Interlude: The Importance of Confessions

To provide a brief update, I'm still working on some background research for the introductory posts. I debated diving into the confessions before posting the historical background to each, but decided against that. So it will probably still be a while before I'll start posting about the content of the confessions.

In the meantime, here are two resources that discuss the role of confessions. The first is a new book by Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster: The Creedal Imperative, in which he makes an argument for how creeds, confessions, and catechisms can and should function in modern evangelicalism. This really is an excellent book and one I would eagerly recommend to any Christian.

The second is a brief video about the 5-volume collection of the Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly (the committee which wrote the Westminster Confession and Catechisms), which will be released later this month, and the importance of these historical documents for everyday contemporary life.


Luther's Small Catechism: Introduction

For all intents and purposes, Martin Luther was the igniting spark of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. On 31 October 1517, Luther published and posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. Luther's Theses outlined what he considered the errors and abuses in the Church, which at that time was essentially united under the Pope.

The errors which Luther saw included the sacrament of penance, the extent of papal authority, the role of the priesthood in the remission of sins, and the buying of indulgences. In large part, Luther's complaint against the Church was not, at root, theological, but mostly ecclesiological. That is, the main thrust of Luther's 95 Theses was that the Pope was not running the Church in a corrupted manner; rather than that the Church was grossly errant in its theology.

Thus, in 1517 Luther was advocating for reform and not revolution. Most notably, the 95 Theses do not contain any reference to many of the doctrines which would later become the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation. There is no reference to faith, much less 'faith alone'; Luther does not advocate for 'Scripture alone'; and he certainly does not announce a break from Rome.

Nonetheless, Luther's boldness did indeed threaten the authority of the Church, by suggesting that it was errant in its practices. In response, the Church began to build a case against Luther on the charge of heresy. When Luther was brought to Augsburg a year later to be examined by theologians, Luther pronounced the papacy to be unbiblical, escalating the matter precipitously.

Over the next few years, as the rift between Luther and the Church became more pronounced — and specifically as he preached through the psalms, Hebrews, and Galatians — Luther became more convinced that many of the Church's doctrines were simply incorrect and published his theology. Among these publications were On the Bondage of the Will and On the Freedom of the Christian, both of which remain widely read. In 1521, Luther was formally condemned as a heretic, excommunicated from the Church, and given a death sentence. Refusing to recant his position, Luther became a fugitive, though one protected by various sympathetic princes within Germany.

Over the next decade, Luther's teaching spread throughout Germany and became more and more accepted by many of the princes within the Empire, trickling down also to theologians and lay Christians. When combined with the Peasants Rebellion of the 1520s, the Protestant Reformation quickly became a wide-scale revolution, as more and more churches broke from Rome and adopted the doctrines of Luther and his fellow reformers.

By the end of the decade, however, Luther became more aware of how uneducated many German Christians were, both the clergy and the laity. To combat this ignorance, Luther wrote two catechisms, that is aids to learning doctrine. Like his translation of the Bible, the catechisms were written in German, providing clear doctrinal instruction to the people which had been thereto unknown. Luther sought to bring a unity to Christian doctrine, stating, 'young and simple people must be taught by uniform, settled texts and forms, otherwise they easily become confused when the teacher today teaches them thus, and in a year some other way....'

Thus the Small Catechism was written primarily to that end — for laypersons themselves to learn — and used a combination of both precision and clarity which could be understood by children and adults alike. The Large Catechism was written for the preacher, as an aid for teaching the Small Catechism to their congregation — almost a commentary on the Small Catechism. As such, the Large Catechism is much more detailed in the doctrine it defines while forsaking the mnemonic merits of the Small Catechism.

Written in 1529, Luther's Catechisms represent an early, yet mature and pastoral, statement of Luther's theology, rather than the merely anti-papal calls for reform of just 12 years later. What exactly is that theology? What did Luther think it essential that all Christians understand? Those are questions which we will be answering over the next few months.

Luther's Catechisms are divided into several sections corresponding to the teaching of: 1) The Ten Commandments; 2) The Apostle's Creed; 3) The Lord's Prayer; 4) Baptism; 5) Confession; and 6) the Lord's Supper. As we'll see, Luther's decision to use these fundamental elements of the Christian religion would be a pattern followed by other confessions and catechisms during the Reformation.

Even though it is now nearly 500 years old, the Small Catechism remains a vital part of confessional Lutheran churches and is still often used to educate children in the church and prepare them for confirmation. Since many of the questions are rather brief and are understood best in conjunction with surrounding questions, we will work through the Catechism in a somewhat irregular matter. Some posts will address only one question, while others may address a few at a time.

A final note: I'm hoping to post all of the introductory material to the seven documents in time to begin on 31 October — 495 years to the day from when Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses.


Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried,
and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified;
who spoke by the prophets;
and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and we look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

In this entry we turn to the Nicene Creed, the second of the two ecumenical creeds which we are using to build the foundation for our examination of the Reformation-era confessions. The Nicene Creed is the first creed officially adopted by the church as a true expression of Christian doctrine. Like the Apostles' Creed, it is frequently recited in liturgical worship services and remains one of the few ancient creeds still used and referred to by modern churches, much less virtually every modern church.

The Nicene Creed is so called because it was composed at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The council was convened by Roman Emperor Constantine, a recent convert to Christianity and the first Christian emperor. The primary task of the council was to resolve the issue of the Trinity raised by the teachings of Arius, a theologian in Alexandria, Egypt.

Arius and his followers taught that, though Jesus was divine, he was an entity distinct from and subordinate to God the Father. Specifically, Arianism holds to the belief that Jesus did not share with the Father the latter's eternal nature; rather, Jesus was a created being, though different in nature from other created beings, in that he shared in the Father's divinity. In other words, Arianism believed that there once was a time when the Father existed but the Son did not.

The consensus of the Council of Nicaea was to condemn Arianism as incorrect doctrine and heretical. Of the approximately 318 attending bishops, only two dissented from this conclusion. The primary document to be born from this decision is the Nicene Creed, which formulated the orthodox teaching about the Trinity in precise theological language.

Because the Creed was written to address a particular theological issue and was written by committee — though likely based upon existing regional baptismal creeds similar to the Apostles' Creed — it has a somewhat stilted language and uses a good bit of theologically precise vocabulary in Greek. In this sense the Creed takes on a character more like the later confessions which will be the focus of this project and leaves behind the more general, grass-roots (so to speak) tone of the Apostles' Creed.

What we today call the Nicene Creed, however, is not the same as the creed which was promulgated by the Council of Nicaea. Despite declaring that the Creed was not to be amended, the next ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381 did just that. Though the theology of the Creed was not changed, new clauses were added as well as clarification to address misinterpretation by Arians and new heresies. Thus what we call the Nicene Creed is often more correctly called by academics the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

In fact, the Creed as recited by Western churches today — that is, most churches except for the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches — has an additional amendment: the infamous filioque clause. Filioque comes from a Latin word which was gradually inserted by many Western bishops into the Creed's doctrine on the Holy Spirit. Where the Creed originally read 'We believe . . . in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father,' Western churches began to add filioque: 'who proceeds from the Father and the Son.'

We'll discuss of the theological issue behind filioque further down, but it is important to note this amendment for one very big reason: it was one of the issues which led to the Great Schism of 1054. Up until the Great Schism, the church had been pretty much universal.1 There was a cultural divide between the Eastern Greek-speaking regions and the Western Latin-speaking regions, but this cultural divide had never led to any significant theological or legal division.

In 1054, rising tensions between the Christian institutions in the Eastern and Western halves of the Christian world finally came to a head, centered around issues both legal and theological. The legal issue was whether the Bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope) was supreme over the four patriarchs in the East. The main theological issue was the continued use of the filioque in the West.

The history of the Great Schism is much more complicated than the picture I paint here. I mostly mention it because it was a major event in the history of Christianity and because of its connection to the Nicene Creed. The filioque and the Great Schism show how even a Creed which was composed to describe correct and universal doctrine was nevertheless fallible and led to the greatest division in the history of the Church. This is an important theme which will play itself out throughout this project.

Theology of the Creed

A cursory look at the Nicene Creed will notice that many of the clauses are rather similar to those in the Apostles' Creed, which supports the theory that both creeds originated in unofficial statements of faith which were circulating throughout the Church. For though the final version of the Apostles' Creed dates to after the Council of Nicaea, many of its clauses were found in dozens of unofficial creeds which antedate Nicaea. Thus, we will concentrate on the clauses which are novel to the Nicene Creed.

The distinction between the Nicene and the Apostles' Creeds are almost exclusively those that deal with the doctrine of the Trinity — or more broadly, the doctrine of God. As we noted, the Apostles' Creed does not try to establish any precise trinitarian theology but does include language which strongly implies the divine nature of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The language of Nicaea, therefore, expands upon existing credal theology by more strictly defining which views of the Godhead are orthodox and which are heretical.

Because the Council of Nicaea's agenda was to address Arianism, most of its Trinitarian theology concerns the relationship between the Father and the Son. And here we find verbiage that clearly identifies Jesus as God: 'God of God, . . . very God of very God'. It's hard to get much clearer than that! But at the same time, it distinguishes the Father and the Son, with the latter having been 'begotten'. Both this and the identification of the Son with the creation are direct derivations from the gospel of John.

Enter the complicated nature of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed is the first widely received creed which tries to answer the question, 'How can there be both one God and three persons?' The formula that it comes up with is to explain that both the Father and the Son share in the same 'one substance', ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) in the Greek.

Unfortunately, the Creed doesn't really describe what it means for one thing to be 'of one substance with' another thing. Furthermore, it doesn't address the tension between the one and the three. The Creed is clear that the Son and the Father are distinct in some sense (the latter was begotten and incarnated) but somehow share in 'one substance'. But for the purposes of the Council of Nicaea — that is, addressing Arianism — the Creed accomplishes its purpose, by clearly establishing that Jesus is very God and is not a created being. It would take additional councils to hammer out some of the more particulars, especially regarding Christ's dual nature of God and man. While we will not discuss those councils specifically, we will encounter their findings in the Reformation-era confessions.

This particular purpose of the Nicene Creed also helps to explain why the Holy Spirit is treated differently than the Son, in that it does not as specifically identify the Holy Spirit as 'very God of very God'. This does not mean that the Council did not consider the Spirit to be a member of the Trinity, only that the matter was not on their agenda.

But the Creed does partially speak of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Trinity, in that it is to be worshiped and glorified and that it 'proceeds from the Father' — 'and from the Son' in the filioque version discussed above. Given the importance of the filioque controversy, it is important to briefly discuss what 'proceeds from' means in this context and why it matters.

To be perfectly frank, the question is rife with confusion, because 'procession' is itself a confused matter, resulting from extra-biblical speculation and imprecise translation issues between Greek and Latin. The issue of procession involves the concepts of how the Holy Spirit was sent, through whom, by whom, and its relationship to the Father and the Son generally. The early Church Fathers are at variances on the matter, and there has probably never been a consensus.

Suffice it to say, those who favored the filioque — i.e., those who believe the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son — claim that it further strengthens the identification of the Father and the Son as being 'of the same substance'. In addition, they would refer to passages such as John 20:22 where Jesus 'breathes' out the Spirit, as well as passages which mention 'the Spirit of the Son'.

Those who disfavor the filioque — i.e., those who believe the Spirit proceeds only from the Father — claimed that the Creed already strongly establishes the Father and Son being 'of the same substance' without adding the dubious filioque and that improper subordination of the Holy Spirit to both the Father and the Son leads to undermines the role of the Spirit and under-appreciates his work. In support of their theology, they point to John 15:26, which indicates that the Spirit proceeds from the Father via the Son.

Between Nicaea in the 4th century and the Schism in the 11th, both theological perspectives existed relatively peacefully with each other, despite their differences. But when the Bishop of Rome claimed the right to force filioque to be inserted, the theological problem became a political one, and the existing tension could not survive, leading to the Great Schism.

Aside from the Trinitarian issues, Nicaea contains much of the same doctrinal content as the Apostles' Creed. The one remark I want to make on these portions is the crucifixion clause. The Apostles' Creed had read only 'suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified...', where the Nicene Creed reads 'and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate'. What I want to point out is the inclusion in the Nicene Creed of 'for us'. As I had noted in the comments on the Apostles' Creed, that creed contained very little doctrine regarding the atonement, or even more broadly, why Christ's death, burial, and resurrection was actually something worth confessing.

The Nicene Creed adds only two little words, 'for us', but those two little words incorporate a great deal of theology. It still does not delineate a particular view of the atonement, per se, but it does describe Christ's death as having meaning for man. It is not merely the fact that he died that is important, but it is because it in some way has affected 'us', presumably for the better.

Again, we should note that it is not that the atonement was an undeveloped doctrine in the 4th century. In fact, by the time of Nicaea, at least two major theories had been developed regarding the atonement and its effect and purpose. Rather, the atonement was simply not a doctrine of great dispute within the church. No one was going around accusing others of heresy because of different views of the atonement. Keep this in mind as we read the confessions of the Reformation, as we will find a much different pattern in that era.

The Nicene Creed thus represents two historical patterns in the development of the Christian creed and confession. In the first place, it represents the beginning of creeds becoming selective and polemical: singling out particular doctrines in dispute and deemed to be important, rather than trying to encompass the whole of Christian doctrine. And in the second place, on those doctrines at issue, the Nicene Creed begins to more precisely define the boundaries of orthodox belief, specifically tightening the boundaries to exclude those which prior creeds had allowed. Seeing these trends will be especially enlightening as we read the Reformation-era confessions, as these trends will help us better understand the why's and wherefore's as each tradition writes its confessional statements.

1 The so-called Oriental Orthodox churches had broken off in disagreement over the Chalcedonian Creed over the issue of whether Jesus had one nature or two natures — one divine and one human. The Council of Chalcedon declared that Jesus had two natures, a doctrine which survives to this day in all churches except the Oriental Orthodox churches, such as the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. These churches make up about 82 million members.


Apostles' Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth:
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried:
he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church; the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the Life everlasting.

We begin our exploration of Reformation-era confessions and catechisms approximately 1000 years before the Reformation, with the Apostles' Creed, one of the so-called ecumenical creeds. That is, the Creed has been accepted throughout the history of the church by virtually every Christian denomination and tradition. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox churches alike all receive the Apostles' Creed as an accurate reflection of Christian doctrine.

Churches with a liturgical tradition will often recite the Apostles' Creed regularly in its worship services (some recite the Nicene Creed, which we will read next). For example, Catholic Mass will often include the Creed weekly. Other churches may include the creed at times which directly reflect church membership, such as the eucharist/communion. And less liturgical churches will not include the creed at all, even though they embrace its theology.

Most important for our purposes, the Apostles' Creed also forms part of the framework for various later confessions and catechisms. For example, both the Heidelberg Catechism and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church use the Apostles' Creed as a basic statement of Christian Faith around which to structure some of their questions (along with other fundamental texts such as the Ten Commandments or the Lord's Prayer).

The Apostles' Creed received its name because of a tradition that each of its twelve clauses (each has its own line above) was authored by the Holy Spirit through each of the twelve apostles shortly after Christ's ascension. Documentary evidence strongly suggests that this was not at all the case. So far as documentation is concerned, the Creed in its current form dates to only the early 8th century. Though most of the clauses are found in the writings of the Church Fathers as early as the 2nd century, it is not until the 8th century that we find the complete Creed as we know it today.

One reason it is difficult to ascertain its actual date of origin — and why historians are hesitant to argue for an earlier date in the absence of a complete text — is because it is essentially a variant of the Old Roman Symbol, a creed of the mid-4th century. The Apostles' Creed is virtually identical to the Old Roman Symbol but for the first half of the 5th clause ('he descended into hell') and the second half of the 9th clause ('the communion of saints'), which the Apostles' Creed adds.

Regardless of how we date the Apostles' Creed, its basic theology reflects one of the earliest concise statements of early Christian doctrine. But we should not conclude that it is the earliest such statement. In fact, some commentators have identified certain passages in the New Testament itself as reflecting formulaic creed-like statements.

For example, Paul gives the following statement as something 'of first importance' which he had received: 'Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.' (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

The concise, periodic, and parallel structure suggests that this is a formula intended to be memorized and recited — as well as the inclusion of statements which are not directly pertinent to Paul's immediate point. Commentators have made similar assertions about the phrases of 1 Timothy 3:16, Philippians 2:5ff, among others.

So while the Apostles' Creed is probably not the earliest Christian creed or doctrinal formulation, it appears to be a later development of the earliest extra-Biblical creeds. As such, it is often interpreted to be a 'bare minimum' of the requisite beliefs to be an orthodox Christian: if one cannot confess the Apostles' Creed, one may not be considered a Christian. Which leads to the next question: what is the theology of the Apostles' Creed, and what is not a part of the Creed's theology?

The Creed's Theology

The first thing to notice about the Apostles' Creed is its inclusion of all three members of the Trinity without espousing a particular theology of the Trinity. That is, it lists belief in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, but does not describe a particular relationship among the three persons. The later theology regarding substance, hypostasis, consubstantiality, and so forth is not included in the Apostles' Creed.

But that is not to say that trinitarianism is completely absent from the Creed. After all, Jesus is described as the Son of God and as 'our Lord', a title which identifies him with God. Further, Jesus is identified as the offspring of the Holy Spirit and Mary, strongly suggesting both divine and human identity. In addition, Jesus is given the title of Christ, acknowledging his role as the Messiah promised by Jewish Scripture. These all argue for the divinity of Jesus in the usual terms of early Christianity. By the time of the Nicene Creed, the trinitarian controversies would become far more pronounced in Christianity, and it will be that creed which first addresses these controversies using carefully crafted definitions and specialized terminology.

This is perhaps one of the touchstones of the Apostles' Creed. From all appearances, and with knowledge of the theological context in which it probably developed, it is a thoroughly non-polemical statement of doctrine. Rather than combating certain heresies or seeking to distinguish one sect of Christianity from another, the Apostles' Creed appears to only distinguish itself from other religions entirely. As we shall find in reading through the Reformation-era confessions, this is quite different from how confessions and creeds are written as Christianity later develops.

One of the ways that the Apostles' Creed does this is by immediately turning from theology proper — that is, a description of God himself — and grounding the Christian faith in history, in this world. Unlike most ancient mythologies which are set in mythological world and ages or in the distant past, the Apostles' Creed connects the events of Jesus's suffering with the historical figure of Pilate, a Roman official who either did or did not actually exist. And so unlike those ancient mythologies, the Apostles' Creed identifies the Christian religion as a historically verifiable (or falsifiable) one.

Not only does this ground Christianity in a certain historical context, but it grounds Christianity in certain, definite events. From inclusion in the creed, the entire middle section of the Creed identifies the particular events of Jesus's life as the defining characteristics of Christianity. In contrast with the philosophies of the Hellenic world, the truth and dogma of Christianity is found in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Though the teachings of Jesus are important and make up a good deal of the gospel accounts of Jesus's life, in the perspective of the Apostles's Creed, what makes Christianity really matter are the historical events of Jesus's life.

By these two elements, the Apostles' Creed distinguishes itself from both polytheistic paganism and the philosophies of the Greeks. The truth and reputation of Christianity is unmistakably based upon the historical life of Jesus. The contents of the Creed imply, that if Jesus did not actually exist and did not actually suffer, die, and resurrect, then Christianity is nothing. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also the perspective of the New Testament passages which we mentioned above as having been identified as early creeds.

But this is not to say that the Apostles' Creed is entirely historical and without a theology of the supernatural. It is with such more theological doctrines that the Creed closes: Christ's second coming, forgiveness, bodily resurrection, the catholic (i.e., universal) nature of the church, &c. Each of these doctrines are revelatory in nature. That is, they are not historical facts, nor can they be deduced from natural phenomena.

But again, we might remark upon what is absent. The Creed affirms the forgiveness of sins, but does not mention the means by which sins are forgiven; the nature of the atonement is left alone. The Creed speaks of the holy catholic church, but does not specify how that church is to remain catholic or is to be run.1 Nor is there any mention of the sacraments, even though the Creed likely originated in the confessions recited by those about to be baptized. Perhaps it is, as we suggested above, for these reasons that the Creed has continued to receive ecumenical acceptance despite numerous schisms over the millennia.

But that does not mean that the Apostles' Creed is entirely without controversy. Especially in the modern age, the phrase 'he descended into hell' has had a less than enthusiastic reception. (As noted above, this phrase was not a part of the Holy Roman Symbol.) The reason for its controversy does not really have to do with the existence of hell — though that doesn't help. Rather, the controversy regards what the clause means and whether it is actually true.

We'll see some interpretation of it in the confessions later, so I won't delve too deeply into it. Suffice it to say that explanations have ranged from descriptions reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch's paintings, where Christ preaches the gospel to the dead, to a very metaphorical reading.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that the phrase means 'that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil' and that 'in his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead,' though it does not commit itself to the idea that the 'realm of the dead' is a certain place.

John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, writes that the phrase 'speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.'

Barring this one point of controversy, however, the Apostles' Creed remains widely accepted as a concise statement of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, apart from the doctrinal disputes among the many modern sects. It was born out of a need to define Christianity in contrast to competing religions, rather than to polemically defend against heresy and schism. It is upon this foundation that subsequent creeds, confessions, and catechisms will be built — documents which would defend Christianity against heresies and errors. The first clear example of this comes in the Nicene Creed, which we will discuss next.

1 Though it may be well understood, it is worth pointing out that 'catholic' here is not a reference to Roman Catholicism but a reference to the universal nature of the church: the church is composed of the body of all believers everywhere at all times. This is derived from Greek words meaning 'universal'.



Welcome to my newest project, Confessing the Faith! With this project I plan to work through various confessions of the Reformation, both as an exposition and commentary on each confessional tradition individually and as an exercise in comparative theology.

I have selected four major Reformation-era theological traditions: Lutheran, Continental Reformed, Presbyterian, and Anglican. The actual documents which I will be working with are:

  • Lutheran: Augsburg Confession and Luther's Smaller Catechism
  • Continental Reformed: Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism (two of the Three Forms of Unity1)
  • Presbyterian: Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism
  • Anglican: The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion

Each of these confessional documents is still in use in modern churches. In some cases they even remain confessional standards in a mainline denomination, even if they are not the only confessional standard. For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) uses both the Westminster Standards and the modern Confession of 1967. Similarly, the Reformed Church in American uses both the Three Forms of Unity and the modern Belhar Confession (1982).

There are plenty of other Reformation-era confessions (an ongoing comprehensive collection includes 68 just between the years 1523 and 1566), but these 7 documents are those which have had a lasting legacy since their composition and continue to have importance in modern Protestantism. We will make occasional reference to other confessions when it is of historical or theological interest. Perhaps foremost among these will be the Roman Catechism and the Council of Trent which produced it. The Council of Trent was convened by Pope Paul III to give a Catholic answer to the Reformers and exemplifies Catholic doctrine at the time, providing a great contrast to the confessions we will look at.

I'll work through the confessions sequentially and systematically, discussing various topics relevant to each article or question: theology, history, modern reception and developments, controversies, &c. I hope to post at least one entry per week for each of the four traditions. The format is certain to shift a bit during the first few weeks as I establish a style.

The weekly frequency was inspired by the Heidelberg Catechism, which is divided into 52 sections, corresponding to the 52 Lord's Days of the calendar year. So that one will definitely be geared towards weekly posts. We'll see how well I keep up that pace as time progresses!...

The first two posts, however, will start with the two so-called ecumenical creeds: the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. These two creeds (along with the Athanasian Creed) have been adopted by virtually every Christian denomination as an authoritative summary of the Christian faith. As such, they form a basic foundation for the confessions of the Reformation and were never seriously disputed by the Reformers. Because they are universally accepted and interpreted, they similarly make for a good foundation for our discussion.

Thereafter, I'll offer introductory essays which will give an overview of the individual theological traditions, as well as the historical backgrounds which led to the composition of each confessional document. And then we'll be ready to dive into the documents themselves!


1 The third of the Three Forms of Unity is the Canons of Dort, which I may touch on from time to time.