The Kind of Authority That Creeds and Confessions Have

The visible church has existed for thousands of years, and we have a rich history of biblical and theological reflection. Perhaps the richest and most concentrated deposits of such reflection are found in what we call the catholic creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian) and Protestant confessions (Belgic, Westminster, and Helvetic). The catholic creeds clarify the universal church’s authoritative position on the gospel (Apostle’s), the Trinity (Nicene), and Christology (Athanasian), while the Protestant confessions clarify the Protestant church’s authoritative position on virtually the entire Christian faith.

But what does it mean that the creeds and confessions clarify the church’s authoritative position on such matters? What kind of authority do creeds and confessions have for the Christian life? The answer must be that creeds and confessions have derived authority. While we (Protestants) say that Scripture alone has intrinsic authority, we also say that the creeds and confessions have derived authority. This means that Scripture is authoritative in itself, since it is God’s Word, while the creeds and confessions are only authoritative to the extent that they reflect the biblical and theological teachings of Scripture.

So the creeds and confessions have real authority, but not final authority. This is the classic Protestant formulation of sola Scriptura: God’s Word alone is our final authority. This does not mean, however, that Scripture is our only authority; we ought also to follow the creeds and confessions where they accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture. This principle is much the same as obeying our pastor’s exhortations from a sermon, receiving and following sound counsel from one of our elders, or even heeding the wisdom of our parents. While pastors, elders, and parents are not final authorities and ought only to be followed if what they say is true and wise, they are nevertheless authoritative insofar as the things they say are actually true and wise.

Why does this talk of the authority of the creeds and confessions matter? Well, for one thing, the creeds and confessions aim at and increase church unity. Rather than each individual Christian having their own opinion of what the Bible teaches, the creeds and confessions clarify the church’s position as a whole. This helps eliminate strange or idiosyncratic ideas, and serves to unite the church in its mutual confession of the doctrines we all hold in common. Speaking of that, the creeds and confessions also give us faithful language, drawn from Scripture, to worship God and live the Christian life. Nothing is more practical than having faithful language, and the creeds and confessions give us all a common ground and understanding for how we should think and talk about God.

So we should use the creeds and confessions because they aid church unity and give us faithful language for the Christian life. Creeds and confessions cannot be our final guides since their authority is derived, but they are nevertheless helpful guides as we walk along this pilgrim road.

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