It is well, in the light of the times in which we live, to say something concerning the value of our creeds in general and of our Belgic Confession in particular. The churches of the day are increasingly critical of the creeds, and this is no less true in the Reformed tradition both in our own land and abroad. The cry in our time is that the creeds have lost their value and usefulness for the church. They simply, so it is alleged, do not speak to the needs of the world and the calling of the church in the world. They are said to be dated, outmoded, old fashioned. The best that can be done with the confessions is to preserve them as interesting relics of the church’s glorious past, and then compose new creeds which express the faith of the contemporary church and her calling in these days. What must be said about all this? Is it true? Could we just as well revise or discard entirely our Belgic Confession and write a new creed to take its place?
Perhaps it is best to begin our answer by defining the idea of the creeds. What are they? The late Herman Hoeksema in his Reformed Symbols, a syllabus used for the course which goes by that name in the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, offered this definition: “A symbol is a statement by a church or group of churches containing a declaration of what such a church or group of churches believes to be the truth of the Word of God.” There are three terms customarily employed to express the idea set forth in this definition. These terms are: symbol, confession, and creed. A symbol is a sign. The flag of the United States, for example, is the sign which distinguishes our land from all other countries. A symbol is a sign, therefore, which serves to distinguish a church or denomination from all other churches. The Belgic Confession, in other words, as a symbol distinguishes the Reformed Churches from all other churches. The word “confession” means “to speak with.” This term conveys the idea that the church expresses its faith together with one another and with its head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, the Belgic Confession as a confession contains the truth which the Protestant Reformed Churches express in union with one another and with Jesus Christ. Creed is a term derived from the Latin verb which means “to believe,” and indicates that the content of a confession is the object of the faith of the church. Hence, what we as Protestant Reformed Churches believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths is set forth in the Belgic Confession.
In sum, therefore, what we have in the Three Forms of Unity and in the Belgic Confession in particular is the truth of the Holy Scriptures as that truth has been formulated in the mind of the church by the Spirit and Word of Jesus Christ. This truth, gleaned from the Word of God, set forth in systematic fashion in our creed, is the confession of our faith and serves to distinguish the Reformed churches from all other churches.
The Relation of the Confessions to Scripture
This naturally gives rise to the question of the relationship which obtains between the creeds of the church and the Scriptures. Inseparably bound up in this is, in turn, the question of the authority of the creeds. Writing on this point Hoeksema states: “Even as confessions are historically a reflection of the truth of the Word of God in the believing consciousness of the church, so their permanent criterion is Holy Scripture.” (Reformed Symbols, p. 2). This means that our confessions must always be based upon the Word of God, may never be placed on an equal level with the Word of God, and certainly may never be superimposed upon the Word of God. Hoeksema says in this same connection, “. . . the latter (the Word of God, R.D.D.) must always be the light in which the confessions must constantly be judged. As soon as the church fails to do the latter, confessionalism, dead intellectualism, is the result.” (Reformed Symbols, p. 2). The point simply is that the authority of our creeds is not absolute but always derivative. The contents of the creeds must be defended and preached, believed and confessed, obeyed and honored because that content is gleaned out of God’s infallible Word, which is the absolute authority for the faith and life of the child of God in this world. Hence, in our expositions of theBelgic Confession we shall be at pains to demonstrate the solid Biblical foundation upon which this eloquent statement of our faith stands.
Objections Against the Creeds
While objections have always been lodged against the creeds, they multiply today. It is “the in thing” to be against the creeds. The striking feature in all this is the fact that what we are hearing in criticism of the creeds in our time is nothing new. It’s merely the same tired, old arguments put forth all through the years. How true it is, “There is no new thing under the sun; the thing that is, hath been.” One of these objections argues that the creeds are merely human productions and totally unnecessary since the Bible is sufficient. The Church needs nothing more than the Bible. What Hoeksema had to say about this is much to the point: “. . . historically it is a peculiar fact that very serious objections are raised against creeds when also the contents of the Bible become more and more foreign to the mind of the church. Ignorance of Scripture and its doctrine and opposition to creeds are generally simultaneous. From this it would seem that objectors to creeds are not serious when they claim Scripture is sufficient.” (Reformed Symbols, p. 3). How true today! There is woeful ignorance of even the simplest truths of Scripture. Many are not even familiar with Biblical terminology. And yet these same people have the audacity to criticize the creeds and clamor for new ones. But what must be said about this objection? That the Scriptures are sufficient we readily confess. That the truth of the sufficiency of Holy Writ may be used as an argument in opposition to the creeds we wholeheartedly reject. Why? Because this is fundamentally a denial of the continuous guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit in the past. The fruit of this guidance of the Spirit of Christ is the creedal statements of the church expressing the truth of the Word over against the lie of sin. (cf. John 14:15-18, 26; John 15:26ff.; John 16:13, 14) It surely is a great sin to deny and ignore the fruit of the guidance of the Spirit of Truth. Besides, the church always has the calling to express her faith in the midst of the world. This cannot be done simply by saying, “The Bible is enough.” The Bible simply is not a logical, systematic presentation of the truth; but it surely is the source out of which the church as guided by Christ’s Spirit derives the truth and systematically sets it forth in her creeds.
Another objection is that creeds bind the conscience. This can never be, however, as long as the way remains open for the individual child of God to apply the standard of the Word of God to the confession of his church.
A very common criticism of the creeds today is that they create divisions. We must break down those walls of separation and become one. Such has been the hue and cry of ecumenism the past several years. Today we have a World Council of Churches from which not even the Roman Catholics are excluded and which seeks to unite all the churches under the simplest, broadest possible statement of faith. Let it be said that creeds do not create divisions, but simply express the divisions which are already present. They must remain, lest our understanding of the truth be diminished and ultimately lost altogether.
Finally, another common objection today is that creeds impede the development of the truth. What nonsense! As long as Scripture remains the source and criterion for our creeds, how can it fail that these will be vital, living, relevant expressions of the truth? How can we fail to grow in the knowledge of the rich, pure, unfathomable truth of God’s Word?
The Value of the Creeds
Positively, the creeds are of inestimable value to the church along a four-fold line.
First, they are the means by which the church as a whole can express its faith over against all the world, or by which a denomination of churches can express its faith over against all other churches. That certainly remains the calling of the Body of Jesus Christ in the world. The people of God as members of God’s Church stand as the “light of the world.” That light must shine everywhere. It was exactly in this consciousness that our creeds were born. They served to define for kings and governors and for all the world the truth of God’s Word which lived in the heart and mind of the Church.
Thus, too, the creeds serve as a means to preserve the truth as it is delivered in the line of the generations of believers all through the ages. In this same connection, our creeds serve as the bond of union upon which basis churches of the same faith and mind can unite. And, finally, I the creeds are wonderful means of instruction. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, was composed exactly to meet this purpose.
Now, in this light, is not the time to be critical of the creeds. Now is the time to go back to them and study them in the light of the Word of God. They express the eternal truth of the Scriptures, the glory of which no man will ever fully comprehend! A faithful, prayerful study of the creeds in the light of the Word will lead the church into an ever deeper understanding of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God as taught in the Word.
May God grant us grace always to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” in these latter days. (Jude, verses 3ff.) That faith is eloquently set forth in the Belgic or Netherlands Confession of Faith.