What's the Difference Between Creeds, Confessions, Catechisms, and Councils?
"Today's Christianity is directly affected by what earlier Christians chose to do and to believe." (9)
That's the central claim and driving force behind a new book by professor and Episcopal priest Justin Holcomb. The book is Know the Creeds and Councils, which provides an accessible overview of the historical development of Christian thought.
In a culture obsessed with the latest and greatest, Holcomb’s handy guide will help the modern Church rediscover the historic Christian faith. And he begins by helping us rediscover and differentiate four important terms: creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils—while explaining why they’re so important.
1) Creeds: Basic Beliefs
The creeds “set forth the basic beliefs of the church that have been handed town from earliest times, what the New Testament calls ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.’” (11)
Such beliefs were encapsulated in the so-called “rule of faith,” an unwritten set of beliefs which our early ancestors assumed had been passed down from the apostles themselves. This rule acknowledged one God, Creator of heaven and earth; Jesus as the Son of God who suffered, died, and rose again to save us; and the judgement of the world.
The creeds were used to teach new converts the basics of the Christian faith. Ordinary believers also learned about and pledged their lives to God through the creeds. Holcomb summaries the function of creeds well: “Creeds aren’t dogmas that are imposed on Scripture but are themselves drawn from the Bible and provide the touchstone to the faith for Christians of all times and places.” (13)
2) Confessions: Denominational Distinctives
Confessions represent a more detailed sketch than the creeds. “The creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways.” (14)
Denominations formed confessions in order to address immediate needs and concerns of the time. Typically such statutes defined beliefs on secondary issues like infant baptism, predestination, and the eucharist. Such statements include: The Formula of Concord (Lutheran, 1577); The Belgic Confession (Reformed, 1561); The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion (Methodist, 1784); and Vatican II (Catholic, 1962-65).
These guides are used in two important ways: to form the basis of catechism; and maintain denominational unity by providing a doctrinal standard by which congregations should teach.
3) Catechisms: Practical and Understandable
If creeds are the Church’s bones and confessions are denominational muscle, catechisms are the feet. They represent “the practical, ‘on-the-ground’ application of the main teaching agreed upon at church councils and expressed through creeds and confessions.” (17) They also make those teachings understandable for people unfamiliar with doctrine.
While such guidance has been around since the early church, the “Golden Age” was during the Reformation. Their catechisms continue to inform our modern methods of instruction to this day, including the Lutheran Small Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism.
Holcomb quotes Nordling to explain why their teaching process is so useful:
Luther intended that the Small Catechism would come to constitute the Christians’s internal ‘computer operating system’ (for example, DOS, Windows, MacOS), which would become fixed in the immediate stores of memory, and thereby become the foundation for approaching God and all things spiritual.
In other words, “catechisms teach in order that we may confess and believe,” leading to love of God and neighbor. (19)
4) Councils: Diverse Preservers
Every branch of the Church recognizes seven major ecumenical councils. These bodies brought together a diverse group of Christian leaders to preserve the faith by addressing theological disagreement and their practical ramifications.
Holcomb rightly notes a strength of such councils: “the diversity that a council brings—both in origins of the attendees and in their viewpoints—ensures that all the viewpoints are fairly represented.” (21) And guided by the Holy Spirit, these diverse Christians confronted the questions at hand with answers that best reflected the Bible.
He also notes these gatherings were often marked by politics and dissension. And yet, Holcomb argues that even if they didn’t always reflect Christ’s character, councils held the Church together in the face of heresy. He provides a helpful illustration:
Think of it as comparable to the Union and the Confederates in the American Civil War. That war still scars our national memory, but it was necessary to prevent our country from going in an unfortunate direction. In the same way, there is much to be grateful for in the councils. (23)
Holcomb insists for contemporary Christians to ignore the insights and beliefs of early ones "is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly." (10)
The deeper presentation of these insights in Know the Creeds and Councils will equip us teachers to help our people understand the creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils of the faith, so that they—and we!—don’t reinvent and reimagine that faith badly.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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