Historic Documents

CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS; OR SUBORDINATE STANDARDS: THEIR LAWFULNESS AND USE by James Bannerman

Viewed generally in reference to those within its pale, the Church is the authorized custodier and teacher of Divine truth; viewed generally in reference to those beyond its pale, the Church is the authorized witness and protest for that truth against unbelief and error. In discharging such offices, it is competent for the Church authoritatively to declare the truth of God, and to testify against falsehood; always under reservation of an appeal by those to whom she ministers to the Word of God as the supreme rule, and to Christ Himself as the Judge of last resort in the matter. Within the boundary of such a limitation the authority of the Church is real and valid in controversies of faith and cases of conscience; and it has, in consequence of its place and character as a servant of Christ, and bearing His commission for that end, a right to be heard both where it declares the truth and where it protests against the falsehood, not only because its judgment is justified by the Word of God, but also because it has received Divine gifts for judging, and Divine warrant so to judge.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 289.

Ecclesiastical authority in matters of faith as it is given to the Church to administer, and the right of conscience in matters of faith, such as each man must exercise for himself, are opposite, but not irreconcilable forces in the Church system. To me, as an individual member of the Christian society, the authority of my own conscience under God is absolute and supreme to the effect of determining my own belief. But this does not destroy, although it may limit, the authority of the Church in the matter. In virtue of its character as a Divine appointment, set in the Christian society for that very end, the Church has a right to declare the truth; and that not in the shape only of counsel or advice, but in the shape of authoritative declaration as an official teacher; and I am bound to pay a measure of deference to its decisions, and to hear it when it speaks.

No doubt, my own convictions may remain unchanged. I may be unable to acquiesce in the ecclesiastical decision, or to believe as the Church has declared; and asserting the superior right of my own conscience to be obeyed and listened to, I may be constrained to reject its determination in a matter of doctrine, and to abide by my own. I may appeal from the tribunal of the Church without, to the tribunal of conscience within; or I may carry the appeal higher still, and transfer the cause from the bar of the Church on earth, to the bar of its Divine Head in heaven. And in doing so on just and competent grounds, I shall be free from the binding obligation of the authority of the Church, which it would seek to lay upon the conscience. But that authority is not less a real authority, although it be thus inferior and subordinate both to my own conscience and to Christ. The Church has a certain authority in matters of faith, although it is itself under authority also. It is the inferior tribunal; and over it, with the right of appeal open to every man on competent grounds, there is the tribunal of conscience; and over both, with the same right of appeal open, there is the tribunal of Christ. But the authority of conscience is a real authority, although limited by and inferior to the authority of Christ. And the authority of the Church is a real authority also, although limited by and inferior to the authority both of individual conscience and of Christ. These three as ordinances of God, having right to lay an obligation on men’s understanding and belief in matters of faith, although different, are not inconsistent with each other. First, as absolute and supreme stands the authority of Christ, as both Head of every man, and also Head of the Church. Second, and next to that, stands the authority of conscience, inferior to Christ’s, and yet superior as regards the individual to every other law save Christ’s. And third, and inferior to both as respects the understanding and belief of the individual, stands the authority of the Church,—a real authority, but strictly limited, and having an appeal open to the higher tribunals.

There is one form, however, in which the power of the Church is exercised in the province of religious truth, which I had occasion to refer to previously, but to which I would now wish somewhat more in detail to direct attention. I allude to the power of the Church to frame and exhibit a human summary of doctrine in the shape of Creeds, or Confessions of Faith, or Catechisms, or subordinate standards of orthodoxy. The right of the Church through the instrumentality of her ministers and pastors authoritatively to publish the truth and preach the Gospel of Christ, few will be found to deny absolutely, although there may be some who may desire unduly to limit the power. Further still, the right of the Church authoritatively to decide between truth and falsehood in the case of religious opinion, to the effect of determining her own profession and the teaching of her ministers, is one conceded by many also within certain restrictions. But the power of the Church to frame and publish a human exhibition of Divine truth in the form of a Confession of Faith, and to make it a standard of orthodoxy, or a term of communion for office-bearers or members, is regarded by not a few as an exercise of power beyond the limits assigned to the authority of the Church, and lying open to very serious difficulties and objections. To the subject, then, of the exercise of Church power in forming, publishing, and enforcing subordinate standards of faith, we shall now advert at some length. What are the grounds on which the lawfulness and use of subordinate standards in the Christian Church may be maintained? Is it competent, or for edification, for the Church to embody in human language its creed or profession, over and above its creed or profession as exhibited in the Scriptures themselves? Is it right, or is it expedient, to add to the Word of God the words of man, as an exhibition or summary of the Church’s belief, and as a directory for the Church’s practice?

I. It is to be remarked at the outset, that both in the inspired and uninspired history of the Church, in connection with its holding of Divine truth, we see examples of the necessity arising for a re-statement in a new form of words of the faith professed by the Church, in opposition to new forms of unbelief.

In the history of the Christian Church before the canon of Scripture was closed, such a necessity had arisen; and in the history of the Church subsequently to the apostolic age similar emergencies have occurred, necessitating the re-statement in a new form and in new language of the truth formerly held. Within the age of inspiration, and before the last page of the Bible was written, there are at least three remarkable instances that may be quoted, in which the Church was compelled to re-cast and exhibit in new forms of language the truth formerly held; and compelled to do this because of the perversion to error and heresy of the terms formerly employed to set forth the truth.

1st. We find the Apostle John re-casting and re-stating the doctrine of Christ’s manifestation in this world; and adapting the form of words in which he re-announces the doctrine to the purpose of meeting the errors which, under the previous terms in which it had been announced, and in spite of them, had crept into the Church. That “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” and that “He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many,” was a doctrine revealed before, and held by the Church as the fundamental article of its faith. But under the shelter of the language in which it had been revealed and professed, there had, even in the apostle’s day, “many deceivers entered into the world, who confessed not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.”2 The Docetists did not deny what the entire Scriptures averred: they did not deny that, in one sense of the terms, Christ had been manifested in the world as the Saviour; but in accordance with their own speculative theories, they held that His manifestation was spiritual, and not real—that His coming was not in a real body, but as a spiritual phantasm, thus subverting the essential doctrine of the Incarnation. And John felt and acted on the necessity of re-casting in other language that fundamental article of the Church, and exhibiting it in a new form of words fitted to meet the novel heresy. Both in his Gospel and his Epistles he owned the necessity of re-stating the doctrine in fresh language; and he accordingly declares in the one, that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us;” and in the other, “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God;” “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God.”

2d. We find the Apostle Paul giving another illustration in his writings of the necessity that may arise within the Church of re-casting revealed truth, and repeating it in new forms of language, to meet and counteract new error. In his second Epistle to Timothy, he speaks of a sect or party “who concerning the truth had erred,” while yet holding the words in which the truth had been previously revealed. He mentions the case of Hymenæus and Philetus, who maintained that there was a resurrection according to the terms of Scripture, but that it was an allegorical or figurative resurrection, meaning no more than the elevation of the soul above this life, and its rising into holiness; and that in the case of Christians the resurrection spoken of in Scripture “was past already.” And accordingly, in the fifteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians, we find the Apostle re-stating the important article of belief held by the Church as to the resurrection of the body, and laying it down afresh in such terms, and with such elaborate explanations, as directly to meet and repel the error which had arisen regarding it.

3d. We find the whole body of the apostles, in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts, exhibiting another illustration of the necessity that will oftentimes arise in the history of the Church for re-moulding, not the doctrines of Divine truth, but the form in which those doctrines are expressed; and guarding them from misapprehension or error by additional explanations or new statements in regard to them. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, without the works of the law, was one of those doctrines revealed and professed by the Church from the beginning, as “the article of a standing or falling Church.” And yet one of the earliest and most widespread divisions in the Church itself was as to the necessity of circumcision, in addition to faith, in the case of its members. It was in opposition to this error that “the apostles and elders came together to consider of the matter” at Jerusalem, and found it necessary to re-assert the ancient doctrine with such additional explanations, and with such a sentence on the controverted point, as were adapted to the new circumstances which had arisen. In respect to this additional explanation of the Church’s doctrine and practice, necessitated by the inroad of error, we are told regarding Paul and his companions, that, “as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem; and so were the Churches established in the faith.”

Such, within the age of inspiration itself, are the remarkable examples we have of the necessity, growing out of the circumstances of the Church and its members, that arose at different times for re-casting the doctrines of Scripture in a new mould, and exhibiting or explaining it afresh under forms of language and expression more precisely fitted to meet and counteract the error of the times. No doubt it may be said, in answer to this argument, that it was competent for inspired expounders of the truth to re-state the doctrine of the Church, when the terms in which it was revealed at first were perverted or used for the purposes of error, and to re-state it in language equally authoritative and inspired as the original; but that it is not competent for ordinary or uninspired men to do so in language merely human and fallible. I am not at all sure that this answer to the argument is a sufficient one. The need of the Church, after the days of inspiration ceased, to be guarded against the likelihood and danger of heresy and unbelief, was not less, but greater. Perversions of the language of Scripture, in the way of covering error and concealing it, were not likely to diminish, but rather to increase in number, after the apostles were gathered to their rest. There is nothing in the mere fact of the office-bearers of the Church being inspired in those days, sufficient to account for their adoption of this practice of meeting and counteracting the heresies that assailed the Church by distinct and additional explanations or exhibitions of its doctrines suited to the heresies, had that practice in the case of ordinary and uninspired office-bearers of the Church been unlawful or sinful. On the contrary, the presumption seems rather to be, that the example given and the practice begun by the infallible guides of the Church during the apostolic age, was intended both as a suggestion and warrant for their successors, although not infallible, to follow their example and to adopt their practice. The instances recorded in the Word of God of the re-statement and re-exhibition of the doctrines of Scripture in such a form as to meet and counteract new error, seem to be intended to be to future times patterns for imitation, rather than beacons to be avoided. Did we find these re-statements or re-castings of the doctrine formerly held by the Church to go beyond what was formerly revealed on the point, then indeed the new revelation might have been justified or accounted for by the fact of the inspiration of its authors, but would have been no example for uninspired men. But when we find that the reverse of this is the case, and that such re-statements of the doctrine in new forms suited to the times were strictly declaratory—in the way of explanation, and not in the way of addition to the former revelation—we seem to be justified in saying that this office of the Church in regard to truth was not extraordinary, and peculiar to the age of inspiration, but rather ordinary, and competent to the Church in every age.

That such was the interpretation put upon these examples of the re-statement or re-exhibition of doctrine in new forms of language during apostolic times by the almost unanimous consent of the Church, is made plain by its subsequent history. At almost every crisis in that history, when spreading or predominant error was to be met and counteracted, when unbelief prevailed without, or heresy within, the Church has had recourse to the very expedient adopted by the apostles singly and collectively; and has re-stated its doctrine and re-cast its form of profession, in such language as was suited to meet the evil. When the Arian heresy prevailed so widely towards the beginning of the fourth century, the Council of Nice met and re-asserted those articles of faith respecting the true Godhead of the Son which had been endangered. When, towards the close of the same century, a similar danger threatened the faith of the Church in connection with the Personality and true Godhead of the Spirit, the Council of Constantinople was assembled to renew the testimony of the Church to those vital truths. At the time of the Reformation, when the leading Reformers in Germany found it necessary to separate from the corruptions of Popery, they found it to be no less necessary to embody in a new form, and re-state in fresh terms, the doctrine of the Apostolic Church; and the Confession of Augsburg became the testimony of the Protestant Church of Germany. And to the same feeling of the lawfulness and necessity of re-asserting in fresh terms and a new shape the whole doctrine and testimony of the Church, so as to meet the demands of the times, do we owe the admirable Confession of Christian doctrine which forms the authoritative standard of our own Church.

But passing from those examples furnished, both within and beyond the age of inspiration, of a necessity arising in the Church for re-asserting and verbally re-shaping the ancient doctrines of the Church, the lawfulness and necessity of such Creeds and Confessions may be very distinctly proved from the nature and offices of the Church itself. Both in its office towards those within its pale, and in its office to the world without, it is not difficult to recognise the foundation on which the right and duty of the Church may be argued to frame a declaration of its faith, and exhibit a confession of the truth which it believes to be contained in Scripture. For,

II. I remark that, in its office to those within its pale, it is the duty of the Church, as holding the truth of Scripture as the basis of its union, by some formal and public declaration of its own faith, to give assurance to its members of the soundness of its profession, and to receive assurance of theirs.

What is the principle of union in any Christian Church which holds the truth of God as the very foundation on which it exists? Plainly and undeniably the mutual and common understanding as to the doctrine of God’s Word of those associated together to constitute the Church—their union together in one common profession of the truth. To the very existence of such a union, it is necessary that the mind of the Church be brought out and exhibited to the understanding of all, by a declaration from herself of what she believes, so as to exhibit to the view of her members a profession of the truth which she holds, not merely as the truth which God has revealed, but more especially as the truth which she has made her own by embracing and believing it. Without this, there can be no common understanding between the Church and its members of one another’s faith, and consequently no mutual agreement or union as to the holding or profession of it. Now for this end it is not sufficient for the Church to hold up the Bible in its hand as the confession of the truth it believes; or even in language carefully and accurately extracted from the Bible to frame its confession of belief. The Bible was framed to be the declaration of God’s mind, and the phraseology employed is exactly and perfectly suited to accomplish the object. The language of Scripture is the best language to express God’s mind. But it does not follow from this that it is the best language to express my mind, even although I may mean to express to another man, so that there shall be no misunderstanding between us, the very same truths which God has expressed. With the change in the meaning of language which takes place from age to age,—with the different interpretations actually put upon the terms of Scripture by multitudes,—with the various and even opposite senses which reason, or prejudice, or error has made to be associated with its phraseology; the very words of the Bible may not be the best words to declare my mind and belief to another man, so that betwixt him and me there shall be no equivocation, or reservation, or guile.

Take the case of an individual believer, desiring to join himself to a second believer on the basis of what they jointly believe and confess as Christians. It is not on the basis of the objective truth revealed in the Bible, but on the basis of the subjective belief of that truth, that the union of two such Christians is formed. The communion of two saints is a communion on the footing of the faith they equally have in their heart, and which out of the heart they confess with their mouths. It is not the outward letter revealed in the Scripture, but the inward belief, personal and intelligent and spiritual, of the outward letter that forms the foundation of their union; not the truth understood or not understood, as it stands in the page of the Bible, but that truth translated first into the faith of the heart, and again into the confession of the lips, by both jointly and equally. In the case of the union of two Christians, they come to unite truly and without misunderstanding on either side, not when they repeat by rote, and without caring to know whether they understand each other’s meaning or not, the same confession copied from the Bible, and embodied in some oft-repeated textual formula; but when they translate their own subjective belief of God’s truths into a personal confession from the lips, and embody their own faith and feelings in their own language. And so it is with the collective society of Christians. The unity of the Church as a society of believers requires and justifies human compilations of Divine truth, if it is to be really a unity of faith, and not merely a unity of form or formal words. The true principle of Church union, upon which the Christian society is associated, demands that the Church shall take not the Bible, nor any extracts from the Bible, to declare its confession of faith, but that it shall take the confession first from its own heart, and then translate it into its own language. In no other way can the Church give a right assurance of its own belief to its own members, or receive a right assurance of theirs. The Church may take the Bible into its hand, and hold it up to the view of the world as the one profession of its faith; but in doing so it is merely exhibiting the mind of God, not declaring its own. In order to declare its own faith, for the purpose of being a basis for union among its members, it must take its own understanding and belief of the truths of God as made known in His Word, and translate them into its own meaning, and into its own language. The Creed or Confession of the Church, if it is to be a right foundation for Church fellowship and association, must be expressed in human terms, as the expression of its own belief, and not merely a formal repetition or echo of the belief of God.

There is a not uninstructive lesson to be learned from the history and the principles of Popery, in reference to the bearing of human Creeds and Confessions on the right basis of Church union. The principle of union in the Popish Church is not a voluntary and intelligent and personal conviction on the part of its members of the truth which, as a Church, it holds and professes, but rather an implicit faith, with or without understanding, and a formal submission and passive obedience to a system of outward authority. It is not necessary for the Church of Rome, upon its theory of Church union, either to give or receive assurance of an intelligent belief and an active and understanding faith in any system of doctrine. It is enough if its members yield an implicit faith or blind submission to the authority of an infallible Church, and render an outward conformity to its rites and requirements. And hence it is an instructive fact in the history of Popery, that it took no care to exhibit publicly to its members a confession of its faith or summary of its doctrine, until the Reformation compelled it to do so, and very much against its will extorted from it the standards of the Council of Trent. Any system of Church union except the Popish, or any system which proceeds upon the basis of a mutual faith held by the Church and its members, must, in some shape or other, frame and exhibit a confession of faith as the terms of union. The Bible can be no standard of union, because the Bible can be and has been interpreted in many different ways. Human explanations of the Bible, or human confessions of how the Bible is understood by the Church, seem to be necessary to Church union in some shape or other, even where the principle of the lawfulness of such confessions is theoretically denied. In the case of Independent Churches, which disown the lawfulness of human confessions of faith, the declaration of the pastor from the pulpit, and the profession generally or always required from the member on his admission to membership, really form a confession under a different name.

III. In its office to those within its pale, it is the duty of the Church, as the authoritative teacher of Divine truth, by some formal and public summary of the doctrines it holds, to give assurance that it teaches what is in accordance with the Word of God.

The principles involved in the union of the Church upon the basis of its belief, as holding the Word of God, seem unavoidably to demand that it shall, by a confession, or creed, or summary of Divine truth, declare what it believes, and what it does not. But the principle involved in the office of the Church as an official teacher, having its teaching based upon the Word of God, seems no less unavoidably to demand that it shall, by a public declaration of what it believes, give a pledge that its teaching shall be in accordance with that Word. The same argument, indeed, that infers the lawfulness and necessity of confessions from the principles implied in the office of the Church as holding the truth, and united upon it, will also evince the lawfulness and expediency of confessions from the principles implied in the office of the Church as teaching the truth. Regarded even on the same footing as a voluntary society or a private individual, responsible to none for what it teaches, and with a right to publish what doctrine it pleases, it could not be denied that the Church would have the right, and it might be expedient, to embody for its own use, and for the information of others, in a formal and authentic shape, a declaration of what it professes to teach. But the Church is not only a voluntary or private society; it is a Divine institute: as a teacher of truth it is the servant of another, and His steward to dispense mysteries not its own to His people, and in that character responsible both to Him and to them for what it teaches. And now, seeing that it is not a mere voluntary association or private individual, responsible to none for the doctrine it holds and declares, but rather the delegate of Christ, accountable for that doctrine to Him in the first instance, and to His people in the second,—does that fact, I ask, take away the right which the Church has to frame and exhibit a confession of the truth it teaches, or diminish the expediency of so doing? The answer to that question plainly is, that the circumstance that the Church is of Christ, and responsible both to Him and to its own members as His people, goes incalculably to confirm the right and to augment the expediency. The members of the Church have a right, and that founded on the most sacred grounds, to know how the Church, as the teacher of their souls, is to handle the Word of God, and interpret its truths, and preach its Gospel. No mere general appeal to the Word of God, as the confession of its faith, will satisfy this claim. The question is not whether the Church believes the Bible, but how the Church is to interpret the Bible to its people; in what sense it receives the doctrines of Scripture, and in what sense it is prepared to teach them. It is bound to tell in its own language how, as an interpreter of the Scriptures, it understands their truths; and how, as a preacher of the Gospel, it believes it. Nothing short of this will suffice to satisfy the rights and claims of its own members. And the very same thing may be argued from the responsibility of the Church, as the teacher of His Word, to Christ Himself. From the individual Christian Christ demands not only that “the heart shall believe unto righteousness,” but also that “confession shall be made by the lips unto salvation.” Upon the private believer Christ lays the duty of confessing Him with his mouth in the presence of men. And nothing less will Christ receive from the Church. The confession of its belief embodied in its own language, is, on the part of the Church, the answer of the lips vowing unto the Lord.

IV. In its office to those that are without its pale, it is the duty of the Church, as the witness and protest for truth against the error or unbelief of the world, to frame and exhibit a public confession of its faith.

It is unnecessary to dwell upon this, as I have already had occasion to remark on the necessity that has arisen for the Church, at various periods in her history, to re-assert the doctrine once delivered to the saints in fresh terms and with new explanations, as the perversions of the truth or the inroads of heresy might demand. And what has so often been a necessity laid upon the Church, is also its duty. It has an office to discharge even to the unbelieving world without, and to those enemies who have separated themselves from her, because they were not of her. She has the office to discharge of being a witness and a protest for the truth against both. And in no other way can this duty be performed, except by adapting her public profession of the truth to the form and fashion of the error, and closing the bulwarks of the Church with an armed defence at every point where the enemy may threaten to enter. Had the adoption of confessions and creeds not been a duty laid upon the Church by a regard to her own members, it would have been a necessity laid upon the Church by a regard to those not her members, but her enemies. Human standards would have been needed, even if for no other reason than to repel the assaults and inroads of heresy and unbelief; when the very language of Scripture is misused to the utterance of falsehood, and the terms of God’s own Word perverted so as to assail therewith God’s truth. Had there been no other ground for the adoption of human language in expressing the faith of the Church, or for the introduction of human formularies of faith, there would have been ground sufficient in the fact of the existence and prevalence of unscriptural error and heresy couched in Scriptural language. And the very same reason is sufficient to account both for the multiplication of articles not fundamental in human standards, and for the negative and hostile aspect under which truth itself, both fundamental and otherwise, is exhibited. In no other way could the Church discharge her office as a witness and protest against the world, as well as in behalf of Christ, except by making her articles and formulas of belief counterparts to the heresies around her, and drawing out her confession of faith less upon the form and mould of truth, than upon the form and mould of falsehood. As a protest against spiritual evil, they must be fashioned upon the principle of a contradiction of error, rather than the independent assertion of truth. In this way only could the Church discharge her duty towards the world without, confronting the plague, while standing between the living and the dead.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 289–302.

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