Creeds and confessions, for many, appear implausible, for others, dangerous. After all, what relevance can ancient church documents have for the way we worship today? Besides, won’t using such statements usurp the Bible’s authority? Doesn’t our allegiance to sola scriptura defy the use of creeds? Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, provides substantial answers to these questions in The Creedal Imperative. Against evangelicalism’s pervasive trendiness on one side, and separatist biblicism on the other, Trueman argues creedalism actually fosters a deeper commitment to the Bible, ensuring the church’s relevance amid an ever-changing culture.
Creeds and confessions, Trueman notes, make sense only within certain plausibility structures. Powerful narratives within culture undermine those structures by cultivating distain for the past, loss of confidence in language, and suspicion toward authority. Populist views of science and technology, for example, cultivate a cultural mindset that naturally dismisses past wisdom in the quest for a better future (24). Throw in a hefty dose of consumerism, promising ultimate happiness through acquiring new things, along with a splash of postmodernism, fracturing a sense of solidarity with our predecessors, and we have a partial recipe for the implausibility of creeds. Trueman further explains how pervasive distrust for words leads to pragmatism, threatening creedal orthodoxy by styling faith merely in terms of its present purchase (35). He notes finally how the traditional authority structures necessary for creeds and confessions look too oppressive and exclusive in a culture where the locus of authority often rests in the mystical sense of one’s own heart (39).
After outlining the factors that make creedalism implausible, Truman offers a constructive case for creeds. Creedalism, he asserts, emerges as an organic feature of the Bible’s own witness. Scripture presupposes both that words adequately convey God, and that the substance of his word remains intelligible across time (60). Thus, the Bible assumes the basic conceptual framework for creedalism. More explicitly, the NT itself seems to contain early creed-like statements, providing patterns for subsequent practice (2 Tim 1:9-10; Phil 2:5-10; 1 Pet 3:18-21, etc.). Perhaps Trueman’s most insightful point is the observation that Scripture ordains the institutional authority structures that give birth to creedal orthodoxy (66). He notes how the New Testament links both doctrine and structure in the person of the elder. Timothy, as the first post-apostolic elder, is archetypal, modeling the responsibility of all subsequent elders to pass on the gospel from generation to generation. This weighty task calls for a “form of sound words” not identical with Scripture (2 Tim 1:13), but which faithfully interprets, proclaims, and hands on its meaning and message (79). Thus, according to Trueman, the theological synthesis implied in Paul’s charge to Timothy reflects a creedal sort of imperative.
Trueman further examines the historical emergence of creeds after the time of the apostles. He argues that the creedal activity of both the early church and the Reformation stand in continuity with the Pauline charge to maintain a form of sound words. In the early church, the Rule of Faith observed in Ignatius, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, reflects localized concerns for a summary of concepts preserving the apostolic faith from deviant expressions of the Bible’s message (86). Eventually, these localized rules crystallized in the Apostle’s Creed, achieving broad acceptance as an orthodox symbol for guiding liturgy and catechesis (89). Subsequently, the Ecumenical Councils continue cultivating sound words by delineating the gospel shape of God, climaxing in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcidonian Definition. Trueman helpfully notes, even after Western Christendom fractures during the Reformation, Protestants continue to affirm the ancient church’s theological achievements. After all, they recognize God gives his church teachers and a history (i.e. tradition), and both remain crucial for understanding the Bible (107).
Next, Trueman addresses the vital connection between confession and praise. If, as he suggests, the history of Christian theology is one extended reflection upon the meaning and significance of the ecstatic confession “Jesus is Lord,” then doctrine and doxology belong together (135). To know the true God in the face of Jesus is to praise him. Doctrine is not theological lumber to be stored away, but rather kindling to fire the affections, resulting in lives of praise. Trueman notes further how creedalism maintains the biblical union between believing and belonging. To truly belong is to embrace definite doctrine within the context of polemical praise. For example, Paul’s gospel necessarily stands against opposing views, espouses a distinct theological perspective, and radiates praise (Rom 11:25-36; 1 Tim 1:15-17). Like it or not, praise infused polemical dogma is a vital part of Christianity (142). One cannot belong to the faith without a lively and exclusive embrace of its substance. Praise proceeding from anything less ventures on the side of idolatry or mere intellectual formalism. Specifically, creeds encourage this sort of true praise by enabling pastors to cultivate Trinitarian forms of public worship. If the gospel is fundamentally triune in shape then our lives should be formed by worship that reflects the substance of that faith (144).
Last, Trueman highlights several advantages creeds and confessions offer the local church. Two of these advantages capture the burden of his argument. First, written creeds and confessions ensure Scripture stands as the highest authority in the church (163). Every church and all believers have a creed, beliefs about what they think the Bible teaches. Yet, unless publically declared, these beliefs can’t be assessed for their Scriptural fidelity. After all, nobody simply believes the Bible, or can honestly say they have no understanding of the Bible but the Bible itself. As Trueman notes, if a friend asks what the Bible teaches, we won’t simply begin reading Genesis 1:1 and end with Revelation 22:21! Rather we will offer a synthesis, a summary of what we believe the Bible teaches, in other words, a creed (160). Those who claim no creed but the Bible are in danger of becoming unquestionable and authoritarian, operating on the assumption that their unstated beliefs bear the authority of Scripture itself (164). Thus creeds and confessions delimit the power of the church and its leaders by offering public summaries of the faith collectively affirmed as representing Scripture’s teaching on the main contours of Christian faith.
Second, creeds and confessions relativize the present by grounding our identity in the past. The liturgical use of creeds and confessions bears a vital countercultural witness often missed by trendier expressions of Christianity (180). According to Trueman, when we employ creeds in worship we effectively say that the church, as a pillar and ground of truth, is bigger than our day and generation; its foundation lay in the past; we bear stewardship of its truth in our present context, but that truth neither begins or ends with us. Thus, just as Israel’s identity rests upon God’s mighty acts in the past, and just as Timothy is to pass on a received form of sound words, so creeds and confessions enable the church to cultivate an identity of solidarity with this faith once for all delivered (182).
Trueman, Carl R. The Creedal Imperative. Crossway, 2012.