by Carl Trueman
In the introduction, I briefly mentioned the standard, knee-jerk reaction against creeds and confessions, often found in evangelical circles, that such documents supplant the unique place of the Bible, place tradition on an equal—or even superior—footing with Scripture, and thus compromise a truly evangelical, Protestant notion of authority. While I will offer a more thorough response to this line of objection later, I did note that all Christians engage in confessional synthesis; the difference is simply whether one adheres to a public confession, subject to public scrutiny, or to a private confession that is, by its very nature, immune to such examination.
Before proceeding to a more thoroughgoing exposition of the use and the usefulness of confessions, however, it is worth spending some time reflecting on other reasons why creeds and confessions are regarded with such suspicion these days. While the objection to them is often couched in language that appears to be jealous for biblical authority, there are also powerful forces at work within our modern world that militate against adherence to historic statements of the Christian faith. As the goldfish swimming in the bowl is unaware of the temperature and taste of the water in which he swims, so often the most powerfully formative forces of our societies and cultures are those with which we are so familiar as to be functionally unaware of how they shape our thinking, even our thinking about what exactly it means to say that Scripture has supreme and unique authority. It would be a tragic irony if the rejection of creeds and confessions by so many of those who sincerely wish to be biblically faithful turned out to be not an act of faithfulness but rather an unwitting capitulation to the spirit of the age. It is some of the forces that shape this spirit that I address in this chapter.
My conviction that creeds and confessions are a good and necessary part of healthy, biblical church life rests on a host of different arguments and convictions; but, at root, there are three basic presuppositions to which I hold that must be true for the case for confessions to be a sound one. These are as follows:
1. The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us. Creeds and confessions are, almost by definition, documents that were composed at some point in the past; and, in most cases, we are talking about the distant past, not last week or last year. Thus, to claim that creeds and confessions still fulfill positive functions, in terms of transmitting truth from one generation to another or making it clear to the outside world what it is that particular churches believe, requires that we believe the past can still speak to us today. Thus, any cultural force that weakens or attenuates the belief that the past can be a source of knowledge and even wisdom is also a force that serves to undermine the relevance of creeds and confessions.
2. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space. Creeds and confessions are documents that make theological truth claims. That is not to say that that is all that they do: the role, for example, of the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds in many church liturgies indicates that they can also fulfill doxological as well as pedagogical and theological roles; but while they can thus be more, they can never be less than theological, doctrinal statements that rest upon and express truth claims about God and the world he has created. They do this, of course, in words; and so, if these claims are to be what they claim to be—statements about a reality beyond language—then language itself must be an adequate medium for performing this task. Thus, any force that undermines general confidence in language as a medium capable of conveying information or of constituting relationships is also a force that strikes at the validity of creeds and confessions.
3. There must be a body or an institution that can authoritatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions. This body or institution is the church. I will address the significance of this in more detail in subsequent chapters, but it is important to understand at the outset that confessions are not private documents. They are significant because they have been adopted by the church as public declarations of her faith, and their function cannot be isolated from their ecclesiastical nature and context. This whole concept assumes that institutions and institutional authority structures are not necessarily bad or evil or defective simply by their very existence as institutions. Thus, any cultural force that overthrows or undermines notions of external or institutional authority effectively removes the mechanisms by which creeds and confessions can function as anything other than simple summaries of doctrine for private edification.
If these are the presuppositions of confessionalism, then it is clear that we have a major problem, because each of these three basic presuppositions represents a profoundly countercultural position, something that stands opposed to the general flow of modern life. Today, the past is more often a source of embarrassment than a positive source of knowledge; and when it is considered useful, it is usually as providing examples of what not to do or of defective, less advanced thinking than of truth for the present. Language is similarly suspect: in a world of spin, dishonest politicians, and ruthless marketing, language can often seem to be—indeed, often is—manipulative, deceptive, or downright wicked, but rarely transparent and something to be taken at face value. Then, finally, institutions, from multinational corporations to governments, seem to be in the game of self-perpetuation, bullying, and control for the sake of control. They are never seen as entities that exist in practice for the real benefit of others. Thus, the big three presuppositions of confessionalism fly in the face of the values of contemporary culture, and confessionalists clearly have their work cut out to mount a counterattack. And such a counterattack begins with the simple truism of every successful campaigner, from wartime leaders to the coaches of high school track teams: know your enemy. In this context, knowing the enemy may also help us to realize how, in our defense of the unique authority of Scripture, our understanding of what that means is sometimes shaped more by the hidden forces of the world around us than by the teaching of Scripture and the historic life and practice of the church.
Devaluing the Past
Numerous forces within modern culture serve to erode any notion that the past might be a useful source of wisdom. Perhaps the most obvious is the dominance of science. I am not, of course, referring to the content of science. Science undergirds almost all of those things which make life bearable, from electric lightbulbs to cancer treatment. To say science is the enemy is not, in this instance, to be antiscience. Rather, I am thinking of the kind of cultural mindset that science helps to cultivate and reinforce.
Science, by its very nature, assumes that the present is better than the past and the future will be better than the present. Again, this is not in itself a bad thing. It is surely part of what drives the laudable curiosity that motivates scientists and leads to major breakthroughs; and there is much evidence that this—the fact the present is better than the past—is, indeed, the case. As one who teaches history, I am often asked by students in which period of history I would most have enjoyed living. My answer is simple and straightforward: this one, the here and now. Call me a weakling if you like, but I would much rather live in an era with analgesics, antibiotics, and flush toilets than in earlier periods where pain killers were unknown, medicine usually involved swallowing some kill-or-cure snake oil made by a wrinkled old crone with dubious personal hygiene, and the “facilities” were little more than a hole in the ground on the edge of the village. By and large, in areas where it is relevant, science has made the world a better place. The evidence is not all one way, however: the Holocaust, for example, is one instance where science was clearly used to destroy rather than enhance life, and that on a huge scale. But, by and large, science has brought with it huge gains, from medicine to dishwashers.
The problem is that science also comes loaded with a certain philosophical bias, and that is, as stated above, that the past is inferior to the present. It has a built-in narrative of progress, whereby everything—or at least almost everything—just keeps getting better; and the problem is that this tends to inculcate a broader cultural attitude that applies the same kind of expectation in other areas. Throw concepts like evolution into the mix, and you have a gravitational pull within the culture toward the future, built on the assumed inferiority of the past.
This narrative of scientific progress instills a belief not simply in the superiority of the present in relation to the past but also in its uniqueness. This time in which we live has so much more knowledge, displays so much more sophistication, and is so much more complicated than the past. Thus that past is consequently of no real use in addressing the problems or issues of the present, so great is the difference between them. One would not, for example, use a horse and cart to transport fuel from an oil refinery to a petrol station. Nor would one today consult a seventeenth-century textbook on surgery to find out how to remove a burst appendix. So why would one turn to some confession written in the fourth or the seventeenth century to find a summary guide to what Christians today should believe?
Some years ago, I was exposed to precisely this attitude while teaching a class on the ancient church. At some point, I mentioned that a certain professor from another institution was going to be visiting campus to deliver some lectures on the Westminster Standards, that is, the Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. A student immediately asked why she should bother attending these because “some documents written in the seventeenth century seem to have very little to do with” her ministry. I asked her if she had read these apparently irrelevant documents recently. She said she had not. I then pointed out to her that these documents had been regarded by many people as vital and vibrant expressions of the Christian faith since their composition. Given this, and their connection to historic traditions and trajectories of church life and Christian thought, I suggested with every ounce of tact and gentleness I could muster that she might perhaps better ask herself not so much what relevance they have to her ministry but what relevance her ministry had to the church. Her assumption was simple: the past could not really speak in any meaningful way to the present. She was truly a child of the scientific age.
Closely related to the role of science in cultivating an attitude that downgrades the importance of the past is that of technology. A simple example should make this point clear. My mother lives in an old weaver’s cottage in the Cotswolds. In what is now her living room, there is a stone fireplace and, in that fireplace, there are a series of small holes, roughly an inch in diameter, now plugged with wood, which indicate where the weaver would have had his loom. It is easy to imagine a scene in the early nineteenth century in which the weaver was hard at work making cloth when one of his children wandered into the room and inquired as to what exactly he was doing. No doubt, the weaver would have sat the child down and explained how the loom operated, how the shuttle carried the woolen thread from one side to the other and slowly but surely formed a sheet of fabric. The flow of knowledge from the older generation to the younger was clear; this was no doubt repeated many times in preindustrial societies around the world, where children typically grew up to follow in the footsteps of their parents and were thus more or less apprenticed to their parents from an early age.
Now, jump forward nearly two hundred years to a scene in the same room. I am sitting there, trying to set up my mother’s DVR to record a Gloucester versus Leicester rugby match and, try as I might, I cannot get the machine to do what I want it to do. In walks my niece and asks what I am trying to do. After I explain to her what is going on, she sighs, rolls her eyes, picks up the remote control, and with what seems to me to be two touches of the buttons, has the machine set up to record the match. With a shake of her head, she walks back into the kitchen.
Notice what has happened here, and what the significance of these two encounters is: the flow of knowledge has been reversed. No longer is the younger dependent upon the older; rather, the older is dependent upon the younger. Technology, because it is constantly and rapidly changing, inevitably favors those who have been brought up with it, and who have the kind of young, agile minds that develop new skills quickly and easily. You cannot easily teach a middle-aged historian, any more than an old dog, new tricks; and that means that technology will always favor the young.
This is just one anecdote and, as my secretary will tell you, I am among the more—ahem—technologically challenged men of my generation; but the general point is a good one. The technological world, particularly given the rapidity with which it is constantly changing, creates an environment where the assumption is that older people are going to be dependent upon the younger. Taken by itself, perhaps, this might not be so significant; but combined with the impact of science as a whole upon cultural attitudes, it undoubtedly plays its role in the bias against age, and thus against the past, which is a hallmark of the modern world and which is not incidental in the general antipathy among Christians for creeds and confessions.
A third cultural force that militates against respect for the past is consumerism. As with science, there is much that could be said here, but I will restrict myself to the most salient aspects of the phenomenon.
Consumerism can be defined as an over-attachment to material goods and possessions such that one’s meaning or worth is determined by them. This definition is reasonably helpful but misses one key aspect of the phenomenon: it is not just the attachment to material things, it is also the need for constant acquisition of the same. Life is enriched not simply by possessing goods but by the process of acquiring them; consumerism is as much a function of boredom as it is of crass materialism.
What has this to do with rejection of the past? Simply this: consumerism is predicated on the idea that life can be fulfilling through acquiring something in the future that one does not have in the present. This manifests itself in the whole strategic nature of marketing. For example, every time you switch on your television set, you are bombarded with advertisements that may be for a variety of different goods and services but that all preach basically the same message: what you have now is not enough for happiness; you need something else, something new, in order to find true fulfillment. I believe that this reinforces fundamentally negative attitudes toward the past.
Think for a moment: how many readers of this book are wearing clothes they bought ten years ago? How many are using computers they bought five years ago? Or driving automobiles more than fifteen years old? With the exception of vintage car collectors, the economically poor, and those with absolutely no fashion sense, most readers will probably respond in the negative to at least one, if not all three, of these questions. Yet when we ask why this is the case, there is no sensible answer. We can put a man on the moon, so we could probably make an automobile that lasts for fifty years; most of us do little on computers that could not have been done on the machines we owned five years ago; and we all throw away clothes that still fit us and are quite presentable. So why the need for the new?
A number of factors influence this kind of behavior. First, there is the role of built-in obsolescence: it is not in the manufacturer’s best interest to make a washing machine that will last for a hundred years. If that were done, then the manufacturer would likely be out of business within a decade as the market became saturated. Such is a possible, but actually unlikely, scenario. Developments in technology mean that longevity will not be the only factor driving the market. Efficiency, for example, or enhanced and multiplied functions might well create a continuing need for more goods. Aesthetics also play a role; the ability to market goods based on aesthetics and image has proved powerful. Remember the cool, sleek look that Apple computers developed at one point? That gave them a clear edge over their rivals.
Second, and related to the first point, we see in the consumer economy a coalescence of aesthetics and a bias to the young in the creation of the so-called youth market, and the closely related marketing of youth to older types like myself. If no eighteen-year-old male believes himself to be mortal, so no middle-aged male wants to appear to be any older than he was twenty years ago. Indeed, with the exception of those odd types (of the kind who read The Daily Telegraph in the UK and the National Review in the US) who were probably born with comb-overs, receding hairlines, and bottle glasses, it would seem that the market for youth clothing (albeit with slightly expanded waistline sizes) is alive and well long into territory previously reserved for the superannuated and beyond.
In today’s topsy-turvy world, youth has status. That is why so many old-timers spend large amounts of money and time trying to hold on to, or even win back, some of its accoutrements, whether by purchasing a pair of jeans from Aeropostale, buying a male grooming kit, or even undergoing drastic plastic surgery. Harmless as these phenomena are at one level, at another they are part of the larger cultural impulse toward disdain for the past and for old age. We see this not just in fashion, of course, but also in the “wisdom” now invested in young people who are considered competent to opine on complex matters, not despite the fact of their relative youth and inexperience but preciselybecause of it. Pop music, a function of youth culture if ever there was one, is perhaps responsible for this. In the last few decades, we have had the pleasure of hearing all manner of people, from Hall & Oates in the eighties to Lady Gaga in the present, telling the world what to do about everything from apartheid to third world debt to gay marriage. Apparently, the lack of “baggage” (to use the standard pejorative) is an advantage to being able to speak with authority on complex subjects. In other professions, of course—from plumbing to brain surgery and beyond—“baggage” is generally referred to as “appropriate training,” but, such is the power of a youthful smile, a full head of hair, and a trim waistline that such does not apply to matters of morality, economics, or the meaning of life in general.
As a postscript, the impact of consumerism is one reason why church sessions and elder boards often spend more time than is decent on discussions about worship and programs. Someone will make the point that certain young people have left because the worship is not to their liking and thus the church needs to think again about how it does things. Laying aside the fact that, for most of us, no church gives us everything we want in worship but we are nonetheless happy to attend because the Word is truly preached, it is interesting to note the session member’s response: we need to do something, to think again about worship. In other words, we need to respond to the needs of the consumer. An alternative approach might be that we need to do a better job of explaining why we do what we do, and what the obligations entailed in solemn vows of membership are; yet this is often not the knee-jerk reaction to such concerns. The consumer-is-king mentality renders all established and time-tested practices unstable and utterly negotiable.
The Disappearance of “Human Nature”
Another factor that impacts the possibility of documents such as creeds having any usefulness is the disappearance of “human nature” as a category. This is often not done explicitly, except by the most extreme advocates of postmodern skepticism; but functionally the idea of a human nature or “essence” that connects people in one time and place to another is today often neglected or ignored. Numerous factors play into this. One is that the modern world has made everyone more acutely aware of the vast variety of social and cultural practices exhibited by different groups. The Englishman of the nineteenth century might have been able to rest secure in the knowledge that taking afternoon tea was the way human beings should act and that those who did not do so were either weird (if English), or dastardly (if French, Italian, or
German), or inferior (if otherwise foreign). Now, however, we know that afternoon refreshment practices are scarcely the result of the structure of the human genome. More seriously, we know that practices considered disgusting by one group, such as female circumcision, are yet considered necessary by others. This raises the question of whether there are universal human values and rights and, if so, what criteria are to be used to determine what they are. If eating pork is unacceptable to Jews, does that mean that French pig farmers should be closed down? What, if anything, is the common cultural, ethical, philosophical, or metaphysical core that binds human beings together? Indeed, does such a thing exist?
If “human nature” does not exist, other than as a specific, basic biological structure that means one human can only reproduce in conjunction with another, then what authority can anybody or any human document that belongs to another time or place have? If human nature is really a construct of the particulars of a specific historical, geographical, and cultural context, it is not immediately obvious that, say, a document produced in Constantinople near the end of the fourth century can have any relevance to people living in London or New York at the start of the twenty-first. For historical documents to speak beyond their own time there has to be some kind of fundamental continuity between their form and content and the present age.
Consumerism plays its part here as well. If you are what you consume, if you can be whatever you want to be, then what binds you to your neighbor? More importantly, what binds you to the people in other times and places? If you are master of your own destiny, then you are free to act toward the past and toward other people in the same way you act toward the goods on the supermarket shelf. You buy what appeals to you and leave behind that which does not.
The implications for creeds and confessions are obvious. Choose your particular: they were written by dead, white males who dressed differently to us, had different attitudes to the world, spoke in a different language, were celibate, were not celibate, never understood technology or listened to Elvis, never grappled with the scientific breakthroughs of recent years, etc., etc. If nothing binds us to them, or if the differences between us and them simply overwhelm any analogy there might be between us, then they have nothing useful or relevant to say to us, and we are better off ignoring them. A world in which human nature is merely a construct put together by the individual or by the specific community in which the individual is placed is a world where historical documents, such as creeds, can have no transcendent significance but are doomed to be of merely local or antiquarian interest.
Words, Mysticism, and Pragmatism
If devaluing the past is one aspect of contemporary culture that militates against the usefulness of creeds and confessions, a second is the current suspicion of words as reliable means of communication.
We need to acknowledge at the outset that there is plenty of evidence for the problematic nature of words. To quote The Police: “Poets, priests and politicians have words to thank for their positions.”1 The idea that words are one way to establish and maintain personal power and prestige is deeply rooted. Indeed, a whole school of literary theory has developed around this notion, whereby words have become little more than tools to be used to marginalize and manipulate others. I remember some years ago watching a 1930s Nazi propaganda film entitledSein ohne Leben (“Being without Life”), which was designed to make the case that children born with severe mental and physical disabilities should be euthanized. The documentary was significant in that it helped pave the way for the social and cultural context in which the broader policies of the Holocaust could be pursued. But what interested me in particular was the way it used those two words—“being” and “life”—as a means of making a manipulative distinction that served to obscure the horror of what was really being proposed. By implying that a child with severe encephalitis possessed a mere existence and no life, by driving that wedge between the two, the child was effectively and quietly robbed of personhood and thus of status. The words were not being used to convey information; they were being used to create a reality and one that, in the wake of the Holocaust, looks vile and manipulative.
One could add to this many examples drawn from the sphere of politics, perhaps the most notorious realm for such linguistic twisting. In short, the case for words being susceptible to manipulative usage is not one that can be credibly questioned. Such has led to a broader cultural cynicism about language, which has bled over into the church. That Christianity is a way of life and not a set of propositions has become something of a mantra among younger Christians in the last ten years. Of course, like most erroneous notions, it contains just enough truth and has just enough legitimate criticism of alternative positions to be credible. Indeed, one of its underlying concerns—that Christianity not terminate in a mere intellectualism—is surely legitimate, even if the sweeping terms in which this is expressed clearly involve an unbiblical reduction of Christianity to praxis. It is not actually that original: Desiderius Erasmus, Richard Baxter, and Adolf von Harnack, to
name but three, all offered variations (of differing degrees of orthodoxy) on this theme. Yet the frequency with which it occurs in the history of the church indicates that at least some of the concerns it seeks to address must be legitimate.
In addition to the obvious problems with the way language has been used by people such as politicians, and how sophisticated literary theorists have dismantled old linguistic certainties, there is also a popular strain of mysticism (for want of a better word) that pervades modern culture and that is profoundly suspicious of words. This takes various forms. One thinks, for example, of the notion that certain emotional sentiments or responses constitute truth, something that is often epitomized by the kind of statements made with remarkable regularity on TV talk shows. “I just know in my heart that it is true” is built on this kind of thinking. Many of us no doubt have encountered ethical argumentation that amounts to, or perhaps is even expressed as, “It feels so good. How can it possibly be wrong?”2
Again, we might turn to popular music to provide a summary of this kind of thinking. If the reader will forgive the obvious incoherence of using words to undermine confidence in words, here are a few lines from Madonna’s song, “Bedtime Stories”:
Words are useless, especially sentences.
They don't stand for anything.
How could they explain how I feel?
Madonna actually makes quite a profound point here: the modern emphasis on emotions as the locus of truth or, to use the trendier term, authenticity, is fundamentally non- and even antiverbal. When someone declares that they “just know in their heart” that the latest boy band is the greatest phenomenon of Western musical culture since Bach left the organ loft for the last time, you may know that they are talking arrant nonsense, but there is no way that you can refute this person’s claim because it is not a claim expressed using public criteria commonly known as words and logic. It is a purely personal, subjective judgment; and, in its claim to truth, it makes truth something mystical, something to be experienced, not something subject to normal criteria of public evaluation.
To have such an attitude so deeply embedded in popular culture, whether pop songs or talk shows or the visceral level of public discourse one often witnesses on the television in scenes outside courthouses, political rallies, and sporting events, would in itself create plenty of difficulties for the notion of creeds and confessions. Yet we see the impact of suspicion of words even within the Christian church. At the Reformation, preaching came to supplant the Mass as the central act of corporate Christian worship; underlying this shift was a move toward an understanding of the gospel as promise and of salvation as being by faith in that promise. Thus, proclamation of that promise in words moved to center stage. In recent decades, however, many churches have shifted preaching from this central place. In some contexts, preaching has not been abandoned; rather, it has been relativized and now stands alongside dramatic performances, candles, incense, and small group discussion. In other contexts, preaching has been pushed completely aside for conversational discourse, where the authoritative voice of the preacher has been replaced by a more democratic dialogue. Underlying all these shifts, in practice if not always in terms of self-conscious planning, is a suspicion that proclaimed words are no longer a reliable authority or, perhaps better, a plausible authority, given the wider antiverbal cultural dispositions.
Populist suspicion of words is not the only point at which the antiverbal mystical emphasis bites the church. Such also has deep and highly sophisticated roots within the history of modern theology. For example, this kind of mysticism is analogous to the kind of revision of the notion of Christian theology that took place at the hands of F. D. E. Schleiermacher, the so-called Father of Liberalism, at the start of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Enlightenment, and particularly in response to Immanuel Kant’s critique of traditional epistemologies, Schleiermacher sought to rebuild the Christian faith in a manner that would be plausible in his context. As the notions of objective truth and of the possibility of generalizing universal truths from the particulars of history had been abandoned, Schleiermacher offered an account of Christian theology which understood doctrine not so much as statements about the nature of God as a description of religious psychology. Thus, for example, predestination ceased to be what it appeared on paper to be—a statement about God’s eternal purpose relative to men and women—and became rather a poetic expression of the feeling of total dependence upon God as experienced by the religious individual. Further, Christ became supremely important as the incarnation of God not because he was the incarnate God in the traditional manner defined by the Chalcedonian Definition of 451, but rather because in him the consciousness of God was supremely manifested.
Within such a framework, then, propositional, doctrinal Christianity (and the creeds and confessions that epitomized it) was exchanged for something mystical and experiential. Of course, to tar this with the label “liberalism” is likely to precipitate an immediate reaction from
self-styled conservative evangelicals. Liberalism is the enemy; it is what “they” hold to—whoever “they” are—and not something of which we are guilty ourselves. Yet mysticism is alive and well within evangelical circles. Anyone who has ever been told by a friend that the Lord led such a friend to do something completely silly, or anyone who has ever been at a Bible study where the burden has been to explain “what the text means to me,” regardless of what the words on the page and the grammar and syntax might otherwise indicate, has experienced an evangelical mysticism that is not really distinguishable from traditional liberalism at the level of its understanding of what constitutes truth.
Closely allied to mysticism is another phenomenon lethal to confessional Christianity: pragmatism, the notion that truth is to be found in usefulness. When one reflects for a moment on talk-show style mysticism, this becomes obvious. When individuals on such shows declare that “I just know in my heart that this is true,” what they are often saying is, “This belief works for me; it has some actual, practical result that I like.” Whether the belief makes them more cheerful, or helps them to feel more important, or gives them hope for better times ahead, the important thing is not so much the content of the belief as its result.
Such thinking pervades much of modern church life. I noted above the student in class who questioned the usefulness of creeds and confessions today. By her application of such a category to the creeds, she immediately indicated the pragmatic tendency of her thinking. We might also reflect upon the pragmatic content of so many books written by and for evangelical Christians. Here, for example, is the Amazon blurb for The Eden Diet: A Biblical and Merciful Weight Loss Program:
The Eden Diet helps readers understand the many reasons why they have not been able to lose weight in the past. In most cases, they fail to eat according to their God-given internal sensations—their hunger pangs. Hunger was meant to be a compass that tells people when and how much to eat. However, most overweight people eat for external reasons that have little to do with hunger. They eat according to the clock, because of automatic habits, in response to their emotions and fleshly desires, or in response to tantalizing advertising messages. The Eden Diet shows how to overcome those fattening habits. It explains how to eat in response to the body’s internal signals, how to block out external stimuli that trigger eating, and how to lose weight and achieve the abundant life God intended for His children in the beginning. Specific advice is given that helps readers eat for weight loss at pot luck events, buffets, at restaurants, on holidays and special occasions, and any time they are faced with challenging emotions and sinful desires.3
This book is available as an audio download from a well-known evangelical publisher, a publisher that lists on its website, as of July 2011, a large number of Christian diet books, including Fit for My King: His Princess Diet Plan and Devotional; The Maker’s Diet: The 40-DayHealth Experience That Will Change Your Life Forever; the two-volume Never Say Diet Personal Fitness Trainer; and the intriguing but presumably overstated New Bible Cure for Cancer.
The existence of such books within Christianity is a study in itself, since it speaks eloquently about a range of topics, from how people understand the essence of Christianity to what they see as the ideal Christian life. For our purpose here, it is sufficient to note the profound pragmatism that these titles indicate: Christianity is all about what it can do for you in the here and now. Similar genres exist within the evangelical world for financial planning, education, and self-fulfillment. All are evidence that the pragmatism of the wider world is alive and well within the walls of the church.
In such a culture, it is not surprising that creeds and confessions do not appear particularly useful. One will search in vain in the creeds of the ancient church for advice on how to stop excessive snacking between meals or on how to avoid a second trip to the dessert table at a potluck lunch. Further, while I cannot claim comprehensive knowledge of every confessional document written during the Reformation, none, as far as I know offer the reader a personal trainer, a wonderful “health experience,” financial prosperity, or a cure for cancer. By the standards of the culture that has produced the Eden diet, one would have to say that the confessional heritage of the church is really rather useless.
Finally, remember that the comment about the irrelevance of creeds and confessions was made by a student who was a member of a confessional church in one of my classes at a confessional seminary. It is not only the less doctrinally informed areas of evangelicalism that have been impacted by the priorities of Oprah and company. Ask yourself this: if my church put on a conference about how to have a great Christian marriage and fulfilled sex life, would more or fewer people attend than if we did one on the importance of the incarnation or the Trinity? The answer to that question allows an interesting comparison between the priorities of the church today and that of the fourth and fifth centuries. It is not that the people in your church do not believe that, say, Christ rose from the dead and the tomb was empty; rather it is that such belief has no real usefulness to them other than as it provides them with what they are looking to obtain in the here and now. In such a context, orthodoxy as expressed in the great creeds and confessions is not rejected; it is simply sidelined as irrelevant and essentially useless.
If there are deep forces within our culture that militate against creeds and confessions on the basis of their nature as historical and linguistic documents, there are also forces that strike deep at these documents in terms of their origin and their status. Creeds and confessions are, by definition, statements made by institutions (churches), and they derive their practical authority from their connection to such institutions. It is true that some confessions have a single author. The Belgic Confession, written by the French Protestant Guido de Bres, is one obvious example; but it possesses its authority because it has been adopted by a church as an authoritative document. In the case of the Belgic Confession, this adoptive action was taken by the Synod of Dordt, which met in 1618–1619 in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. It is the sanction of a corporate body that gives the confession its legal ecclesiastical status, not the specific identity of the author.
This institutional aspect of creeds and confessions is culturally problematic. Indeed, if anything marks the contemporary world it is surely suspicion of external authority. One might generalize and say that the issues noted above, with science, technology, consumerism, language, mysticism, and pragmatism, are all variations on the theme of rejection of external authority, that of the past in the case of science and technology, and that of anything but the self in terms of consumerism, language, and the rest.
Of course, this rejection of external authority is ultimately rather selective. While many today reject traditional forms of external authority (family hierarchies, civil governments, traditional moral values, etc.), those same people often accept rather uncritically other forms of external authority. Think, for example, of the mindless emulation of the fashions of pop stars by their fans; or the incredibly naïve confidence that is often placed in the opinions of vacuous and ill-informed celebrities on, say, third world debt or global warming, as opposed to those of traditional experts. Youth culture is the same: why on earth would anyone want the opinion of the latest boy band on anything unless he was convinced that knowledge gained by experience, knowledge from “out there,” was actually a hindrance to truth and not a means of accessing it? Yet the blogs and the news media crave the views of the likes of Lady Gaga on all kinds of things of which they are technically ignorant and actually incapable of expressing themselves with any coherence or thoughtfulness. They are authorities not because of their knowledge or skills but because of their status in our modern consumer society; and the fact that they are relatively young (or like to think that they are, as in the case of the superannuated Bono) is strangely seen as a plus, an advantage, something that qualifies them to make these statements. As I noted above, it is hard to imagine applying the same criteria to, say, electricians or brain surgeons, where age and experience are typically seen as essential qualifications. Strange to tell, on the bigger questions and problems of the world and society, having “relevant training and knowledge” is more likely to earn one excoriation as “an ivory tower academic” or part of the dreaded “establishment” than a useful contributor to any proposed solution. Lady Gaga is apparently more likely to have the answer to human sexuality or third world debt than a minister or an economist. Arguably, therefore, the rejection of external authority needs to be carefully defined as the rejection of traditional forms of external authority in order to be an accurate statement.
Even with this qualification, however, the church—or at least the traditional church, with its structures of governance, its established ways of doing things, and its creeds and confessions—fares badly. Ironically, the old forms of authority have been replaced by new ones; self-appointed gurus abound, as do theological and antitheological potboilers. But my concern is not with passing fads; it is with a recovering of traditional and, as I will argue, biblical patterns of institutional authority.
First, however, it is worth spending a few moments examining why respect for traditional external authority is at such a pitiable state today. It is clear that the same forces that made consumerism an antihistorical force also militate against traditional institutional authority. Consumerism is built upon the notion of the construction of self-identity through consumption. Fashions in clothing are a great example of this. Whether it is the shirt of one’s favorite sports team or a style of dress adopted by one’s favorite TV or pop star, at the heart of fashion is the notion that by purchasing certain goods one can create an identity for oneself.
Broadening out from fashion, the world of commercial advertising is predicated on this kind of self-creating consumption. Commercials are not simply designed to create dissatisfaction with the present and thus to orient the audience toward the future; they are also designed to send the signal that you can make yourself different, you can become the ideal person you wish to be, by purchasing some particular goods or services. This is not simply a matter of creating needs; it is also about sending a message that you are master of your own universe. The Nike sales pitch, “Just do it!” might as easily be written “Just be it!” for, with a credit card in your pocket, you can become whatever you want to be. Authority lies within you, or at least that is the message the sales and marketing people wish to send; external authority is merely a repressive force that prevents you from being whoever and whatever you wish to be.
We also see a kind of mysticism and pragmatism in anti-authoritarianism, where the locus of authority is ultimately not an external institution or body of knowledge but rather the inner being of the person. If “it” is “true for me” because “I just know it in my heart,” then guess what? “My heart,” whether that is a feeling of happiness or of self-esteem or of whatever, is the authority: internal, mystical, appointed by me using pragmatic criteria and as far away from any notion of direct external or institutional authority as is possible. Of course, it does not take a genius to realize that so many of the things that we “just know in our hearts” do actually come from external authorities—commercials, idiotic talk shows, television pundits—but that is not the point. The point is that we do not consciously understand this or recognize such authorities as having that effect.
One further factor that militates against traditional notions of external institutional authority is the Internet, specifically the world of blogs and tweets. There are, of course, different types of blogs. I myself do a bit of blogging for an e-zine, reformation21. For me, it is simply an electronic form of traditional journalism. I write articles, and the editor publishes them. One thing that reformation21 does not do is allow “comments” to be made by random readers on the content. Anyone can write to the editor; and, in the current virtual world, it takes very little effort to track down an author’s e-mail and send one’s thoughts straight to the source. But the deregulated posting of public comments is not allowed.
From my perspective, this is a good thing. I have yet to read a “comments thread” on any topic of significance that does not quickly degenerate into moronic commentary that is as notable for its vacuousness as it is for its personal abuse. The culture of the comments thread is one which has confused the right to speak with the right to be heard and which sends a rather uncritical signal to the world about what constitutes good argumentation and appropriate contributions to discussion. Yet the visceral reaction with which such “comment free” e-zines meet from some individuals speaks once again of a culture where an anarchic free-for-all apparently is the only acceptable way of approaching a topic. The democratization of discussion in this way is inimical to traditional notions of authority and to the traditional notions of knowledge and expertise which underlie them. Again, we might note that this is a selective repudiation of authority: I have never read a comments thread on a blog dealing with brain surgery or rocket science, but I doubt that the good ones in these fields contain too many comments about “Nazis” or end with remarks like “Fantastic stuff guys !!! ” by people signing themselves off as “Crazydogguy” and the like. Politics and theology are much more likely to attract such discourse, it seems, and this surely indicates, and reinforces, the wider cultural problem with the kind of authority associated with traditional institutions when it comes to what we might term the more philosophical aspects of life.
Of course, it is not just the anarchy of the blogs that plays to this kind of attitude. The arrival of Wikipedia and the like is also significant. Now, I confess that I am something of a Wikipedia fan. It is a fantastic resource for finding out the ages of favorite movie stars and the kind of trivia on a variety of subjects that is most useful when one is taking part in a pub quiz. The problem is that it can give the impression that a subject can be mastered in a very short period of time. I remember a few years ago reading a blog where a person was telling the world that he had never heard of presuppositional apologetics until that morning, had read the Wikipedia article on the same, and that it had completely changed his life. Indeed, he may even have specified the time—11:23 a.m. comes to mind—at which this earth-shattering change took place. The point was ridiculous: whether presuppositional apologetics is capable of such impact is one question, but that a Wikipedia article could provide sufficient information to achieve this is surely unlikely. Were it so, then one could only conclude that all those who reject the position are either mad, stupid, or have never read the article. A most unlikely scenario, methinks.
What these things—anarchic blog comments, the assumption that reading a Wikipedia article gives true insight—witness to is the creation of a culture of knowledge in which little weight is placed upon expertise and the idea that competence in some things only comes after extended periods of hard work and training. They are thus further factors in the complex of cultural forces that discount traditional sources of authority—institutions, traditions, etc.—and replace them with sources that derive their authority from something else, not least the hip trendiness of the latest fad or celebrity.
It seems clear to me that this anti-institutional tendency is deep-rooted even within churches that, on paper, place a premium on structure and authority. For example, in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), we have a book of church order that lays out the basic structures of the church and the procedures by which these are to be maintained. Office-bearers (ministers, elders, deacons) take strict vows that bind them to particular doctrinal positions (the Westminster Standards) but also to the denomination and the local congregation. All the office-bearers with whom I have been privileged to serve over the years have taken their vows very seriously.
What is less often noted, however, is that members, too, take vows. In the OPC these vows are not the same as those of office-bearers. This is for good reason; the qualifications for office bearing, as opposed to being a member, are somewhat more stringent, as we shall explore in a later chapter. But while the content of the vows for members may be less stringent in terms of specifics, they are no less serious in terms of their binding quality. In the OPC they involve profession of faith in the Trinity, trust in Christ for salvation, and commitment to the local body and submission under God—a key qualification—to the elders.
What never ceases to amaze me is the casual way in which people make and break membership vows, sometimes within weeks. I have seen individuals leave the church because they were not given the Sunday school teaching opportunities they thought they deserved, because they did not like the worship style, and because their children found a more interesting church elsewhere. That such reasons do not give any grounds for breaking vows never seems to register. Indeed, some leave without giving any reason at all, so lightly do they regard solemn vows taken before God and the church.
Now, I would never advocate that someone cannot leave a church at which they are very unhappy; and thankfully, there is provision for people to be able to move if they decide to. Cults take away people’s freedom; the church should never do that. But there are processes by which this can be done, typically through discussion with the elders, which actually seek to honor the integrity of the vows. What is striking is that these processes are, in my experience, rarely used as they should be. Often the first thing that the elders hear is that somebody has already left and would like a letter of transfer to his new church or simply to be erased from the membership rolls.
What this phenomenon tells me is that the suspicion of, or (perhaps better) indifference to, the external authority of institutions is as deeply embedded in the culture of the contemporary church as it is in society. And such an attitude inevitably has an impact on the way creeds and confessions are viewed. The person who has no real, practical respect for the church as an institution is inevitably going to have little respect for the documents that church has produced and/or authorized as part of the basic means by which she identifies herself, witnesses to the world, and maintains some level of order within her ranks.
The Fear of Exclusion
One further cultural proclivity worth mentioning is that of the fear of exclusion, of drawing boundaries such that some people belong and other people do not. In addressing this matter, it is important to note that much of the tragedy of human history, particularly more recent history, has been wrapped up with the problem of exclusion. One need only think of the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the Balkan crisis, and the gassing of the Kurds to understand how vicious some forms of exclusion can be. Racism is only the most obvious; we can all think of other, less obvious, forms of exclusion that also help to justify crimes, great and small, perpetrated by one group of human beings against others.
Such forms of exclusion have left many with a lasting fear of anything that might smack of looking down on others as inferior. In the silly extremes of political correctness, it almost seems that anything at which I choose to take offense is to be deemed oppressive, exclusionary, and on the slippery slope to some form of genocide or holocaust. Yet we must not allow the excesses of the PC types to blind us to the really genuine concerns that underlie this fear of exclusion; but nor must we be blind to the impact it has upon attitudes to things like statements of faith and confessions.
A confession is a positive statement of belief; but in making a positive statement of belief, it inevitably excludes those who disagree with its content. Even the most tenuous confessions do this: the Unitarian may claim a creedless faith, but he is never going to invite a Trinitarian, who insists upon the nonnegotiability of the Trinity, to fill his pulpit; Trinitarians are therefore excluded. And if it is true that the creedless faith of the Unitarian inevitably excludes some, how much more true is this of orthodox Christian creeds and confessions? The Athanasian Creed is the most spectacular of these as it contains not only positive statement of Christian doctrine but also anathemas against those who disagree with its teaching. It is explicitly, not merely implicitly, an instrument of exclusion.
Trajectories of thought that take their cue from traditional Christian liberalism have little or no patience with such exclusivism, of course, because they see doctrinal statements not as transcendent truth claims but as expressions of the religious psychology of the individual or the particular religious community. Whether the inspiration for this is the kind of Kantian theology of Schleiermacher or the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein, the net result is the same: the truth claims of one community do not apply in any real or straightforward way to another; thus the problem of excluding some is localized and limited. This is my truth; tell me yours (to quote the title of the Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 album).
The last decade has intensified this fear of exclusion particularly when it comes to religion. The impact of religiously motivated or religiously expressed terrorism such as the attack on American institutions on September 11, 2001, has created a cultural atmosphere scarcely conducive to exclusive religious truth claims. One can see this in various responses that have been offered to the rise of alleged religious radicalism. There is the increasingly commonplace use of the catch-all term “fundamentalism” and its cognates that presumably lumps anyone who takes their religion seriously together under the same scary category, the wild-eyed Jihadist suicide bomber and the aged Amish grandmother. That fundamentalism equals violence is virtually a given for many.
Reaction within the religious world to this cultural moment is interesting. Within Christian circles, the decade after 9/11 saw the rise and fall of the cluster of movements grouped together as the emergent church, with its emphasis on Christianity as a way of life, not a set of doctrines, and its prioritizing of belonging before believing. This latter slogan, of course, can only make sense if belonging and believing are actually separable in a more than merely formal way. Such a notion is, in the case of many emergent leaders, built on assumed postmodern epistemologies. These are themselves in origin connected to the rise of postcolonialism, with its fear of the hegemony of the white man’s religion and the imperialist use of Western ideologies, of which Christianity is perhaps the most obvious and historically influential.
This fear has meant that a Christianity that is committed to truth claims which apply beyond the community of faith or which exclude certain people from that community is profoundly at odds with the cultural current. Strange to tell, we do still live in societies that routinely exclude people. The fact that prisons are full to bursting indicates that society still considers some forms of behavior to be unacceptable and demands their exclusion from mainstream social life. Legislation against discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or sexual orientation indicates that some views are beyond the pale, and those who hold them are not to express them in practical terms in the public sphere. Yet religion, particularly traditional religion, finds itself at a cultural moment where it is feared because it dares to say that some beliefs and practices are true and good while others are false and bad. Such a moment is scarcely conducive to any form of creedalism or confessionalism.
One further, and perhaps unusual, example of this fear of exclusion is the phenomenon known as evangelicalism, typically understood as a conservative, orthodox form of Protestantism marked by an emphasis on conversion and evangelism. Evangelicalism is a somewhat balkanized phenomenon, and its various tribes, or subtribes, often have little difficulty in drawing lines that exclude others who regard themselves as evangelicals from their own particular group. Nevertheless, what evangelicalism in all of its forms typically does is prioritize parachurch institutions over and above the church. Whether we are talking in the United States of the National Association of Evangelicals or The Gospel Coalition, or in Britain of the Evangelical Alliance or Affinity, we are talking about coalition movements, and coalition movements by their very definition require broad statements of faith.
These groups all have statements of faith; but they are statements of faith designed to keep in the tent all the various sects of which the clan chiefs approve. Thus, matters that are vital to the constitution of actual churches (a clear position on baptism, for example) are typically left to one side, on the grounds that the parachurch leaders do not wish to exclude people because of such matters. The statements are therefore often brief and, compared to, say, the Belgic Confession or the Westminster, highly attenuated.
This is not necessarily a problem, provided that nobody forgets that these groups are not churches and that they are therefore always to be subordinate to churches in the way Christians think about the practical outworking of their faith. Too often, however, the impression is given that these groups, representing this nebulous phenomenon “evangelicalism,” consider themselves to be the higher synthesis and the context where the real action takes place. The culture that such an attitude reflects ultimately tends to send the message to Christians that issues such as baptism are of minor importance, and that the matters which divide denominations are trivial and even sinful in the way they keep Presbyterians and Baptists from belonging to the same church. This is, ironically, not a million miles from the wider culture’s fear of exclusion and actually sets such professedly conservative evangelicals on an odd continuum with many of the emergents whom they would repudiate. The difference between the conservative evangelical and the emergent might be profound at the level of epistemology, but in terms of regarding doctrine as negotiable and traditional structures of church authority as practically irrelevant, the difference might not be as great as is often imagined.
Conclusion: Creeds, Confessions, and Distasteful Christianity
In outlining various cultural factors that militate against the use of creeds and confessions in the church, I am not arguing that every minister or every believer who declares they have “no creed but the Bible” is necessarily in thrall to all or any of the above. Indeed, some of the most
militant “no creed” people I have ever come across have been very much on the hardline separatist wing of the Christian church and scarcely vulnerable to accusations that they are capitulating to the wider cultural fear of excluding someone. They have a legitimate fear that creeds and confessions can end up in certain circumstances supplanting Scripture and becoming the sole authority in the way the church operates.
What we have seen, however, is that there are powerful currents within modern life that militate in various ways against the positive use of creeds and confessions in the church. These currents often go unnoticed by those of us who have no choice but to live, move, and have our being within them. Thus, the pastor who thinks he is being biblical by declaring he has no creed but the Bible may actually, upon reflection, find that his position is more shaped by the modern world than he at first realized. Rather than instinctively taking his cue from the historic practices of the church, he may in fact really be shaped by the wider world. The stories the modern world tells us are powerful: the future-oriented promise of science, the technology that privileges the young, the materialistic paradise offered by consumerism, which is always just around the next corner, the dying of confidence in words, the fragmentation of human nature, the distrust of traditional structures and notions of authority, and the wicked results of saying that somebody else is wrong and does not belong. All of these in their different ways make the idea of doctrinal Christianity, expressed in creeds and confessions, both implausible and distasteful; and all of them are part of the cultural air we all breathe.
This leads to a very important distinction. Modern culture has not really rendered creeds and confessions untrue; far less has it rendered them unbiblical. But it has rendered them implausible and distasteful. They are implausible because they are built on old-fashioned notions of truth and language. They make the claim that a linguistic formulation of a state of affairs can have a binding authority beyond the mere text on the page, that creeds actually refer to something, and that that something has a significance for all of humanity. They thus demand that individuals submit, intellectually and morally, to something outside of themselves, that they listen to the voices from the church from other times and other places. They go directly against the grain of an antihistorical, antiauthoritarian age. Creeds strike hard at the cherished notion of human autonomy and of the notion that I am exceptional, that the normal rules do not apply to me in the way they do to others.
They are distasteful for the same reason: because they make old-fashioned truth claims; and to claim that one position is true is automatically to claim that its opposite is false. God cannot exist and not exist at the same time; he cannot be three persons and one person at the same time, at least not without unhelpful and hopeless equivocation (despite the claims of some Reformed theologians to the contrary). Truth claims thus imply a hierarchy whereby one position is better than another and where some beliefs, and thus those who hold those beliefs, are excluded. That may not be a very tasteful option in today’s society but, as noted above, even the modern pluralist West still excludes those that it considers, if not wrong, then at least distasteful and unpleasant.
We are naïve as Christians if we think that our thinking is not shaped by the cultural currents that surround us. Of course, we cannot abstract ourselves from our context; we cannot cease to be embodied individuals, each with our own personal biographies, who live within a complex network of social relations that influence the way we live and think and speak. Yet to know something of our context is to make ourselves aware of some of the invisible forces that have such an unconscious influence on us. Once we know they are there, we at least have the possibility of engaging in critical reflection, which will allow us to some extent to liberate ourselves from them—or, if not to liberate ourselves, at least to make us more aware of why we think the way we do.
Thus, I conclude this chapter by posing a challenge to those who, in their earnest desire to be faithful to Scripture as the supreme authority of faith and life, claim that they have no creed but the Bible. Reflect critically on the cultural forces that are certainly consonant with holding such a position and ask yourself whether they have perhaps reinforced your antipathy to creeds and confessions in a way that is not directly related to the Bible’s own teaching at all. Then, setting aside for just a moment your sincere convictions on this matter, read the rest of this book and see whether creeds and confessions might not actually provide you with a better way of preserving precisely those aspects of biblical, Christian faith which are most valuable to you and which you passionately wish to communicate to your church.
1The Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” Zenyattà Mondatta, December 5, 1980.
2For all of the plausibility of such emotive arguments in modern culture when it comes to, say, teenagers sleeping together, we still live in an age when thankfully this is not yet considered a plausible justification for serial killers.
3Amazon.com book description of Rita M. Hancock’s The Eden Diet: A Biblical and Merciful Christian Weight Loss Program (Oklahoma City: Personalized Fitness Products, 2008),http://www.amazon.com/Eden-Diet-Biblical-Merciful-Christian/dp/0982034105/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1310558775&sr=8-1.
Chapter 1 of the book The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman