With only small variations the ancient formulas of the seven ecumenical councils of the undivided church, in both the East and the West, agreed that real, saving faith was to begin with the creed of faith. The creed was not an end in itself, as if saying words made one a true Christian, but the church universally believed that the teaching of the church was settled and should be accepted and revered.
Some readers might say, "Well, the Reformation surely changed all of this." If you think so then you are quite wrong. The Protestant confessions of faith, at least during the early stages of the Reformation era, are even stronger on this matter than the formularies of Roman Catholicism from that same period (Pelikan, Credo, 41).
Almost every known confession of the first and second generation of the Reformation begins with "We confess" or We affirm and avow." Words like "We confess and acknowledge" and "the confession of our faith" are common. The third chapter of The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 begins with "We believe and teach" and the eleventh chapter says "We further believe and teach." The Bohemian Confession of 1575 opens with the words: "We believe with our heart and confess with our mouth." Surely every reader can now see the pattern. Believing and confessing are inseparable in the historic understanding of Christ and the church. It is imperative that we believe something and we confess it plainly.
But what is inseparable is not indistinguishable. This is true within the New Testament and was true in the historical development of doctrine in the church. We must note the problem in contemporary English use here. This shows itself in various translations of the Bible in our language. Pelikan rightly concludes: "There is no verb that is an etymological cognate to the noun faith. Employing the noun, one can 'have faith' or 'come to faith,' but the only simple verb for this is the very believe. But the noun belief by itself does not, especially in the singular, correspond any longer to the noun faith as the word is used now" (Credo, 43). The Oxford English Dictionary says that using belief to refer to "tryst in God; the Christian virtue of faith" is "archaic" and "obsolete."
Consider for a moment. In the Gospel of John the noun for "faith" never occurs. What we see over and over is the verb "to believe." Think of John 3:16 here. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the most famous of all Reformation catechisms, defines faith as "not only a certain knowledge by which I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also a wholehearted trust which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the gospel." This distinction makes my point. Faith, understood rightly, is more than confessing the creed but it is never less. It confesses and it results in a "wholehearted trust" that comes to us through the gift of the gospel. The Holy Spirit, by means of the gospel, creates this "wholehearted trust" in those who really confess and believe on Christ.
Two New Testament texts contribute significantly to this idea of creed and confession being objective and subjective, or knowledge and assent. (I prefer the first way of saying this to the second but this is more because of the historical debate than because of any major disagreement!) James 2:19 and Jude 3 both seem to support this kind of distinction when they tell us that there is a kind of faith which is clearly not saving faith. But none of this undermines the need to know the creed and confess the faith the church has confessed from its beginnings.