What Confessions Are…and Are Not

God Transcendent is a collection of some sermons preached by J. Gresham Machen in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  It is really a gem; priced at under $10, it is a solid addition to any Reformed library.  Anyway, one message in this book that stuck out for me was the one called “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”  In it he talks about what creeds/confessions are and what they are not.  Below is an edited summary of this great message.

What creeds/confessions are not: “The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience.”  They are not positive expressions that avoid negative and controversial statements.  Historic creeds and confessions are not designed to “make room in the church for just as many people and for just as many types of thought as possible.”  They are not vague statements where words can mean almost anything that everyone can agree upon, liberal or conservative.  They were not written by people who denied the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture.   The creeds and confessions are not obscure and ambiguous statements that seek to avoid any offense.  They are not meant to show “how little of truth we can get along with and still be Christians.”  Creeds are not statements that get back to the “bare essentials.”

What creeds/confessions are: “[Creeds and confessions] are summary statements of what God has told us in his Word.  …The historic creeds were exclusive of error; they were intended to exclude error; they were intended to set forth the biblical teaching in sharp contrast with what was opposed to the biblical teaching, in order that the purity of the church might be preserved.”  …[The historic creeds and confessions] are clear, concise, and precise; they also delineate truth from error.  They are true – “true in the plain man’s sense of the word ‘truth.'”  Finally, they contain Christian doctrine which “is just a setting forth of what the Bible teaches…they are intended to show how much of truth God has revealed to us in his Word.”

This was a big issue in Machen’s day.  Many modern churches were writing faith statements and new creedal-type statements which were not summaries of deeply studied biblical truths, but instead vague statements of Christian experience that neither pointed out error nor explained deep biblical truths.  These faith statements of Machen’s day were supposed to unify churches by minimalistic doctrine, warm experience, and no negative words condemning error.  I guess not much has changed in the last 80 years; churches today are still writing faith statements like that while ridiculing historic creeds and confessions for their doctrinal depth, bold affirmation of the truth, and a strong condemnation of what is false.

So Machen said these new faith-statements were not doctrinal progression, but regression instead.  Here’s his critique.  Read it carefully.

“Groups of people that undertake to write a creed without believing in the full truthfulness of the Bible, and without taking the subject-matter of their creed from that inspired Word of God, are not at all taking an additional step on the pathway which the great Christian creeds moved; rather they are moving in an exactly opposite direction.  What they are doing has nothing whatever to do with that grand progress of Christian doctrine….  Far from continuing the advance of Christian doctrine they are starting from something entirely different, and that something different, we may add, is doomed to failure from the start.”

Those of you who subscribe to the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian church need to read this message of Machen: “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”  It’ll make you a bit more confessional.  And for our readers who do not adhere to creeds/confessions, I’d challenge you to wrestle with this article to help you see what creeds/confessions are and why they are beneficial for Christ’s church.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 thoughts on “What Confessions Are…and Are Not”

  1. A church which does not embrace a sound, biblical confession/creed, is a church adrift in a sea of spiritual uncertainty, and is doomed to be destroyed upon the rocks of worldliness.

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  2. Having spent the better part of the last two years vigorously defending the need for full confessional subscription while at the same time arguing against adding a ’confession’ full of “obscure and ambiguous statements” in the CRC, I can add a hearty AMEN to Machen’s words.

    Bavinck also has a tremendous statement the echoes these same thoughts.

    As our Reformed and Presbyterian denominations grow more and more ethnically diverse (which is a blessing for sure), we will be less able to rely on traditions and cultural norms to hold us together as congregations. We need to increase the role our Confessions play – our common expression of what we believe Scripture says about the core doctrines of the faith – as the anchor which provides our unity.

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  3. Allow me to add my hearty “Amen!” to your assessment of this little work of Machen’s as a “gem”. We are indebted not only to Dr. Machen, but also to Dr. Ned B. Stonehouse for his labor of love in 1949 in editing these twenty sermons from other publications, and from Dr. Machen’s papers as a gift to the Church. Some of these sermons had never been published previously. The sermons in this volume cover the period from 1923-1936 including one delivered five days prior to his death. They include sermons preached in churches, at a YMCA State Convention, in the Princeton Seminary Chapel, and as radio messages. The overall content is so rich, and so essential, that the recommendation must be given to pastors and others to not just read this volume, but to regularly reread it. It really is that good! Thank you for drawing it to our attention once again.

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  4. Some excellent points. For people who do not believe the Bible, the creation of a creed is often a way to satisfy as many people as possible and alienate as few as possible, to keep the organization from dividing, just as Machen says. I was a Mennonite pastor for years and voted to reject a confession about 20 years ago, not because it was seriously in error, but because it was unclear on crucial points, avoiding the issues that were precisely needed to be clearly addressed. However, on many matters, the confession was pretty definite, such as marriage. A few years ago (by this time I had resigned my pastorate and withdrawn my name from the list of ordained ministers) in a debate in the general assembly on homosexuality, someone adduced the recent confession; the majority voted simply to take note of the confession, but not act to enforce it; now, in one sense, this was no surprise, because Mennonites are not very confessionally oriented–most could care less what official doctrinal statements say; they get real “het up”over ethical issues, however, which of course are confessional issues with shoe leather. But still, in whatever Christian body, what Machen says does come to pass.

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