Creeds and Confessions: The Argument
One criticism that evangelicals often level at Lutherans (and Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans/Episcopals, and some Calvinists), is that rather than hold to Scriptures, we put other things in the way, such as creeds, catechisms, and confessional works. Some will even say that we are adding to Scripture. This is a misrepresentation and a misunderstanding of the role creeds and confessions have in the life of The Church.
We are not making works of man equal to Scripture. They serve Scripture. The way the Formula of Concord teaches is this: Scripture alone is “judge, rule, and norm.” All other works must be held up to the light of Scripture, and if they fall short or contradict, they do not stand.
Way back in the beginning of The Christian Church, even when the Apostles were still around, heresies and false teachings sprouted up in a big way. Huge schisms threatened the Church. Some of our best theologians of the Christian Faith met in councils and created confessions of the true Christian faith — creeds.
The creeds have proven to be faithful summaries of what is in the Bible regarding the nature of God and the Doctrine of the Trinity. They sum up what various verses in the Bible have told us about who God is. Our creeds also help us see clearly when a false teacher is telling us something false about God.
There are three ecumenical creeds: The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
The Formula of Concord refers to creeds as symbols – “brief, concise confessions,” They were “regarded as a unanimous, universal Christian faith and confession of the orthodox and true Church.”
You may or may not recite them all the time as most liturgical churches do, but if you don’t believe what they teach, you are something else besides Christian.
When we were in Papua New Guinea, one of my husband’s focuses was encouraging a return to using The Small Catechism as a means of teaching the faith. The Lutheran Heritage Society had copies in Tok Pisin, and we were working hard to get those into the hands of the pastors and evangelists. We would’ve loved to have enough to get them into the hands of every family or every layman who also rarely had Bibles. This is a situation that is ripe for false teachers, and they certainly were (are) struggling with some of the same heresies that the 2nd century Church was fighting.
At a conference, one of the evangelists shared that one of the huge problems they faced was if they bring out a catechism to teach with, they are accused of putting something between people and the Bible. When the evangelists start trying to teach the faith to new Lutherans, relatives, and friends from other denominations level that charge. I’d heard arguments like this over and over again in college, but all of a sudden something occurred to me that never had before, and so I struggled putting that thought into Tok Pisin — my first effort to communicate an idea longer than one or two sentences —
The same people who argue this about The Catechism, have no problem with buying books from the Christian bookstore that teach different aspects of the faith. These books have only been around for a few years, at most. How much better is it to have a book that has effectively taught the faith for 500 years? How much more reliable is it?
The gentleman seemed to be happy with that answer.
And that is what catechisms do. They teach the faith through a question and answer format. But also because The Small Catechism and The Large Catechism are official teachings of our doctrine and are included in the documents that we call our confessions — they have greatersignificance than any book at the Christian bookstore.
I wish I could say everything was settled back in the Ancient Church, but things went awry in the Middle Ages which led to the Protestant Reformation. Now some other church bodies have their confessions. Lutherans have The Book of Concord. This contains historical documents that address the doctrines that strayed from what The Bible taught and defended the Lutheran position. Today, every Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation confesses loyalty to the Book of Concord in their constitutions. Every pastor pledges that they believe and confess what is taught in these books — because they are faithful representations of what is taught in Scripture. They are not The Word of God, but they have stood the test of time and been attested to by loyal men of God to describe what is taught in Scripture.
As Lutherans, we strongly believe they are the most accurate representation of what Scripture teaches. They define what is Lutheran. Yet there are so many Lutheran churches who have no connection with these works. If you want a truly Lutheran church, you need to ask what role the Book of Concord has in what they believe. They should say they hold to Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) but the Book of Concord is a faithful exposition of Scripture.
Lutherans hold to “Sola Scriptura” – one of the 3 Solas — Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone. The Creeds and The Book of Concord are symbols of Scripture — faithful expositions of the teachings of Scripture. They do not contradict Scriptural teaching. Scripture is our only true teacher and true judge. As Mortimer Adler said, “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” There have been times The Church has been called upon to express what Scripture says, to testify, and these Creeds and Confessions still do. Should they point us to an issue that needs clarity or defense, we know that they point the way to The Bible.