Confessions of Faith

views updated



In the language of the New Testament the word confession signifies the open acknowledgement of faith in Christ and of salvation through Him (cf. 1 Tm 6.13; 2 Cor 9.13). Thus it soon came to mean public witness to the faith even at the risk of martyrdom.

Occasionally the word is used for the ancient ecumenical creeds and for the formal professions of faith drawn up by the Church, for example, that prescribed for Berengarius of Tours in 1079. But it is more generally used for the Protestant professions of faith of the 16th and 17th centuries. In trying to reestablish religious unity, Emperor Charles V asked the various groups to draw up official statements of doctrine. These were known as "confessions of faith." That of the Lutherans at Augs-burg in 1530 was the first. This is the famous augsburg confession. These confessions enjoy official status, and members are often asked to subscribe to them in order to hold official position. However, they are viewed less rigidly today than formerly, and frequently are not the ultimate norms for acceptance or rejection of members.

From this meaning of confession is derived the use of the term for the religious body or church holding to it. This designation was originally political, for the civil authorities simply referred to each religious body as a confessionwhether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Zwinglian.

[w. f. dewan/eds.]


The doctrinal declarations and symbols of the several Protestant communions. Beginning in the era of the Reformation, such confessions have been set forth both in response to doctrinal controversy within and between various churches and in justification of separations or reunions. Many confessions adopted for specific needs have been forgotten; others have become dead letters; still others continue to be decisive factors in the theological and organizational life of their communions. In German the term Konfession has become the usual designation for a denomination or communion; the comparative study of the various denominations, with special attention to their doctrinal declarations, is called Konfessionskunde, in English usually Symbolics or Comparative Symbolics. This article surveys the Lutheran confessions of the Reformation period, the confessions of the Reformed churches, the Anglican confessions, the confessions of the radical Reformation, the confessions of Continental Protestantism since the Reformation, and the confessions that have arisen within American Protestantism. It concludes with a discussion of the role of confessions in the churches and of their relation to ecumenical (or interconfessional) theological movements. The bibliography includes the standard editions and translations of the confessions, as well as the historical and theological introductions to them.

Lutheran Confessions (Reformation Period). Martin Luther and his followers explained and defended the cause of their Reformation in thousands of personal treatises and books, but they also presented the case for their movement in several official statements of doctrine. Significantly, most of these were occasioned by challenges to the Reformation that were political as well as religious in character; both the addressees and the signatories of several of the Lutheran confessions were secular rulers.

Luther's Catechisms. The beginnings of the Lutheran confessions are to be found in the work of Luther himself. Three of the documents included in the Book of concord are directly by him. Of these, the most influential and important was certainly his Small Catechism of 1529. During the autumn of 1528 Luther had carried out a visitation in Saxony of parishes that adhered to the Reformation, and had been shocked at the religious illiteracy of the lay people, who "do not know the Our Father, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments." To correct this condition, he composed two catechisms, the Small Catechism for the instruction of the laity and the Large Catechism principally for the clergy. Each consisted of an explanation of the Decalogue, an exposition of the Apostles' Creed, a petition-by-petition commentary on the Lord's Prayer, and a presentation of the meaning of Baptism, Penance, and the Eucharist. Both were written in German and were later translated into Latin, eventually into many other languages as well. They have the status of confessions of faith because they, more fully and precisely than any of the other Lutheran confessions, set forth what is the publica doctrina that has been preached in Lutheran pulpits and taught to Lutheran catechumens.

Schmalkaldic Articles. The third of the confessions from Luther's own hand is the set of articles prepared by him in anticipation of the general council convoked by Pope Paul III to meet in Mantua in May 1537. Although the council did not meet until 1545, and in Trent, Luther's articles were taken by his prince, the Elector of Saxony, to a meeting of the schmalkaldic League early in 1537. The League did not adopt them, but they have acquired the title Schmalkaldic Articles because many of those in attendance did sign them. The Schmalkaldic Articles are perhaps the most vigorously polemical of the Lutheran confessions, summarizing with sharpness and force the attack upon the teachings and the practices of Roman Catholicism.

Augsburg Confession. Although Luther was not the author of the augsburg confession in the same sense as he was of the three confessions just enumerated, the basis of that confession lies in several documents in preparation of which he had a part. In 1528 he had written a lengthy treatise defending the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist against Huldrych zwingli and others, to which he appended a confession of faith. This served as a model for the so-called Schwabach Articles of 1529, which dealt with the doctrinal disputes; a second set of articles, dealing with disputes over church practice and adopted at Torgau in March 1530, are called the Torgau Articles. From these several sources Luther's colleague Philipp melanchthon composed the confession that was presented by seven German princes and the representatives of two free cities at the Diet of Augsburg on June 25, 1530, before the Holy Roman Emperor, charles v. The Augsburg Confession strove to put the dispute between Rome and the Reformation into the context of the dogmatic consensus of the ancient Church. Its language and tone are moderate and traditionally Catholic. But its clear intent was to demonstrate that the Reformers stand in continuity with that consensus and that their opponents did not. Demonstration of this thesis was likewise the theme of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, which Melanchthon composed as an answer to the Confutation of the Augsburg Confession. The Apology, published in the spring of 1531, gives special attention to the doctrine of justification, with lengthy articles also on original sin, the Church, the Mass, and other controverted issues. The Augsburg Confession is the basic confession of Lutheranism; in several countries Lutherans are even specifically designated as "Evangelicals of the Augsburg Confession."

Formula and Book of Concord. During the decades that followed, and especially during the 30 years after Luther's death (1546), the theologians of the Augsburg Confession were involved in a series of controversies among themselves; in addition, the rise of new varieties of Protestantism, especially of calvinism, as well as the work of the Council of trent, necessitated a further clarification of the Lutheran position. This was accomplished in the Formula of Concord of 1577. During the preceding five years a number of statements of doctrine had been drawn up in an effort to resolve the controversies. James Andreae (152890) compiled the Epitome of the Formula of Concord from these statements, including his own proposals. Although Andreae was thus technically the author of the Formula, its principal architect was Martin chem nitz. The Formula of Concord, especially in its second part, the Solid Declaration, is of all the Lutheran confessions the most learned theologically and the most precise. On each of the disputed doctrines it seeks first to clarify the status controversiae, goes on to define the central terms, and adjudicates the dispute. The Epitome and the Solid Declaration made the rounds of the Lutheran states of Germany, gaining the signatures of more than 8,000 clergy, theologians, and teachers. On the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, June 25, 1580, the Book of Concord, containing all the confessions enumerated above plus the three "ecumenical creeds" (the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian), was published. Although Lutherans have continued to write doctrinal declarations (see below), the Book of Concord is still their only confessional norm.

Confessions of the Reformed Churches. By the very nature of the movement, the confessions of faith drawn up by the churches calling themselves "Reformed in accordance with the Word of God" have had a more international and less homogeneous history, and no individual Reformed confession has been accorded the universal acceptance granted by Lutherans to the Augsburg Confession and to Luther's Catechisms. Thus the collection of Reformed confessions by Böckel contains 32 statements of faith; the collection by Niemeyer contains fewer, but includes some that are not in Böckel. Perhaps the most helpful procedure is, with Böckel, to arrange the Reformed confessions according to the nations where they arose.

Switzerland. The earliest Reformed confessions were written in Switzerland. Zwingli himself prepared several confessional statements, notably his Expositio Christianae fidei, written shortly before his death. But the most widely accepted of the confessions of Swiss Protestantism were the First Helvetic Confession of 1536 and the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. The First spoke as the united voice of all the Reformed cantons of Switzerland and was drafted and published in Basel. The Second, which Philip Schaff called "the most elaborate and most catholic among the Swiss confessions," is a careful and detailed summary, written by Heinrich bullinger, of Reformed theology as it had been reshaped through the work of John calvin. More than a century later, in 1675, the Helvetic Consensus Formula articulated in confessional form the characteristic teachings of orthodox Calvinism as these had been promulgated by the Synod of Dort (see below). Of the Swiss confessions, the Second Helvetic has probably enjoyed the most nearly universal acceptance both in Europe and in Great Britain.

Germany. Far more universal than any of the Swiss confessions, however, was the German contribution to the Reformed standards, the heidelberg catechism of 1563. It has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, as well as into Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian. It was the result of a literary collaboration between Zacharias ursinus and Caspar Olevianus (153685). The Heidelberg Catechism omits such Calvinistic doctrines as double predestination and limited atonement, concentrating instead on the central tenets of evangelical faith, or, as the very first question puts it, the "only comfort in life and in death." Its exposition of the Apostles' Creed forms its central and chief part; this is preceded by questions and answers dealing with sin, and is followed by an explanation of the Decalogue and of the Our Father. Although it was intended for the instruction of the young and has been used for this purpose throughout the Reformed tradition, its careful use of language and its comprehensive, largely irenic tone have made it useful as a public confession of faith.

France and the Low Countries. Whether or not it was, as some traditions claim, actually written by Calvin, the Gallican Confession of 1559 does present, more accurately perhaps than any other confession, the distinctive doctrines of the Genevan Reformer. Scholars have pointed to its Christocentricity and its orderly balance as its most striking characteristics. Because it was used there as a statement of the faith of French Reformed Protestantism, it is called also the Confession of La Rochelle of 1571. Also written in French was the Belgic Confession of 1561, whose chief author was Guido de Brès. In 1562 it was presented to Philip II as a defense of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries. These churches still sub-scribe to it, together with the Heidelberg Catechism, as their confessional standard. It shows traces of earlier Reformed confessions and was in fact partly based on the Gallican Confession. The Low Countries were also the locale for the international conclave of Reformed theologians and churchmen that codified predestinarian Calvinism, the Synod of Dort, which lasted from Nov. 13, 1618, to May 9, 1619. The synod was provoked by arminian ism, which had attacked the doctrines of predestination and reprobation in the form in which they were being taught by orthodox Calvinists. Against the Arminians the decrees of the Synod of Dort, with great care and learning, affirmed the doctrines of predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.

British Isles. For Reformed Christians in the English-speaking world, the most important confession is the westminster confession of Faith of 1646. Instead of the revision of the Anglican thirty-nine articles, for which it had been appointed, the Westminster Assembly, which met from 1643 to 1653, was ordered by Parliament to draw up "a Confession of Faith for the three Kingdoms, according to the Solemn League and Covenant." Its 33 articles combine the Calvinist emphases of Dort with the covenantal theology of the puritans. The Presbyterians of Scotland adopted it in 1647, and the English Parliament approved it a year later. Thus it established itself as the chief confessional statement of Scotch presbyterianism, replacing the Scots Confession of 1560; in America ch. 23, "Of the Civil Magistrate," and ch. 31, "Of Synods and Councils," have been revised.

Eastern Europe. Other Reformed confessions that should be mentioned are those of the Reformed churches in Eastern Europe. These include the Czech Confession of 1535, to which Luther wrote a preface, and the Czech Confession of 1575. The Reformed Church of Hungary, which had to clarify its position not only in relation to Roman Catholicism and to other forms of Protestantism but also in contrast with Anti-Trinitarianism, published the Confession of Czenger in 1557. And in Poland the effort to achieve reunion of the churches brought about the Consensus of Sandomierz of 1570, which represented a temporary agreement between the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Unity of bohemian brethren.

Anglican Confessions. As already noted, it was in England that the Westminster Confession, now the hallmark of Scotch Presbyterianism, was prepared. But the Church of England had, by 1646, developed its own standards of correct teaching and worship.

Early Articles. These began with various sets of articles prepared under Henry VIII, of which the Ten Articles of 1536 were the first. The most important for the future were the Thirteen Articles of 1538, which were drafted as a statement of agreement between a group of Anglican and a group of Lutheran theologians; they are adapted from the Augsburg Confession. Under Edward VI a new and longer statement of faith, the Forty-Two Articles, was drawn up, principally by Thomas cran mer; these, too, manifest a dependence on the Augsburg Confession. They were completed in 1552 and published in 1553, but they do not seem to have been officially adopted by Convocation. In 1553, with the accession of Queen Mary, England became officially Roman Catholic again, until 1558. Thus the Forty-Two Articles could not be sanctioned or applied, and by the time anglicanism was restored some of the antitheses of the Forty-Two Articles were no longer relevant and a revised confession of faith became necessary.

Thirty-Nine Articles. That revised confession of faith came in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The first version of these was presented to Convocation by Matthew parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was largely responsible for their composition, at the behest of elizabeth i. They were written in Latin. Essentially, they were an adaptation and abbreviation of the Forty-Two Articles. The bishops and Convocation adopted them in 1563, but with the insertion of a statement affirming the right of the Church to legislate on her own rites and with the omission of an article denying that the unworthy communicant receives the true Body and Blood of Christ (the so-called manducatio indignorum ). Later the Thirty-Nine Articles were translated into English, the controversial article restored, and the final form of the Articles was adopted in 1571. In their theological content the Thirty-Nine Articles display what an Anglican writer has called "masterful ambiguity," with the result that various positions across the spectrum of Anglican thought have been able to claim support from them. But it would be a mistake and a mistake sometimes committed by Continental theologiansto use the Thirty-Nine Articles as the key to the understanding of the Anglican communion. Two other creations of the English Reformation, the Authorized Version of the Bible and, above all, the Book of common prayer, perform that function as precisely for Anglicanism as the Augsburg Confession and Luther's catechisms do for Lutheranism. An indication of the problematic role actually played by the Thirty-Nine Articles is the designation of Anglicanism as "Reformed" in the textbooks of German writers in comparative symbolics.

Confessions of the Radical Reformation. Perhaps even less concerned than Anglicanism about confessions of faith, though for quite opposite reasons, was the left wing of the Reformation. For while most of the "magisterial Reformers," whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican, sought to establish their legitimacy by appealing to the Catholic tradition, it was characteristic of the radical Reformers that they quite self-consciously broke with that tradition, denounced it as apostate, and saw themselves as the restorers of a Christianity that had been lost for a long time, perhaps since apostolic days.

Racovian Catechism. The most radical of the confessions of faith to come from the left wing was probably the Racovian Catechism of 1574, which asserts what one writer has called "the communitarian, immersionist, anti-Nicene Anabaptism in the most radical center" of the Reformation sectarians. Its full title is:"Catechism and confession of faith of the congregation gathered throughout Poland, in the name of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord." Rigidly Biblical in its conception of authority, it asserts an adoptionistic view of the person of Christ and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity as inconsistent with Sacred Scripture. The threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king determines the basic outline of the Racovian Catechism. Its author was George Schomann, who drew upon suggestions of Faustus Socinus (see socinianism). The most distinctive feature of the Racovian Catechism is its break with the fundamental dogmatic presupposition of virtually all previous Christian confessions of faith, viz, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

Other Confessions. Although they were not so radical in their break with the Trinitarian dogma, the other confessional documents of the left wing of the Reformation were no less vigorous in asserting that the development of the doctrine and practice of the Church was a betrayal of apostolic faith. In 1527 the Swiss anabap tists, meeting at Schleitheim, adopted a confession, whose author was Michael Sattler. The chief concern of this brief statement of faith was the doctrine of the Church as a gathered community of true and committed believers. In its defense of this doctrine, the confession sets forth its views on seven issues: Baptism, excommunication, the breaking of the bread, separation from the abominations, pastors in the Church, the use of the sword, and oaths. A more comprehensive confession of the faith held by Anabaptists was adopted more than a century later at Dort in 1632. Reviewing in sequence the central affirmations of Christian belief about God, man, Christ, the Church, and the Sacraments, it asserts in largely Biblical language the characteristic Mennonite emphases upon faith as commitment, upon the imitation of Christ in His life and death as the mark of the true Christian, and upon the community of love and faith. It is still regarded by mennonites as the most nearly adequate summary of the doctrine taught in their churches.

Confessions of Continental Protestantism since the Reformation. Most of the Protestant communions whose doctrinal declarations have been reviewed thus far went on producing confessions of faith even after the Reformation. Among the Lutherans, for example, the Wittenberg theologian Abraham calov composed a new confession in 1655, the "Reiteration of the Consensus of the Lutheran Faith," which attempted to formulate the position of Lutheranism in antithesis to new teachings of the 17th century. The Declaration adopted at the Colloquy of Thorn in 1645 has been accepted in some Reformed churches as a new Reformed confession. In most Protestant communions the new doctrinal and moral challenges of a new day have seemed to demand a new confessional statement; but when the challenge had been met or had passed, the confession had outlived its usefulness and could be forgotten. For present purposes in this survey, therefore, the most significant of the post-Reformation confessions are the recent ones, for they embody the witness of the Protestant churches in response to modern issues and are still a living force in the teaching and practice of these churches.

Confessional Basis of the Prussian Union. When, for example, the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, sought to unite the Reformed and the Lutheran churches and to provide them with a common confession and a common agenda, the confessional basis of the Prussian Union was taken to be, not a new confessional document, but the consensus of the historic Reformation confessions. The theological mentor of the Union, Friedrich schleiermacher, felt able to declare in the preface to his dogmatics of 1821, The Christian Faith, that there was "no wall of separation between the two ecclesiastical communions" and that therefore he could compose a systematic theology "in accordance with the fundamental principles of the evangelical church," using the word "church" in the singular to denote the common ground between the Reformed and the Lutheran confessions. Such declarations of an interconfessional concord themselves assume confessional status, especially when they are opposed by the strict constructionists in the confessional tradition, in this case almost exclusively the Lutherans.

Barmen Declaration of May 1934. But the most historic of modern confessions in European Protestantism came in the 20th century, in the Barmen Declaration of May 1934. Under pressure from National Socialism and with an awareness of the temptation, represented by the "German Christians," to accommodate the Christian witness to the neopaganism of the Third Reich, spokesmen of Reformed and Lutheran churches met at Barmen to affirm the independence of the Christian message from the ideologies of the state and to declare its distinctive content, "Jesus Christ, as He is testified to us in Holy Scripture the one Word of God, whom we are to hear." The theology of Barmen was that of Karl Barth, and in the years during and after World War II the Barmen Declaration came to have a confessional status in several German churches.

American Confessions. Among the Protestant denominations of America, confessions of faith have frequently been revisions or adaptations of earlier British or Continental standards; other confessions have been produced in the course of discussions about the merger of denominations, or in justification for withdrawal or separation from merger. Characteristically, many American confessions have concentrated on questions of polity rather than of dogma. Thus the Cambridge Platform, adopted by representatives of the four Puritan colonies in New England in 1648, confined itself to the issues of polity, the nature of the gathered congregation, the authority of the clergy, and related matters. As a statement of its teaching on other matters, the synod declared its acceptance of the recently formulated Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession likewise satisfied the dogmatic requirements of the synod held at Saybrook, Connecticut, in 1708; the "Saybrook Articles" could thus deal with questions of church government and, when combined with the Confession, became the Saybrook Platform, published in 1710. Among Methodists, the question of a confessional standard has been less clear (see methodism). As early as 1763 John wesley's Notes on the New Testament and his four volumes of sermons had played a quasi-confessional role, but behind these standards lay Anglican statements of faith, especially the Homilies and the Thirty-Nine Articles, which Wesley revised into the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, adopted by American Methodists in 1784. Baptists, too, adapted earlier formulations to their purposes; the Philadelphia Confession of 1688, first published in London in 1677, was a revised version of the Westminster Confession. Perhaps the most widely accepted doctrinal declaration among American Baptists was the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, which was written by John Newton Brown; the Confession is a brief summary of the chief articles of faith.

Ecumenical (Interconfessional) Movements. Efforts at reunion among Protestant denominations during the 19th and 20th centuries were responsible for several confessions of faith. In 1903 the Westminster Confession was revised by the [Northern] Presbyterian body by a modification of its teachings on predestination and related issues. This made it possible for Presbyterian reunion to proceed, in several stages, toward the creation of a single body and the adoption of a single confession. In 1925 the United Church of Canada brought together Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists; its Basis of Union served as the confessional consensus of the new body. In addition to the analogous statements drawn up by the other mergers of the 20th century, some mention should be made of the "messages to the churches" and other statements of a confessional nature that have come from meetings of the world council of churches and its predecessors, especially of the confession on "the Church's unity" adopted at New Delhi in 1961 and of the doctrinal clauses in the constitution of the World Council, a "fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior."

Significance of the Confessions. Even from this brief survey, it should be evident that confessions of faith have played and continue to play a prominent part in the life and teaching of the Protestant communions, but that this role has varied greatly from one body to another as well as from one century to another. Most Protestants share the hostility of the Reformers to the formal authority of tradition, even when they accept much of its content. As they oppose the claims of the Greek and Latin Churches, so they are obliged to qualify any claims of normativeness for their own confessions. Thus even confessional Lutherans, who are probably the most confessionally oriented among Protestants, describe their confessions as norma normata, in distinction from Sacred Scripture, which is norma normans. As the history of Protestant theology makes clear, moreover, individual theologians have frequently defied or ignored the authority of their confessions, sometimes with impunity and sometimes at the price of expulsion from their denomination. Despite the cases that can be cited from ecclesiastical history of lay support for the confessional principle, it is by no means obvious just what the confessions of faith have meant to the general body of Protestant laity. But it is clear that confessions have served as a decisive mark of differentiation between Protestant churches or from Roman Catholicism, and therefore as a barrier to the reunion of Christendom.

Yet such an interpretation of the function of confessions is an oversimplification, for during the 19th and 20th centuries the confessions of various Protestant communions have sometimes served to remind them of Christians from whom they are separated. In one way or another, virtually every confession affirms that the Church is one as Christ is one, even though it may go on to justify schism. That affirmation of unity carries with it the admission that there are Christians outside the boundaries of one's own ecclesiastical organization. By their declarations of loyalty to the early centuries of the Church and to the ancient creeds, the confessions also connect the faith of the Church to its pastand thus, inevitably, to others who declare the same loyalty. The very polemics of the Reformation confessions may also serve the cause of Christian reunion. Every confessional antithesis, whether of Augsburg or Westminster or, for that matter, Trent, was called forth by a teaching that, however heretical it may have been, was a critique of something amiss in the life of the Church. A historical recognition of this situation and of the meaning of the confessions in the light of it enables one simultaneously to "confess" (in the sense of making a confession of individual and corporate sins) and to "confess" (in the sense of pledging one's allegiance to Christ).

Bibliography: The standard coll. of confessions, outdated but indispensable, is p. schaff, Bibliotheca symbolica ecclesiae universalis: The Creeds of Christendom, 3 v. (6th ed. New York 1919), the creeds of the Protestant communions are in v.3; their history is included in v.1. The Lutheran confessions in the original Latin and German appear in the many eds. of the Book of Concord, the most recent and textually most authoritative being Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (4th ed. Göttingen 1959). The standard English translation is that of t. g. tappert, ed. and tr., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia 1959). Reformed collections. h. a. niemeyer, Collectio confessionum in ecclesiis reformatis publicatarum (Leipzig 1840). e. g. a. bÖckel, ed., Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-reformirten Kirche (Leipzig 1847). e. f. k. mÜller, ed., Die Bekenntnisse der reformierten Kirche (Leipzig 1903). Brief but convenient collections. b. a. gerrish, ed., The Faith of Christendom (pa. New York 1963). j. h. leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (pa. Garden City, NY 1963). c. fabricius, ed., Corpus Confessionum: Die Bekenntnisse der Christenheit (Berlin 1928).

[j. pelikan/eds.]