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Foundations of Creedalism (Reformed Conference 2021)

Day 3, Lecture 2

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman

In this second lecture, I want to address some of the issues that I raised in the first lecture that make the idea of creeds and confessions problematic. My underlying point if you like in the first lecture is this: that the idea, “No creed but the Bible” that we often instinctively tend to think of as a very biblical idea.

Well, the way we understand that might actually be shaped by what I would call the anti-historical and anti-institutional tendencies that permeate the world in which we as Christians at the beginning of the 21st century live; and what I want to do now is argue that all of those cultural tendencies actually need to be critiqued, and put in their place by the Word of God in order to lay the ground for understanding why creeds and confessions can still be very important for us today. 

 So that’s what I want to do in this lecture. 

You remember, of course, one of the issues that I laid out in the first lecture was the fact that History has become a problem for various reasons. Science and Technology tilt us away from seeing History as a source of wisdom the dominant schools thinking about History encourage us to think about History as a as a tale of oppression, and therefore something to be overcome rather than learn from; and there’s that general feeling that that History refers to times that were more backward than ours, and therefore referring to peoples and ideas etc that are at best launching points for better ideas in the present at worst mere you know antiquarian museum pieces. 

So I want to start by thinking about the biblical approach to the past, and the first thing I want to suggest is that History is very important in the Bible, and should be very important to Christians because God is a God who works in and through History. It’s a truism to say you look at the Bible the vast majority of the Bible’s teaching is cast in the form of History, a narrative of events a laying out in the present of events in the past so that people in the present can learn from those events. God creates. God acts within creation then God calls Abraham, he calls Isaac, he calls Jacob, he calls Israel out of Egypt, he calls Moses to be the leader of his people, he sends his son to take flesh to humble himself and die even the death on a cross to rise again. 

All of these things take place in the context of History the Bible is not an abstract set of logarithms. It’s not if you like on the surface of it simply a set of eternal unchanging principles. It is primarily a narrative, a narrative that tells us history. History, the events of the past, are important because God is a God who works in and through that history. He stands above and beyond it. He’s not changed by History but History is the significant theater of his operations. It’s the place where he works and it’s the place where he reveals himself. His eternal nature is sort of paradoxically revealed in the events the flux the change the struggles the triumphs of the History of God’s people culminating in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

So that’s the first think a very simple point if you like. First thing is as a Christian we cannot buy into the idea that all of history and all telling of history is necessarily oppressive or bad. That’s not the case. The Bible clearly indicates History is vital to us knowing who God is and how he acts. 

Secondly, we could develop from that and say History is also important because it’s fundamental to the identity of God’s people. When you think about God’s people in the Old Testament, who are God’s people? They’re the children of Abraham. There’s a story behind that. There’s a history behind that. They’re the people that God has brought out of Egypt. That’s historical. They have a history. They have an identity. 

You think about your own personal identity. If I was to bump into one of you in the street and say you know who are you? You’re unlikely to give me your genetic code or point me to your unique fingerprints. Your genetic code your fingerprints they’re unique to you but they’re not who you are. We might say they’re sort of what you are but they’re not who you are. Who you are is intimately connected to the history you have, the relationship you have, the family you were born into, the friendships you developed, the job you chose, the person you married, the children you have, the place you chose to live.  All of these historical factors shape your identity. 

Well on a much larger scale of course, they shape the identity of nations. The Philippines has a distinct history that makes it the Philippines. England has a distinct history that makes it England. The United States has a distinct history that makes it the United States. God’s people have a distinctive history that makes them who they are. History is fundamental to the identity of God’s people. If you ask the Jews who are you: children of Abraham. If you ask Christians who they are: those united to Christ. Well, who’s Christ? Christ is God come in the flesh who lived, breathed, taught, died, rose again, ascended, will come again. There’s a history there that gives us our identity. 

So as well as God being a God who works in and through History there’s a definite implication if you like for us in that in that history doesn’t just reveal who God is it defines who we are. It gives us our most fundamental identity and when you think about that it’s you know, history is then written down and ritualized in Scripture to reinforce this. 

Why do we have the Bible? Well, it’s a set of words stable set of words for communicating the identity of God’s people via teaching us the history of God’s people across the ages. It’s a written document but it’s foundational to our identity because it reminds us of history. 

That History is also ritualized in the life of God’s people in the Old Testament. Think about Exodus 12. We’re going to come back to Exodus 12 in a few moments but just this point notice in Exodus 12, the inauguration of the Passover. Why is the Passover important? It’s a reenactment of the First Passover. It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder to the children of Israel of their history. It’s a reminder of who they are. It’s vitally important in that reenactment on an annual basis of that first Passover is a reinforcement of the history, the history of the people of Israel. 

Think about us in the New Testament Baptism. What does baptism do? Baptism points you back to the baptism of Christ. Baptism binds you in that great line of people who’ve been baptized, and gives you your identity. 

Think of the Lord’s Supper. What is the Lord’s Supper? The Lord’s Supper is a reenactment of that last supper that the Lord had with his disciples before his betrayal, death, crucifixion, death, resurrection. It’s a reenactment of a bit of history that reminds us, reinforces, that history reinforces, that identity. 

I don’t know about the Filipino annual calendar but certainly in England and America. Important dates in the National History are marked by National Holidays. In America, July the 4th Independence Day Thanksgiving reminding us of when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in North America, Martin Luther King Day. These days remind Americans of their history. They punctuate the rhythm of time in order to point them back to the past to remind them of who they are in the present. 

History is critically important. Why do you go to church on a Sunday? One might say you go to church on a Sunday on one level to be reminded of and to participate in the history that gives you your identity. 

So the first thing then say this this modern tendency to downgrade History. Christians can’t go there. Yes, we can certainly look back on history and say there are elements of history that are talk of oppression, speak of oppression of the powerful over the weak. History is not an unmitigated story of progress. It’s not all sweetness and light but that doesn’t allow us to dismiss it or to tilt against it. History is vitally important so the first thing, that first assumption, that one of those assumptions that creeds and confessions have that history is important. That’s a biblical assumption. That’s a biblical assumption. That what has gone on in the past is absolutely vital to understanding who we are in the present. 

A second point remember I said last time the whole idea of human nature has been really downgraded, that we tend to emphasize now diversity and fragmentation rather than that which unifies us but I want to say the Bible, the Bible certainly acknowledges there are cultural differences. Paul talks about Jew and Gentile, slave and free. The Egyptians know they’re not the Israelites etc, said the Bible acknowledges cultural differences. It doesn’t seek to eliminate all human distinctions but underneath those distinctions is a fundamental distinction that unites all human beings. 

God is creator we are creatures made in his image, the image of God, laid out in Genesis. The mandate given to human beings in Genesis, Go forth, multiply, subdue, etcetera, etcetera, that is foundational in a way that ultimately when we’re dealing with ultimate questions of life, ultimate questions of truth, ultimate questions of the Gospel overrides the difference between black and white, Filipino and English, American, and Mexican. All of those distinctions, important as they are for the way we live, our lives here on earth are relativized by the emphasis in the Bible on the solidarity of the human race as those who are made in God’s image. 

We see a good example of that actually I think in the New Testament, 1st Corinthians Chapter 1 where Paul is wrestling with really in some ways it’s the great cross-cultural preaching chapter in the New Testament. Paul is wrestling with how the gospel is received differently by Jews and Greeks. You know he says, you know the Jews when the Jews hear the gospel it’s an offense to them that God would come and die hang on a tree. That’s an offense. It’s morally offensive to the Jews. Their culture predisposes them to think of it in that way. He says the Greeks on the other hand, they react differently the Greeks think it’s foolishness. This idea that God an unchangeable God would take flesh that’s nonsense to them. That’s ridiculous. It’s foolishness to them but notice where Paul goes with that he says yeah to the Jews it’s an offense to the Greeks it’s foolishness to those who are being saved it’s the power of God to salvation. 

Essentially, we can relate to God, we can misunderstand the Gospel in ways that our cultures predispose us to misunderstand the Gospel but the Gospel is the Gospel for Jew and for Greek. The Jew who gets it and the Greek who gets it sees the Gospel as the power of God to salvation. In other words, their Jewishness and their Greekness that ultimately fades away when they grasp the truth of the Gospel. There isn’t one way of salvation for the Greek and one way for the Jew. There’s just the one way of Salvation; and those who get it regardless of their ethnic or cultural backgrounds, they get it. There is a huge emphasis if you like on the unity of human nature. 

Well, we might ask then how does that apply to creeds and confessions? Trueman, that’s an interesting idea but how does it apply to what you’re saying? Well, remember creeds and confessions are human attempts to summarize and express the basic elements of the Christian faith. 

Now, they’ve been put together throughout the ages by people from different contexts but all of those people are bound together by what we might call the shared horizon of God’s revelation in Christ, and in the biblical text, and by the common human nature that they all share now. 

That’s not to say that their culture doesn’t creep in that their historical context doesn’t creep in and doesn’t perhaps shape some distinctive emphases or means they’ll express things in certain ways.   Most obviously you know English people writing a creed are going to write in English. German people writing a creed and writing German. A Korean people writing a creed, they’re going to write in Korean. They’re obviously going to be cultural impact there but on a more fundamental level they’re human beings engaging with the revelation of God. 

Two common horizons that may be nuanced culturally but the bottom line is this. Just because a creed was written by a bunch of people 400 years ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t connect to me today. They were still human beings made in the image of God engaging that one horizon of their humanity which I share with the horizon of God’s revelation to which I’m exposed today in the Bible. 

So all of this is to say that the fact that human beings share a common nature relativizes the cultural differences we have, and should soften tone down neutralize to some extent the fear we have of creeds and confessions from other societies and other cultures. 

So History then, Christians, we have to be pro-History, and we have to emphasize that which unites us not that which divides us, and both of those things actually lay the groundwork for seeing creeds and confessions as appropriate and helpful. 

Thirdly, we have these adequacy of words. One of the things I said towards the end of last lecture was words are now under deep suspicion, deep suspicion in our culture. They’re seen as manipulative. They’re seen as not transparent vehicles for truth but as instruments for getting what we want out of other people. We might say as instruments not for revealing the truth but for hiding the truth or using the truth in untruthful ways.

Well, I want to suggest that certainly a function of words in the fallen world, we see it in the serpent in the garden. What’s the serpent doing? He’s manipulating God’s words. So clearly, there’s truth to that but the fact that words are abused doesn’t mean that words are necessarily wrong. The fact that I could use a hammer to hit somebody with and hurt them doesn’t mean that hammers are intrinsically bad. Hammers can still be used for the purpose for which they’re designed, hammering in nails. 

Well, when you think about words in the Bible a very clear picture emerges. First of all, I think we need to understand that words are fundamental to God’s identity. We even have that language don’t we? Gospel of John Chapter 1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 

Now, obviously the term is being used there not in the same way as the words that I’m speaking now but John’s wanting us to draw an analogy. He’s wanting to draw us analogy. The fact that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity is appropriately characterized as Word that is significant for words in general. 

Secondly, when you look at Genesis Chapter 1, the first thing we learn about God other than the fact that he exists is that he speaks. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light and there was light.” And God saw that the light was good and God separated the light from the darkness. First thing we know about God is He’s wordy. He’s verbal. 

If you like the nearest analogy in our vocabulary to the way God brings about creation is speech. God is a speaking God, and I’ve often thought you know when you think about it human beings we are pretty much the only creature on the face of the planet with linguistic capacity. 

Yeah, you can teach chimpanzees to order a coke by pushing bits of plastic around on a table but no chimpanzee can reflect on their own existence using language. No chimpanzee can write poetry. No chimpanzee could produce the plays of Shakespeare. No chimpanzee could even write a shopping list. 

You know we are remarkable in our incredibly powerful linguistic capacity and I think that’s part of us bearing the image of God. God is a wordy God. We are wordy human beings. Our fundamental relations and connections as human beings are normally mediated via words, via speech.

And that brings me to my point that words are fundamental to human identity. When you think about it, Genesis 1:28-30 establishes the basic status and the duties of humanity in relation to the created world. Human beings are verbal. Adam names the animals. 

The symbol, the embodiment of Adam’s god-like status over all other creatures is that he names the animals. Now, he’s not God. God names him but Adam names the animals. We might say he makes them what they are in terms of how we think of them through his use of language. Words are powerful and they’re central to being human. Think about the power of words, humanly speaking. Well, think about God when God pronounces his curse in Genesis 3. God is not simply describing a state of affairs. He’s bringing things into existence. He’s making the curse. 

When I as a minister marry couples on occasion, and I say I now pronounce you man and wife. I bring, I bring that status into existence in a sense when I say that I’m not looking at this couple, and saying, “Oh Wow! They’re now man and wife. I better let everybody know.” I am liturgically creating a marriage at that point. 

Words then are central to human identity and existence. We cannot afford to take a purely cynical view of words. They’re also, of course, the basic means of God’s active presence in this world. God is present in the Old Testament through his speech. 

Now, yes there’s a sense image God is present everywhere, metaphysically everywhere, God is present but especially present with Israelites. 

How and why? 

Because he speaks to them, and we see that in the book of Amos. The book of Amos Chapter 8 verse 11, and following says, “Behold the days are coming declares the Lord God when I will send a famine on the land not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea from north to east they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.” 

What do we make of that? What’s the Lord saying? 

There is he not going to be metaphysically present with the people of Israel. Well of course, he’s going to be present with the metaphysically maintaining them in their existence, but he’s not going to speak to them. He’s going to be practically absent from his people. At that point, the famine of the Word of God means he is withdrawing his, we might say, saving presence from the people of God.  

At that point think, about it, you know if you have been, you know with a friend, or a spouse, or something you’ve had an argument, and then you’re not speaking to them for a while. Maybe you’re even in the same room, and your wife isn’t speaking to you because you’ve done something silly, and you’ve upset her. She’s there but she’s functionally absent. She’s not, she’s not speaking. Her presence has gone until she speaks again. 

Words, the means of God’s presence in this world, we see that in the New Testament. 

What happens at the baptism [in] Mark? The heavens are torn open and God speaks, and there was an Old Jewish gloss on a verse in Isaiah that said you know until the heavens are torn open, God’s going to be absent from his people. [In] Mark, the heavens is specifically described as being torn open. 

Next thing is the word we hear, the words of God: “This is my beloved Son…”, and we see the Spirit descending upon Christ. It’s the quintessential Trinitarian moment, but it’s also a crucial moment in the history of salvation. God is present with his people again, and they know it because He is now speaking. 

And of course it characterizes the gods, the false gods. What characterizes false gods, they’re silent. They don’t speak (Psalm 115). They have mouths but they do not speak. Baal, on the top of Mount Carmel, when Elijah is having a showdown with the prophets, what is the writer of Kings tell us again, and again, No one, No one answered. There’s this horrible silence on the top of Mount Carmel. When the prophets are calling out to Baal, because Baal does not speak, he is a silent god, and this of course, 

I think [this] feeds over then into why God uses words in Scripture, he communicates his presence through the words of Scripture, and he commands his people to put words in the service of the divine. 

Again go back to Exodus 12, you know Moses is laying out the Passover, and he comes towards the end, and he remembers that there’ll come a point, when there are children present at Passover who weren’t there at the first Passover, and they want to know what’s going on, and Moses says this, and when your children say to you, what do you mean by this service you shall say it is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover for He passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses. Moses says speak give them the words that communicate the true significance of the Passover. Moses doesn’t say just do the Passover ritual again only slower and with more exaggerated actions because somehow they’ll get it. No, tell them the primary means for communicating God’s truth is words. 

Again, this modern suspicion of words, as Christians we have to make sure that that is tempered, [and] moderated by the importance that Scripture itself ascribes to words as the means by which truth is communicated from age to age and from place to place. Isaiah is commissioned, of course, in Chapter 6. What’s he told to do? He’s told to go and speak to the people as Moses was told to go speak to Pharaoh. 

Words have always been central to God’s identity, to human identity, and to God’s plan for the church in history, and that leans then of course in the New Testament to something like say 2nd Timothy Chapter 1:13 where Paul I think Paul at this point towards the end of his ministry, of course, is thinking of what’s going to happen after he and the other apostles have gone when there’s nobody left who actually met Jesus. 

What’s authority going to look like? He tells Timothy to hold fast to a form of sound words. I think what Paul is saying there is hold fast to sound orthodox, accepted summaries of the faith, because Paul sort of offers a few of those himself. Think of 2nd Timothy 1 Chapter verses 9 and 10. Just before he makes this this point about hold fast, or form of sound words, “…God who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but because of his own purposes and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ to abolish death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” It’s a nice summary of the Gospel isn’t it? Philippians [Chapter] 2 verses 5 to 10, a lot of scholars think that what Paul is doing there is quoting something that was in common circulation among the churches as a nice summary of who Jesus is. 1st Timothy 3:16 offers another neat summary of Christian teaching and Paul goes as far there to say in 1st Timothy 1:15 this statement is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance the Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and that little phrase trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, again seems to point to we need these summary phrases. 

These summary statements that capture an important point or pull together in an easy concise form biblical teaching. That’s why elsewhere in Paul’s letters, he’ll talk in terms of tradition. Tradition, we tend as Protestants think that’s catholic that implies sort of something independent of the Bible. No, for Paul tradition is handing on what the Scriptures mean. Teaching people not only to read the Bible but to understand the Bible by teaching them how to interpret it, teaching them what the Bible is actually saying. If we summarize it, Paul says in 2nd Thessalonians 2:15, “…So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us either by our spoken word or by our letter.” 

Again the verbal emphasis is clear. We can find similar statements in 1st Corinthians 11:2, 2nd Thessalonians 3:6 where Paul makes conformity to the tradition of his teaching a condition for fellowship. There is this summary of teaching that’s being passed down that tells people what the Bible taught in other words if you like. I don’t think Paul would say, Paul would say, one says yeah, “…No creed but the Bible.” That’s true if you mean by that nothing should have ultimate authority but the Bible but I think if you, if Paul say, if you mean by that, we shouldn’t have summaries of the Bible’s teaching that are helpful to us people, say No! No, that’s wrong. Actually, we should have creeds. It’s not “No creed but the Bible.” It’s “Let’s have creeds that help us understand the Bible”.

Finally, of course, the last point in this lecture is institutions. We fear institutions that was my point in the first lecture, and yet Paul is very clear that belonging to a body belonging to something that has a sort of concrete existence is very important.

If you think what Paul says in Romans 10:9-10, he says this: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Paul’s saying that there’s a kind of private and public aspect to being saved. Private aspects – you’re believing in your heart; Public aspect is committing yourself to this public teaching declaring (declaring) in your life in your words that Jesus is Lord.

And it’s very clear that the believing is never disconnected from belonging in Paul’s mind. Think about Romans 16:17, Paul writes the following, “I appeal to you brothers to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught avoid them.” Believing and belonging, if you’ve been taught wrong doctrine you’re in danger of not belonging. That’s where division is coming from. Doctrine is very important for Paul.    

I think the institutional aspect of the church already said as Paul is thinking about what’s going to happen after the apostles pass from the scene. Hold fast to formal sound words. The church is going to need good summaries of the faith to keep the correct understanding of the Bible up front and center in its life, but it’s also going to need people who take care of that stuff because Paul in 1st Timothy in Titus what does he do he calls on Timothy to ordain elders. Find some ordinary guys, trustworthy guys, solid guys, who understand the Bible, and put them in positions of leadership, and authority in the church. That’s very important. 

So in Paul’s mind, if you like, the post-apostolic church is going to have former sound words, and it’s going to have a formal leadership. In other words, it’s going to be an institution. A bit like a political party has a set of beliefs, and has a formal organization. The church has got a set of beliefs, formal organization, and that’s how you tie together the believing and the belonging. So again to return to a point I made in the earlier lecture, this suspicion we have of institutions. 

Again, we need to critique it. We need to bring it into line with the Bible. Yes, institutions can go corrupt. Yes, institutions can be bad. Yes, institutions can do wicked things. No doubt. No question, but that doesn’t allow us to dismiss institutions in their totality. What it means is that as a church we need to be constantly repenting of our sins, and depending upon God’s grace. We don’t get rid of the church of as an institution because it’s made up of sinners. What we do is we act, we think, we believe, and we behave in a manner that indicates our dependence upon God’s grace. 

So then in the first lecture, I laid out all the problems. In the second lecture, what have I done well one, try to argue History is vitally important. Two, language is vitally important in the Bible. Three, human nature vitally important. Four, church’s institution, vitally important. In the final lecture what I want to do is give a very brief summary of the history of creeds and confessions, and then offer you a series of what I would consider to be real advantages of having a good creed or a confession for your church, and one of the things I want to press in that is you know it’s not creeds or the Bible, in fact creeds and confessions when they used appropriately enable us to preserve precisely that Bible-centeredness that is so important to the Christian faith, and so important to Reformed and Evangelical people.

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