Historic DocumentsCreeds and Confessions by A. A. Hodge
Creeds and confessions
As Creeds and Confessions, their uses and their history, form a distinct subject of study by themselves, they will be considered together in this chapter, while references will be found under the several chapters of this work to the particular Creed in which the particular doctrine is most clearly or authoritatively defined.
On this entire subject consult the admirable historical and critical work of Dr. Philip Schaff of Union Theological Seminary, New York—the “Creeds of Christendom.” In the first volume he presents a history of the authorship and occasion of each Creed or Confession and a critical estimate of its contents and value. In volumes second and third he gives the text of all the principal creeds in two languages.
Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 112.
1. Why are Creeds and Confessions necessary, and how have they been produced?
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament having been given by inspiration of God, are for man in his present state the only and the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice. This divine word, therefore, is the only standard of doctrine which has any intrinsic authority binding the consciences of men. All other standards are of value or authority only as they teach what the Scriptures teach.
But it is the inalienable duty and necessity of men to arrive at the meaning of the Scriptures in the use of their natural faculties, and by the ordinary instruments of interpretation. Since all truth is self-consistent in all its parts, and since the human reason always instinctively strives to reduce all the elements of knowledge with which it grapples to logical unity and consistency, it follows that men must more or less formally construct a system of faith out of the materials presented in the Scriptures. Every student of the Bible necessarily does this in the very process of understanding and digesting its teaching, and all such students make it manifest that they have found, in one way or another, a system of faith as complete as for him has been possible, by the very language he uses in prayer, praise, and ordinary religious discourse. If men refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the church, they must severally make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom. The real question between the church and the impugners of human creeds, is not, as the latter often pretend, between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the individual objector. As it would have been anticipated, it is a matter of fact that the church has advanced very gradually in this work of accurately interpreting Scripture, and defining the great doctrines which compose the system of truths it reveals. The attention of the church has been especially directed to the study of one doctrine in one age, and of another doctrine in a subsequent age. And as she has gradually advanced in the clear discrimination of gospel truth, she has at different periods set down an accurate statement of the results of her new attainments in a creed, or Confession of Faith, for the purpose of preservation and of popular instruction, of discriminating and defending the truth from the perversion of heretics and the attacks of infidels, and of affording a common bond of faith, and rule of teaching and discipline.
The ancient creeds of the universal Church were formed by the first four œcumenical or general councils, except the so-called Apostle’s Creed, gradually formed from the baptismal confessions in use in the different churches of the West, and the so-called Athanasian Creed, which is of private and unknown authorship. The great authoritative Confession of the Papal Church was produced by the œcumenical council held at Trent, 1545. The mass of the principal Protestant Confessions were the production of single individuals or of small circles of individuals, e.g., the Augsburg Confession and Apology, the 2d Helvetic Confession, the Heidelburg Catechism, the Old Scotch Confession, the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, etc. Two, however, of the most valuable and generally received Protestant Confessions were produced by large and venerable Assemblies of learned divines, namely: the Canons of the international Synod of Dort, and the Confession and Catechisms of the national Assembly of Westminster.
2. What are their legitimate uses?
They have been found in all ages of the church useful for the following purposes. (1.) To mark, preserve, and disseminate the attainments made in the knowledge of Christian truth by any branch of the church in any grand crisis of its development. (2.) To discriminate the truth from the glosses of false teachers, and accurately to define it in its integrity and due proportions. (3.) To act as the bond of ecclesiastical fellowship among those so nearly agreed as to be able to labor together in harmony. (4.) To be used as instruments in the great work of popular instruction.
3. What is the ground and extent of their authority, or power to bind the conscience?
The matter of all these Creeds and Confessions binds the consciences of men only so far as it is purely scriptural, and because it is so. The form in which that matter is stated, on the other hand, binds only those who have voluntarily subscribed the Confession and because of that subscription.
In all churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling. A church has no right to make any thing a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation. The church is Christ’s fold. The Sacraments are the seals of his covenant. All have a right to claim admittance who make a credible profession of the true religion, that is, who are presumptively the people of Christ. This credible profession of course involves a competent knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, a declaration of personal faith in Christ and of devotion to his service, and a temper of mind and a habit of life consistent therewith. On the other hand, no man can be inducted into any office in any church who does not profess to believe in the truth and wisdom of the constitution and laws it will be his duty to conserve and administer. Otherwise all harmony of sentiment and all efficient co-operation in action would be impossible.
It is a universally admitted principle of morals that the animus imponentis, the sense in which the persons who impose an oath, or promise, or engagement, understand it, binds the conscience of the persons who bind themselves by oath or promise. All candidates for office in the Presbyterian Church, therefore, do either personally believe the “system of doctrine” taught in our Standards, in the sense in which it has been historically understood to be God’s truth, or solemnly lie to God and man.
Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 112–114.