessional Presbyterianism
In college, though, I met a group of Christians who loved the Bible as much as I did, but with an important difference. Where I had exclusively focused on the Bible, they made use of a specific set of tools from their tradition to assist their study of the Bible: the Westminster Standards, including the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
At first, this emphasis on man-made creeds and confessions troubled me. Wasn’t this precisely the sort of thing Jesus condemned when he warned us not to make void the word of God for the sake of human tradition (Matt. 15:1–9)? Haven’t Protestants pointed out time and again the Roman Catholics errors that have arisen from adding tradition to the word of God?
Eventually, I came to see the crucial difference. Roman Catholics cite their alleged oral tradition as an additional source of revelation beyond the written word of God. The tradition of Confessional Protestants (including the Westminster Standards for Presbyterians) limits itself simply to confessing and teaching what we believe the written word of God teaches.
The best creeds, confessions, and catechisms, then, do not add new information to supplement the Bible. Instead, they only seek to clarify what the Bible teaches. That is, they drive us back to the Bible, instead of beyond the Bible.
The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice (WCF 31.3). Our creeds, confessions, and catechisms are only secondary and subsidiary to the Bible. Thus, we do not put our confessional statements on the same level with the Bible; however, we hold to our confessional statements because we believe that they are thoroughly biblical.
Why Do We Need Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms?
In this article, then, I want to offer nine reasons why Christians should use creeds, confessions, and catechisms. For a more in-depth discussion, I warmly commend Samuel Miller’s classic work, The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions. Much of what I am writing here is drawn from Miller’s work.
To begin, we must recognize that the Bible commands us to confess our faith. As Miller observes, this means more than merely reading the Bible, but actually confessing the doctrines of the Bible in summary form. Creeds and confessions, then, do not violate the Scriptures. Rather, it is impossible to obey the Bible without using creeds and confessions!
Indeed, the Bible says that confessing certain doctrines is necessary for our salvation: that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 2:23; 4:15), that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:2), and that Jesus Christ is Lord (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11).
Therefore, “let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
Creeds and confessions give us clarity about what the Bible teaches. All Christians affirm that they believe the Bible in some sense, but Christians hold vastly different beliefs about what the Bible teaches.
A creed or confessional statement gives clear affirmations of what a church believes, and equally clear denials of what that church does not believe. Without this clarity, it is all too easy to sneak false teaching into the church, or to fail to give people the full counsel of God from the Scriptures.
Creeds and confessional statements help us to think about our beliefs carefully. Creeds and confessions are not written quickly, but through careful biblical exegesis, extended deliberation, and precise sharpening of language.
In an ongoing way, creeds and confessions help the church to give definition to our faith. Every individual Christian does not need to build his or her theology from scratch. Instead, believers can lean on the creeds and confessions of the church to add nuance, distinctions, and precision to their theology.
The creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church form the core curriculum for teaching Christians the faith. Catechesis is a word that simply means teaching. Catechisms, however, are usually a specific format of teaching through questions and answers.
Children learn catechisms at an age where memorization is easy. Later in life, when young people ask lots of questions to work out their personal beliefs, catechisms help provide answers to their difficult questions. Then, as adults, high quality catechisms offer ongoing theological enrichment to continue growing deeper in the faith.
As a Presbyterian, I am grateful not only to have the Westminster Confession of Faith, but also for the Larger and Shorter Catechisms that come along with it. Each bears witness to the same biblical truth, but from different perspectives, and for different purposes.