An Interview with Dr. Carl Trueman about the Creedal Imperative

The Creedal Imperative (purchase from Amazon or CBD) gently provides a correction to today’s misguided neglect of the Creeds and Confessions our Church Fathers agonized over and  graciously passed to we its heirs. Dr. Carl Trueman offers candid and well-reasoned discussion on the boundless worth of these documents. Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History and Paul Wooley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, a blogger at the Reformation 21 website, and a Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church. In this interview Trueman expands on his discussion of key concepts within the Creedal Imperative and helps us reason through some of the implications of the praxis leading to confessionalism.

1. A premise of the Creedal Imperative is to respond to the “no creed but the Bible” mentality and help these churches recognize that they live by creeds and confessions regardless of whether they are written down or not. Many of these churches however do have extensive doctrinal statements in place and other more business like ways of conveying their values (i.e. purpose, mission, vision statements, core values/competencies). How can a church measure the sufficiency of these current structures? What is the benchmark to determine that these current structures are insufficient?

I believe that there should be a self-conscious distinction between office-bearers and members of the church. It is the elders’ task to nurture and bring to maturity, in terms of life and belief, those who are members. Practically speaking, if a doctrine is not in the church’s confession, it is going to be very difficult to persuade any member that it is important. Thus, the confession of a church should represent what the mature Christian should believe. Ministers and elders therefore need to look at the church’s confession of faith and ask themselves: is this a fair summary of what we think the mature Christian should believe? Are there gaps? Does the confession provide an adequate statement of the whole counsel of God?

A confession need not supplant a mission or vision statement, core values and other documents. It fulfills a series of specific functions not necessarily addressed in such. I would suggest that one way of practically assessing the adequacy of the doctrinal statement a church has is to compare it to the classic historical confessions, the Three Forms of Unity, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Westminster Standards, the Second London Confession, in the context of asking the pedagogical question above. Of course, confessions fulfill more functions than just setting forth a pedagogical goal or ideal; but this is as good a place to start such an assessment as any.

2. If a “no creed but the Bible” kind of a church heeds the message of this book how would that church’s leadership transition its congregation into becoming a confessional church? Must they join a denomination, or may they remain functionally the same and adopt the creeds and confessions in worship? What obstacles will they face, and how will they overcome them?

It would depend to a large extent on who heeds the message. I would guess that, in most cases, it would be the minister. He will then need to persuade his elders of the wisdom of the position and then work gently to educate his people. We need to remember that ‘no creed but the Bible’ people are usually devout Christians who hold that position for a good reason: a sincere desire to maintain the supreme and unique authority of scripture. As such, they need to be treated gently and with appropriate respect. Thus, the process may take a long time, maybe even some years.

As far as joining a denomination goes, that is the ideal. Confessionalism works best in an appropriate connectional framework such as Presbyterianism. There you have mechanisms in place to make sure that confessions are properly used. Nevertheless, joining a denomination might be as big a cultural shift as adopting a confession in the first place. These things take time and require great sensitivity and wisdom on the part of the leadership if one is to avoid needless damage and disunity.

On obstacles: again, every church will be unique and face its own set of challenges. I would predict that some congregants will be concerned that tradition is being used to trump scripture. Then there is the cultural issue: some may well feel that their own historical roots and identity are being subverted or disrespected. The answer to such challenges is for the leadership to show care and sensitivity in how they move towards confessionalism, and to make sure they are taking great pains to educate the congregation and to be transparent about what they are doing.

3. Non-denom churches typically have new members classes and no form of catechesis/confirmation for teens. What are some perceived weaknesses and dangers of this model?

Creeds and confessions give an ecclesiastical stability to the transmission of Christian truth to the next generation. They provide vital lines of connection to the past and it is important to inculcate that in new congregants and the church’s young people.

Now, we can often be so absorbed with the need for sincerity and for immediate practical relevance that we can forget that the learning of a form of sound words can in itself be valuable, whatever the state of heart of the student and however little impact it seems to make in the short term. It may well be that the teens in your class are not believers, disinterested and bored; but if you teach them good doctrine of the kind contained in confessions and catechisms, then they have something of the truth. It may mean nothing to them at that point but you are not the best judge of what is relevant. Think of the second thief on the cross: he has a profound understanding of the holiness of God, of the judgment, of his own sin and of the fact that Christian kingdom is to be inaugurated through death. Where did he learn that? Maybe God beamed it into his brain as he was hanging there on the cross. Possible but very unlikely. It is surely more likely that he was well taught as a younger person. He had the theology drilled into him. How relevant had it been up to that point? Well, even he acknowledged that he deserved to be crucified, so we can conclude that it had been practically irrelevant to him until that moment. And that moment was, of course, the one moment when it had supreme relevance and it all came back to him.

4. The church today is encountering doctrinal challenges (i.e. existence of hell, open theism, marriage equality) that may not have been addressed by the creeds commonly accepted today. Is there a place for new creeds? With the universal church divided by countless denominations, is this feasible?

I believe that all of the specific challenges you mention are actually answerable on the basis of the confessions we have from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For example, the Westminster Standards clearly articulate a position on hell, on open theism (with which the Westminster Assembly members were familiar as Socinianism) and a definition of marriage. Thus, while I believe that the very scripture principle upheld in classic confessions means that, of course, such documents are subordinate to the Bible and always corrigible in the light thereof, in fact we need to think very carefully about whether we can answer contemporary challenges on the basis of them before we decide to change, supplement or even abandon them.

That is not to say that there is no place for churches to make specific, particular statements on issues of immediate importance: a church might well want to speak directly to the matter of gay marriage in a direct and elaborate way, in the same way that she might want to endorse or recommend a book on the subject; but such documents do not need to be made part of the church’s confessional basis. Presbyterian denominations do such reports all the time: my own denomination has in the last decade produced a report on justification; others have done such on human sexuality. Confessions fulfill very specific functions within the church; they do not prevent the church from speaking carefully and prophetically on other matters.

5. Which of the creeds is your favorite and why? 

I have benefited greatly from many of the creeds and confessions of the church.  Of course, as an Orthodox Presbyterian minister, my ecclesiastical vows are to uphold the Westminster Standards and thus these documents have a particular significance for me and my church. Yet I have appreciated the Nicene Creed and Chalecdonian Definition over the years for their concise statement of Trinitarianism and Christology. I appreciate the childlike quality of Luther’s two catechisms (he was the first parent ever to write a question and answer catechism) and I love the Heidelberg Catechism for its warm, pastoral tone. It has proved a great tonic to me over the years. I would recommend that every Christian, certainly every minister or elder, should make sure that they are familiar with as many of the great creeds, confessions and catechisms as possible.

If you found this dialogue with Dr. Carl Trueman intriguing, pick up a copy of the Creedal Imperative today. You will also find stimulating Nate Claiborne’s (follow @nateclaiborne) judicious review of Creedal Imperative. Claiborne’s review also offers two chances to win a copy of the book. Creeds of the Church edited by John H. Leith and Documents of the Christian Church Edited by Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder are also a helpful companion to this read.

You read this interview because Crossway said “Yes!” to my request for a review copy. Read more interviews on jtcochran.com here. Read book reviews from jtcochran.com here.

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