reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
The Creedal Imperative, by Carl Trueman. (Crossway, 2012, 208pp.)
Within the world of evangelical Protestantism, creeds have fallen on hard times. They are old, irrelevant, and go into way too much detail about non-essential doctrinal points that just cause conflict. “Doctrine divides, mission unites,” as they say.
Therefore, it is a massively difficult task that Carl Trueman has taken on in “The Creedal Imperative”, making the case that not only are creeds helpful, but also essential to the life of the church. For many people, the whole idea of creeds conjures up words like “dry,” “dusty,” and “academic” but Trueman does a brilliant job of making his case for creeds readable and understandable for those who are not familiar with them, and are not sure whether they should be.
From the very first page, Trueman addresses himself to the popular objections to creeds. His leading example is a pastor who claimed that his church had no creed but the Bible, yet at the same time taught the five points of Calvinism, dispensationalism, and form of church government drawn from the Plymouth Brethren. Trueman points out that while this pastor’s church claimed “its only creed was the Bible, it actually connected in terms of the details of its life and teaching to almost no other congregation in the history of the church. Clearly, the church did have a creed, a summary view of what the Bible taught on grace, eschatology, and ecclesiology; it was just that nobody ever wrote it down and set it out in public.” (Kindle Locations 119-122)
The example of this unique church and its unwritten creed, which Trueman refers back to many times, highlights a key point of the book: Every church has a creed, but not every church acknowledges it. Trueman writes:
“I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true.” (Kindle Locations 165-169).
This single point alone is pure gold in terms of highlighting the need for creeds and confessions. Although I wish Trueman spent more time fleshing out the practical consequences of a church not having a public creed, we can easily see the results in countless churches around the world.
When you don’t have a public, written standard (or at least one that people actually pay attention to), then the eventual disagreements in doctrine and practice among church leaders and members end up creating chaos. Who is to say who is right? Whoever is in power, or able to rally the most people to their side. That’s who. Might makes right when there is nothing external to the personalities involved, or at least nothing authoritative. Yes, there is the Bible, but whose interpretation are we to go with? Having a previously agreed upon creed, confession, or statement of faith that is learned and used in the regular course of church life can go a long way towards resolving conflict. A written confession of faith takes many disagreements out of the realm of personality and whim, and puts them in the realm of agreed upon norms and accountability.
Even though this observation alone should be enough to convince a church to seriously consider using a public creed or confession of faith, Trueman continues on from this point to make his case to the unconvinced in three ways:
1) First, he spends the introduction and the chapters 1 and 2 discussing the reasons why the contemporary world doesn’t like creeds, and then responds to those objections by positively stating the value of history, the stability of linguistic meaning, and the validity and authority of institutions. Those who question the biblical precedent for creeds will be interested to follow Trueman’s argument in Chapter 2 as he comments on various biblical passages that suggest creedal formation. Thus, he assures the reader that creeds are not alien to Scripture, but in fact necessitated by Scripture. The necessity of creeds is seen in passages such as, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 1:13)
2) Secondly, he briefly surveys the history of creeds and confessions in chapters 4-5. These historical chapters are particularly valuable in giving a broad overview of the development of creeds from the time of the early church to the Reformation. Trueman discusses the immediate causes that prompted the writing of each creed or confession, and its significance for the church today. He doesn’t cover every creed, but just hits the major ones in the Protestant tradition. Readers who find themselves confused about which confession is which and how they are different will be helped by Trueman’s overview in these chapters.
3) The last two chapters round out the book with a discussion of the contemporary usefulness of confessions. In chapter 5, we see how creeds and confessions can shape the direction and orthodoxy of the church’s worship, protecting it from trendiness and errant doctrinal forces. Chapter 6 wraps up the book by restating some of the previous arguments and pointing out how creeds aid Christians in expressing their faith and ensuring “the stable transmission of the gospel from one generation to another” (Kindle Location 2678).
In the concluding chapter we also see Trueman making a more direct critique of those who don’t have written confessions, asserting that
“[I]f you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or a confession or something that fulfills the same basic role, such as a statement of faith. Here, I want to make the point that those who repudiate such ideas are being unintentionally disingenuous: they still have their creed or confession; they just will not write it down and allow you to look at it and scrutinize it in the light of Scripture. They are in a sense more authoritarian than the papacy.” (Kindle Locations 2680-2683)
A statement like that may sting, but that’s because truth hurts. Trueman knows how to speak diplomatically, but he also knows how to call it like it is. If you combine those qualities with his characteristic wit and mastery of words (and befuddled disdain for technology), Trueman is real delight to read.
In summary, Trueman makes a solid case for the necessity of creeds and confessions and this book should prove both enlightening and useful for those who are either on the fence about the validity of creeds, or are just becoming interested in the topic. As a confessional Presbyterian, I hold to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms yet as a latecomer to the whole world of confessional Christianity, I have not been as familiar with the case for creeds as I should be, nor am I very well acquainted with the confessions of other Protestant traditions. For those reasons, I found “The Creedal Imperative” to be a great overview of the topic, and Trueman’s suggestions “For Further Reading” should prove to be a handy guide when I want to learn more about the various creeds and confessions.
If you want a substantial, yet succinct and readable overview of creeds and confessions, “The Creedal Imperative” is a great place to start.