The Creedal Imperative

9781433521904Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton: Crossway, September, 2012. 208 pp. Paperback, $16.99.

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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

Generally speaking, I try to read anything Carl Trueman writes. He is always thought provoking and I think his perspective on evangelical Christianity should be more widely heard (whether or not he’s actually right in some of his analysis). I’ve reviewed quite a few of his books on the blog (here, here, and here for instance), so it’s only fitting to not only review his most recently published work, The Creedal Imperative, but also to offer you the chance to win a copy courtesy of Crossway!

Overview

In his brief introduction, Trueman sums up his overall case:

I want to argue that creeds and confessions are thoroughly consistent with the belief that Scripture alone is the unique source of revelation and authority (19).

Actually, just kidding. Trueman would never spend a whole book just to argue something like that. No, he tells us he actually wants “to go somewhat further”:

I want to argue that creeds and confessions are, in fact, necessary for the well-being of the church, and that churches that claim not to have them place themselves at a permanent disadvantage when it comes to holding fast to that form of sound words which was so precious to the aging Paul as he advised his young protege, Timothy (19).

Ultimately then, Trueman doesn’t want to just convince you that creeds are compatible with a high view of Scripture’s uniqueness and authority. No, he wants to convince you that “the need for creeds and confessions is not just a practical imperative for the church but is also a biblical imperative.”

Hence the title: The Creedal Imperative.

No, in order to accomplish this, Trueman starts in chapter 1 by treating the cultural argument against creedalism. First, he offers his three presuppositions underlying his case for creeds (22-23):

  • The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us
  • Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space
  • There must a body or an institution that can authoritatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions

He then notes that each of these represent a “profoundly countercultural position, something that stands opposed to the general flow of modern life” (23). He then spends the rest of the chapter fleshing out in turn how modern life undermines each of these presuppositions.

In chapter 2, Trueman takes a positive turn, and rather than explaining why people are averse to creeds, he begins building his case for them. He builds a kind of biblical theology of creeds that culminates in Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13. Ultimately he concludes that there is a biblical precedent for not just passing on sound doctrine itself, but the pattern or specific way of speaking of such doctrine. Rather than taking the place of “norming norm” which belongs to Scripture alone, creeds are “normed norms.”

The next two chapters cover the historical development of Christians creeds. First in the early church (chapter 3) and then the classical Christian creeds (chapter 4). Here Trueman is doing what he does best: historical exposition. In about 50 pages, Trueman gives a thorough, but precise overview of the development of the majors creeds within the Christian church. Even apart from the larger argument of the book, there is much to be gleaned here.

In the final two chapters, Trueman talks first about the connection between Christian praise and the confessions/creeds before wrapping up with a chapter on the practicality of them. After discussing how valuable they are in the context of Christian worship, Trueman suggests that the question should be “Why would we not use them?” rather than “Should we use them?” (158). From there, Trueman offers a list across the final chapter to explain the “advantages the church can enjoy if she gives creeds and confessions their proper place in her daily life” (159). He first points out that all churches and all Christians already have some kind of latent creeds or confessions they hold to, so by making them publicly accessible, the following advantages follow:

  • Confessions Delimit the Power of The Church
  • Creeds and Confessions Offer Succinct and Thorough Summaries of The Faith
  • Creeds and Confessions Allow For Appropriate Discrimination between Members and Office Bearers
  • Creeds and Confessions Reflect the Ministerial Authority of the Church
  • Creeds and Confessions Represent the Maximum Doctrinal Competence That Can Be Expected from a Congregation
  • Creeds and Confessions Relativize the Present
  • Creeds and Confessions Help to Define One Church in Relation to Another
  • Creeds and Confessions Are Necessary for Maintaining Corporate Unity
Trueman doesn’t expound on these exhaustively, but merely sketches the contours. It is probably one could write a whole book just expanding his final chapter and the list above would make the table of contents.

Strengths/Weaknesses

In looking at Trueman’s book from an evangelical perspective, he offers a critique that mainly strikes people who want to say they have no creed but the Bible. I think Trueman does a good job of dismantling this claim as both untrue and unhelpful when it comes to how we formulate doctrine in the life of the church. After reading his book (and looking at the history of the church before the 20th century), I do not see a rational way to hold to the idea that we don’t need some kind of creeds or confessions that our individual churches adhere to.

I had a little difficulty though seeing how the book was addressing more than this particular audience. Christians who are part of churches already bound to creeds and confessions will find Trueman’s book interesting, and certainly his historical overview chapters valuable, but it may not offer much to them unless they are also engaged in dialogue with other Christians parting churches lacking a defined creed or confession (such as many non-denominational and Bible churches).

An extension of this is that I hard time figuring out how Trueman’s argument would relate to my personal situation. So, for instance, I’m part of a church that adheres to the Apostles and Nicene creeds, as well as the doctrinal statement of the National Association of Evangelicals. Much of this is in virtue of being part of a church that is in the Acts 29 network, which while not a denomination per se, more or less functions like one. However, a weakness of this is that we do not have a more extensive confessional statement of faith, so when it comes to catechesis, we don’t have anything fleshing out our doctrinal statement. It was hard to tell from Trueman’s overall case whether our creedal stance is sufficient, or since it really is in the background of our church life (we don’t use it in the worship service and I would doubt whether the average person in the church could summarize either the Nicene Creed or our doctrinal statement) that we would fall under his critique.

That aside, Trueman presents a very strong case for his position and as always, does so in an engaging, lively way. So, my main concern would be the intended audience of the book, but other than that, it’s a very strong case for the use of creeds in the modern church. Hopefully it’ll be read by those who need to hear its argument.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in reading a book that makes a clear case for adopting creeds and confessions in the local church, this is the book for you. If you don’t find Trueman convincing, I’m not sure who you would find convincing. I think, after reading his book, that every local church should at the bare minimum adhere to one of the oldest Christian creeds. Non-denominational churches may balk at adopting at more recent creed or confession, but I think many of the problems that come with being part of a non-denominational church could be traced back to this position. That is probably another blog post entirely, and I don’t want to purse that here.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

10 thoughts on “The Creedal Imperative”

  1. saying that “creeds” are helpful is like saying motion is helpful, without specifying where. There are some memorable creeds in Scripture itself, such as from Dt 6:4.

    However, the verse saying “in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mt 15:9) raises the stakes on how far the adoption of a creed goes. Teaching “the precepts of men” as doctrines went hand in hand with their vain (empty, useless) worship of God.

    It’s interesting that “the precepts of men” are not discounted completely. It’s that precepts of men should be checked; they could be false; they shouldn’t be swallowed without examination and repeated examination.

    1. Not gonna lie, I pretty much expected you to have the first comment on this!

      You’ll be glad to know that Trueman shares your concerns. He starts with the creeds in Scripture, and is open to creeds being examined in light of Scripture. I’d be interested to see your take after actually reading his thoughts!

  2. BTW,

    Been reading your blog for several months now Nate and I love it! I need to comment more, but I feel like all too often all I can say is “I agree.” But that would soon become monotonous.

    1. Maybe variations on that theme? Thanks for taking time to comment though, maybe I’ll just assume you agree now that I know you’re reading and if you object, then we’ve got something to comment on!

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