I just finished reading a marvelous little tome by Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, and cannot help but exclaim its merits. It is, in a word, an apologetic for the discipline of systematic theology, but more than this, an apologetic for publicly chronicled and shared systematic theology, subscription to which serves as the standard of ecclesiastical fellowship.
Carl Trueman is, of course, a Presbyterian, and he and I do not subscribe to the selfsame doctrinal standards. This does not detract, however, from his argument, because the creedal imperative for which he argues is not one of specific content, but one of principle. Trueman naturally favors his own creedal/confessional standards, but argues that even a flawed confession can be superior to none at all. To that end Trueman magnanimously appends to his work a bibliography of confessions and polity manuals from several ecclesiastical traditions.
That creeds are sometimes treated as independent, a priori sources of authority is an unfortunate reality. But this reality does not detract from their value as a posteriori summaries of biblical teaching. Indeed, Trueman argues, the development of such summaries is a matter both of (1) biblical propriety and (2) ecclesiastical necessity.
After spending a chapter detailing and dismantling the cultural case against creeds, Trueman establishes in his second chapter the philosophical and biblical foundation for creeds. It is here that Trueman makes his most preposterous claim, viz., that creeds and confessions are biblical, so it is well worth slowing down to summarize (and applaud) his argument:
- First, creeds. Creeds are brief, pregnant summaries of transcendent truth essential to “the faith,” and thus necessary to church membership. They are observable in Scripture in Paul’s summary of truths that are “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3–4), his “word of faith” (Rom 10:9–10), and also the “elementary principles” (lit. the ‘first word’) of the Christian faith described in Hebrews 5:12 and 6:1–2. Examples of such creeds are also found in 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:16; and Philippians 2:5–10.
- Second, confessions. A confession is a “form of sound words” that more comprehensively summarizes the church’s message/mission and constitutes a “tradition” to be transmitted by faithful men to other faithful men. As such, subscription to a confession is logically necessary to office-bearing. The idea of confessions is discoverable in the paradosis of 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; and 1 Corinthians 11:2; and in the didache of Acts 5:28; Romans 6:17; 16:17; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:9ff; and 2 John 9, 10. Remarkably, Paul and the other NT writers never exhort elders to memorize the Bible (profitable though that exercise surely is). And that is because they know that the mastery of Bible content is alone inadequate to qualifying a man for ministry; rather, the mastery and embrace of the paradosis is paramaount.
In his third chapter Trueman goes on to establish, through a survey of the seven ecumenical creeds, that “many Christian doctrines can only exist in a stable form within a relatively complex network of related doctrines” (p. 19). Biblical theology, helpful though it may be, simply cannot offer to the Church all that it needs to harmonize and encapsulate the core teachings of Scripture. To have no creed but the Bible is to revert to the brushpile of biblical truth claims that dominated the ante-Nicene church prior to the normalization process that occurred during the conciliar period of the church. Trueman demonstrates masterfully that by rejecting such creeds, the church becomes far more vulnerable to the “traditions of men” than by embracing them.
Chapter four details the major Protestant creeds and establishes the need for the perpetuated demarcation of “honest differences” within orthodox Protestantism. While Trueman concedes that evangelical coalitions may survive on the minimal basis of “mere Christianity,” churches most emphatically cannot. The concatenation of mutually exclusive ideas on ecclesiastical identity, membership, polity, and mission that marks creedless churches is such that it ultimately cannot possibly avoid destroying those churches.
The book closes with a chapter on confession as praise (promoting creedal vibrancy rather than lethargy) and a summary chapter on the value of creeds to the church.
All churches and all Christians have creeds/confessions. Some have public, accessible, and verifiable creeds; others hide them behind the falsely pious facade of biblicism. Here at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, we have a creed to which students must submit for admission, and a comprehensive confession or statement of faith to which the faculty subscribe annually. Carl Trueman might well approve (in principle at least). So do I.
Mark Snoeberger has served as Director of Library Services at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary since 1997, and as a part-time instructor since 1999. Prior to coming on staff at DBTS, he served for three years as an assistant pastor. He received his MDiv and ThM degrees from DBTS in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Dr. Snoeberger earned the PhD in systematic theology in 2008 from Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. He and his wife, Heather, have two sons, Jonathan and David.