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Coleman M Ford
5 Stars Out Of 5
A Prescription to Mollify Anti-Confessionalism
May 30, 2014
Coleman M Ford
s there such a thing as "no creed but the Bible?" For many, such a sentiment is endearing. Isn't that what our Protestant forefathers fought for-sola9781433521904 scriptura and freedom from unspiritual Romanish ideas of creeds and confessions? In The Creedal Imperative Carl B. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, argues that such an attitude is not only unbiblical and ahistorical; these sentiments can lead to spiritual and ecclesiological ruin. Addressing this ailment, Trueman seeks to diagnose the root cause of the disease, demonstrate how it affects the body and provide a prescription for curing the malady.
Trueman, committed to Westminster confessional standards, argues for cultural forces driving evangelical anti-confessionalism more than a solitary commitment to Scripture. He asserts the Bible itself teaches the need for confessions and creeds and to hold to "the claim to have no creed but the Bible is incoherent" (17). Trueman thus argues that creeds and confessions are 1) biblically encouraged 2) necessary for proper worship and 3) necessary for proper instruction in the Christian faith. In so doing, Trueman challenges "Bible-only" believers that seeking and following Christ necessitates holding some form of confession and creed. Truman demonstrates that "no creed but the Bible" arises from a cultural reaction more than a biblical and historical understanding.
Walking through the biblical narrative, Trueman reminds readers of the value of words as God's chosen vehicle for communication thus demonstrating their importance and reliability. Trueman contends that the impetus for creedal language stems from this call to follow the form of sound words entrusted from Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1. This clarion call includes communicating proper doctrine for teaching and building up the body. Trueman extends this call from Paul to the ongoing ministry of the church. Words such as "Trinity" and "atonement" arise within the orthodox vocabulary, forming the basis of "sound words" entrusted to the church promoted within her hymns, sermons and doctrinal confessions.
Trueman traces the development and context of creedal language and ecumenical councils starting with Nicaea onward. Trueman highlights the historical context of these confessions, crafted in particular ecclesiastical (particularly reactionary) atmospheres. Trueman ultimately heralds a call to uphold ecclesial particularity while maintaining adherence to traditional orthodoxy which binds all Christians everywhere and at every time. There can be no lone confessional Christian; any confession must be maintained within the tradition in which it was generated. In chapter five, Trueman provides a refreshing reminder regarding the necessity of Trinitarian-focused worship in our churches today. He helpfully dissects the implicit counter-cultural nature of biblical and confessional worship. The pronouncements of Scripture read in worship, the declarations of Christ's lordship through song and so on represent counter-cultural statements against the powers and forces of this world.
While providing a succinct and cogent argument for the usefulness of creeds and confessions, Trueman's argument might be missed on those for whom it is intended. The potential danger of The Creedal Imperative is that it preaches to the choir: those who choose to read it have already bought into its premise prior to opening the book. Additionally, this text might lead some readers to despair. Assessing one's church and finding it creedally insufficient could lead to jumping ship, rather than staying on board and attempting to repair the boat. While developing Paul's appeal to "follow the pattern of sound words" is convincing, Trueman would do well to expand upon Paul's exhortation to Timothy to "guard the deposit entrusted to you" and "avoid irreverent babble" (1 Tim. 6:30; 2 Tim 1:14, 2:16). These verses have traditionally been viewed as biblical instruction to maintain basic orthodox Christian doctrine and confession.
Trueman writes the prescription and implores his patient to take the medicine. Pedagogically, creeds provide a base for instruction in the faith and the message of Scripture. Everyone essentially provides a creed, or summary, when asked about the Bible and the content of the Christian faith, so why not use established and tested forms. Trueman concludes by reasserting his prescription: a church that denies the usefulness of creeds and confessions can lead to "an impoverished Christian life" (189). Taking the Bible seriously means taking creeds and confessions seriously. Even if many readers already buy his argument, Trueman's prescription stands fast and should prove to mollify that which ails evangelical churches should they choose to listen to the doctor.
Within the world of evangelical Protestantism, creeds have fallen on hard times. They are old, irrelevant, and go into way too much detail about non-essential doctrinal points that just cause conflict. "Doctrine divides, mission unites," as they say.
Therefore, it is a massively difficult task that Carl Trueman has taken on in "The Creedal Imperative", making the case that not only are creeds helpful, but also essential to the life of the church. For many people, the whole idea of creeds conjures up words like "dry," "dusty," and "academic" but Trueman does a brilliant job of making his case for creeds readable and understandable for those who are not familiar with them, and are not sure whether they should be.
From the very first page, Trueman addresses himself to the popular objections to creeds. His leading example is a pastor who claimed that his church had no creed but the Bible, yet at the same time taught the five points of Calvinism, dispensationalism, and form of church government drawn from the Plymouth Brethren. Trueman points out that while this pastor's church claimed "its only creed was the Bible, it actually connected in terms of the details of its life and teaching to almost no other congregation in the history of the church. Clearly, the church did have a creed, a summary view of what the Bible taught on grace, eschatology, and ecclesiology; it was just that nobody ever wrote it down and set it out in public." (Kindle Locations 119-122)
The example of this unique church and its unwritten creed, which Trueman refers back to many times, highlights a key point of the book: Every church has a creed, but not every church acknowledges it. Trueman writes:
"I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true." (Kindle Locations 165-169).
This single point alone is pure gold in terms of highlighting the need for creeds and confessions. Although I wish Trueman spent more time fleshing out the practical consequences of a church not having a public creed, we can easily see the results in countless churches around the world. When you don't have a public, written standard (or at least one that people actually pay attention to), then the eventual disagreements in doctrine and practice among church leaders and members end up creating chaos. Who is to say who is right? Whoever is in power, or able to rally the most people to their side. That's who. Might makes right when there is nothing external to the personalities involved, or at least nothing authoritative. Yes, there is the Bible, but whose interpretation are we to go with? Having a previously agreed upon creed, confession, or statement of faith that is learned and used in the regular course of church life can go a long way towards resolving conflict. A written confession of faith takes many disagreements out of the realm of personality and whim, and puts them in the realm of agreed upon norms and accountability.
Even though this observation alone should be enough to convince a church to seriously consider using a public creed or confession of faith, Trueman continues on from this point to make his case to the unconvinced in three ways:
1) First, he spends the introduction and the chapters 1 and 2 discussing the reasons why the contemporary world doesn't like creeds, and then responds to those objections by positively stating the value of history, the stability of linguistic meaning, and the validity and authority of institutions. Those who question the biblical precedent for creeds will be interested to follow Trueman's argument in Chapter 2 as he comments on various biblical passages that suggest creedal formation. Thus, he assures the reader that creeds are not alien to Scripture, but in fact necessitated by Scripture. The necessity of creeds is seen in passages such as, "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (2 Tim 1:13)
2) Secondly, he briefly surveys the history of creeds and confessions in chapters 4-5. These historical chapters are particularly valuable in giving a broad overview of the development of creeds from the time of the early church to the Reformation. Trueman discusses the immediate causes that prompted the writing of each creed or confession, and its significance for the church today. He doesn't cover every creed, but just hits the major ones in the Protestant tradition. Readers who find themselves confused about which confession is which and how they are different will be helped by Trueman's overview in these chapters.
3) The last two chapters round out the book with a discussion of the contemporary usefulness of confessions. In chapter 5, we see how creeds and confessions can shape the direction and orthodoxy of the church's worship, protecting it from trendiness and errant doctrinal forces. Chapter 6 wraps up the book by restating some of the previous arguments and pointing out how creeds aid Christians in expressing their faith and ensuring "the stable transmission of the gospel from one generation to another" (Kindle Location 2678).
In the concluding chapter we also see Trueman making a more direct critique of those who don't have written confessions, asserting that
"[I]f you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or a confession or something that fulfills the same basic role, such as a statement of faith. Here, I want to make the point that those who repudiate such ideas are being unintentionally disingenuous: they still have their creed or confession; they just will not write it down and allow you to look at it and scrutinize it in the light of Scripture. They are in a sense more authoritarian than the papacy." (Kindle Locations 2680-2683)
A statement like that may sting, but that's because truth hurts. Trueman knows how to speak diplomatically, but he also knows how to call it like it is. If you combine those qualities with his characteristic wit and mastery of words (and befuddled disdain for technology), Trueman is real delight to read.
In summary, Trueman makes a solid case for the necessity of creeds and confessions and this book should prove both enlightening and useful for those who are either on the fence about the validity of creeds, or are just becoming interested in the topic. As a confessional Presbyterian, I hold to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms yet as a latecomer to the whole world of confessional Christianity, I have not been as familiar with the case for creeds as I should be, nor am I very well acquainted with the confessions of other Protestant traditions. For those reasons, I found "The Creedal Imperative" to be a great overview of the topic, and Trueman's suggestions "For Further Reading" should prove to be a handy guide when I want to learn more about the various creeds and confessions.
If you want a substantial, yet succinct and readable overview of creeds and confessions, "The Creedal Imperative" is a great place to start.
Carl Trueman has written a potent defense of creeds in his latest book, The Creedal Imperative. This is a work that is both challenging and helpful, one which is well worth wrestling with. And, that said, one that I would recommend. Why? Let me list the reasons_
First, Trueman outlines the point and purpose of his book: primarily, his writing is aimed at those who would claim "no creed but the Bible." If you have glanced over the back cover of this book then you'll also know that Trueman considers this statement to - shockingly - be unbiblical. "But how can that be?!" you might ask in alarm. Trueman's argument is that a creed is simply stating our understanding of the Bible for everyone to read, agree with, and critique. In short, Trueman's idea is that everyone has a creed, it's just that some folks are unwilling to admit it. The question is whether that "creed" is public and available for everyone to wrestle with, or not. As a pastor, I agree with Trueman in large part - we have a doctrinal statement that we publicly defend. This statement is the basis for membership in our church as well as for our church's fellowship with other congregations in our denomination. Without this statement of beliefs, there can't be real unity around the breadth and depth of the Scriptures.
One of the arguments that Trueman makes quite well is that the current "anti-creed" position of the vast majority of Evangelicalism isn't really due to any particular desire to be Biblical, but rather it is a direct result of drinking too much of our society's Kool-Aid (my words, not his). One of his best arguments comes in the early part of the book when Trueman notes that we as a culture tend to devalue the past. This is done through numerous means, but always seems to boil down to seeing the past as inferior to the present. Trueman states it well, speaking of how science has become almost a religion in itself: "The problem is that science also comes loaded with a certain philosophical bias, and that is, as stated above, that the past is inferior to the present (p.25)." He goes on to note similar sorts of ideas that come with our embracing of technology and consumerism (and I love his definition here - "_consumerism is predicated on the idea that life can be fulfilling through acquiring something in the future that one does not have in the present" [p.27]). In another classic Trueman moment, he notes how our society has problems with authority, and yet we turn to those - ironically - who are least qualified to comment on serious social issues (why do we see Lady Gaga as having any qualifications to speak to such complex social issues as gay marriage? [p.29]).
From this point, the book rapidly moves through the long and rich history of creeds in the Christian church. Trueman traces what he would argue are the earliest forms of creeds even in the Bible by latching on to Paul's comments to Timothy of teaching the pattern of sound words found in 2 Timothy 1:13, which is exampled in such statements as those seen in Romans 10:9-10. A wonderful history of creedal formulations (especially the Apostles' Creed) is then outlined followed by brief but helpful sketches of many of the Reformation era creeds. The book then ends with a number of practical notes which read much along the lines of an apologetic (defense) against common objections that might come up in using creeds in our contemporary society. "But they don't leave any room for spontaneity!" is the cry that might come up. Trueman responds - ably so - by dismantling the idea that any church is really all that spontaneous and that, even if one were, nowhere does the Bible tell us that spontaneity is a value to be cultivated (p.148-149). "But it will just become a rote recitation of a creed - something that is all tradition and not really belief." While that is a danger, Trueman responds by saying that the same can be said for singing our favorite praise songs (p.149).
The book closes by positively stating a number of the benefits of utilizing the creeds wisely. One is to combat Biblical illiteracy - both in the understanding of the particulars of what the Bible teaches as well as in giving the entire sweep of the Bible's grand storyline. A second point is that creedal statements are radically at odds with our culture and thus help enable a church and individual Christians to be "salt and light" to the world around them by this countercultural - and yet thoroughly Biblical - act. "As soon as the congregation says â€˜We believe in one God_' all other pretenders to the divine throne have been put well and truly in their place. Neither sex nor money nor power is God; there is only one God, the God whom the creed proceeds to describe (p.156)." Numerous other benefits are listed in Trueman's last chapter, a few of which I reproduce here: (1) all churches and all Christians have creeds and confessions, (2) creeds and confessions offer succinct and thorough summaries of the faith, (3) creeds and confessions help to define one church in relation to another, (4) creeds and confessions are necessary for maintaining corporate unity.
All in all I found this to be a helpful book. There are a few points where I think that Trueman pushes his case to the extremes. And sadly, it lacks a lot of Trueman's famous U.K. wit that he is well-known for and so the book can be dry at times. But where it is fresh and helpful is in its insightful challenges to do church Biblically rather than simply to take what the culture has said and "baptize" it for use in our worship. A crucial part of doing church faithfully is clearly saying exactly what we believe the Bible to say. That is the useful and faithful purpose of creeds.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I wish to note that the publisher of this book, Crossway, provided it to me at no cost as a review sample. That said, my review is in no way influenced or controlled by them and thus I write my review of this book with honesty and integrity.)