Why Do We Need Creeds and Confessions?

The life and history of the church is a very interesting business, filled with a variety of personalities and opinions. This is especially true when it comes to the areas of theology and doctrine. This is why in a country that has always prided itself on individualism we have seen a massive growth of Denominationalism and “Non-denominationalism.” In each camp there is something that is rallied around as supreme, and rarely is it the reality of the gospel, but usually a secondary issue. However we may have come to these distinctive division they do exist and to some degree that is not bad as long as it is not hindering the advancement of the gospel and the truth of the work of Christ. For the most part this is where Creedal and confessional unity has found its niche and revitalization, it would seem, in the church landscape.

Now what is this Creedal and Confessional idea? This is the basic tenant that we as a church local (or believer individually) agree to and uphold a set of Christian teachings and interpretation of the scriptures that are binding on our life and practice. The earliest forms of our modern confessions were the Creeds of the church which originated as early as Paul with the writing of Philippians 2:6-11 and developed over time as the church grew and wrestled with the apostle’s teachings. Eventually there developed two majority creeds; the Apostles Creed and the Nicaean Creed, and after the reformation we say the growth of confessions; two predominant ones are: The Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession of Faith 1689. Today I want to take a moment and go over the benefits of Creeds and Confessions to the Modern Church.

They Bring Clarity

The Creeds and Confessions of the Faith helped to set the foundation for how we understand the scriptures. They in no way have replaced the scriptures, but rather in a succinct manner explained the basic tenants of the faith as reveled in the scriptures. Even to this day we still recite these statements in our churches. The Early creeds helped us to understand the scriptural teachings on the Trinity, gave clarity to the work and means of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of the communion of the saints. They helped us to know what we believed as Christians. In the midst of much confusion they helped new believers to see the basic teachings of the Scriptures.

They Connect Us to our History

The church where I currently pastor recites the Apostles creed following Communion to remind ourselves of the joyous banquet that awaits all the saints for all time that have trusted in the sacrificial death of Christ and await us at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The creeds and later the Confessions helped us to see that we are not alone in the Christian journey; our faith is not a 21st century invention but rather a historic and beautiful faith that has stood the test of time, through war, persecution, and even times of peace Christ has maintained and grown the church. The Confessions help us to see that. The early church creeds arose out times of great persecution, and the confessions of London and Westminster arose out of the freedoms granted following the painful persecution that plagued the English reformation. In these writing we are reminded that God has been at work building is church for two millennia, lead by the Spirit and His Word.

They Connect Us to One Another

In the Creeds and Confessions we see an underlying interpretation and understanding of the Gospel. As such they help us to bridge denominational lines, they help us to see where we have commonality and not only our difference. Our blog is a good example of this. We are a confessional blog, not a denominational one. We feature guys from a variety of backgrounds but we unify around two important (and yet distinct) confession: Westminster and London. The key distinction in each is their interpretation of baptism, but every other tenant is almost exactly the same with a few variations. As such our writers must agree with one of these two historic documents of the reformed Christian faith. These documents help us to see our great commonality around the truth of scripture rather than our one disagreement on the application of it.

They Point Us Back to the Scripture.

I saved this one for last, because it is the most important. The confessions are not an end in and of themselves and are never meant to be, they are a tool by which we see and go back to the scriptures. If someone calls themselves confessional and yet the bible is not where they have found these truths then they are far from it. To be confessional is to see the truths of these confessions in scripture not in the confessions. If I hold to salvation by Grace alone because the London Baptist Faith says it is biblical but have not examined the scriptures and seen it to be true, than I am relying solely on the word of man and this is the furthest thing from the point of the confessions and creeds. They help us to see the scriptures more clearly not to replace them. Unfortunately, many in the “confessional” camp at times seem to miss this point. When we ascribe to a confession of faith we must be ascribing to the fact that it most clearly represents the truth as revealed in Scripture, not because it is trendy or cool. 

Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

The Apostles Creed was one of the first creeds of the early Church; it is still confessed by millions of churches around the world today.  This is what the creed says:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

This creed is great because it is full of universal truths of the Christian faith that all Christians have agreed on down through the ages.  I should say it is full of these universal truths that all agree upon, except one, “He descended into hell.” Most Christians confessing this creed stop at this part and think, “What does that even mean?”  So, we have a question on our hands don’t we?  Did Jesus descend into hell after the crucifixion?  If so, where does the Bible say that?  If not, where does the Bible say that, and where did Jesus go after He died?  Good questions!

Does the Bible say Jesus descended into hell after dying on the cross?  Some people have used 1 Peter 3:18-20 to say yes.  Peter says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.” Those who use this claim that this verse clearly teaches  a descent into hell to preach to the spirits in prison (hell).  Is this a good reading?  No.  The REST of the verse says that the context of Jesus’ preaching to these spirits was in the days of Noah.  So how did Jesus descend into hell after the cross, in the days of Noah?  It doesn’t make sense.  The most satisfactory explanation of 1 Peter 3:19-20 was put forth by Augustine.  He said that the “passage refers not to something Christ did between His death and resurrection, but to what He did in the spiritual realm of existence, through the Spirit, at the time of Noah.  ‘Christ preached to the spirits in prison’ means Christ preached to people who are now spirits in prison when they were still persons on earth.” (Grudem’s Systematic Theology, 591) So can we use this verse to claim Jesus descended into hell?  No, we cannot.  Does the Bible allude to or say anywhere else that Jesus went into hell?  No, it does not.  So did Jesus descend into hell?  I think not.

1 Peter is clear, but does the Bible say Jesus did not descend into hell?  I think it does.  Wayne Grudem offers the following evidence to say so.  First, Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) This implies that Jesus’ spirit went immediately to paradise, or heaven, upon death.  If He went to hell, He could not have said this to the thief.  Second, Jesus said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) on the cross.  This implies that Jesus’s suffering was over and the payment for sin was complete and done for all time, past, present, and future.  Therefore if the suffering is over and finished, there is no need to go to hell for further punishment.  Again, I think this shows that Jesus went straight to the Father’s side upon death.  Third, Jesus said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46) This implies that Jesus’ spirit was in the hands of the Father directly after death; not in hell.  Just as Jesus’ body remained on earth while His spirit went straight to the Father upon His death, so too will our bodies remain here on earth while our spirits go straight to the Father upon our deaths.  I agree with Wayne Grudem when he says, “This is much greater comfort regarding death than could ever be given by any view of a descent into hell.” (page 594)

Alright, it’s clear that Jesus did not descend into hell for the above reasons; so were left with the question, why is this phrase kept in the Apostles Creed?  Well, some people say that it should stay in because it has simply been in the creed for hundreds of years and therefore we should not take it out.  But is it not true that an error is still an error no matter how old it is?  There is no Bible evidence that this phrase is true, it is not a universally agreed upon Christian truth, as all the other statements in the creed are, and it only causes confusion over its meaning.  I think it should be omitted from the creed for two reasons.  We should only confess what is true and Biblical, and we should only confess clear doctrine.

I realize that I am disagreeing with John Calvin, if you would like to read his take on this, go here.