Book review: “The Creedal Imperative” by. Carl R. Trueman

creedal imperative

I’ll just go ahead and admit right at the outset here that i am a massive fan of Carl Trueman (despite the fact that he is one of the most virulent opponents of celebrity) both b/c of his historical prowess (he recently had a newly published textbook on the Reformation recalled by the publishers simply by publishing his own critical review of the book’s many inaccuracies – very few have the chops to pull that off) as well as the fact that he just has a rather sharp edge and wit about him that i appreciate very much.  So when i saw that Dr. Trueman had a book coming out on Creedalism i immediately added it to my wish list and eagerly anticipated its release.  The book did not disappoint, and what follows will simply be a brief covering of the main chapter divisions to give you a general idea of the book.  In future posts i will offer some interaction with the main premise of his book, viz. that the statement, “We have no creed but the bible!”, is not only a specious argument but – in Dr. Trueman’s view – an unbiblical one.

(*Note: all page numbering is from my Kobo eReader and does not refer to hard copy editions)

Introduction:

This is where Dr. Trueman really sets the precedent for the whole book by laying out his case that we all have creeds that we subscribe to and that they are – as the title suggests – biblical imperatives.  He writes, “… even those churches and Christians who repudiate the whole notion of creeds and confessions will yet tend to operate with an implicit creed.” (p.7)  He argues this case well against the “no creed but the bible” folk in many ways, but not the least of which by pointing out that, “Indeed, as soon as one mentions the word ‘Trinity’ from the pulpit, one is drawing on tradition, not Scripture.” (p.10)  He is also quick to dispel the thinking that creeds and confessions supplant and/or over-ride Scripture in any way by defining them both as simply “summaries of what is already in Scripture.” (p.4)  A key theme here is that we all have creeds and confessions but that the ones who write them down allow for public and biblical scrutiny as well as something tangible to be held accountable to.

1.The Cultural Case against Creeds and Confessions:

In this chapter Dr. Trueman begins by outlining three cultural assumptions he operates from that he believes today’s generation does not share exclusively as they once did.  They are:

1. The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us. (1.3)

2. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time  and geographical space. (1.4)

3. There must be a body or an institution that can authoritatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions. (1.5)

After this, he outlines what he calls “… deep forces within our culture that mitigate against creeds and confessions …” (1.32).  He categorizes these as:

1. Devaluing the past (Science, technology, consumerism) (1.8)

2. Disappearance of “human nature” as a category (1.18)

3. Suspicion of words as a reliable means of communication (1.21)

4. Reaction against authoritarianism (1.32)

5. Fear of excluding others (1.42)

Dr. Trueman concludes this chapter by stating, “All of these in their different ways make the idea of doctrinal Christianity, expressed in creeds and confessions, both implausible and distasteful; and all of them are part of the cultural air we breath.” (1.64)

2. The foundation of Creedalism:

Here Dr. Trueman begins to counter these cultural arguments against creeds and confessions by outlining the biblical origins and basis for them.  To begin, he addresses the adequacy of words, starting with the idea that we serve a God who speaks, recounting the creation narrative as one clear example (2. 4,5), and that we are a creation in need of hearing from Him, e.g. Amos 8:11,12. Next he addresses the universal human nature category (2.23) stating, “If we understand human nature as fixed, as something not constructed by the individual or by the community but something which is given by God in His address to us, then we are on a much more secure ground in moving theological statements from one time, place, or culture to another.” (2.28)  He addresses the authoritarianism issue which includes the church as an institution to be submitted to (2.36).  Along with the authority of the church and its role in installing elders, he moves to his main biblical basis for creeds and confessions which is Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Tim. 1:13 where Paul tells Timothy to, “Follow the pattern of sound words that you heard from me …” which he equates as a reference to some of the first written creeds (2.49).

3. The early church:

Now Dr. Trueman begins to track the history of creeds and confessions through the history of the church, beginning with the “Rule of faith” (3.2) which he places in early post-apostolic times in the church and made reference to by the likes of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Tertullian as a means of maintaining the essentials of Christianity against heresies and or mistakes of that day.  Dr. Trueman then moves to 4th C Apostle’s Creed (3.17) and then walks through the results of the seven ecumenical councils, noting that Protestantism only really engages at a creedal level with the first four (3.24):

1. First council of Nicaea, 325 AD (3.24)

2. First council of Constantinople, 381 AD (3.29)

3. First council of Ephesus, 431 AD (3.36)

4. The council of Chalcedon, 451 AD (3.42)

5. Second council of Constantinople, 553 AD

6. Third council of Constantinople, 680-681 AD

7. Second council of Nicaea, 787.

Dr. Trueman also makes reference to the Athanasian creed (3.49) as it finds its way into modern Protestantism (Anglicanism) as well.  He concludes that one of the main theological purposes for all that was accomplished in these councils is, “…one cannot hold to the centre of a circle without knowing where the circumference lies.  Thus, boundaries, and the drawing of them, are absolutely vital to healthy, orthodox Christianity.” (3.52)

4. Classical Protestant Confessions:

Dr. Trueman now moves to the classical confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, noting both the theological and political impulses behind them (4.2).  He begins with the Anglican articles (39 articles), the book of Common prayer and the Homilies and notes the timeless, majestic language of them (4.4), then moves to the Lutheran documents of the Book of Concord, 1580 (4.15) which is a collection of the Apostle’s creed, Nicene creed, Athanasian creed, Augsburg confession + apology, the small and large catechism, etc.  Next he describe the Three forms of unity (4.26) of the Reformed church which include the Belgic confession, 1561, the Heidelberg catechism,1563, and the Canons of Dordt, 1619. One of the most famous and well loved expressions of Christian devotion coming from the Heidelberg catechism as it asks, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?”  Next, we learn of the Westminster Standards, 1643 (4.39) which include the Westminster confession, the short and long catechism, the directory for public worship and the form of church government, and Trueman notes the close similarities as well as differences between the Reformed documents and the Presbyterian documents.  Though it is given only brief mention, even the Baptists make it into Dr. Trueman’s discussion of confessional history with his inclusion of the Baptist Confession of 1689 (4.49) which is markedly similar to the Westminster confession of 1643 with obvious denominational differences.  This he includes he says, not b/c it makes major contributions to confessional theology but b/c “it is proof positive that Baptists have a confessional heritage.” (4.49).

One key theme Dr. Trueman draws out is the remarkable  consensus amoung all the documents on the basics of salvation (4.52).

5. Confession as praise:

In this chapter Dr. Trueman outlines some of the many ways in which the truths expressed in creeds and confessions can lead to doxology and praise within the individual and the church.  He notes the public act of witnessing Christ before the pagan nations (5.4) and also the personal affirmation of truths which include or exclude one from orthodoxy and the church (5.4) and finally confession simply as praise (5.4), stating that, “For Paul, doctrine and doxology are not separated…” (5.5) and notes a number of times that Paul breaks from teaching doctrine into doxology and praise, eg. Phil. 2:6-11, 1 Tim. 3:14-16, Rom. 11:33-36.  Next Dr. Truman moves to what he calls, “The threefold aspect of creedal doxology” (5.37) which he lays out as follows:

1. Creeds offer a corporate summary of the Bible’s teaching (5.39)

2. Creeds are countercultural (5.46)

3. Creeds ascribe to God what belongs to Him and Him alone (5.51)

Finally, he offers what he views as specious objections to including creeds and confessions in worship, viz. a) forms of words lead to formalism in worship, preaching on a catechism is not preaching the bible, and speaking human words supplants the authority of Scripture (5.53).

6. On the usefulness of Creeds and Confessions:

In this final chapter, Dr. Trueman begins with the subsection titled, “All churches have creeds and confessions.” (6.2) and says quite aptly, “no Christian, if asked by a friend what the bible teaches, is simply going to start reading aloud at Gen. 1:1 and not stop until Rev. 22:21.  Instead … we all try to offer a synthesis, a summary of what the bible says.” (6.2,3).  “Thus,” Trueman says, “if you take the bible seriously, you will either have a creed or confession or something that fulfils the same basic role, such as a statement of faith.”, (6.5) and adds, “Ironically, it is not the confessionalists but the “no creed but the bible” people who exalt their creeds above Scripture.” (6.11) He then goes on to note how creeds and confession delimit the power of the church and its officials b/c they are a standard by which they must conform (6.11).  Next he discusses how creed and confessions offer succinct and thorough summaries of the faith, noting, “[a church that uses creeds and confessions] is unlikely to become sidetracked by the peripheral issues of the passing moment; rather it will focus instead on the great theological categories that touch on matters of eternal significance.” (6.21)  He deals next with how creeds and confessions allow for appropriate discrimination between members and office-bearers (6.29) noting how we have different standards of knowledge expected from the two.  One interesting section in this chapter is his treatment of how creeds represent “the maximum doctrinal competence that can be expected from a congregation” (6.44) referring to the pedagogical aspect of creeds and confessions.  The basic idea is that they put forth that which the church aspires to teach its members.  He posits an example of how we all know that making laws against abortion wont mean that no abortions will take place, but that by making it illegal the laws would then, “set before us a vision of the kind of society we would like to see realized.” (6.46)  Finally, Dr. Trueman helpfully writes of how creeds and confessions are useful for “relativizing the present” (6.52), in “defining one church from another” (6.57) and in “maintaining corporate unity.” (6.59)

Conclusion and Appendix + further reading:

In his conclusion, Dr. Trueman remarks about some of the recent occurrence of Protestants “swimming the Tiber” and converting to Roman Catholicism.  Based on what he admits is a difficult issue to generalize, he counters claims of a lack of historical rootedness, doctrinal weight and long-term stability, with this:

I believe there is an alternative to Rome: it is confessional Protestantism.  By that, i do not mean the confessional Protestantism that cherry-picks which bits of various Protestant confessions it likes … I mean true confessionalism, one that adheres to a particular confession and connects to a particular church order and polity.  That is confessional Protestantism as the Reformers and their successors would have understood it.  It is also Christianity as Paul would have understood it … It also meets both of those lacunae in evangelicalism: it provides historical roots and serious theology.” (7.6,7)

In his further Appendix, Dr. Trueman offers a brief treatise on “Revising and supplementing confessions” (8.1) and concedes that if confessions or creed are “found to be wrong at some point or fail to articulate the whole counsel of God as needed by the church, they need to be supplemented with further confessional statements.” (8.1)  In an example of revisions, he says that while he loves Calvin’s Institutes, differing on points of his book do not have ecclesiastical significance b/c no one is required to take vows to uphold it.  But b/c confessions are corporate documents to which the church is bound and officers take vows to as standards of belief, the church is then the ones who alone should do the revising.

Beyond this, he also admits that each and every statement  may not express ideas as precisely or in as contemporary language as we might like today (8.3) and writes, “I was not subscribing to the idea that the Westminster divines were the greatest theological prose writers.” (8.4) and so he allows for revisions in this sense as well.

The overall take is that any revisions or supplementation is to be done with the greatest humility and upmost seriousness, as these documents will then become the standards by which the church teaches and by which its teachers are weighed.

Finally, Dr. Trueman then gives a brief offering of suggested readings for further study on  collections of confessions, the use of confessions, polity, and even commentary on confessional standards.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in church history as well as church confessions and creeds.  Dr. Trueman has a masterful way of uniting history to a modern age as well as sensibilities in a way that is both educational and engaging.  A task that any preacher would do well to emulate as we expound the Scriptures to a modern age and ear.

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