The Biblical Warrant for, and Necessity of, Confessions and Catechesis
Biblical confessions run in two directions. They look back at God’s past redemptive activity and revelation, erecting ebenezers to remind the church of what he has done. And they lean forward into the future, as parents are to educate their children in the meaning of the Passover, and as Paul draws Timothy’s attention to trustworthy sayings that, while having originated in the past, are yet supposed to echo into the future in the lives of those who embrace them. As the saints to whom Jude writes recall the faith once delivered, they are supposed to preserve it for the present and the future. The traditions that the biblical authors passed on to future generations were the living faith of the dead, not traditionalism’s dead faith of the living. In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), “What you have as heritage, Take now as task; For thus you will make it your own.” In other words, each generation receives the confessional tradition through catechesis and appropriates it for themselves. One cannot give away what one does not own; thus, each generation must own the truths that the confessions of the Scriptures teach.In short, the Bible mandates the creation and promulgation of a biblically subordinated tradition for the edification of the church and the defense of the faith. Click To Tweet
But in the appropriation of biblical truth, one must distinguish between the inspired and inerrant teaching of Scripture and its subsequent, uninspired explanations and interpretations. God explains the significance of the Passover and tells parents what to say to their children about it (Exod. 13:14–16). But surely the children’s questions will go beyond the divinely given catechetical answer, which means that parents will have to interpret the event and its divinely revealed explanation to provide relevant answers. This pattern unfolds in Paul’s “trustworthy sayings.” These sayings have no direct precedent. They are not quotations from earlier revelation but sum- mary restatements of biblical truths. These sayings show that the church, from the very beginning, has reflected on biblical revelation, interpreted it, and restated it in its own words. These particular sayings were so consonant with biblical revelation that the apostle Paul incorporated them into his divinely inspired letters to Timothy and Titus. Nevertheless, the existence of the trustworthy sayings proves that there is a legitimate place for a scripturally subordinated confessional tradition.
This conclusion should not surprise us. It follows the same well-worn path as several other ecclesiastical practices, such as prayer and preaching. God does not restrict the saints solely to repeating the words of Scripture in their prayers. To be sure, Christ provides a model prayer (Matt. 6:9–13), but it serves as a guide, not as a prescription. When Christians pray, their words must conform to the teaching of Scripture. But life, circumstance, and desire typically— and appropriately—shape the content of prayer. The same pattern appears in preaching. God does not tell preachers merely to open the Bible, read it, and then close it. That would not be preaching; it would be reading the Word—which is certainly a necessary part of worship, but it is not the only part. Preachers are supposed to read the Word, reflect on it, interpret it, and demonstrate how it relates to the life of the church. The book of Nehemiah captures this practice: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).
In the same vein, then, the Scriptures instruct the church to take the Bible’s teaching and to study, comprehend, and proclaim it again in their own words for both catechesis and defense of the faith. The existence of the “trustworthy sayings” demonstrates that the apostolic church was doing this very thing and that their confessions existed in oracular form. That Paul documented these maxims also shows that the church can and should record in writing their own trustworthy sayings. They serve both to catechize the church and to defend it against the deception of false teachers. Historic confessions are one way that the church can consult the wisdom of its luminaries from the past and benefit from Christ’s gifts to the church throughout the ages. Click To TweetFor this task, Christ has given the church the gift of teachers. As Thomas Manton (1620–77) observes, Christ has given “Prophets and Apostles to the Church to write scripture, hath also given Pastors and Teachers to open and apply Scripture, that so still it might be delivered to the Saints, and also to vindicate the doctrine of it when opposed.” In every age, light arises to oppose darkness; every time false teachers try to introduce the poison of false doctrine, Christ sends good teachers with an antidote. Athanasius (ca. 296–373), for example, opposed Arius (ca. 250–ca. 336), Augustine (354–430) combatted Pelagius (d. ca. 418), Martin Luther (1483–1546) stood against Rome, and J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) fought against modernism. The church has never lacked good teachers. Manton encourages his readers: “Look as in War, as the Arts of Battery and methods of destruction do increase, so also doth skill in Fortification; and in the Church God still bestoweth gifts for the further explication of Truth.”
Historic confessions are one way that the church can consult the wisdom of its luminaries from the past and benefit from Christ’s gifts to the church throughout the ages. In short, the Bible mandates the creation and promulgation of a biblically subordinated tradition for the edification of the church and the defense of the faith.
The above excerpt is from The Need for Creeds Today by J.V. Fesko
Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group © 2020 Used by permission.