"Evangelicalism is not enough"

“Evangelicalism is not enough”

Interview with Carl Trueman

Hier nun endlich die Abschrift des Interviews mit dem Kirchengeschichtler Carl Trueman vom Westminster Theological Seminary, Autor des Buches The Creedal Imperative (geführt von Holger in Riga im Dezember 2013; auf deutsch erschien sein Buch Die Reformation – heute noch aktuell?; ein Übersetzung ins Litauische gibt es hier):

What is a creed or confession in the first place? How do you define these terms?

Creeds and confessions are essentially summaries of the Biblical faith, put forward in a relatively short and concise form. Typically, we use the word creed to refer to documents produced in the Early Church, such as the Nicene Creed or the Creed of Constantinople which was formulated in 381. Confessions is a term we use for documents produced in the time of the Reformation which are more elaborate and cover more heads of doctrine than the ancient Church‘s Creeds did.

How do confessions and the Bible relate to each other?

Many people get worried that if you have a creed or confession in your church then you are supplanting the Bible in some way, you are setting something up in opposition to the Bible. In actual fact, creeds and confessions are meant to be summaries of Biblical doctrine. They were formulated by men who were trying to summarize what the Bible says. The Bible is a large collection of books, different genres, different writers, different perspectives. What the creeds and confessions do is an attempt to summarize all of the Bible‘s teaching on particular doctrinal themes and present them in a concise and coherent form.

How do they differ in authority?

Theologians make a distinction: They refer to the Bible as the “norming norm” of theology. What that means is that the Bible has ultimate, decisive authority in all theological discussions or theological formulations or theological disputes. However, it is useful to have summary manifestos of Christian doctrine. Those are the creeds and confessions. Theologians refer to those as the “normed norms”: they stand under Scripture, they have to be examined in light of Scripture, they can be corrected in light of Scripture, but as far as they reflect Scripture‘s teaching they therefore carry great authority within the church.

In your book you prove that there is a good Biblical case for creeds. You are showing that the widespread slogan „no creed but the Bible!“ is, ironically, not Biblical. How is this?

When Paul writes his pastoral epistles towards the end of his apostolic career, when he knows that he and the apostles are assumed to pass away and that a new generation needs to step up and lead the church. He gives Timothy various instructions. For example, he tells Timothy to appoint elders; he wants a structure set in place for the governance in the church.  He also tells Timothy “to hold fast a form of sound words” [2 Tim 1,13]. He is assuming that Timothy through all the good teaching he has received will know what a “form of sound words” is, how Christian doctrine can be expressed and what words should be used. So that strand of evidence is pointing towards some kind of summary collection of phrases that carry particular authority for Paul.

Paul also on occasion uses the phrase “the saying is trustworthy and worthy of all acceptation” [1 Tim 1,15], and scholars tend to think that Paul there is referring to phrases that were in common currency throughout the churches, reflecting orthodox positions. So the Bible itself points towards what we might call extra-Biblical forms of sound words as being very useful for the maintenance of the orthodoxy within the church.

There is a Dutch saying, “every heretic has his text”, every heretic claims the Bible. What does the Bible mean? That‘s the key thing. And Paul was aware that having a correct understanding of the Bible was just as important of having the Bible itself. And in his phrases – trustworthy phrase, form of sound words – I think he is pointing towards something that functions in the way that we would now have creeds and confessions function.

What about the objection that creeds just lead to formalism?

It is certainly the case that some creedal and confessional churches are very formalist in the way they handle these things. The creeds and confessions have become dead documents, just a form of words that are recited or honored but have no existential importance for the day to day life of the church. But that, I think, is a fault of the human heart, not of the creeds and confessions. Most churches I know sing hymns or choruses, forms of words that have been written down in the past by somebody else. Some churches sing hymns and they are dead churches. The problem is not with the hymn, the problem is with the hearts of those who sing the hymn. So I would say that certainly creeds and confessions can be used for formalism, but it is not part of their essence that leads to that, it‘s the sinful tendency of the human heart.

You are saying that every Christian has in fact a creed – often it is just not in written form. Could you explain the danger of implicit and private creeds, and the benefits of public and written down documents?

The minister who stands up in his pulpit and says to his people “I have no creed but the Bible”, what he is really saying is this: The Bible means whatever I care to tell you it means at this particular point in time, but because I am not going to write my creed down, you cannot compare what I believe with Scripture and test it to see if it is true. The confessional church, the church that adheres to a public confession, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the Belgic Confession, or the Second Helvetic Confession, has placed its beliefs out in the public sphere, and therefore allows and enables the people involved in that church to test its creed and doctrine by Scripture. There is a public statement that can be tested in light of Scripture. If you never write your creed down, and everybody has a creed, because everybody believes the Bible means something, then you do not allow your people to test your beliefs in the light of Scripture. So ironically, when you say “no creed but the Bible”, what you are actually doing is elevating your own personal creed above the Bible.

Confessions are about boundaries, they define distinctions, separate churches in a certain way. Nevertheless, you are convinced that they also serve Christian unity. How is that achieved?

Well, I think that can be achieved in a number of ways. Let‘s take an ancient church creed. In my congregation, probably twice a month, we recite either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles‘ Creed during the worship service, typically before communion. And when we do that we are publicly identifying ourselves with Christians all over the world today who will be saying the same creed in their worship service and also publicly identifying with Christians throughout the centuries who recited these same words, expressed the same concepts in a worship service. So there is an expressive unity or identification there in the liturgy of the service.

Secondly, I think, creeds and confessions put out in the public sphere where you stand, and that allows you to engage with other churches. I can engage in discussion with Baptist friends who hold to the 1689 Confession or with Lutheran friends who hold to the Book of Concord because we both know where we stand. We see upfront where we agree and where we differ. And that allows us to express our common, catholic faith while also engaging in open and honest dialogue about those areas where we differ. So public creeds and confessions offer a foundation for true ecumenical dialogue. They don‘t necessarily take a straight to church unity but they give us an appropriate place to start discussing and thinking about unity.

If creeds are widely regarded as useless – what is there usefulness? What are they good for? What is the main practical benefit of creeds? What is, for example, their pedagogical function in churches?

There are lots of uses for creeds and confessions.  I mentioned the liturgical one; they function as a way of expressing a common faith with our brothers and sisters. And when we look at more elaborate confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, I think a church where the elders are required to subscribe to this confession limits the power of the elders – in a useful way that protects the congregation. For example, if you attend my congregation on a Sunday, and you are wearing a bright yellow suit, I might think that that was a bad clothing decision, but there is nothing I can do as pastor to stop you doing it because the Confession doesn‘t speak to that. The Confession only speaks to those things that, as a minister, I can then speak to my congregation. So my power is limited by the Confession. Confessions, in other words, stop the church from becoming a cult, stop the church officers from exerting arbitrary power over people.

I think creeds and confessions also set before the congregation your ambitions for them in terms of their theological knowledge. Not everybody joining your church is going to understand on the first Sunday every line of the confession, but you are setting before them a vision of what you hope they will grow into as Christians, understand and be able to articulate.

They offer a very concise summary of the faith. I you want to get a comprehensive grasp of Christianity – outside of the Bible there are no documents that give you more truth per sentence than the great creeds and confessions of the church. So pedagogically, it functions that way. So is has liturgical function, it has ecclesiastical function, it has pedagogical function.

„The recitation of a creed in a worship service is one of the most counter-cultural things that Christians can do. It is an act of defiance, if not actual revolution.“ Could you explain this bold statement?

There were a couple of things going on in my mind when I wrote that. First of all, because creeds and confessions are historic documents, expressing faith in historic words, we are implicitly relativizing the present and setting ourselves within a context of the past. And that is something that is very counter-cultural. We live in an era where history is downplayed, where we tend to regard the past as inferior. When Christians use the Apostles‘ or the Nicene Creed to express their faith, they are actually saying, oh no, the past is important, the past is actually decisive for who I am in the present.

And secondly, we are also saying that Christianity is a doctrinal religion, yet we live in a world where the most popular religious disposition, I would say, is a kind of individual mysticism: the truth is what we feel in our hearts. When you express your faith through the words of a creed, you are saying, no, the truth is something objective, something bigger than me, something external to me, it doesn‘t depend on my feelings. It depends on God‘s actions in history. And that too, I think, is counter-cultural, even within the Christian church now that is becoming a counter-cultural position to hold.

How did it happen that big parts of the evangelical church in the West have become non-confessional, do not know much or even anything about the great heritage of protestant confessions? What are the roots of the irrelevance of creeds?

Some of the neglect of creeds in the protestant and evangelical church has a good motivation. I think it‘s wrong-headed, but it‘s motivated by the desire to make sure that the Bible has exclusive authority. So the person who says “I have no creed but the Bible”, I think, in their heart of hearts what they are trying to do is to protect the unique authority of the Bible. And that‘s a very good thing. They are then going the wrong way, but some of desire in evangelical circles to move away from creeds is a well-meant desire to protect the unique authority of Scripture.

I also think that some of the downplaying of creeds and confessions in evangelicalism derives from the evangelical emphasis upon experience. As an evangelical protestant we don‘t simply believe doctrine but we also believe in the new birth, and there are strands of evangelicalism that perhaps emphasize the new birth to such an extent, that doctrine gets downplayed. In that context creeds and confessions would have less than a function.

And, thirdly, I think, some of this comes down to the intrusion of worldliness into the church. Consumerism which has little time for the past, little time for external authority, has crept into the evangelical world. And where you have little time for the past and little time for external authority, you will end up having little time for creeds and confessions as well. So, I think, there are a variety of reasons that perhaps conspire and work together to undermine the importance of creeds within evangelical Christianity.

Someone might object that documents from the 16th, 17th century, the golden age of protestant confessions, do not tell us much anymore – times have changed a lot. What would you reply?

I would say that it is up to you to demonstrate that from Scripture. When I look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, it seems to me to highlight most of the important issues that Scripture raises and doing it in quite an adequate way. Take, for example, one of the most pressing ethical issues of today, the nature of marriage and is homosexual marriage legitimate or not. The Westminster Confession of Faith does not speak directly to that or raise that as specific issue, but it lays out Biblical principles of marriage which can be applied to that issue in order to discern what is the Biblical position on it. So I would say, even though if I wrote a confession today, I would not write it in quite the same way as they wrote in the 16th or 17 th century, clearly – there would be different language used, maybe different emphases. The topics picked up in the great confessions by and large reflect the great topics of the Bible itself and therefore have in themselves a perennial significance. That is not to say that I don‘t think churches don‘t sometimes have a need to speak to specific issues in their day. It may be that a church has to produce, let‘s say, a document on homosexuality, or euthanasia, or one of the many ethical issues coming up. I would say that is perfectly legitimate for a reformed church to produce documents like that. But I wouldn‘t want them to become part of the confession because these are issues that may or may not continue to be things that the church has to wrestle with. They are useful now, and it is useful for the church to have a position on that, but I would not want them added to the confession in order to make the confession then even more time-bound than it is already.

Your book is not just a defense of creeds (which is necessary) but you go a step further, providing a demand for confessions. Why a creedal imperative? Why does a congregation or union have to or should adopt a confession?

Well, I think, a church has a number of tasks. One of the tasks of the church is to preach the Gospel to its own generation, there is to be a missionary aspect of the church: we are required to reach out with the Gospel to people around us. But that is not the sole task of the church. Another task of the church is to handle on the Gospel to the next generation. The Gospel does not belong to us, we are looking after it for those who come after us. And one of the best ways handing on the Gospel of one generation to another is through a form of sound words, that is what Paul pushed Timothy towards; and I think creeds and confessions fulfil the function of being forms of sound words that allow us to pass the Gospel, to pass the truth of God on in a relatively stable form from one generation to the next. The Bible nowhere says “produce a creed or confession!” But the Bible does say, pass on the tradition of apostolic teaching, hold fast on to the form of sound words. And I think the best way of doing that is through the great creeds and confessions of the historic Christian church.

„An impoverished theological confession can ultimately lead only to an impoverished Christian life.“ Isn‘t that overstated?

I don‘t think so. Not everybody grows to be a great theologian, but I do think Paul sets before us in the New Testament a vision of growth in Christian life that is both to be, we might say, practical and moral, but also to be theological as well. He talks about that he is wanting to move on to the deeper truths of the Christian faith, but still having to give these people milk because they are not yet ready to move to solid food. Clearly, in Paul‘s vision of the Christian life a deepening understanding of Christian teaching which is also an enabling of a deepening understanding of who God is and what He has done in history and what He will do in history is an important component to growth as a Christian. There may be many ways of achieving that but, I think, a church having a healthy and elaborate confession of faith is one of them.

Problems you face as a minister if you have a confession that has only ten points in it: you never are going to be able to persuade your people that the eleventh point is important because if point eleven is important, they will say “why isn‘t it in the confession?”. So if you have an elaborate confession, like the Westminster Confession of Faith, or even more elaborate like the Second Helvetic Confession, you can set before your people a very ambitious vision, doctrinal vision, of what a Christian should believe and give them a map of what you hope will be their growth into doctrinal maturity as a Christian. And I do think that the more we know about God, the richer our Christian lives are. But one can have, of course, a very elaborate understanding of God and no vital faith at all. Some of the most famous theologians of the 20th century seem to have had no real understanding of God at all. They had great grasp of doctrine but it made no difference to them. But I do think that for a Christian, the more we know about God, the richer our life in Christ will be.

What is the role or help of confessions in regard to cultural pressure?

Well, because creeds and confessions come from another time and place, they offer us a perspective on the world around us today. Sometimes the world can be so persuasive in the way it thinks that even as Christians we can be swept along with the cultural tide and not realize what is happening. I use this example in sermons of my church and on other occasions, saying: I preach to my people for half an hour, twice on a Sunday, so perhaps you get an hour of preaching a week. Every time you switch on the television, the world is preaching at you, every time you walk down the street and look at an advertising billboard, the world is preaching at you. The world preaches at you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is very easy in those contexts to be subtly and imperceptibly being moved in the world‘s direction. Creeds and confessions offer us a useful reference point alongside Scripture for being able to check that tendency.

Secondly, creeds and confessions also, because they come from outside of our own time, offer us perspective on what is important. If I would write a confession today, I might be so wrapped up with the immediate political issues of my culture that I would miss the great perennials of the Christian life. I might miss the fact that justification by grace through faith is of essential importance because I was spending all my days debating the ethics of homosexuality with people. Creeds and confessions take us out of our own culture and allow a place to stand to get a little bit of a critical distance from the agenda of the world around us.

Among more conservative Christians and evangelicals a kind of „mere Christianity“ approach a la C.S. Lewis seems to be popular – affirming a traditional and very broad consensus of Christian beliefs, broader than most of the confessions. How would you evaluate this position? 

We have a phrase in English, “there are horses for causes”. Certain horses run well in certain context or races, and I would say that „mere Christianity“ certainly fulfils a useful function. „Mere Christianity“ is very good for Christians who start in their Christian life, for example. It is very good as a criterion for joining a church. When somebody applies to become a member of our church, I don‘t expect them to be able to grasp to doctrine of the Trinity in any great depth, I don‘t expect them to understand every line of the confession. I think „mere Christianity“ reflects the fact that, as Paul says in Romans 10, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved”. So „mere Christianity“  fulfils a very useful function as demonstrating that ultimately we are not saved by belief in elaborate doctrine, we are saved by basic grasp of the identity of Jesus Christ and trust in him.

However, „mere Christianity“ is not enough to build a church on. I go back to my answer a few moments ago that the church‘s task is to pass Christianity on in a stable form to the next generation. „Mere Christianity“ can be sufficient for individual salvation, it is not sufficient for the organization of the church. But it is the church which God has given promises to about preserving it from generation to generation. It is the church to whom the Gospel is entrusted. So my response would be, „mere Christianity“ is excellent for addressing the individual, it is excellent as an apologetic tool, it is excellent for the beginning of the Christian life, but it must not be the limit of our ambition. Our ambition must be to grow in maturity in Christ, and this requires more than a „mere Christianity“, requires a deepening of our faith. C.S. Lewis was a great apologist, that was his strength. And that is where „mere Christianity“ worked well for him. I am a pastor of a church, I have to take people from „mere Christianity“ and help them to grow into maturity in a more elaborate form of Christianity.

In Mere Christianity Lewis says: „Christ‘s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how he did this are another matter… We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.“ He puts the true „myth“ or the „big picture“ in the centre. Doctrines are a secondary level thing; theories about the cross are secondary. How would you comment on that statement?

My answer would be that, as far as I can see in the New Testament, Paul offers fairly clear guidance on exactly what is going on on the cross, and therefore an understanding not simply of what is achieved but how it is achieved is contained within Scripture itself. And I would not want to say that Paul‘s understanding of atonement is a secondary matter. It may not be the first thing that I would tell a non-Christian, it may not be the first thing I would tell a new Christian. But it is in Scripture, therefore I am required to teach not simply what Christ achieved, but how he achieved it. And I think it is the natural Christian instinct, it is that old Anselmian “faith seeking understanding”. So a Christian who hears C.S. Lewis say, well, we know what Christ achieved, but it is not us to ask how, the Christian will want to know how. Because in knowing how you will know more about God. More about how God cares for his people, more about how God acts in history. So I would have to part company with C.S. Lewis there and say great the Christian thinker he was, theology was not his strongest suit.

Another important subject are the boundaries of the evangelical movement, in The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind you elaborate on this. You say that the movement does not have an „agreed-upon evangel“ or Gospel. Where do confessions fit into this context?

The problem with evangelicalism is by and large that it is not a churchly movement, it tends to be a movement that is rooted in para-church organizations or in loose trans-denominational alliances. So the issue for me would be: evangelicalism is not enough for bringing people to Christian maturity.  Evangelicalism is not enough for conveying the faith from one generation to the next. That‘s the task of the church. Para-church organizations can fulfil very useful functions but the task of passing the faith on from one generation to the next, the task of bringing people to the maturity in Christ, is a churchly function, and churches need confessions.

Evangelicalism does not have to take a stand on baptism, every single church ultimately needs to take a stand on baptism because baptism is the initiatory rite of the Christian life.  And you have to decide: does it apply to infants, or does it apply only to believers, for example. The church has to take a position on that, evangelicalism can avoid coming down on that question but by doing so it forfeits its ability to transmit a full-orbed faith from one generation to the next. So for me creeds and confessions fit into that picture in the church. We still need the church.

A minister sees that his church is in need of more detailed, written down confessional documents. But many in the congregation and the whole church are skeptical – due to traditional repudiation of creeds. What can he do? What could the pastor of a, let say, Free Christian Church in Lithuania or Latvia do?

It is a difficult question to answer in general because every church is unique and different. But I would give a number of pieces of advice. One, don‘t move too fast; assume the ability for the next generation. So don‘t try to achieve what you are to achieve in sixth month. That would probably split the church and do horrible and hurtful damage to Christian people. Secondly, try slowly but surely to persuade your elders of the correctness of the position you have come to. If your elders are on board with what you are planning to do it becomes much easier to persuade the congregation. Thirdly, purposefully but gently start to preach from the pulpit in a way that is bringing peoples‘ attention to creeds and confessions, gently showing them how they conform with Biblical teaching.

So those three things, one, take your time. Maybe it is going to take twenty, twenty-five years, it is more important to get to the right place than to try to do it quickly and end up splitting the church. Secondly, if you have elders, work first of all to persuade the elders of the correctness of your position. And thirdly, use the pulpit to gently persuade people of your position. Many people are suspicious of creeds and confessions not because they are bad people, not because they don‘t want the best for the church. They are suspicious of creeds and confessions because they fear Biblical authority being undermined. The only way to handle that is to carefully and gently teach them the better way, and it may take many years.

Let‘s imagine a young Christian who came to faith through, let‘s say, student ministry, with no serious confessional background. What would you recommend to him or her? Where to start in studying creeds? With which document?

I would recommend of all of the documents  perhaps the most pastoral and well-crafted one is the Heidelberg Catechism. So I would suggest looking at the Heidelberg Catechism which has a very irenic tone to it. And I would also suggest getting hold of Kevin DeYoung‘s book The Good News We Almost Forgot which is kind of introductory commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. That would be where I would start. If you read and enjoyed those, then look at the Westminster Confession of Faith. There are many little study guides, both on the Heidelberg Catechism and on the Westminster Confession of Faith. So get hold of one of these devotional study guides. If you are very intellectually ambitious, if you really want to get it into the nitty-gritty of the history in these things, then I would suggest the book Credo by Jaroslav Pelikan. This is an excellent one-volume history of creeds and confessions from the patristic period to the present day. That would be for the ambitious, academic types.