Instruments Of Authority Creeds And Confessions

Protestantism regards itself as Christian and thus accepts the two great creeds of the Christian church—the Apostles' Creed, which dates from the eighth century in its final form, and the fourth-century Nicene Creed. These creeds, which are both minimalist, set out fundamental landmarks for Christian belief—such as the "two natures" of Jesus Christ—while merely affirming other areas of faith or leaving them altogether undefined. For example, the creeds set out no doctrine of the church or sacraments.

While regarding such creeds as fundamental, each Protestant grouping has its own statement of belief—often referred to as a "confession of faith"—that supplements the brief statements of the creeds and sets out a precise statement of that group. Such confessions, many of which were drawn up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often include both affirmative and negative elements: they set out the beliefs of the group while criticizing those of other groups that the group regards as unacceptable. The Thirty-nine Articles of Faith, set out by the Church of England in 1572, spells out the distinctive beliefs of Anglicanism while criticizing Catholics and Anabaptists on a number of points.

So what is the status of these confessions? Protestantism regards the Bible as being of supreme authority and understands the creeds to be reliable, communal statements of faith that are subordinate to the Bible. The creeds set out the beliefs of Christianity; confessions set out the distinctive beliefs of a specific form of Protestant Christianity. In terms of a hierarchy of authority, the situation can therefore be represented as follows: Bible ^ creeds ^ confessions.

The confessions are regarded as defining the shape of the form of Protestantism that created them. They serve as important historical benchmarks and theological points of reference for determining whether a given belief is typical of, or acceptable to, that form of Protestantism. Whereas all Protestants regard the Bible and creeds as authoritative, they do not extend such recognition to the confessions of other Protestants. Thus, Lutherans do not regard the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, nor Anglicans the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, as having any particular authority within their own community.

Whereas Lutherans regard only one confessional document—the Augsburg Confession (1530)—as having particular significance, most other denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, define themselves with reference to a multiplicity of confessions. The Reformed churches have produced more confessions of faith than most churches. Each region that adopted a form of Calvinism expressed its fundamental themes in ways adapted to its own situation, often with subtle theological variations. Some were written by single authors, others by committees.58 The most important such regional Reformed confessions are the following:

Confession

Date

Region

Gallic

1559

France

Scottish

1560

Scotland

Belgic

1561

the Lowlands

Second Helvetic

1562

Switzerland

Westminster

1646

England

Although several of these confessions had their origins in regional Reformed churches, they were so well regarded that they began to be used elsewhere. The Second Helvetic Confession, for example, was widely used in many parts of Germany. The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up by the assembly of Puritan divines during the period of the Commonwealth, found wide acceptance in Presbyterian circles in North America and throughout the English-speaking Protestant world.

As Karl Barth rightly observes, these confessions were provisional, spontaneous, and practical documents that came into being as a direct response to a challenge of the moment.59 They were the product of local Christian communities that took the view that confessions of faith were far from having absolute authority and were subject to review and revision by succeeding generations. For Pierre Maury, confessions "are given by the Holy Spirit out of the pressure of a living, historical situation" that raises certain questions that demand answers. In 1966 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared that it "could not treat as absolute any of the structures and confessions which we inherit," but that it must be prepared to "go wherever the Spirit leads, even if it be through that death that leads to new life."

As the original confessions recede into the past, some Protestant denominations have found themselves debating their continuing role in a significantly changed social and cultural environment. The Church of England, for example, has seen sustained internal debate since about 1850 over whether the Thirty-nine Articles should continue to have a significant role in determining and communicating Anglican identity.60

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