The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

Carl Trueman, well-known Orthodox Presbyterian scholar and, at the time this book was written, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, has authored as fine of a book supportive of using creeds and confessions in the local church as one will likely find.  Reacting to the slogan “No creed but the Bible,” Trueman defends the uses of creeds and confessions to provide guardrails for truth and as teaching instruments for the church.  He writes:

The main burden of this book thus far has been to argue that creeds and confessions are not simply consistent with biblical teaching but that their existence and use are even strongly implied by the same; and also that the history of the church demonstrates that they have frequently been of great help in the maintenance and propagation of the Christian faith (p. 159).

Trueman is arguing for a particular brand of Protestant confessionalism, as opposed to creedless churches or even evangelical confessionalism.  The confessional Christian, the author claims, adheres to an official “summary of the teaching of the Bible on key points such as who God is, who Christ is, what justification means, and so on” (p. 14) as articulated in a recognized (either by the church universal or a particular subset) confession or creed.  Trueman’s preferred creeds are the Apostles’ and the Nicene; his preferred confession is the Westminster standards.

He correctly observes that despite objectives and denials all churches have a creed (p. 159) and a liturgy (p. 150), but most creeds (or statements of faith) are minimalistic, with five or six bullet point statements which unfortunately communicate that only a few doctrines are important or necessary.  Those with a more detailed belief statement, yet not tied to a standard confession, Trueman calls confessional evangelicals.  He accuses such of “an eclectic pick ‘n mix approach to classical confessional Protestantism” (p. 132).  Confessional evangelicals are not true confessionalists because they are not bound to a sixteenth or seventeenth century confession.  Confessions, Trueman writes “are only really confessions, when they are adopted and confessed by a church” (p. 133).  By a church he apparently means a confessional denomination such as the OPC.  “Confessional evangelicalism is simply a conservative form of mere Christianity, not the kind of elaborate ecclesiastical Christianity espoused by Luther, Bullinger, Calvin, or Cranmer,” Trueman states (p. 133).

This description is not quite in line with his earlier definition of creeds and confessions representing “a public statement of what a particular church or denomination believes that Scripture teaches in a synthetic form” (p. 18) and “human attempts to summarize and express the basic elements of the Christian faith” (p. 65).  Even such detailed churched with statements of faith would not be confessional because they are not committed to ancient confessions and do not recite creeds in their public worship.  What is left standing is a very narrow slice of Christianity which the author believes has gotten things right.

Trueman’s argument for classical confessionalism rests on three presuppositions:  the past is important, language must be an appropriate vehicle for stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space, and there must be a body or an institution that can authoritatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions—that body is the church (pp. 22-43, 79).  The author recognizes that all of these presuppositions are countercultural (p. 46), as are elders (p. 70) and teaching with authority (p. 72).  He sees this as a good and necessary corrective to the consumer-is-king mentality (p. 30), which has invaded the modern church.  I would agree with Trueman that the church is at its best when it is countercultural, even while I do not buy fully his polemic for confessionalism.

The Creedal Imperative contains an excellent overview of several ancient creeds, and confessions.

  • The so-called Rule of Faith (pp. 83-86)
  • The Apostles’ Creed (pp. 88-90)
  • The Nicene Creed (pp. 94-95)
  • The Athanasian Creed (pp. 102-104)
  • The Anglican Articles (pp. 110-115)
  • The Formula of Concord (pp. 115-120)
  • The Three Forms of Unity (pp. 120-124)
  • The Westminster Standards (pp. 125-129)
  • The 1689 Baptist Confession (pp. 129-130)

A helpful overview of the seven ecumenical councils is included especially: Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon and the Third Council of Constantinople (pp. 90-102).  Trueman also addresses several objections to confessionalism:

  • That the confessions can become an a priori framework that has more authority than Scripture (pp. 15, 47-48, 79-80).
  • That they are unnecessary (eg. p. 17).
  • That preaching on the catechism is inferior to preaching from the Bible (p. 153).
  • That reciting creeds is unimportant (pp. 144, 151-157, 189).

Trueman admits that creeds do not protect the church from doctrinal decline, as history has abundantly verified.  That is not the fault of the creed, he suggests, but of fallen human beings (p. 195).  Of a more confusing nature is his quote from John Henry Newman, who ultimately apostatized and returned to Rome (pp. 141-142).  Surely Newman is not the poster boy for the kind of confessionalism Trueman desires to promote—quite the opposite.  He is an example of a strong confessionalist who eventually embraced the Roman Catholic version of it.

His challenge to “biblicists” who want to stay “as close as possible to the biblical narrative and biblical categories” (p. 106) is also troubling.  According to Trueman such biblicists risk drifting into all sorts of heresies.   The only apparent safeguard is confessionalism (pp. 106-107).  The author is correct that the true biblicist leans heavily on creedal formulas worked out in the past on issues such as the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and much more.  Therefore, Trueman sees those who proclaim they have no creed but the Bible as being disingenuous, as they too stand on the shoulders of theologians drawn from church history.  But his accusations against biblicists is a bit lame when confessionalists have been at least as prone to apostasy as biblicists throughout church history.

If the reader is looking for a good understanding and defense of classic confessionalism, they need look no further than The Creedal Imperative.  This reviewer appreciates much of the material but believes that Trueman fell short of proving that classic confessionalism, and public recitation of creeds, is imperative for the Christian community, even as he exposed the weakness of the no-creed but-the-Bible mantra.

The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012) 205 pp., paper., $16.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel.

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