Samuel Miller (1769-1850)
The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions
The importance of creeds and confessions for maintaining the unity and purity of the visible church.
This is a subject which, though it properly belongs to the department of Church Government, has always been, for want of time, omitted in the lectures usually delivered on that division of our studies. And I am induced now to call your attention to it, because, as I said, it properly belongs to the department committed to me; because it is in itself a subject highly interesting and important; because it has been for a number of years past, and still is, the object of much severe animadversion on the part of latitudinarians and heretics; and because, though abundantly justified by reason, scripture, and universal experience, the spontaneous feelings of many, especially under the free government which it is our happiness to enjoy, rise up in arms against what they deem, and are sometimes pleased to call, the excessive “rigor” and even “tyranny” of exacting subscription to articles of faith.
It is my design, first, to offer some remarks on the utility and importance of written creeds; and secondly, to obviate some of the more common and plausible objections which have been urged against them by their adversaries.
Arguments in Favor of Creeds.
I. Definition of a creed or confession of faith.
By a creed, or confession of faith, I mean an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the holy scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity. Creeds and confessions do not claim to be in themselves laws of Christ’s house, or legislative enactments, by which any set of opinions are constituted truths, and which require, on that account, to be received as truths among the members of his family. They only profess to be summaries, extracted from the scriptures, of a few of those great gospel doctrines which are taught by Christ himself; and which those who make the summary in each particular case concur in deeming important, and agree to make the test of their religious union. They have no idea that, in forming this summary, they make anything truth that was not truth before; or that they thereby contract an obligation to believe what they were not bound by the authority of Christ to believe before. But they simply consider it as a list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches, which, of course, all men ought to believe, because the Bible does teach them; and which a certain portion of the visible church catholic agree in considering as a formula, by means of which they may know and understand one another.
Now, I affirm that the adoption of such a creed is not only lawful and expedient, but also indispensably necessary to the harmony and purity of the visible church. For the establishment of this position, let me request your attention to the following considerations.
1. Unity of the church.
1. Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.
If every Christian were a mere insulated individual, who inquired, felt, and acted for himself alone, no creed of human formation would be necessary for his advancement in knowledge, comfort, or holiness. With the Bible in his closet, and with his eyes opened to see the “wondrous things” which it contains (Ps. 199:18), he would have all that was needful for his edification. But the case is far otherwise. The church is a society: a society which, however extended, is “one body in Christ,” and all who compose it, “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). Nor is this society merely required to be one in name, or to recognize a mere theoretical union; but also carefully to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). They are exhorted to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind” (Phil. 1:27). They are commanded all to “speak the same thing,” and to be “of one accord, of one mind” (1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:2). And this “unity of spirit” is as essential to the comfort and edification of those who are joined together in church fellowship, as it is to a compliance with the command of their Master. “How can two walk together unless they be agreed? (cf. Amos 3:3).
Can a body of worshippers, composed of Calvinists, Arminians, Pelagians, Arians, and Socinians, all pray, and preach, and commune together profitably and comfortably, each retaining the sentiments, feelings, and language appropriate to his denomination? This would indeed make the house of God a miserable Babel. What! can those who believe the Lord Jesus Christ to be God, equal with the Father, and worship him accordingly, and those who consider all such worship as abominable idolatry; those who cordially renounce all dependence on their own works or merit for justification before God, relying entirely on his rich grace, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24), and those who pronounce all such reliance fanatical, and man’s own righteousness the sole ground of hope; can persons who cherish these irreconcilably opposite sentiments and feelings on the most important of all subjects, unite with edification in the same prayers, listen from sabbath to sabbath to the same instructions, and sit together in comfort at the same sacramental table? As well might Jews and Christians worship together in the same temple. They must either be perfectly indifferent to the great subjects on which they are thus divided, or all their intercourse must be productive of jarring and distress. Such a discordant assembly might talk about church fellowship; but that they should really enjoy that fellowship which the Bible describes as so precious, and which the pious so much delight to cultivate, is impossible just as impossible as “that righteousness should have fellowship with unrighteousness,” or “light hold communion with darkness, or Christ maintain concord with Belial” (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-14).
Prevention of discord & strife.
Holding these things to be self-evident, how, I ask, is any church to guard itself from that baleful discord, that perpetual strife of feeling, if not of words and conduct, which must ensue, when it is made up of such heterogeneous materials? Nay, how is a church to avoid the guilt of harboring in its bosom, and of countenancing by its fellowship, the worst heresies that ever disgraced the Christian name? It is not enough, for attaining this object, that all who are admitted profess to agree in receiving the Bible; for many who call themselves Christians, and profess to take the Bible for their guide, hold opinions, and speak a language as foreign, nay, as opposite, to the opinions and language of many others, who equally claim to be Christians, and equally profess to receive the Bible, as the east is to the west. Of those who agree in this general profession, the greater part acknowledge as of divine authority the whole sacred canon, as we receive it; while others would throw out whole chapters, and some a number of entire books from the volume of God’s revealed will. The orthodox maintain the plenary inspiration of the scriptures; while some who insist that they are Christians, deny their inspiration altogether. In short, there are multitudes who, professing to believe the Bible, and to take it for their guide, reject every fundamental doctrine which it contains. So it was in the beginning as well as now.
An inspired apostle declares, that some in his day who not only professed to believe the scriptures, but even to “preach Christ” (Phil. 1:15-16) did really preach “another gospel,” the teachers of which he charges those to whom he wrote to hold “accursed” (Gal. 1:6-9); and he assures them that there are some “heresies” so deep and radical that they are to be accounted “damnable” (2 Pet. 2:1). Surely those who maintain the true gospel cannot “walk together” in “church fellowship” with those who are “accursed” for preaching “another gospel,” and who espouse “damnable heresies,” the advocates of which the disciples of Christ are not permitted even to “receive into their houses,” or to “bid God speed!” (cf. 2 John 10).
How, then, I ask again, are the members of a church, to take care that they be, according to the divine command, “of one mind,” and “of one way?” They may require all who enter their communion to profess a belief in the Bible; nay, they may require this profession to be repeated every day, and yet may be corrupted and divided by every form of the grossest error. Such a profession, it is manifest, ascertains no agreement; is a bond of no real union, a pledge of no spiritual fellowship. It leaves every thing within the range of nominal Christianity, as perfectly undefined, and as much exposed to total discord as before.
Unwritten religious tests.
But perhaps it will be proposed as a more efficient remedy, that there be a private understanding, vigilantly acted upon, that no ministers or members be admitted, but those who are known, by private conversation with them, substantially to agree with the original body, with regard both to doctrine and order. In this way, some allege, discord may be banished, and a church kept pure and peaceful, without an odious array of creeds and confessions.
To this proposal, I answer, in the first place, it is, to all intents and purposes, exhibiting a creed, and requiring subscription to it, while the contrary is insinuated and professed. It is making use of a religious test, in the most rigorous manner, without having the honesty or the manliness to avow it. For what matter is it, as to the real spirit of the proceeding, whether the creed be reduced to writing, or be registered only in the minds of the church members, and applied by them as a body, if it equally excludes applicants who are not approved!
But to this proposed remedy, I answer, in the second place, the question, “What is soundness in the faith?” however explicitly agreed upon by the members of the church among themselves, cannot be safely left to the understanding and recollection of each individual belonging to the body in question. As well might the civil constitution of a state, instead of being committed to writing, be left to the vague and ever varying impressions of the individual citizens who live under it. In such a constitution, every one sees there could be neither certainty nor stability. Scarcely any two retailers of its articles would perfectly agree; and the same persons would expound it differently at different times, as their interests or their passions might happen to bear sway. Quite as unreasonable and unsafe, to say the least, would it be to leave the instrument of a church’s fellowship on a similar footing. Such a nuncupative creed, when most needed as a means of quieting disturbances, or of excluding corruption, would be rendered doubtful, and, of course, useless, by having its most important provisions called in question on every side: a case in which, if it were made operative at all, it would be far more likely to be perverted into an instrument of popular oppression, than to be employed as a means of sober and wholesome government.
The inference, then, plainly is that no church can hope to maintain a homogeneous character; no church can be secure either of purity or peace, for a single year; nay, no church can effectually guard against the highest degrees of corruption and strife, without some test of truth, explicitly agreed upon, and adopted by her in her ecclesiastical capacity: something recorded, something publicly known, something capable of being referred to when most needed, which not merely this or that private member supposes to have been received, but to which the church as such has agreed to adhere, as a bond of union.
In other words, a church, in order to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and love” (cf. Eph. 4:2-3), must have a creed a written creed to which she has formally given her assent, and to a conformity to which her ministrations are pledged. As long as such a test is faithfully applied, she cannot fail of being in some good degree united and harmonious. And when nothing of the kind is employed, I see not how she can be expected, without a miracle, to escape all the evils of discord and corruption.
2. The church’s witness to the truth.
2. The necessity and importance of creeds and confessions appear from the consideration, that one great design of establishing a church in our world was that she might be, in all ages, a depository, a guardian, and a witness of the truth.
Christians, collectively as well as individually, are represented in scripture as witnesses for God. They are commanded to maintain his truth, and to “hold forth the word of life” (cf. Phil. 2:16), in all its purity and luster before a perverse generation, that others may be enlightened and converted. They are exhorted to “buy the truth, and not to sell it” (Prov. 23:23); to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (cf. Jude 3); to “hold fast the form of sound words which they have received” (cf. 2 Tim. 1:14); and to “strive together for the faith of the gospel” (cf. Phil. 1:27). These, and many other commands of similar import, plainly make it the duty of every Christian church to detect and expose prevailing heresies; to exclude all such as embrace radical heresy from their communion; and to “lift up a standard” for truth, whenever “the enemy comes in like a flood” (cf. 59:19; 62:10).
Distinguish truth from error.
But does not all this imply taking effectual measures to distinguish between truth and error? Does not all this necessarily infer the duty of drawing, and publicly manifesting, a line between those who, while they profess in general to believe the Bible, really deny all its essential doctrines, and those who simply and humbly receive “the truth as it is in Jesus?” (cf. Eph. 4:21). But how is this distinction to be made, seeing those who embrace the essential doctrines of the gospel, equally profess to receive the Bible? It can only be done by carefully ascertaining and explicitly declaring how the church herself, and how those whom she suspects of being in error, understand and interpret the Bible: that is, by extracting certain articles of faith from the scriptures, according to her understanding of them, and comparing these articles with the professed belief of those whom she supposes to be heretics. And what is this but extracting from the scriptures a confession of faith a creed and applying it as a test of sound principles? It does really appear to me that those orthodox brethren who admit that the church is bound to raise her voice against error, and to “contend earnestly” for the truth (cf. Jude 3), and yet denounce creeds and confessions, are, in the highest degree, inconsistent with themselves.
They acknowledge the obligation and importance of a great duty; and yet reject the only means by which it can be performed. Quite as unreasonable, I am constrained to say, as the “taskmasters of Egypt” (Ex. 5:6-19), they require work to be done, without allowing the materials necessary to its accomplishment. Before the church, as such, can detect heretics, and cast them out from her bosom before she can raise her voice, in “a day of rebuke and of blasphemy” (cf. Isa. 37:3; 2 Kings 19:3), against prevailing errors her governors and members must be agreed what is truth. And, unless they would give themselves up, in their official judgments, to all the caprice and feverish effervescence of occasional feeling, they must have some accredited, permanent document, exhibiting what they have agreed to consider as truth. There is really no feasible alternative. They must either have such “a form of sound words” (cf. 2 Tim. 1:13), which they have voluntarily adopted, and pledged themselves to one another to “hold fast;” or they can have no security that any two or more successive decisions concerning soundness in the faith will be alike. In other words, they cannot attain, in anything like a steady, uniform, consistent manner, one of the great purposes for which the visible church was established.
Public witness, not secret.
It surely will not be said, by any considerate person, that the church, or any of her individual members, can sufficiently fulfill the duty in question, by simply proclaiming from time to time, in the midst of surrounding error, her adherence and her attachment to the Bible. Everyone must see that this would be, in fact, doing nothing as “witnesses of the truth” (cf. John 18:37); because it would be doing nothing peculiar, nothing distinguishing, nothing which every heretic in Christendom is not ready to do, or rather is not daily doing, as loudly, and as frequently as the most orthodox church. The very idea of “bearing testimony to the truth,” and of separating from those who are so corrupt that Christian communion cannot be maintained with them, necessarily implies some public discriminating act, in which the church agrees upon, and expresses her belief in, the great doctrines of Christianity, in contradistinction from those who believe erroneously. Now to suppose that anything of this kind can be accomplished, by making a profession, the very same in every respect with that which the worst heretics make, is too palpably absurd to satisfy any sober inquirer. Of what value, let me ask, had the Waldenses and Albigenses been, as witnesses of the truth as lights in the world, amidst the darkness of surrounding corruption especially of what value had they been to the church in succeeding times, and to us at the present day, if they had not formed, and transmitted to posterity, those celebrated confessions of faith, as precious as they are memorable, which we read in their history, and which stand as so many monumental testimonies to the true “gospel of the grace of God?” (Acts 20:24). Without these, how should we ever have known in what manner they interpreted the Bible; or wherein they differed from the grossest heretics, who lived at the same time, and professed to receive the same Bible? Without these, how should we ever have seen so clearly and satisfactorily as we do, that they maintained the truth and the order of Christ’s house, amidst all the wasting desolations of the “man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:3); and thus fulfilled his promise that there shall always be “a seed to serve him, who shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation?” (cf. Ps. 22:20).
3. Honesty and candor about a church’s beliefs.
3. The adoption and publication of a creed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church owes to the other churches, and to the world around her.
Every wise man will wish to be united, in religious duty and privilege, with those who most nearly agree with himself in their views of doctrine and order with those in intercourse with whom he can be most happy, and best edified. Of course, he will be desirous, before he joins any church, to know something of its faith, government, and general character. I will suppose a pious and ingenuous individual about to form his religious connections for life. He looks round on the churches to which he has most access, and is desirous of deciding with which of them he can be most comfortable. I will suppose that, in this survey, he turns his eyes towards the truly scriptural and primitive church to which it is our happiness to belong. He is anxious to know the doctrine as well as the order which he may expect to find in connection with our body. How is he to know this? Certainly not by going from church to church throughout our whole bounds, and learning the creed of every individual minister from his own lips. This would be physically impossible, without bestowing on the task a degree of time and toil which scarcely any man could afford. He could not actually hear for himself the doctrines taught in a twentieth part of our pulpits. And if he could, he would still be unable to decide, from this source alone, how far what he heard might be regarded as the uniform and universal, and especially as the permanent character of the church, and not rather as an accidental exhibition. But when such an inquirer finds that we have a published creed, declaring how we understand the scriptures and explicitly stating, in detail, the great truths which we have agreed to unite in maintaining he can ascertain in a few hours, and without leaving his own dwelling, what we profess to believe and to practice, and how far he may hope to be at home in our communion. And while he is enabled thus to understand the system to which we profess to adhere, he enables us to understand his views, by ascertaining how far they accord with our published creed.
Further, what is thus due to ingenuous individuals, who wish to know the real character of our church, is also due to neighboring churches, who may have no less desire to ascertain the principles which we embrace. It is delightful for ecclesiastical communities, who approach near to each other in faith and order, to manifest their affection for one another, by cherishing some degree of Christian intercourse.
But what church, which valued the preservation of its own purity and peace, would venture on such intercourse with a body which had no defined system either of doctrine or government, to which it stood pledged and which might, therefore, prove a source of pollution and disorder to every other church with which it had the smallest interchange of services? One of the ministers of such a denomination, when invited into the pulpit of an orthodox brother, might give entire satisfaction; while the very next to whom a similar mark of Christian affection and confidence was shown, might preach the most corrupt heresy. Creeds and confessions, then, so far from having a tendency to “alienate” and “embitter” those Christian denominations which think nearly alike, and ought to maintain fraternal intercourse, really tend to make them acquainted with each other; to lay a foundation for regular and cordial intercourse; to beget mutual confidence; and thus to promote the harmony of the church of God.
I scruple not, therefore, to affirm, that, as every individual minister owes to all around him a frank avowal of his Christian faith, when any desire to know it; so every church owes it to her sister churches to be equally frank and explicit in publicly declaring her principles. She, no doubt, believes those principles to be purely scriptural. In publicly avowing them, therefore, she performs the double duty of bearing testimony to the truth, and of endeavoring to draw from less pure denominations, and from the surrounding world new support to what she conscientiously believes to be more correct sentiments than theirs. She may be erroneous in this estimate; but still she does what she can, and what she unfeignedly believes to be right and what, of course, as long as this conviction continues, she is bound to perform. And I have no hesitation in further maintaining that, in all ages, those Christian churches which have been most honorably distinguished for their piety their zeal, and their adherence to the simplicity of the gospel, have been not only most remarkable for their care in forming, but also for their frankness in avowing, their doctrinal creed, and their disposition to let all around them distinctly understand what they professed to regard as the fundamental doctrines of our holy religion.
4. Resource for study & understanding of biblical doctrine.
4. Another argument in favor of creeds, publicly adopted and maintained, is that they are friendly to the study of Christian doctrine, and, of course, to the prevalence of Christian knowledge.
It is the general principle of the enemies of creeds, that all who profess to believe the Bible, ought, without further inquiry, to unite; to maintain ecclesiastical communion; and to live together in peace. But is it not manifest, that the only way in which those who essentially differ from each other concerning the fundamental doctrines of the gospel can live together in perfectly harmonious ecclesiastical fellowship is by becoming indifferent to truth: in other words, by becoming persuaded that modes of faith are of little or no practical importance to the church, and are, therefore, not worth contending for; that clear and discriminating views of Christian doctrine are wholly unnecessary, and of little use in the formation of Christian character? But in proportion as professing Christians are indifferent to truth, will they not be apt to neglect the study of it? And if the study of it be generally neglected, will not gross and deplorable ignorance of it eventually and generally prevail?
The fact is, when men love gospel truth well enough to study it with care, they will soon learn to estimate its value; they will soon be disposed to “contend for it” against its enemies (cf. Jude 3), who are numerous in every age; and this will inevitably lead them to adopt and defend that “form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) which they think they find in the sacred scriptures. On the other hand, let any man imbibe the notion that creeds and confessions are unscriptural, and of course unlawful, and he will naturally and speedily pass to the conclusion, that all contending for doctrines is useless, and even criminal. From this the transition is easy to the abandonment of the study of doctrine, or, at least, the zealous and diligent study of it. Thus it is, that laying aside all creeds naturally tends to make professing Christians indifferent to the study of Christian truths, comparatively uninterested in the attainment of religious knowledge; and, finally, regardless, and, of course, ignorant of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
I would by no means, indeed, be understood to assert that no heretics have ever been zealous in publishing and defending their corrupt opinions. The pages of ecclesiastical history abundantly show that many of the advocates of error, both in ancient and modern times, have contended not only pertinaciously, but even fiercely, for their peculiar doctrines. But my position is that the enemies of all creeds and confessions usually assume a principle which, if carried out to its legitimate consequences, would discourage all zeal in maintaining the peculiar doctrines of the gospel; that if all zeal in maintaining peculiar doctrines were laid aside, all ardor and diligence in studying them would be likely to be laid aside also; and that, if this were the case, a state of things more unfriendly to the growth and prevalence of Christian knowledge could scarcely be imagined.
Look at the loose, vague, indecisive character of the preaching heard in nine-tenths of the Unitarian, and other latitudinarian pulpits in the United States, and, as I suppose, throughout Christendom. If the occupants of those pulpits had it for their distinct and main object to render their hearers indifferent about understanding, and, of course, indifferent about studying the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, they could scarcely adopt a plan more directly calculated to attain their end, than that which they actually pursue. Their incessant cry is, “matters of opinion are between God and a man’s own conscience. No one else has a right to meddle with them.” Hence, in pursuance of this maxim, they do, indeed, take care to meddle very little with the distinguishing doctrines of the gospel. We conjecture what their doctrinal opinions are, in general, not so much from what they say, as from what they do not say. And the truth is, that if this character of preaching was to become universal, all discriminating views of gospel truth would, in thirty years, be banished from the church.
If the friends of orthodoxy and piety, then, really desire to cherish and maintain a love for the discriminating study of Christian doctrine; a taste for religious knowledge; a spirit of zeal for the truth, in opposition to that miserable indifference to articles of faith, which is so replete with mischief to every Christian community in which it is found; then let them be careful to present, and diligent to keep before the eyes of one another, and the eye of the public, that “good confession” which they are commanded to “profess before many witnesses” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12-13). If they fail to do this; if, under the guise of adherence to that great Protestant maxim, that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and manners (a precious all important truth which, properly understood, cannot be too often repeated), they speak and act as if all who profess to receive the Bible were standing upon equally solid and safe ground; if, in a word, they consider it as unnecessary, and even criminal, to select from the mass of scriptural truth, and to defend, as such, the fundamental doctrines of the gospel; then, nothing short of miracle can prevent them from sinking into that coldness and sloth with respect to the study of doctrine, and finally into the deplorable “lack of knowledge” by which millions are constantly “destroyed” (Hos. 4:6).
5. The church in all ages has found creeds indispensable.
5. It is an argument of no small weight, in favor of creeds, that the experience of all ages has found them indispensably necessary.
Even in the days of the apostles, when all their inspiration and all their miraculous powers were insufficient to deter heretics from spreading their poison, men, calling themselves Christians, and professing to preach the religion of Christ, perverted his truth, and brought “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6), which he had not taught. In this exigency, how did the churches proceed? An inspired apostle directed them not to be contented with a general profession of belief in the religion of Christ on the part of those who came to them as Christian teachers; but to examine and try them, and to ascertain whether their teachings were agreeable to the “form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) which they had been taught by him. And he adds with awful solemnity: “If any man bring any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (cf. Gal. 1:9). Here was, in effect, an instance, and that by divine warrant, of employing a creed as a test of orthodoxy: that is, men making a general profession of Christianity are expressly directed by an inspired apostle to be brought to the test, in what sense they understood that gospel of which, in general terms, they declared their reception and how they explained its leading doctrines. It would seem, indeed, that the confession of faith then required was very short and simple. This, the peculiar circumstances of the times, and the no less peculiar administration of the church, rendered entirely sufficient. Still, whether the confession were long or short, whether it consisted of three articles or of thirty, the principle was the same.
Necessity of creeds throughout church history.
In the second century, in the writings of Irenaeus; and, in the third, in the writings of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Lucian, the martyr; we find a number of creeds and confessions more formally drawn out, more minute, and more extensive than those of earlier date. They were intended to bear testimony against the various forms of error which had arisen; and plainly show that, as the arts and corruptions of heretics increased, the orthodox church found more attention to the adoption and maintenance of these formularies indispensable necessary.
In the fourth century, when the church was still more agitated by the prevalence of heresy, there was a still louder demand for accredited tests, by which the heretics were to be tried and detected. Of this demand there never was a more striking instance than in the Council of Nicea, when the heresy of Arius was under the consideration of that far-famed assembly. When the Council entered on the examination of the subject, it was found extremely difficult to obtain from Arius any satisfactory explanation of his views. He was not only as ready, as the most orthodox divine present, to profess that he believed the Bible; but he also declared himself willing to adopt, as his own, all the language of the scriptures, in detail, concerning the person and character of the blessed Redeemer. But when the members of the Council wished to ascertain in what sense he understood this language, he discovered a disposition to evade and equivocate, and actually, for a consider able time, baffled the attempts of the most ingenious of the orthodox to specify his errors, and to bring them to light. He declared that he was perfectly willing to employ the popular language on the subject in controversy; and wished to have it believed that he differed very little from the body of the church.
Accordingly the orthodox went over the various titles of Christ plainly expressive of Divinity such as “God,” “the true God,” the “express image of God,” etc. (Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20; cf. Heb. 1:3) to every one of which Arius and his followers most readily subscribed, claiming a right, however, to put their own construction on the scriptural titles in question. After employing much time and ingenuity in vain, in endeavoring to drag this artful chief from his lurking places, and to obtain from him an explanation of his views, the Council found it would be impossible to accomplish their object as long as they permitted him to entrench himself behind a mere general profession of belief in the Bible.
They therefore did what common sense, as well as the word of God, had taught the church to do in all preceding times, and what alone can enable her to detect the artful advocate of error. They expressed, in their own language, what they supposed to be the doctrine of scripture concerning the Divinity of the Saviour: in other words, they drew up a confession of faith on this subject, which they called upon Arius and his disciples to subscribe. This the heretics refused; and were thus virtually brought to the acknowledgment that they did not understand the scriptures as the rest of the Council understood them, and, of course, that the charge against them was correct.
The same course was taken by all the pious witnesses of the truth in the dark ages when, amidst the surrounding corruption and desolation, they found themselves called upon to bear “witness to the truth” (cf. John 18:37). They all professed their belief in the Bible, and their love to it; they constantly appealed to it as the only infallible rule of faith and practice; and they studied it with incomparably more veneration and diligence than any of the errorists around them. This all history plainly evinces. But at the same time, they saw the futility of doing nothing more than proclaim, in general, their adherence to the sacred volume. This would have been no distinction, and, of course, no testimony at all. It would have been nothing more than the bitterest enemies of the truth were proclaiming busily, and even clamorously, every day. They, therefore, did what the friends of orthodoxy had been in the habit of doing from the earliest ages. They framed creeds, from time to time, as the exigencies of the church demanded, by means of which they were enabled to bear their testimony for God: to vindicate his truth, and to transmit the memorials of their fidelity to distant generations.
And finally, at the glorious Reformation from Popery, by which the great Head of the church may be said again to have “set his people free” (cf. John 8:32, 36), and the memory of which shall never die in drawing the line between “the precious and the vile” (cf. Jer. 15:19), the friends of truth followed the same course. They, with one accord, formed their creeds and confessions, which served, at once, as a plea for the truth, and a barrier against heresy. And it is not, perhaps, too much to say, that the volume which contains the collection of these creeds is one of the most precious and imperishable monuments of the piety, wisdom, and zeal of the sixteenth century.
What, now, is the inference, from all this experience of the church of God, so universal and so uniform? It cannot be misunderstood. It speaks volumes. When the friends of truth in all ages and situations, even those who were most tenacious of the rights of private judgment, and most happy in the enjoyment of Christian liberty, have invariably found it necessary to resort to the adoption of creeds, in order to ascertain for themselves, as a social body, and to communicate to others, for their benefit, their sense of the holy scriptures; we are naturally led to conclude, not only that the resort is neither so “unreasonable” nor so “baneful” as many would persuade us to believe; but that there is really no other practicable method of maintaining unity and purity in the church of Christ.
6. Heretics oppose creeds and confessions.
6. A further argument in favor of creeds and confessions may be drawn from the remarkable fact that their most zealous opposers have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.
I do not affirm that the use of creeds has never been opposed by individuals substantially orthodox, and even by orthodox churches: for it is believed that a few rare cases of this anomaly have occurred, under the influence of strong prejudice, or very peculiar circumstances. Yet, so far as I can recollect, we have no example of it among the ancients. Such cases are the growth of very modern times. Nor, on the other hand, is it my purpose to deny that heretics have sometimes been extremely zealous in forming and maintaining the most corrupt creeds. For of this the early history of the church abounds with examples, and its later periods have not been wholly without them.
But what I venture to assert is that, as a general fact, the most ardent and noisy opponents of creeds have been those who held corrupt opinions; that none, calling themselves Christians, have been so bitter in reviling them, in modern times, as the friends of Unitarianism, and those who were leaning toward that awful gulf; and that the most consistent and zealous advocates of truth have been, everywhere and at all times, distinguished by their friendship to such formularies. Nor has this been by any means a fortuitous occurrence; but precisely what might have been calculated, on principle, as likely to be realized. It is an invariable characteristic of the orthodox that they lay great stress on the knowledge and reception of truth; that they consider it as necessary to holiness; that they deem an essential part of fidelity to their Master in heaven to consist in contending for it, and maintaining it in opposition to all the forms of error. On the contrary, it is almost as invariable a characteristic of modern heretics, and more especially of those who fall under the general denomination of Unitarians, that they profess lightly to esteem modes of faith; that they manifest a marked indifference to truth; that they, for the most part, maintain, in so many words, the innocence of error; and hence very naturally reprobate, and even vilify, all faithful attempts to oppose heresy, and to separate heretics from the church.
From those, then, who have either far departed or at least begun to depart, from “the faith once delivered to the saints” (cf. Jude 3), almost exclusively, do we hear of the “oppression,” and the “mischief” of creeds and confessions. And is it any marvel that those who maintain the innocence of error should be unwilling to raise fences for keeping it out of the church? Is it any marvel that the Arian, the Socinian, the Pelagian, and such as are verging toward those fatal errors, should exceedingly dislike all the evangelical formularies which tend to make visible the line of distinction between the friends and the enemies of the redeemer? No; “men,” as has been often well observed, “men are seldom opposed to creeds, until creeds have become opposed to them.” That they should dislike and oppose them, in these circumstances, is just as natural as that a culprit arraigned before a civil tribunal, should equally dislike the law, its officer, and its sanction.
Accordingly, if we look a little into the interior of church history, especially within the last century, we shall find these remarks often and strikingly exemplified. We shall find, with few exceptions, that whenever a group of men began to slide, with respect to orthodoxy, they generally attempted to break, if not to conceal, their fall, by declaiming against creeds and confessions. They have seldom failed, indeed, to protest in the beginning, that they had no objections to the doctrines themselves of the confession which they had subscribed, but to the principle of subscribing confessions at all. Soon, however, was the melancholy fact gradually unfolded, that disaffection to the doctrines which they once appeared to love had more influence in directing their course than even they themselves imagined, and that they were receding further and further from the “good way” (Jer. 6:16) in which they formerly seemed to rejoice. Truly that cause is of a most suspicious character to which latitudinarians and heretics, at least in modern times, almost as a matter of course, yield their support; and which they defend with a zeal, in general, strictly proportioned to their hatred of orthodoxy!
7. Even critics of creeds use them.
7. The only further argument in support of creeds on which I shall dwell is that their most zealous opposers do themselves virtually employ them in all ecclesiastical proceedings.
The favorite maxim, with the opposers of creeds, that all who acknowledge the Bible, ought, without hesitation, to be received, not only to Christian, but also to ministerial communion, is invariably abandoned by those who urge it, the moment a case turns up which really brings it to the test. Did any one ever hear of a Unitarian congregation engaging as their pastor a preacher of Calvinism, knowing him to be such? But why not, on the principle adopted, or at least professed, by Unitarians? The Calvinist surely comes with his Bible in his hand, and professes to believe it as cordially as they. Why is not that enough? Yet we know that, in fact, it is not enough for these advocates of unbounded liberality. Before they will consent to receive him as their spiritual guide, they must be explicitly informed how he interprets the Bible: in other words, what is his particular creed; whether it is substantially the same with their own or not; and if they are not satisfied that this is the case, all other professions and protestations will be in vain. He will be inexorably rejected. Here, then, we have, in all its extent, the principle of demanding subscription to a creed and a principle carried out into practice as rigorously as ever it was by the most high-toned advocate of orthodoxy.
We have before seen that the friends of truth, in all ages, have found, in their sad experience, that a general profession of belief in the Bible was altogether insufficient, either as a bond of union, or as a fence against the inroads of error. And here we find the warmest advocates of a contrary doctrine, and with a contrary language in their mouths, when they come to act, pursuing precisely the same course with the friends of creeds, with only this difference: that the creed which they apply as a test, instead of being a written and tangible document, is hidden in the bosoms of those who expound and employ it, and, of course, may be applied in the most capricious as well as tyrannical manner, without appeal; and further, that, while they really act upon this principle, they disavow it, and would persuade the world that they proceed upon an entirely different plan.
Can there be a more conclusive fact than this? The enemies of creeds themselves cannot get along a day without them. It is in vain to say, that in their case no creed is imposed, but that all is voluntary, and left entirely to the choice of the parties concerned. It will be seen hereafter that the same may be with equal truth asserted, in all those cases of subscription to articles, for which I contend, without any exception. No less vain is it to say, again, that in their case the articles insisted on are few and simple, and by no means so liable to exception as the long and detailed creed which some churches have adopted. It is the principle of subscription to creeds which is now under consideration. If the lawfulness and even the necessity of acting upon this principle can be established, our cause is gained. The extent to which we ought to go in multiplying articles is a secondary question, the answer to which must depend on the exigencies of the church framing the creed. Now the adversaries of creeds, while they totally reject the expediency, and even the lawfulness, of the general principle, yet show that they cannot proceed a step without adopting it in practice. This is enough. Their conduct is sounder than their reasoning. And no wonder. Their conduct is dictated by good sense and practical experience, nay, imposed upon them by the evident necessity of the case: while their reasoning is a theory, derived, as I must believe, from a source far less enlightened, and less safe.
Several other arguments might be urged in favor of written creeds.
It is easy to show that confessions of faith, judiciously drawn, and solemnly adopted by particular churches, are not only invaluable as bonds of union, and fences against error; but that they also serve an important purpose, as accredited manuals of Christian doctrine, well fitted for the instruction of those private members of churches, who have neither leisure nor habits of thinking sufficiently close, to draw from the sacred writings themselves a consistent system of truth. It is of incalculable use to the individual who has but little time for reading, and but little acquaintance with books, to be furnished with a clear and well arranged compend of doctrine, which he is authorized to regard, not as the work of a single, enlightened, and pious divine; but as drawn out and adopted by the collected wisdom of the church to which he belongs. There is often a satisfaction, to plain, unsophisticated minds, not to be described, in going over such a compend, article by article; examining the proofs adduced from the word of God in support of each; and “searching the scriptures daily to see whether these things which it teaches are so or not” (cf. Acts 17:11).
It might also be further shown that sound and scriptural confessions of faith are of great value for transmitting to posterity a knowledge of what is done by the church, at particular times, in behalf of the truth. Every such confession that is formed or adopted by the followers of Christ in one age is a precious legacy transmitted to their children, and to all that may come after them, in a succeeding age, not only bearing their testimony in support of the true doctrine of Jesus Christ, but also pouring more or less light on those doctrines, for the instruction of all to whom that testimony may come.