Tenets Matter: The Role & Authority of a Confession of Faith

Not every church is confessional. Some have no written confession of faith. In others, the written confession is simply thought of as a historical relic, but is no longer considered of much relevance in the present day. Other churches, however, are confessional - they have a confession of faith and they submit to it today. And the Apostolic Church in the UK is a confessional church.

Some confessional churches have very long and detailed confessions of faith (such as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms) and others have short and concise confessions (such as the Tenets of the Apostolic Church). Yet, in both cases, the actual wording of the confession is very important, and even more so in a concise confession such as the Tenets. You see, the Tenets are not simply an off-the-cuff summary of some stuff we happen to believe. No, they are a very carefully worded summary statement of the faith, written in very careful and precise theological language. Whilst a longer, more detailed confession can explain in detail all its statements, a concise confession relies on precise theological language (so, for example, in the Tenets, words and expressions such as 'Trinity', 'utter depravity', 'eternal doom', 'the finished work of Christ', 'the Body of Christ', 'sacraments', and 'church government'). This is one of the reasons why the Tenets of the Apostolic Church cannot be changed: 'The Confession of Faith as set out herein shall for ever be the doctrinal standard of The Apostolic Church, and shall not be subject to any change in any way whatsoever.'

Everyone Has A Confession of Faith

As I've already said, some churches aren't confessional. But that doesn't mean that the people in those churches don't have a confession. Really, everyone has a confession of faith. It's just that not all confessions are written, public documents. Even if people claim to have 'No Creed but the Bible!', although they might not realise it, that very statement is a confession of faith, and it won't be their only confession. The danger of such attitudes is that they end up giving authority to an unwritten, secret confession, yet that unwritten confession cannot ever be critiqued in any way, as it is so closely identified with Scripture itself. Carl Trueman writes that those who claim to have no creed but the Bible, 'are, in a sense, more authoritarian than the papacy' (The Creedal Imperative, p.161).

The Authority of a Confession of Faith

A Confession of Faith is what's called a 'subordinate standard'. In other words, it's subordinate to Scripture. That means that the Confession is derived from Scripture, and so the authority that stands behind the Confession is the authority of Scripture. We don't subscribe to a Confession because the Church tells us to, but because it agrees with Scripture. So, when we subscribe to a Confession, we're saying that the authority of Scripture stands behind this summary statement.

That means we shouldn't be afraid to appeal to the confession of faith. Sometimes there's almost a reticence ever to appeal to the Tenets, but if we subscribe to them as a faithful summary of Scriptural teaching, and it's the authority of Scripture that stands behind them, then by appealing to the Tenets, what we're actually doing is not appealing to a human authority (even though they are human words), but appealing to the authority of Scripture. In other words, if I truly subscribe to the Tenets, then I should be able to make the appeal that Scripture teaches 'the unity of the Godhead and the Trinity of persons therein', not merely that the Apostolic Church teaches it.

The Danger of Dividing a Confession of Faith

So, if subscription to a Confession is an acknowledgement of the authority of Scripture behind the Confession, then you can't divide a confession into things you absolutely must believe and things you just shouldn't make much of a fuss about. If we were to reject a portion of the confession, that would be to say that this is not, after all, a summary of the teaching of Holy Scripture. In fact, what we're really doing in such a case is letting a new — unwritten — confession take the place of the old confession; we're allowing a new, unwritten summary of Scripture (which we've decided is better) to over-rule the old, written summary of Scripture.

Dividing the confession into absolutes and non-absolutes is a dangerous idea, because everyone can decide that different things are non-absolutes. While some people might be talking about forms of church government or details of eschatology as non-essentials, others may be referring to justification by faith or the authority of Scripture!

Moreover, the doctrines contained in a confession of faith aren't simply a list of unrelated items, but rather they all hold together as a whole. Tenet 10 can't be rightly understood except in light of Tenets 2, 3 and 4. Tenets 1 and 8 govern everything else (not only all the other tenets, but the whole of the Christian life). Rejecting one tenet as non-essential has an impact on the others. W.A.C. Rowe explained it like this:
The body of divine truth termed "the faith" and as may be expressed in tenets or a creed is a living thing. All its parts and aspects have vital and integral relationship just as the organs and limbs of the human body. Not one detail of it can be altered or taken without the disfigurement or deprivation of the whole, any more than a limb could be lopped off or an eye taken away. Whatever was true a decade, a century or a millennium ago must be just as true now and in the aeons to come or it never was true at all. No part of the faith or teaching of this nature can be looked upon as unimportant, alterable or dispensable. (One Lord, One Faith, p.310)

The Role of a Confession of Faith

What does a confession do? Many things. For one, a confession of faith is a public statement of our identity as a church. So, what does it mean to be Apostolic? — It means to believe that the Tenets of the Apostolic Church are a true statement of biblical teaching. And I am an Apostolic because I subscribe to the Tenets. (Likewise, Presbyterian identity is found in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, Lutheran identity in the Book of Concord, and Reformed Baptist identity in such confessions as the Second London Baptist Confession.)

As a statement of our identity, the confession also plays an important role in the unity and fellowship of the church. As W.A.C. Rowe put it:
While likeness of faith does not necessarily ensure feelings of fellowship, it is the great two-way highway along which the intercourse of life and love may pass in unlimited measure and unhindered flow. ... The basis of real and lasting fellowship is identity of faith which makes a vast contribution to identity of spirit (One Lord, One Faith, p.307).
Now, Rowe isn't saying you can't have fellowship with anyone unless you're 100% agreed on every point of doctrine. But what he is saying is, the closer you are in doctrine, the closer you can be in fellowship. (By the way, I think 'unhindered' is one of the key words here — for close as my fellowship and unity is with dear friends in other confessions, there remain a few hindrances and obstacles, such as infant baptism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, or the prophetic. Now, we do enjoy true and joyful fellowship in Christ, but from time to time, these things have to come up, and while we don't fall out, we're not united in these things.)

Confessions of faith also help protect from error. In fact, that's why our oldest confessions — the Nicene Creed and Definition of Chalcedon — exist: to define the truth over against false teaching that had crept into the churches.

A confession of faith is an aid in teaching the faith. I saw a book recently purporting to teach the faith. It started off with a chapter on the new birth, and then there was plenty on blessings and curses, angels and demons, faith and prosperity, healing and gifts — not a lot on Jesus or the Cross and absolutely nothing on the Trinity, the Incarnation, Justification or the Resurrection. A confession of faith helps us avoid overlooking such important doctrines of the faith in our teaching and to avoid placing all emphasis on our pet topics.

And throughout the history of the church this is what confessions have been used for. The Apostles' Creed has been used to prepare candidates for Baptism. Many of the Reformation era confessions were written in the form of catechisms in order to be used to teach the faith. In the earlier years of the Apostolic Church a number of catechisms were written based on the Tenets to teach the faith to our congregations. And even to this day we teach the Tenets to people in preparation for church membership. (By the way, in my view that's one of the most important aspects of our system of church membership, as it's the one time you can get people to willingly sit down and be catechized — and by that I don't mean reading a catechism, but rather being taught the faith.)

Anyway, I had hoped to put some of this across more clearly, and there's probably a lot more that I want to say, but rather than protract this now, I'll write again another time. In the meantime, here are some — much shorter — bite size thoughts from Martin Downes on Confessions.