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The Cultural Case against Creeds and Confessions
In the introduction, I briefly mentioned the standard, knee-jerk reaction against creeds and confessions, often found in evangelical circles, that such documents supplant the unique place of the Bible, place tradition on an equal — or even superior — footing with Scripture, and thus compromise a truly evangelical, Protestant notion of authority. While I will offer a more thorough response to this line of objection later, I did note that all Christians engage in confessional synthesis; the difference is simply whether one adheres to a public confession, subject to public scrutiny, or to a private confession that is, by its very nature, immune to such examination.
Before proceeding to a more thoroughgoing exposition of the use and the usefulness of confessions, however, it is worth spending some time reflecting on other reasons why creeds and confessions are regarded with such suspicion these days. While the objection to them is often couched in language that appears to be jealous for biblical authority, there are also powerful forces at work within our modern world that militate against adherence to historic statements of the Christian faith. As the goldfish swimming in the bowl is unaware of the temperature and taste of the water in which he swims, so often the most powerfully formative forces of our societies and cultures are those with which we are so familiar as to be functionally unaware of how they shape our thinking, even our thinking about what exactly it means to say that Scripture has supreme and unique authority. It would be a tragic irony if the rejection of creeds and confessions by so many of those who sincerely wish to be biblically faithful turned out to be not an act of faithfulness but rather an unwitting capitulation to the spirit of the age. It is some of the forces that shape this spirit that I address in this chapter.
My conviction that creeds and confessions are a good and necessary part of healthy, biblical church life rests on a host of different arguments and convictions; but, at root, there are three basic presuppositions to which I hold that must be true for the case for confessions to be a sound one. These are as follows:
1. The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us. Creeds and confessions are, almost by definition, documents that were composed at some point in the past; and, in most cases, we are talking about the distant past, not last week or last year. Thus, to claim that creeds and confessions still fulfill positive functions, in terms of transmitting truth from one generation to another or making it clear to the outside world what it is that particular churches believe, requires that we believe the past can still speak to us today. Thus, any cultural force that weakens or attenuates the belief that the past can be a source of knowledge and even wisdom is also a force that serves to undermine the relevance of creeds and confessions.
2. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space. Creeds and confessions are documents that make theological truth claims. That is not to say that that is all that they do: the role, for example, of the Apostles' and the Nicene creeds in many church liturgies indicates that they can also fulfill doxological as well as pedagogical and theological roles; but while they can thus be more, they can never be less than theological, doctrinal statements that rest upon and express truth claims about God and the world he has created. They do this, of course, in words; and so, if these claims are to be what they claim to be — statements about a reality beyond language — then language itself must be an adequate medium for performing this task. Thus, any force that undermines general confidence in language as a medium capable of conveying information or of constituting relationships is also a force that strikes at the validity of creeds and confessions.
3. There must be a body or an institution that can authoritatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions. This body or institution is the church. I will address the significance of this in more detail in subsequent chapters, but it is important to understand at the outset that confessions are not private documents. They are significant because they have been adopted by the church as public declarations of her faith, and their function cannot be isolated from their ecclesiastical nature and context. This whole concept assumes that institutions and institutional authority structures are not necessarily bad or evil or defective simply by their very existence as institutions. Thus, any cultural force that overthrows or undermines notions of external or institutional authority effectively removes the mechanisms by which creeds and confessions can function as anything other than simple summaries of doctrine for private edification.
If these are the presuppositions of confessionalism, then it is clear that we have a major problem, because each of these three basic presuppositions represents a profoundly countercultural position, something that stands opposed to the general flow of modern life. Today, the past is more often a source of embarrassment than a positive source of knowledge; and when it is considered useful, it is usually as providing examples of what not to do or of defective, less advanced thinking than of truth for the present. Language is similarly suspect: in a world of spin, dishonest politicians, and ruthless marketing, language can often seem to be — indeed, often is — manipulative, deceptive, or downright wicked, but rarely transparent and something to be taken at face value. Then, finally, institutions, from multinational corporations to governments, seem to be in the game of self-perpetuation, bullying, and control for the sake of control. They are never seen as entities that exist in practice for the real benefit of others. Thus, the big three presuppositions of confessionalism fly in the face of the values of contemporary culture, and confessionalists clearly have their work cut out to mount a counterattack. And such a counterattack begins with the simple truism of every successful campaigner, from wartime leaders to the coaches of high school track teams: know your enemy. In this context, knowing the enemy may also help us to realize how, in our defense of the unique authority of Scripture, our understanding of what that means is sometimes shaped more by the hidden forces of the world around us than by the teaching of Scripture and the historic life and practice of the church.
Devaluing the Past
Numerous forces within modern culture serve to erode any notion that the past might be a useful source of wisdom. Perhaps the most obvious is the dominance of science. I am not, of course, referring to the content of science. Science undergirds almost all of those things which make life bearable, from electric lightbulbs to cancer treatment. To say science is the enemy is not, in this instance, to be antiscience. Rather, I am thinking of the kind of cultural mindset that science helps to cultivate and reinforce.
Science, by its very nature, assumes that the present is better than the past and the future will be better than the present. Again, this is not in itself a bad thing. It is surely part of what drives the laudable curiosity that motivates scientists and leads to major breakthroughs; and there is much evidence that this — the fact the present is better than the past — is, indeed, the case. As one who teaches history, I am often asked by students in which period of history I would most have enjoyed living. My answer is simple and straightforward: this one, the here and now. Call me a weakling if you like, but I would much rather live in an era with analgesics, antibiotics, and flush toilets than in earlier periods where pain killers were unknown, medicine usually involved swallowing some kill-or-cure snake oil made by a wrinkled old crone with dubious personal hygiene, and the "facilities" were little more than a hole in the ground on the edge of the village. By and large, in areas where it is relevant, science has made the world a better place. The evidence is not all one way, however: the Holocaust, for example, is one instance where science was clearly used to destroy rather than enhance life, and that on a huge scale. But, by and large, science has brought with it huge gains, from medicine to dishwashers.
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. It has a built-in narrative of progress, whereby everything — or at least almost everything — just keeps getting better; and the problem is that this tends to inculcate a broader cultural attitude that applies the same kind of expectation in other areas. Throw concepts like evolution into the mix, and you have a gravitational pull within the culture toward the future, built on the assumed inferiority of the past.
This narrative of scientific progress instills a belief not simply in the superiority of the present in relation to the past but also in its uniqueness. This time in which we live has so much more knowledge, displays so much more sophistication, and is so much more complicated than the past. Thus that past is consequently of no real use in addressing the problems or issues of the present, so great is the difference between them. One would not, for example, use a horse and cart to transport fuel from an oil refinery to a petrol station. Nor would one today consult a seventeenth-century textbook on surgery to find out how to remove a burst appendix. So why would one turn to some confession written in the fourth or the seventeenth century to find a summary guide to what Christians today should believe?
Some years ago, I was exposed to precisely this attitude while teaching a class on the ancient church. At some point, I mentioned that a certain professor from another institution was going to be visiting campus to deliver some lectures on the Westminster Standards, that is, the Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. A student immediately asked why she should bother attending these because "some documents written in the seventeenth century seem to have very little to do with" her ministry. I asked her if she had read these apparently irrelevant documents recently. She said she had not. I then pointed out to her that these documents had been regarded by many people as vital and vibrant expressions of the Christian faith since their composition. Given this, and their connection to historic traditions and trajectories of church life and Christian thought, I suggested with every ounce of tact and gentleness I could muster that she might perhaps better ask herself not so much what relevance they have to her ministry but what relevance her ministry had to the church. Her assumption was simple: the past could not really speak in any meaningful way to the present. She was truly a child of the scientific age.
Closely related to the role of science in cultivating an attitude that downgrades the importance of the past is that of technology. A simple example should make this point clear. My mother lives in an old weaver's cottage in the Cotswolds. In what is now her living room, there is a stone fireplace and, in that fireplace, there are a series of small holes, roughly an inch in diameter, now plugged with wood, which indicate where the weaver would have had his loom. It is easy to imagine a scene in the early nineteenth century in which the weaver was hard at work making cloth when one of his children wandered into the room and inquired as to what exactly he was doing. No doubt, the weaver would have sat the child down and explained how the loom operated, how the shuttle carried the woolen thread from one side to the other and slowly but surely formed a sheet of fabric. The flow of knowledge from the older generation to the younger was clear; this was no doubt repeated many times in preindustrial societies around the world, where children typically grew up to follow in the footsteps of their parents and were thus more or less apprenticed to their parents from an early age.
Now, jump forward nearly two hundred years to a scene in the same room. I am sitting there, trying to set up my mother's DVR to record a Gloucester versus Leicester rugby match and, try as I might, I cannot get the machine to do what I want it to do. In walks my niece and asks what I am trying to do. After I explain to her what is going on, she sighs, rolls her eyes, picks up the remote control, and with what seems to me to be two touches of the buttons, has the machine set up to record the match. With a shake of her head, she walks back into the kitchen.
Notice what has happened here, and what the significance of these two encounters is: the flow of knowledge has been reversed. No longer is the younger dependent upon the older; rather, the older is dependent upon the younger. Technology, because it is constantly and rapidly changing, inevitably favors those who have been brought up with it, and who have the kind of young, agile minds that develop new skills quickly and easily. You cannot easily teach a middle-aged historian, any more than an old dog, new tricks; and that means that technology will always favor the young.
This is just one anecdote and, as my secretary will tell you, I am among the more — ahem — technologically challenged men of my generation; but the general point is a good one. The technological world, particularly given the rapidity with which it is constantly changing, creates an environment where the assumption is that older people are going to be dependent upon the younger. Taken by itself, perhaps, this might not be so significant; but combined with the impact of science as a whole upon cultural attitudes, it undoubtedly plays its role in the bias against age, and thus against the past, which is a hallmark of the modern world and which is not incidental in the general antipathy among Christians for creeds and confessions.
A third cultural force that militates against respect for the past is consumerism. As with science, there is much that could be said here, but I will restrict myself to the most salient aspects of the phenomenon.
Consumerism can be defined as an over-attachment to material goods and possessions such that one's meaning or worth is determined by them. This definition is reasonably helpful but misses one key aspect of the phenomenon: it is not just the attachment to material things, it is also the need for constant acquisition of the same. Life is enriched not simply by possessing goods but by the process of acquiring them; consumerism is as much a function of boredom as it is of crass materialism.
What has this to do with rejection of the past? Simply this: 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. This manifests itself in the whole strategic nature of marketing. For example, every time you switch on your television set, you are bombarded with advertisements that may be for a variety of different goods and services but that all preach basically the same message: what you have now is not enough for happiness; you need something else, something new, in order to find true fulfillment. I believe that this reinforces fundamentally negative attitudes toward the past.
Think for a moment: how many readers of this book are wearing clothes they bought ten years ago? How many are using computers they bought five years ago? Or driving automobiles more than fifteen years old? With the exception of vintage car collectors, the economically poor, and those with absolutely no fashion sense, most readers will probably respond in the negative to at least one, if not all three, of these questions. Yet when we ask why this is the case, there is no sensible answer. We can put a man on the moon, so we could probably make an automobile that lasts for fifty years; most of us do little on computers that could not have been done on the machines we owned five years ago; and we all throw away clothes that still fit us and are quite presentable. So why the need for the new?
A number of factors influence this kind of behavior. First, there is the role of built-in obsolescence: it is not in the manufacturer's best interest to make a washing machine that will last for a hundred years. If that were done, then the manufacturer would likely be out of business within a decade as the market became saturated. Such is a possible, but actually unlikely, scenario. Developments in technology mean that longevity will not be the only factor driving the market. Efficiency, for example, or enhanced and multiplied functions might well create a continuing need for more goods. Aesthetics also play a role; the ability to market goods based on aesthetics and image has proved powerful. Remember the cool, sleek look that Apple computers developed at one point? That gave them a clear edge over their rivals.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Creedal Imperative"
Copyright © 2012 Carl R. Trueman.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Cultural Case against Creeds and Confessions 21
2 The Foundations of Creedalism 51
3 The Early Church 81
4 Classical Protestant Confessions 109
5 Confession as Praise 135
6 On the Usefulness of Creeds and Confessions 159
Appendix: On Revising and Supplementing Confessions 191
For Further Reading 199
What People are Saying About This
“If the title of this book sounds boring to you, then it probably means you need it! Doctrinal aversion, radical individualism, unexamined subjectivismthese are only a few of the problems afflicting the evangelical church. In The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman wisely applies his vast historical knowledge to offer a remedy for such deficiencies. This book is especially important for so many believers whose Christian life, like mine, grew out of the soil of vibrant experience with insufficient doctrinal moorings. And beyond merely correcting errors, the lessons here have great potential for protecting the church, reinvigorating our cherished beliefs, and fostering greater unity in our worship. I’m grateful for Carl, and I’m grateful he wrote this book.”
C. J. Mahaney, Senior Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville
“It is commonplace among many church leaders to dispute the need for confessions of faith on the grounds of the supreme authority of the Bible. In this timely book, Trueman demonstrates effectively how such claims are untenable. We all have creedsthe Bible itself requires thembut some are unwritten, not open to public accountability, and the consequences can be damaging. Trueman’s case deserves the widest possible hearing.”
Robert Letham, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Union School of Theology
“Herein is a truly inspiring vision, that churches be freed from the vapid, the fickle, and the dysfunctional by a deeper enjoyment of the faith we have received. Trueman has shown that use of the creeds is both necessary and beautifully enriching. Informative and compelling, this book has what it takes to do great good.”
Michael Reeves, President and Professor of Theology, Union School of Theology, UK
“I know of few people better equipped to write this book. As both a scholar and a pastor, Trueman combines his expertise as a historian with some important biblical observations to make a convincing case for The Creedal Imperative. This book will prove to be immensely useful in today’s ecclesiastical climate.”
Mark Jones, Teaching Elder, Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, British Columbia
“Trueman, again, has given us a stimulating book. He manages to demonstrate the relevance of creeds by showing how new the old ones are. The book is not only a must-read for those who stick to creeds without knowing why or those whose creed it is to have no creed, but for everyone who tries to practice the Christian faith.”
Herman Selderhuis, President, Theological University Apeldoorn, the Netherlands; Director, Refo500; President, Reformation Research Consortium
“This is an engrossing survey, sparklingly contemporary yet eruditely historical. But it is also an urgent wake-up call, which, if heeded, would deliver Evangelicalism from its current isolation, shallowness, and confusionand from the autocracy of private empire-builders. Informative, readable, and stimulating all at once.”
Donald MacLeod, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Edinburgh Theological Seminary; author, A Faith to Live By and The Person of Christ
“In its creeds and confessions, the church affirms its allegiance to the God of the gospel and commits itself to think, speak, and govern its life in ways shaped by the gospel. This lively books, full of vigorous argument and biblical good sense, tells us why.”
John Webster, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Aberdeen
“Trueman states that creeds and confessions are both necessary for the well-being of the church and are, in fact, required by the Bible. His arguments are wide-ranging and include biblical exposition, lessons from church history, and modern cultural factors that may be unconsciously influencing one’s view of the issue. In addition, there is the typical Trueman humor and odd examples sprinkled throughout the book. In the end, I agree with him and will require this book for my seminary course on creeds.”
Robert J. Cara, Provost, Chief Academic Officer, and Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary; author, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul; contributor, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament
“The apostle Paul once told Timothy that a minister was to be kind, able to teach, patient, and gentle (2 Tim. 2:24). In The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman demonstrates that he is not only able to teach the Word and how it has come down to us throughout history, but also how to do so with kindness, patience, and gentlenessprecisely the qualities that are needed to convince in our creedless, ahistorical, and shallow age. As one whose entire ministry of preaching, teaching, and writing has been taken up with the Word as confessed in the great creeds and confessions of Christendom, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.”
Daniel R. Hyde, Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church, Carlsbad/Oceanside, California; Adjunct Instructor of Ministerial Studies, Mid-America Reformed Seminary; author, Welcome to a Reformed Church
“Today there is a challenge to the authority of the church including the authority of Scripture. The Creedal Imperative speaks to the necessity of creeds and confessions, which tend to save us from attempts to privately interpret the Scripture. Trueman demonstrates how creeds and confessions are strategic checkpoints, intended not only to enable us to express our beliefs, but also to keep us from misunderstanding God’s truth. Properly used, creeds and confessions, under the authority of God’s Word, enable us to hear God’s voicethey are our speaking what we understand God has spoken to us in Scripture. For those who maintain, ‘We have no creed or confession but the Bible,’ this book is a must-read. For those who understand the place of creeds and confessions in the life of Christian faith, this book is also a must-read. It is all about understanding God’s truth. I commend Trueman for his careful demonstration of clear exegesis, sound theology, understanding of church history, and, consequently, his ability to understand the times in which we live. You will be blessed by this book.”
Charles H. Dunahoo, Editor, Equip to Disciple Magazine; Former Coordinator, PCA CEP; Chairman, Westminster Theological Seminary Board of Directors; author, Making Kingdom Disciples: A New Framework
“Though it might sound a bit hackneyed for a book commendation, this is a book I would love to have written! Carl Trueman’s case for what he terms ‘the creedal imperative’ of the Christian faith is spot-on. Trueman not only identifies but also deftly rebuts a number of traditional as well as more recent objections in contemporary culture to creeds and confessions. On the one hand, he shows the untenability of the ‘no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible’ position of many evangelical Christians. And on the other hand, he defends the use of creeds and confessions that summarize and defend the teaching of Scripture without supplementing Scripture or diminishing its authority.”
Cornelis P. Venema, President and Professor of Doctrinal Studies, Mid-America Reformed Seminary; author, Christ and Covenant Theology and Chosen in Christ