In discussing some of the different ways in which our creeds can be used we have attempted to show how the creeds can and must be the living confession of the church as she draws her life out of the Word of God. In pointing out these various uses of the creeds we have made no claim to be exhaustive, but have simply tried to distinguish some of the more important ways in which we maintain our Reformed heritage as it is given us in the creeds. Cur purpose in doing this has been to encourage the use of the creeds, since we believe that the only alternative is ecclesiastical chaos.
So far we have distinguished three ways in which the creeds can be used: the constitutional, the juridical, and the apologetic uses. In speaking of the constitutional use of the creeds we referred to the fact that the church of Jesus Christ in her creeds confesses her faith in the Word of God over against all those who do not believe as she does, and thus separates herself from them. By doing so she also establishes a basis of unity with all those who are of like faith. In connection with the juridical use of the creeds we attempted to show that the creeds, in setting before us the work of the church of the past, have a place in guiding the affairs and settling the disputes that arise in the church. When we spoke of an apologetic use we meant that the creeds are very well adapted to be used in the defense of the faith over against all errors of false doctrine and godless living that creep in.
These first three uses have to do, more or less, with the organization and institution of the church. In the remainder of this article we want to show how the creeds also have a place in the worship and personal life of the church and her members. In this connection we distinguish five ways in which the creeds can be used: the liturgical, homiletical, catechetical, pastoral, and devotional uses of the creeds. As we look at these different uses we will see that to some degree they overlap one another.
When we speak of a liturgical use of our creeds then we refer to the fact that they are used in the public worship of the church. In this way the confession of the church becomes an act of worship as the church stands before her God. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, either in unison or together in our hearts, then, as part of our worship, we are confessing our faith in God Triune as the God of all our salvation. And the Apostles’ Creed, both because of its conciseness, and because it is a personal confession written in the first person, is especially well adapted to this use.
There are, however, also other “Forms” which are used in the worship of the church in connection with the sacraments, the ordination of office-bearers, etc. These forms are also creeds in that the church uses them to make confession of faith concerning the ordinances which Christ has established and instituted in the church. In connection with the administration of the sacraments, for example, the forms which are read with the sacraments are the church’s confession that she desires and intends to administer the sacraments in harmony with the command of Christ in the Scriptures. Another example is our form for the ordination of elders and deacons. This form reminds us at the very beginning that it is “a short declaration from the Word of God concerning the institution and the office of elders and deacons.”
The Scriptural warrant for the liturgical use of creeds is first of all the testimony of the Word that we are to confess our faith before men always and everywhere. We have already looked at some of these passages. There are also, however, certain parts of Scripture which seem to be liturgical statements that were used in the public worship of the early church, such as I Timothy 3:16. Here Paul introduces a beautiful statement of faith with a word which means “by confession” (translated “without controversy” in the KJV), indicating that this confession was well known and often used in the church.
Closely connected with this liturgical use of the creeds is the homiletical use. By this we refer to the use of the creeds in the preaching. We have already seen as part of the juridical use of creeds that they stand in the church as regulators and guides for sound and faithful exposition of God’s Word. But the creeds ought not only stand behind the preaching, they ought also to be part of the preaching. In Reformed circles there is a long standing tradition of preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Catechism. This is never done, of course, apart from the Scriptures, but has great advantage in that the people of God receive regular and systematic instruction in the principle doctrines of Scripture. Thus the believers are firmly established in the faith, are equipped with the wisdom of salvation and furnished unto every good work.
Good use can also be made of the creeds in preaching by regular reference to them. The creeds are helpful in many respects when used in this way: they show the biblical foundation of the doctrines that are taught in the church; they set forth the truth very clearly against the errors which are so prevalent in the church and against which the saints must be warned; and very often they give sound practical and personal application of the Word of God. Such practical application is found again and again in the Heidelberg Catechism, which asks many questions such as that of, Lord’s Day XXIII: “But what doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?”
But just as the creeds are used for instruction in the preaching, so they can also be used for instruction and study in the Bible Classes, Catechism classes, and other similar activities of the church. This use of the creeds we can call the catechetical use. Especially important here is the instruction of the children of the church, and our creeds are admirably suited to bring this instruction. Some creeds, such as our Heidelberg Catechism and its Compendium, were written in question and answer form especially for the purpose of instructing new converts and the children of the covenant and ought to be so used.
The advantage of using the creeds in instruction is their systematic form. When the truth is taught systematically it is most easily grasped and remembered. This is also in harmony with the truth of the covenant with its obligations and responsibilities as taught in Psalm 78:1-8 and Genesis 18:17-19. In this way each generation receives the truth as an inheritance from the church of the past and is more aware of the abiding unity of the church of all ages. It is the great curse of the church today that she deliberately severs all connection with the church of the past, and thus also from the Spirit Who works in the church. Through this use of the creeds the church comes to understand the confession of the Psalmist in Psalm 16:6; “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.”
Somewhat different is the pastoral use of the creeds and confessions of the church. Here, of course, we mean to say that the creeds can be used in the pastoral work of the office-bearers; that of comforting and helping those who are in distress, admonishing the wayward, and strengthening and encouraging all the saints. That the creeds can be used in this way certainly shows that the charge that the creeds are cold and barren expositions of doctrine is absolutely groundless. Those who say such things only show that they are completely ignorant of the content of the Reformed creeds.
There are endless examples that could be given in this regard. We mention here just a few to illustrate the point. In the Canons there is a very beautiful application of the doctrine of election to those who lack assurance, in the first Head of Doctrine, article 16. The Belgic Confession very properly explains the calling of believers with regard to the church in Article 28, something which is often misunderstood and a source of trouble in the church. Then there is the peerless explanation of the office of believers in Lord’s Day XII of the Heidelberg Catechism, which begins with the soul-searching question, “Why art thou called a Christian?” In the Westminster Confession of Faith we have an explanation of the Christian’s calling with respect to religious worship and the Sabbath Day that is unequaled in any other Reformed creed (chapter 21). And so one could go on picking examples almost at random. But the point is that the office-bearers of the church are well advised to use our creeds in their work, both by way of preparation for the work, and in the actual work of feeding the flock, warning the unruly, comforting the feebleminded, supporting the weak, and laboring diligently among the sheep of Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 5:12-14).
Finally, there is what we may call a devotional use of the creeds. The creeds also have a place in the personal, spiritual life of the members of the church. There are many examples of this that can be given. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, in its exposition of the Lord’s Prayer certainly gives to each of us both help and encouragement for prayer and ought to be read often by us. The article in the Belgic Confession on the sacraments, and the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper can very properly and profitably be used and read by way of preparation and self-examination before coming to the Lord’s table. These are only examples, but they show that the creeds do have a place in private meditation and study of the Word, in family devotions, and in preparation for all the different spiritual activities in which we are called to take part.
All this is meant to show, however, not only that our creeds can be used in all the life of the church, but that they must be used. A church which does not use her creeds is a church without creeds, and a church without creeds has gone far on the road that ends in ecclesiastical chaos. Let us remember our heritage both in word and deed and not be ashamed of it, for it is “a goodly heritage . . . marked out with gracious care” (The Psalter, number 27, stanza 5).