Creeds: An Imperative

Creeds: An Imperative September 11, 2017

Some pastors, preachers, professors, and parishioners will announce they have “no creed but the Bible.” Last year’s very substantive discussion/debate about the sub-orthodoxy of eternal subordinationists, like Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Owen Strachan and others, occurred only because those scholars did not have sufficient respect for and knowledge of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. When confronted by knowledgeable and in many ways like-minded theologians, mostly centered at Westminster Theological Seminary, those theologians balked and fought back and then in some ways shifted their views and some in this crowd pretended they believed in eternal generation all along, while others are still trotting along in their eternal subordinationism because they are safe in their circle of like-minded non-creedally informed Christian power brokers.

One of America’s Reformed church historians, Carl Trueman, has a book challenging both the accuracy of this statement (we all have creeds and confessions he observes) and the wisdom of it — not to mention its seemingly inconsistency with the Bible itself, which both has creedal lines and teaches the importance of teaching the essence of the faith. Trueman’s book is called The Creedal Imperative.

I urge those who are non-creedal to read it and discuss it.

There is, I would contend, a difference between having a “creed” or a “confession” or a “statement of faith” and having a theology. We all have a theology; some Christians though do not want any authoritative statement to which we have to subscribe or submit. That’s a creed vs. a theology. Still, Carl Trueman has this right: creeds are the way of the church, they are good, and they are needed.

What do you think of creeds? Do you think all churches should confess the creeds? Affirm them in their “doctrinal statement”? (I do.) Confess them publicly? (I do.)

Ours is a day when many are suspicious of creeds and confessions, though I am personally shocked at how so many can say they don’t believe in a creed but have never read The Apostles’ Creed or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Some are against the past because of scientific developments, technology, consumerism, and even the lack of belief in a common “human nature” — which gives antiquity an immediate connection to us today.  And some are worried about words or think mystical experience transcends words or that pragmatics are more important. Trueman observes as well that some don’t like the exclusionary power of creeds.  I’d add one more: some, out of respect for the Bible as God’s true Word, don’t want anything else taking on authoritative status. (A friend wrote me the other day and made the following connection: I don’t trust politicians; politicians made the creeds; therefore I don’t trust the creeds.)

Creeds are rooted in (1) that God communicates in words and in the Living Word and the Written Word; (2) that humans, made in God’s image on a universal scale, are capable of comprehending words; (3) that words are how we communicate and know the truth. Furthermore, the church is inevitably an institution in which words about the Word (Living and Written) matter. Then (4) there is the presence of creed like statements in the New Testament itself (not to mention the Shema as a form of creed).

With the skill of his field, Trueman then sketches the early church and the rise of the major creeds — from the rule of faith to the Nicene Creed and beyond — and then sketches the Reformation Confessions. (He’s a staunch Presbyterian but has a nice sketch, too, of the 39 Articles.)

The best part of this book, other than Trueman’s occasional zingers at church goofinesses and cultural nonsense, is his chapter on the usefulness of creeds. I found this chapter to be theologically helpful but also pastorally aware (he pastors). Here are his uses of creeds:

1. All churches have creeds and confessions (I’d say they all have “theologies” but not all have “creeds” in a specialized sense). Failure to acknowledge this can be disingenuous. (I agree with that.)

2. Confessions delimit the power of the church. (I don’t like the word “delimit” but I agree with his point.) They mean the church has to answer to something above it! That’s a good thing. Too many think they are the first to find something.
3. They offer succinct and thorough summaries of the central elements of the faith. Good creeds do this, but here the Confessions are even more thorough.
4. Creeds and confessions allow for appropriate discrimination between members and office-bearers: that is, not everyone has to be the expert; but leaders ought to be theologically informed. I could tell stories…. yuck.
5. Creeds and confessions reflect the ministerial authority of the church … and, yes, this cuts against the grain of our anti-authoritarian culture, but it’s hard to have leaders who don’t lead, or pastors who aren’t to some degree theologically sound and capable of leading, and elders who don’t know their stuff. (It’s not so hard perhaps as it is profoundly unwise.)
6. Creeds and confessions represent the maximal doctrinal competence the local church aspires to for its members.
7. I like this one: creeds and confessions relativize our modern importance and remind us we are part of a long history and Story!
8. Creeds and confessions help define one church in relation to another — this is about information not schism.
9. Creeds and confessions are necessary for maintaining corporate unity.

I believe in the creedal imperative, and this book can help more and more of us to find a common conversation around our common creeds and confessions.

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