Confession and Theology: Digging Deep & Keeping the Boundaries

My wife and I are planning a fairly substantial gardening project in our front yard (she more enthusiastically than I).  We’re going to uproot some bushes that no longer seem to fit, and are planning to plant other flowers in their place.  It’s all fairly conventional, I suppose, and right now it seems to depend primarily on our having the time and energy to carry it to completion.  But my wife recently asked me an important question – one that everyone in our neighborhood asks before digging apart the yard: she asked me if I knew where the natural gas line was buried.  You see, in our neighborhood, if you dig in the yard and hit the gas line, all sorts of destructive and dangerous things can happen.  In fact, in the community across the street from us, some digging was done recently that punctured the line.  So far, it’s taken weeks for the utility company to assess and even begin to fix the damage.  It’s no easy task to clean up after careless acts that damage old lines.  Of course, in rare circumstances, it is possible to move the line entirely, but it’s not something that one man can attempt on his own.  Many experts need to be involved, and the reasons for the change would have to be overwhelming and persuasive, which brings me to the creeds and theology.

 One of the many practical values of creeds and confessions is that they alert us to the places where we need to be especially careful and attentive in our exegesis and theological reasoning.  As we read the Bible and seek to grow in our understanding of God and ourselves, the best and clearest teachers from the past can show us the most biblical path forward.  They can alert us to dangers, showing where there is space for creative thinking, but also where to be exceptionally watchful and cautious.  The language of the great creeds of the early church and of mainstream historic Protestantism was often hard-won – emerging after careful investigation and rigorous theological debate.  We would be fools to ignore such wisdom and warning.

This is the idea behind Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Tim 1:13-14: “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me… guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”  In writing this, Paul was certainly not diminishing the authority of the scriptures.  In fact, in the same letter, he wrote about the scripture being “God-breathed,” and written, “that the man of God may be equipped for every good work.”[1]  There is no sense in which Paul the apostle was downplaying the power of the scriptures or the preacher’s need to constantly study and proclaim them.  But Paul did know that following and guarding a pattern of doctrine was crucial for Timothy to avoid error and to faithfully lead others in the truth.  At the same time, the Bible alone was inspired by God, and Timothy’s job was to study, proclaim, and lead in accordance with the scriptures – “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”[2]

Our best Protestant creeds have always affirmed these truths about the scriptures.  Chapter I of the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”[3]

And in perhaps the most arresting creedal acknowledgement of the supremacy of biblical authority, John Knox and the five others actually request correction from the Bible, and make it clear that the purity of Christ’s Word must be maintained above all else:

…if any man will note in this our confession any article or sentence repugnant to God’s Holy Word, that it would please him, of his gentleness and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writing. And we upon [or, on] our honor and fidelity, by God’s grace do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is, from his Holy Scriptures, or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss. For God we take to record in our consciences, that from our hearts we abhor all sects of heresy and all teachers of erroneous doctrine, and that with all humility we embrace the purity of Christ’s gospel, which is the only food of our souls, and therefore so precious unto us, that we are determined to suffer the extremity of worldly danger, rather than that we will suffer ourselves to be defrauded of the same.[4]

In other words, to follow a creed is not to leave the Bible behind.  In fact, if you abandon the study of the scriptures, you are not really adhering to these Protestant creeds at all!  You are abandoning all pretense of acting in the spirit of the Westminster divines or of John Knox and the other luminaries of Scottish Presbyterianism, or of the writers of the great Baptist creeds or the traditional confessions of the congregational or Anglican churches – all of which maintain this same perspective on biblical authority.

But it is equally true to say that if you engage in theological reasoning as if creeds are unnecessary you have abandoned the teaching of scripture.  Whether in the Old Testament Shema of Deuteronomy 6, or in the body of received teaching referenced in 1 Tim 1:11, 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; and Titus 1:9, or in the explicit creeds which many believe are represented in 1 Cor 8; Phil 2; and 1 Tim 3, the Bible both records creedal statements and requires that godly ministers hold fast to an organized body of doctrine. 

In a practical sense, formulating our theology while ignorant of or indifferent to the best creeds of the past is also dangerous.  In addition to the biblical mandates and examples, common sense dictates that we should be at least as careful in upending our theology as I should be in digging in my garden.  The stakes are much higher in theology, and the men whom we are following were much more learned and careful.

In your theology, dig deeply, but don’t ignore the lines provided by those brothers, who, for our benefit and growth, have dug and marked off warnings before.

[1] 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

[2] 2 Timothy 3:15b.

[3] WCF, I:X.

[4] Preface to the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560).


Jonathan Master