Is there such a thing as “no creed but the Bible?” For many, such a sentiment is endearing. Isn’t that what our Protestant forefathers fought for–sola scriptura and freedom from unspiritual Romanish ideas of creeds and confessions? In The Creedal Imperative Carl B. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, argues that such an attitude is not only unbiblical and ahistorical; these sentiments can lead to spiritual and ecclesiological ruin. Addressing this ailment, Trueman seeks to diagnose the root cause of the disease, demonstrate how it affects the body and provide a prescription for curing the malady.
Trueman, committed to Westminster confessional standards, argues for cultural forces driving evangelical anti-confessionalism more than a solitary commitment to Scripture. He asserts the Bible itself teaches the need for confessions and creeds and to hold to “the claim to have no creed but the Bible is incoherent” (17). Trueman thus argues that creeds and confessions are 1) biblically encouraged 2) necessary for proper worship and 3) necessary for proper instruction in the Christian faith. In so doing, Trueman challenges “Bible-only” believers that seeking and following Christ necessitates holding some form of confession and creed. Truman demonstrates that “no creed but the Bible” arises from a cultural reaction more than a biblical and historical understanding.
Walking through the biblical narrative, Trueman reminds readers of the value of words as God’s chosen vehicle for communication thus demonstrating their importance and reliability. Trueman contends that the impetus for creedal language stems from this call to follow the form of sound words entrusted from Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1. This clarion call includes communicating proper doctrine for teaching and building up the body. Trueman extends this call from Paul to the ongoing ministry of the church. Words such as “Trinity” and “atonement” arise within the orthodox vocabulary, forming the basis of “sound words” entrusted to the church promoted within her hymns, sermons and doctrinal confessions.
Trueman traces the development and context of creedal language and ecumenical councils starting with Nicaea onward. Trueman highlights the historical context of these confessions, crafted in particular ecclesiastical (particularly reactionary) atmospheres. Trueman ultimately heralds a call to uphold ecclesial particularity while maintaining adherence to traditional orthodoxy which binds all Christians everywhere and at every time. There can be no lone confessional Christian; any confession must be maintained within the tradition in which it was generated. In chapter five, Trueman provides a refreshing reminder regarding the necessity of Trinitarian-focused worship in our churches today. He helpfully dissects the implicit counter-cultural nature of biblical and confessional worship. The pronouncements of Scripture read in worship, the declarations of Christ’s lordship through song and so on represent counter-cultural statements against the powers and forces of this world.
While providing a succinct and cogent argument for the usefulness of creeds and confessions, Trueman’s argument might be missed on those for whom it is intended. The potential danger of The Creedal Imperative is that it preaches to the choir: those who choose to read it have already bought into its premise prior to opening the book. Additionally, this text might lead some readers to despair. Assessing one’s church and finding it creedally insufficient could lead to jumping ship, rather than staying on board and attempting to repair the boat. While developing Paul’s appeal to “follow the pattern of sound words” is convincing, Trueman would do well to expand upon Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” and “avoid irreverent babble” (1 Tim. 6:30; 2 Tim 1:14, 2:16). These verses have traditionally been viewed as biblical instruction to maintain basic orthodox Christian doctrine and confession.
Trueman writes the prescription and implores his patient to take the medicine. Pedagogically, creeds provide a base for instruction in the faith and the message of Scripture. Everyone essentially provides a creed, or summary, when asked about the Bible and the content of the Christian faith, so why not use established and tested forms. Trueman concludes by reasserting his prescription: a church that denies the usefulness of creeds and confessions can lead to “an impoverished Christian life” (189). Taking the Bible seriously means taking creeds and confessions seriously. Even if many readers already buy his argument, Trueman’s prescription stands fast and should prove to mollify that which ails evangelical churches should they choose to listen to the doctor.