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Challenges to Creeds and Confessions (Reformed Conference 2021)

Day 3, Lecture 1

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman

In this first lecture, I want to talk about the general background of Creeds and Confessions. Why they’re important? Why they’re useful for us? Why some of us particularly from conservative evangelical protestant backgrounds might be a little suspicious of them, perhaps very suspicious of them, but need to overcome that fear and suspicion because they are a very important, and useful resource for the contemporary church. 

Many of us, of course, are familiar with the statement, “No creed but the Bible”, “No creed but Christ”, or “No book but the Bible”, and those statements have much to commend them. There are a number of strengths that they reflect and contain when we declare that there is “No creed but the Bible”. There’s a sense in which we are pointing to the fact that we give the Bible a unique authority. 

There are many books in this world. There are many Christian books in this world, but as Protestants, and as Evangelicals, we accord supreme and unique importance to one book, the Bible. All of our preaching, all of the claims that we make as Christians, all of our theology, all of the ways that we regulate our lives, and all of the ways that we think about the world, ultimately as Protestant Evangelicals, we want to ground that in the Bible as the unique authority. 

Other books can help us, but in terms of the big questions of life, the big questions relating to the meaning of life, the Bible is to be our unique authority. And so, when we say “No creed but the Bible” what we’re doing is we’re ascribing unique and central authority to the Bible placing it above all and any other books.

But when you think about that, when you think about that statement “No creed but the Bible”, one of the interesting questions that arises is whether the principle itself actually a biblical one. Now that might be shocking you. You might say “Is Truman saying that the Bible isn’t sufficient?” that’s not quite what I’m saying. The question is, is the principle “No creed but the Bible” sufficient? We could reframe it perhaps in a way that might help us think about this slightly differently. Does anybody just have the Bible? 

There are lots and lots of denominations across the face of the planet, all of whom claim that they have the Bible, and yet those denominations are differentiated, divided, and contrasted with each other on the basis of different understandings of that Bible. In other words, all Christians believe not simply the Bible, but they believe that the Bible means something. And I want to suggest in these lectures that the claim “No creed but the Bible”, while on the one hand can have a very good and appropriate meaning (we can see it as pointing to this unique authority of the Bible), also can have in practice a very bad meaning, and it can actually compromise Bible teaching, and represent not so much a stand against the world as a capitulation sometimes to a spirit of the world. 

So that’s what I want to do, and I particularly want to probe that in this first lecture. First of all, I want to suggest that that the tradition of having Creeds and Confessions, that we can trace from the earliest church right up to the present day from the apostolic fathers, or I would even argue from the apostle Paul right up to the churches we worship in on a Sunday, that tradition of having statements that explain what the Bible means, rests upon at least four important assumptions. And I want to outline those assumptions this morning, and then go on to think about why those assumptions might be under significant challenge in the modern age. 

First thing, the first assumption of Christian confessions, Christian creeds, Christian confessionalism, Christian creedalism is this: The past is important and has things of positive relevance to teach us. In my denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), we hold as our confessional standards as the statements of what we think the Bible means the Westminster Standards, which were a series of documents written in the 17th century. And in adopting those as our confession, we’re making a point about the past. We’re making a point that past is important. That there’s a connection between what we believe today, and what Christians have believed throughout history. That’s one of the basic assumptions of confessionalism, one of the basic assumptions of taking the Westminster standards as a creedal standard. 

I don’t know your church personally. It may well be that your church does not have the Westminster standards as its confession, but it probably has a statement of faith and I’m guessing that statement of faith isn’t written anew every time you meet on a Sunday to worship. The statement of faith was written at some point in the past, agreed upon by the church, adopted by the church, and has become the sort of the normative guide for teaching in the present. And in doing that, you’re acknowledging that past is important. The past has something to teach us. That we don’t reinvent the faith every Sunday, but we stand in continuity with brothers and sisters in the past who’ve had insights into Scripture. So that then is the first assumption of confessionalism. Confessions were written in the past.

Second assumption of confessionalism is this: Language, words, and sentences must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space. Confessions by their very nature are verbal documents. They’re written down in the language of the people of the church that have adopted them. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), we have English versions of the Westminster Standards. If you’re in a Chinese reform church, you would have a Chinese version of the same, but the assumption in both cases is that language is very important to truth. Language is very important to the communication of truth across time. It takes me back to my first point about the importance of history. We believe that words written in the past, in the 17th century, or early 20th century, or 10 years ago, whenever your statement of faith was produced, that words are capable of carrying truth across the days, months, years, that separate those of us today from those who wrote them originally. 

So, it carries across time, and we also think it carries across geographical space. Westminster Confession was produced in London in the United Kingdom. I live in the United States of America, North America. We hold to a document that was written not just 350 years ago, but 350 years ago in a different place, and yet we believe that it carries authority. It carries meaning. It carries truth today in North America. So that’s the second of the assumptions then. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and space. Confessions are verbal documents. They assume that. The framework behind them assumes that.

Thirdly, confessions also assume that Christian truth can be recast in other non-biblical language. Let me repeat that. Christian truth can be recast in other non-biblical language. Notice there I said non-biblical, not unbiblical. Unbiblical of course, typically means contradicting the Bible. Non-biblical merely means words that don’t occur in the Bible. There’s a sense in which all of the Bibles we use are in that way non-biblical, because the Bible was not written in English. It was not written in Chinese, it was not written in Japanese, it was not written in German, and yet people of all those nationalities have the Bible in their language. So strictly speaking, that’s using non-biblical language. 

Well, confessions take it sort of to the next level. They’re attempting to explain, or express the content of Scripture using words drawn from outside of Scripture. And if you think about it, that makes perfect sense because when your minister stands up on Sunday to preach, he doesn’t just read the Bible to you, he explains the Bible. He uses words and ideas, and images etc, drawn from outside the Bible, in order to explain what the Bible itself is teaching. Well, confessions are a sort of concentrated formalized version of that. They’re an attempt to explain the content of the Bible in terms that are not always or immediately found within the Bible.

The doctrine of the Trinity would be a an obvious one. The word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, and yet we believe that that word beautifully captures, beautifully summarizes the content of the Bible’s teaching on the nature and persons of God. So “Trinity” would be a good example. What confessions do is they use other words to try to synthesize, summarize, express in a very concise and clear form the teaching of the Bible. So that’s the third assumption: Christian truth can be recast in other non-biblical language. 

The fourth assumption is that: There must be a body or an institution which can authoritatively compose, and adopt, and enforce Creeds and Confessions. Creeds and Confessions are not private property. It’s not that I have my private creed and you have yours. It’s that, I as a Christian believe the creeds that my church has put forward, that my church has adopted as authoritative. I am not an individual when I commit myself to a creed, I’m committing myself to the creed or to the statement of an institution. Think about a political party for example. Political parties have manifestos that all of their members are meant to agree to. The manifesto doesn’t belong to a single member of the political party. The manifesto doesn’t have authority because one person believes it. The manifesto has authority because the institution has adopted it as that which identifies us, and what we think and what we believe at this particular point in time. So, that’s the fourth assumption then: There must be a body or institution which can authoritatively compose, and enforce Creeds and Confessions. We call that institution the church, the institutional organized visible church. 

So, those then are the four assumptions of Creeds and Confessions: 1) The past is important. 2) Language is an appropriate vehicle for the communication of truth across time and space. 3) Christian truth can be recast, can be explained or expressed using non-biblical language, and 4) There must be a body or institution which can authoritatively compose, adopt and enforce Creeds and Confessions. they’re not the property of any individual, they’re the property of the church, we might say. 

Now what I want to do in the rest of this lecture is look at challenges to these. I’m going to give my responses to these challenges in the next lecture so you’ll have to come back for Lecture Two. But I want to look at challenges to these. First challenge, of course I think, is that of science and technology. Now when I’m talking about these challenges by the way, I’m not necessarily thinking that people read a book, grab hold of an idea, and that challenges these assumptions. I’m thinking in some ways about the air we breathe. The kind of world in which we live, the way that our intuitions are shaped, the way we imagine the world to be. 

First thing, first challenge to these assumptions, I think, is we live in a very scientific and technological world, and that tilts us in a number of directions. One of the things about science is it encourages us to believe that the future is going to be better than the present, and that the past is inferior to the present. Science is very closely connected to the idea of progress, that things are getting better and better. And what science tends to do then is move on from the past, disparage the past, see the pastors at best as a foundation stepping stone for something better in the future.

Technology does the same, think about how technology has reshaped the way we connect to the world. Everything from our computers to our cell phones to medicine. Think of all of these things, and how they tilt us towards maybe looking nostalgically at the past, but not looking at the past as any great source of wisdom or authority. It’s not that we’re buying in consciously to a scientific view of the world, or scientific philosophy. It’s that the air we breathe, the way that the culture itself shapes our intuitions, points us towards the future, and teaches us to, if not disregard, then certainly downgrade the past. And of course, that feeds over into the church. And what are Creeds and Confessions? Well, I’ve said in the in the introductory section Creeds and Confessions are documents from the past. In our minds, why should we be listening to what guys said in the 4th century, or the 16th, or the 17th century, or even the 20th century, maybe even the first decade of the 21st century? Because hey we have cell phones now, we have computers, we have vaccines, we have all these things that indicate that the past really wasn’t as good as the present, and that can play over into our attitude to Creeds and Confessions. So that’s the first thing, the first thing I want us to note is the cultural shaping of technology and science, relative to how we think about the past in relationship to the present. It encourages us not to think about the past as a source of wisdom.

Secondly, there’s consumerism. Consumerism, of course, is the idea or the way of living that means we are what we buy, we are what we consume. There’s one particular aspect of consumerism that I want to flag up for you today, and that’s the way it’s fueled youth culture. Think about how consumerism plays into youth culture. Nobody wants to dress like an old guy. Nobody gets plastic surgery to make themselves look older. We live in a world that is permeated by the importance of youth, permeated by the authority of youth. Again, think about the way we imagine the world. Our world tilts us towards thinking about youth as unspoiled and therefore, wise, unspoiled and therefore authoritative. 

The notion is that youth is not corrupted. It’s not got a history we might say, and that lack of corruption gives the whole idea of youth a peculiar authority. Again, think about how that tilts our attitude to the past. What’s the past? Well, it’s put together by a bunch of dead white guys. Past is corrupt. We can see, you know, the products of the past in the world wars, and the conflicts we’ve had and the environmental crisis, etc. We know the mess that adults make of the world, and of course this is reinforced through pop culture. Think of how young people are typically portrayed in movies. When was the last time you saw a movie where the parents were the wise ones, and the kids were the sort of naïve idiots? Probably not too many of those movies around these days because we tilt towards thinking of youth as authoritative. 

Of course, that’s a very different world to the New Testament. I often say that the most incomprehensible verse in the New Testament for modern Christians is 1 Timothy 4:12, “Let no one despise you because of your youth”. Nobody has to worry about being despised because of their youth today. Our culture tilts towards youth. Our culture tends to idolize youth, and that’s bad news for Creeds and Confessions because that tilt us away from the authority of the past. It reinforces that tendency I noted relative to science and technology, pushes us away from the past. So that’s the second to note.

Thirdly, and this is perhaps a more subtle one, but I think equally important, the disappearance of human nature. You might say, “What do you mean the disappearance of human nature? We still believe in humans, don’t we?” Yes, we still believe in humans as a sort of biological entity. Humans can only reproduce their kind with other humans. There’s a biological commonality, but what we’ve seen really over the last 10, 15, 20, or 25 years is an increasing emphasis upon diversity, an increasing emphasis upon the fragmentation of the human race. Think about it. Now, we tend not to define ourselves as human beings. We tend to define ourselves often in terms of our cultures. White culture, black culture, Latino culture, Filipino culture, Korean culture, Japanese culture, Chinese culture, West Indian culture. The emphasis today is not so much on what binds us together, but on what gives each culture its own individual integrity and authority, and that’s combined of course with a deep-seated fear of Western white culture. 

Creeds and Confessions, vast majority of them, if they weren’t written by Western white guys have certainly enjoyed their longest stretch of authority as a result of Western white guys. And in a culture that is deeply suspicious of Western white guys, it’s inevitably going to be within the church, as this culture affects the church, going to be suspicious of the things that Western white guys have produced – Creeds and Confessions. And underlying this, I think is a loss of that New Testament vision, a loss of the biblical vision that what binds human beings together is so much greater than the ephemeral cultural stuff that divides us. The Bible deals with human beings in their human nature. It’s only interested in culture in specific contexts. When Paul’s wrestling with Jew and Gentile, for example, above all, the Bible is addressing human beings as human beings, but we’ve lost that, and in our emphasis on the fragmentation of culture. We have fragmented human nature, and that has led to us being very suspicious of theological institutions, and theological products of other times, cultures, places, etc. So that’s a third strand. We’ve got science and technology, we’ve got youth culture, we’ve also got this fragmentation of human nature going on which serves to undermine the authority of documents, Creeds and Confessions produced in different times, different places by people from different cultures. 

Fourthly, and sort of connecting to that, we also have a strong tendency these days to think about history as a tale of oppression. History is seen as a history of exploitation. Classic example of this is sort of traditional Marxism where the dynamic of history, the motor, the engine of history is class exploitation. But that’s fed over into post-colonial, post-imperial kind of views of history, where all of history is seen as powerful groups, exploiting weaker groups. Think about what that does to the past. Again, we don’t think of the past so much as providing wisdom. We think of it as a cautionary tale of oppression and exploitation. We don’t think it is something to learn from so much as something to overcome. Now, add that to my list of technology, consumerism, youth culture, disappearance of human nature. Now, we have history as oppression. Again, it’s another strike. Another strike against Creeds and Confessions because what were they? Well, they were documents produced by the oppressors. They were instruments of oppression. So, within our cultures again, we have yet another, what I would call, general cultural instinct which also bleeds into the church that makes us suspicious of history, that makes us think that history is not a source of authority as the assumptions of Creeds and Confessions require, but rather something to be overcome, something to be defeated, something to be critiqued. 

Fifth, words have come to be seen as something that we are inherently suspicious of. Everything from Nazi propaganda, right the way through to the lies routinely told by politicians at election times tilt us towards thinking that words are not actually primarily a good way of conveying truth. They’re a way of being manipulated, manipulating people, or being manipulated by people, and there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a lot of truth to that isn’t? That politicians do lie. We each individually will use words manipulatively not so much to convey truth at times but to get what we want out of the people we’re talking to.

Of course, as that permeates the culture, and affects the culture of the church, that’s devastating not just for Creeds and Confessions, of course, but attitudes to preaching, etc, are also are affected by that. But when suspicion of words bleeds into the church, then a suspicion of documents containing words bleeds into the church, and that’s one of the problems that confessionalism faces. Its words, those documents look to us instinctively because of the institutions that the culture has given us, they look instinctively manipulative, and we shy away from them. 

Finally, my list of reasons why this has been challenged. We have the rejection of institutions. My last point on the assumption of Creeds and Confessions was there has to be an institution that sort of adopts, and enforces these Creeds and Confessions. We live in an era where traditional institutions, particularly one might say traditional religious institutions, have come under severe criticism, and severe suspicion. In the world around us, the scandals that have dogged the church have done an awful lot of damage knowing that churches have engaged in cover-up of abuse, for example, has done a lot of damage to the authority of the institutional church. And when you start to become instinctively suspicious of traditional institutions, you start to become instinctively suspicious of the documents by which you perceive those traditional institutions to wield their authority, and those of course are Creeds and Confessions.

So, we have the four assumptions of Creeds and Confessions: 1) Past is important, 2) Language is appropriate and adequate, 3) Christian truth can be recast in non-biblical language, and 4) institutions are important. But then we place them against what I would call the tidal wave of the culture.

Science and technology, consumerism, disappearance of human nature, histories of tale of oppression, words as suspicious manipulative, collapse of authority of traditional institutions, all of these things don’t just shape the imagination of the world out there. They shape the imagination of Christians, and they serve to make that statement “No creed but the Bible”, a very appealing one, a very appealing one. I’ve laid out the problem this first lecture if you like is the lecture of the problems. What I want to do in the second lecture is look at how the Bible would respond to these kinds of challenges, and as used that as a way to point forward to the fact that I think the Bible itself presses on us the need for Creeds and Confessions. So, this lecture is about the problems and next lecture we start to move towards the solutions.

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