Creeds and Confessions: Q&A with Justin Holcomb

Q: Why is a church history on creeds and councils an important subject?

The key is that it’s family history. If you call it church history, people tend to think it’s merely a bunch of dates with some councils, geography, and politics. But this is our family history as brothers and sisters in Christ; these councils and catechisms are what Christians as far back as two thousand years ago used for worship, to train new converts, and to teach their children the faith. That’s family history.

I started realizing this with my young daughters. They love hearing stories about when their parents were small. There’s fascination there. There’s identity wrapped up in stories about our past. Likewise, much of church history influences what is happening right now. What does it have to do with me? It has a lot to do with me because I’m standing on the shoulders of people who stood on the shoulders of those influenced by the apostles, who were trained by Christ. It’s the tracing back of the wide broad stream of biblical Christianity.

Q: How do you respond to people who think they don’t need creeds, just the Bible?

There are plenty of Christians who, out of devotion and sincerity, think we need to get past all this “ritual stuff,” back to the Bible and Jesus. But that’s actually what the creeds do, what they were meant to do! They are the best summaries of the high points of Scripture; they are about the revelation of God in Christ and in Scripture. And most of the creeds, because they were responding to heresies that were about Jesus, are all about Jesus. They’re focused on who he is and what he’s done: the person and work of Christ. Most of the creeds rely on Scripture and many contain summaries of Scripture or quotes.

Q: How do creeds, confessions, and catechism differ from one another?

Creeds are the boundary markers between what is Christian thought and non-Christian thought. So if you’re beyond this boundary, then you are outside the scope of the Christian faith on dangerous ground. Confessions color within those lines of denominational distinctives using important but not necessarily first order issues.

First order issues were already defined through the Apostles’, Chalcedon, and Nicene creeds: that is, who God is, how he saves, and who Jesus is. But the confessions such as Heidelberg, Westminster, and Thirty-Nine Articles color in those boundary markers. They stay within the lines but say more. Another analogy would be that the creeds are the skeleton, and the confessions are the ligaments and muscles connecting all of those and adding to it.

Catechism is then how we teach the truth of these creeds and confessions to the church using question and answer format. In the Book of Common Prayer, we recite the Apostles’ Creed in morning and evening prayers and the Nicene Creed on Sundays; we have Thirty-Nine Articles of faith, and we have our own catechism. My children are learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism at their school, and it’s amazing to watch these three- and five-year-olds answer with Scripture questions such as “Who is God?” and “Does God have a beginning?”

Q: It is interesting to hear parents say that they want to read the Bible with their family, but they find that their children ask questions they don’t know how to answer. Well, that’s exactly why the catechisms were written, right?

The catechisms are amazing. New believers and children, and even seasoned Christians, lean on those. How can you not when the first three questions of the Heidelberg Catechism cause you to worship more! My little girls can answer that the three persons of God are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 20). And when my daughter asks me “Who made God?” there’s an answer for that from Scripture I can show her. As every parent knows, children will ask these questions; and unless you know where to find the answer in Scripture, those catechisms are your best friend.

Q: What is the origin of the Apostles’ Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed is based on the teachings of the apostles, though it was not written by them. It’s called the Apostles’ Creed because it is a summary of the apostolic faith that was passed on from those who saw Jesus first hand, those who wrote the New Testament and were leading the early church.

Q: How about the Nicene Creed?

The Nicene Creed has a special place in my heart because it’s ecumenical and touches on the most important points of who God is, what God is like, and how he rescues. Originating at the Council of Nicaea in Constantinople, it was needed because of Arius’s challenge to the person of Jesus: is Jesus eternal or the first creation? They needed to answer how it is that we worship one God while also worshipping Jesus. The creed was written to answer heresy’a challenging of the faith but also to explain how we should worship Jesus and call him Lord.

Q: So even that long ago, people were already being baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But how can you be a good Jewish kid, saying you’re baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit when there’s only one name—Yahweh? The creed was formed to justify this practice.

Yes, the Council of Nicaea needed to give an answer in defense against what Arius was saying. The important thing about the heretics is that they asked great questions—questions all believers were asking—but they gave bad answers. But it wasn’t just a defensive move on the part of the church; it was also an explanation of the worship tradition that had been handed down from the time of the Apostles.

Q: It’s not just the creeds but also the way we worship that structures our belief in the Trinity. Why do you think it’s important that Jesus is understood as being of the same essence as the Father and the Holy Spirit?

This is a question about salvation. If God is holy and he’s going to judge, we need a Savior who is powerful enough to deal with the sin, and we also need a rescuer who is a human who can actually go before God representing us. So Jesus being the God-Man is the key to salvation. He is God, who is powerful and can deal with Satan, sin, hell, death, and the grave; but he is also human and can represent us before God as our priest and be our mediator. So all those who defend orthodoxy as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit having the same substance or essence defend how the Bible talks about salvation.

Q: The creeds, then, can lead us to appreciate God and approach him in prayer, which is part of how we show our gratefulness. 

As I was writing my book, I began really delving into the creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions. In them, I found a wealth of ways to explain the Christian faith. If you don’t read Scripture and think about Scripture or the creeds in your prayers, you are reduced to talking to God merely about your current whims or whatever’s on the front burner. For example, if you look at the names of God in Scripture, you have a list of hundreds of ways you can approach him, with phrases such as “the fount of all wisdom” and “the powerful right hand.” There are these brilliant pictures of Almighty God. Then the creeds give us powerful, pastoral pictures that are far from distant, cold, or boring. They’re passionate and articulated well. They are beautiful.


Adapted from Justin Holcomb, “Creeds and Confessions: Q&A with Justin Holcomb,” Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec 2014. Used by permission.

Photo of Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal minister (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology at Gordon-Cowell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. You can read more from Justin at justinholcomb.com and connect with him on Twitter @JustinHolcomb

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