Carl Trueman is an historian by trade (do you like the Anglicisation in his honour there?). After a chapter on the contemporary impulses against the uses of creeds and confessions and another on the foundations for using them, he returns to his trade. In the 3rd and 4th chapters of The Creedal Imperative Trueman looks at the early church and the Reformation & post-Reformation period respectively to trace the development and use of creeds and confessions at those times.
In the 3rd chapter most of the time is spent looking at what are commonly called the “ecumenical councils” and the documents they produced. But the use and development of creeds and confessions didn’t start there. As he mentions in the 2nd chapter, the New Testament has an expectation for “forms of doctrine”. We see some of those forms in places like Romans 10, Philippians 2 and others. Trueman forgot to include the OT shema from Deuteronomy 6. There is a long history among God’s people of using confessions of faith, one that pre-dates the creeds of Christendom by over a 1,000 years.
In the early church, Trueman shows the development of “the rule”. A number of authors talk about a rule known to the audience of their letters. We see said mention in the letters of Ignatius, Tertullian, Irenaeus and others. This Rule typically functioned as the method for catechizing converts prior to their baptism. The “spontaneous baptisms” that thrill Mark Driscoll did not happen in the early church. People were catechized before, not after baptism (I’m sure their instruction didn’t cease, you get my point, maybe).
Trueman notes, based on a letter from Ambrose who was Bishop of Milan, that by 389 the Apostles’ Creed was not only in use but seemed to have been in use for some time. He enters into a very brief discussion about “descended into hell” to instruct us that we should not abandon or criticize a creed too quickly. It may not mean what we initially think it means. In other words, beware the knee jerk reaction. Knee jerk reactions typically produce bad theology.
From the Apostle’s Creed he moves into the 7 ecumenical councils and the creeds and formulas they produced: the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Formula and the Athanasian Creed. While the book is not about them per se he gives a brief history of each to provide some context for them. The issues were often complex, but he gives a good succinct summary of what was going on. He is helpful in reminding us that each theological development will actually produce new questions for us to consider. Nicea produced questions that are answered in Chalcedon, and so forth. To reject these ecumenical creeds means we often start back at square one, unnecessarily. We either waste time arriving back at the same destination, or we actually produce something quite inferior as we typically see among those groups that reject creeds and confessions. The theology of those groups tends to be heterodox, not superior. Thinking themselves to be wise, they became fools.
The Anthanasian Creed is not mentioned much today. This is largely because, I imagine, a series of condemnations found in the Creed. As Trueman notes later, this Creed was received by many of the Reformers and referred to in many later creeds and confessions. Unfortunately it rankles our modern sensibilities.
“Creeds are, after all, simply forms of sound words allied to a church understood not simply as a collection of random believers but as a body with a definite structure and leadership.”
He then moves, in the 4th chapter, to the Classic Protestant Confessions: the 39 Articles (Anglican), Ausburg (Lutheran), the 3 Forms of Unity (Continental Reformed) and the Westminster Confession (British and Scottish Reformed). Once again Trueman provides some good, succinct historical background for each of them.
Some of those groups are now marked by liberalism, so some may think that their confessions are the problem. No, as Trueman says. The problem is not in the confessions but in departing from the confessions in worldly pride- thinking WE know better.
“The history of the Anglican church is, by and large, a history of failure to apply the Thirty-Nine Articles and to carry forward the theology they contain.”
What he wants us to understand is that these documents contain a rich heritage that should be passed down from generation to generation. They are answers to problems or questions that plagued the church- problems and questions that are often similar to ours. We misinterpret them if we don’t take these into consideration as we study them. In this way we see their limitations and weaknesses. Some of those weaknesses can be addressed by revision and correction (as has happened in my own circles with the Westminster Confession of Faith at times).
Here we find the paradox of Trueman’s work. His writing style and vocabulary is suitable for advanced education. But the content is geared for those who need more basic instruction in some of these matters. By the style and vocabulary you would think they possess the education that would render such instruction most unnecessary. In a sense this book is written to be accessible to people like me (I have 2 Masters Degrees) and not those who have forsaken theological education and are therefor more likely to reject creeds and confessions.
I find the book helpful, but not necessarily one I’d hand to may local Pentecostal or indy fundie Baptist pastor. I may have to communicate Trueman’s content to them in a less intellectual fashion. This is a book that those of us who do believe in the use of creeds and confessions should read to help us face the challenges to them that we find today.