Book Review: A Creedal Imperative
In The Books: A Creedal Imperative
Carl R. Trueman. A Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 197pp. $16.99
Book Review by Gary Marble
In a culture that nurtures anticonfessionalism, our author boldly claims, “To take the Bible seriously means that creeds and confessions, far from being intrusions into the Christian life, are actually imperatives for the church” (p. 189). Throughout his book, church historian Carl Trueman, who holds the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, admirably supports this claim with great skill and insight.
“While the objection to [creeds and confessions] is often couched in language that appears to be jealous for biblical authority, there are also powerful currents within modern life that militate in various ways against the positive use of creeds and confessions in the church” (p. 21). Chapter 1 outlines these cultural currents: the devaluing of the past, the suspicion of words, and the fear of exclusion. Some of these are reactions to the experiences of the last century, whether it is consumerism which highly values the “new and improved,” the abuse of words by regime propaganda or political spin, or racial exclusion. Culture does not just happen, but is made up of many tributaries. So also, anticonfessionalism does not just exist; there are reasons for it, and the author offers biblical thinking to replace these cultural influences.
The author then brings us to the biblical basis for confessionalism. “My conclusion is not only that creeds and confessions are plausible, given biblical teaching, but that Paul actually seems to assume something like them will be a normal part of the postapostolic church’s life” (p. 18). As Paul nears the end of his life, he instructs Timothy (and also Titus) to transmit “the form of sound words” to the next generation (e.g. 2 Tim. 1:13; Titus 1:9; 2:1). Our author points out: “The word “form” describes a model, form, or standard that is intended to function as a trustworthy or reliable guide” (p. 74).
In chapter 2, Trueman shows us that “creed-like-formulas” appear in the early church immediately following the apostolic age. This appears to reflect a concern to transmit “the tradition of apostolic teaching” and the “form of the sound words” to their generation and the next. By these creed-like formulas, we see the foundations for the later ecclesiastical creeds and confessions. Following his review of the foundations of creedalism, chapter 3 shows the theological development in the early church from the Rule of Faith, the Apostle’s Creed, on through the Third Council of Constantinople of 681. Theological development can be seen, for example, in the church’s affirmation of Christ’s full humanity against Docetism, and Christ’s deity against Arianism, and with those issues resolved that then led logically to discussion about the relationship of these two natures in the one person; those discussions led to the creedal statements against such heresies as Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism. Each settled matter would then bring a new set of issues for discussion, ultimately leading to creedal formulation. Regarding this theological development, the author exhorts: “Historical theology, the genealogy of doctrinal discussion and formulation, is thus an important part of Christian education and should be part of every pastor’s and elder’s background. It should also be a central part of the teaching ministry in all churches” (p. 102).
Chapter 4 provides an excellent overview of the major protestant confessions ranging from the Anglican Articles to the 1689 Baptist Confession. This overview contextualizes the classical protestant confessions in their political and geographical settings—indispensable for interpreting these documents. While these confessions are more sophisticated than the earlier creeds, nonetheless, the framers of the confessions were mindful of the important Trinitarian and Christological creeds that preceded them. “God had provided them with a church which had a history, and that history was helpful in understanding what Scripture taught” (p. 130).
While confessions have a doctrinal and ecclesiastical function, chapter 5 points us to their doxology. The author writes “Historically, one could make the argument that Christian theology as a whole is one long, extended reflection upon the meaning and significance of that most basic doxological declaration, “Jesus is Lord!” and thus an attempt to provide a framework for understanding Christian praise. If we fail to make this connection, then our appreciation of the creeds and confessions of the church will be dramatically impoverished as, I would argue, will be our understanding of Christian worship itself” (p. 135). Trueman states, “The identity of whom we praise actually informs the content of how we praise him” (p. 142). The doxological function of creeds and confessions is of great value to the church, and “ensure that biblical content and priorities are kept uppermost in the public worship of the church” (p. 158).
Chapter 6—the final chapter—points out that all churches have creeds or confessions, it is just a matter of whether or not a church will commit it to writing and make it public. When a pastor says, “I have no creed but the Bible,” Trueman says, “What he really should have said was: “I have a creed but I am not going to write it down, so you cannot critique it; and I am going to identify my creed so closely with the Bible that I am not going to be able to critique it either” (p. 160). This whole chapter provides a wide variety of insightful reasons for incorporating creeds and confessions into a church.
The Appendix addresses the important subject of revising and supplementing confessions. He reminds us that confessions are primarily ecclesiastical documents, and thus any authoritative change can only be made in a corporate context. In addition, just because one fully subscribes to a confession does not mean one agrees that the confession is necessarily worded in the best possible fashion; thus, awkward confessional wording ought not to be confused with deviations from biblical teaching. Yes, wrong biblical concepts warrant revision, but awkward wording does not. The classical protestant confessions transcend their original context and have been written about for many years; to change their wording will likely undermine that ecumenical value. Even warranted revisions will come with offsets, and so any revision must be carefully considered, especially given our limited perspective. Trueman adds: “the history of confessional revision is not a particularly happy one” (p. 194).
The author also adds that while statements addressing contemporary issues may be needed, it does not mean these must be added to the confessional standards of a church since these likely reflect the doctrinal principles already present in their confession. “The more documents a church requires one to uphold, the more one finds that it is binding and micromanaging the consciences of officers and, indeed, the more barriers it is erecting between one’s own communion and those of other people” (p. 197).
Our author gives us much to think about, even for those who already subscribe to a confession. Understanding the cultural assumptions behind anticonfessionalism can help us effectively promote confessionalism in our spheres of influence. If we can first persuade anticonfessional believers of the value of history, the ability of words to transcend generations, and the value of precise biblical statements—even if narrow—then, perhaps the case for creeds and confessions will be easier to make. Often, we have to get to the root to affect the fruit. And finally, since the Bible itself seems to point to the use of “forms of sound words” to transmit the Christian faith, then, the use of creeds and confessions is an imperative, not merely a matter of ecclesiastical taste.
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