Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

It's no secret that I'm fond of the writings of Carl Trueman. Admittedly his sardonic wit is one of the things I enjoy about him; but what I appreciate even more is that he is a clear-eyed historian and brings strongly pastoral sensibilities into all of his work. While his latest book, The Creedal Imperative, ummistakably bears Trueman's voice, and his careful contextual work makes my historian's heart happy, it's the pastoral aspect that is most in evidence.

Dr. Trueman doesn't hide the fact that he is out to persuade those whose churches adhere to "no creed but Christ." While it's clear that he holds the latter to be an untenable position, he doesn't spend the book ruthlessly tearing into it. Instead, he invites such Christians to embark on a thought-experiment. In chapter 1, he lays out several cultural forces which militate against historic, creedal faith and have influenced parts of modern evangelicalism -- such as devaluation of the past, anti-authoritarianism, and pragmatism ("the notion that truth is to be found in usefulness"). Trueman invites readers to "reflect critically on the cultural forces that are certainly consonant with holding such a position [anti-creedalism] 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. . .[S]etting 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 adhering to and communicating biblical faith. (p. 49) I really appreciate this approach.

Dr. Trueman goes on to present a positive case for creeds and confessions. He begins by arguing for, among other things, the adequacy of language to convey theological truths, the importance of the institutional church, and the Pauline precedent for holding to "form[s] of sound words." Next he launches into two quite delightful chapters on the creeds and councils of the early church and the Protestant confessions of the early modern period (including the Anglican Articles, Lutheran Book of Concord, Three Forms of Unity, Westminster Standards, and London Baptist Confession). What I enjoyed about these chapters is that Trueman takes care to describe the historical circumstances that gave rise to the councils, the theological questions the church sought to answer through the creeds, and the further questions prompted by this linguistic and conceptual fine-tuning. Even though I've studied historical theology for several years, I found Trueman's discussion of theology as a "cumulative and traditionary exercise" so informative. The only quibble I had was on p. 99, when he mentions the Coptic Church's rejection of the Chalcedonian definition -- shouldn't other "monophysite" communions be mentioned here as well, such as the Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox churches? (It might be that other non-Chalcedonians get grouped under the "Coptic" label, and I'm just unfamiliar with that terminology.)

The book wraps up with excellent chapters on "Confession as Praise" and "The Usefulness of Creeds and Confessions." The latter includes some of the more hard-hitting conclusions of the book: "The standard evangelical objection to creeds and confessions is simply not sustainable in light of. . .the Bible's own teaching and the history of the church. [Creeds] actually fulfill a vital role in a function that Paul makes an imperative for the church and her leadership, that of the stable transmission of the gospel from one generation to another. Thus, if you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or a confession or something that fulfills the same basic role." (p. 161) Trueman suggests that all churches have a creed, whether they put it into writing or not. If churches don't put their creeds into words available to public scrutiny, then, ironically, it becomes harder to test the church's teachings against the ultimate authority of Scripture.

I do remember what it's like to have a visceral discomfort with written creeds. I actually rejected them for about the first half of my life as a believer. Now that I've worshiped in creed-affirming churches for most of the past decade (first Anglican and now Presbyterian), I'm not sure how I would have received this book when I was younger. Because Dr. Trueman's arguments are strong and his approach is charitable, I earnestly hope that believers who reject creeds would give his thought-experiment a fair shot. Even for confessional Christians, I commend this book as an immensely helpful resource. No matter which side you identify with, I think you'll find it a compelling read.

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