Book Review: The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman

Many of you are no doubt aware that we have already traversed much of the subject matter of The Creedal Imperative over at The CredoCovenant Fellowship. Hopefully my review of it here will inspire a few more to pick a copy of it and read along with us in those episodes.

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Trueman, Carl R. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 197pp. $16.99.

molesworth_reasonably_smallHow might creedal and confessional commitments jeopardize the protestant commitment to Sola Scriptura? Are such commitments not tantamount to the elevation of tradition to the level of, if not above, Scripture itself? Will not such commitments in essence render the church irrelevant in this modern age? Whatever happened to “no creed but the Bible”? Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA.), seeks to answer these questions and more in The Creedal Imperative. In this book, Trueman argues that “creeds and confessions are, in fact, necessary for the well-being of the church” (20).

Summary

The scope of Trueman’s argumentation is fairly broad sweeping for such a short work (only six chapters). He first approaches the issue from a humanities standpoint exploring some of the key issues in contemporary culture that touch on his topic. Then, in keeping with his academic expertise, he begins a slow and steady trek through biblical and church history mining for principles and events that lend themselves to his thesis. Then, he turns to an examination of the doxological benefits of creeds and confessions before finally concluding with some of the practical and theological benefits he sees in them.

Examining the Other Side

Trueman begins his argumentation in Chapter One by examining some issues in the broader culture to help his readers understand the cultural undercurrents that may, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, be influencing the way they relate to creeds and confessions. He begins by laying on the table three concepts commonly held to be true by those who subscribe to creeds and confessions: the importance and relevance of the past, the propriety of language in the transmission of truth across time and space, and the necessity of an institution that speaks with authority (22-23). He then walks his readers through the modern and postmodern landscape of ideas to demonstrate how all three of these concepts are systematically opposed to the way the contemporary culture in the West has been conditioned to think about the world.

A Stroll through History

Trueman proceeds to walk his readers through history seeking to provide a basis for creedal and confessional subscription. He begins by arguing from a survey of biblical history for the importance of words in redemptive history, the universality of human nature, and the rightful place of the church as an authoritative institution. Given these three premises, he concludes that the church has the obligation and the authority to use a “form of sound words” (creeds and confessions) to speak to man’s common condition. He then traces out a history of the development of creeds in the life of the early church, demonstrating how each one was meant to provide a further clarification upon the original Christian creed: “Jesus is Lord.” Finally, in Trueman’s historical survey, he examines a selection of the most influential Protestant confessions and the marks they bore on the churches that adopted them.

The Benefits

The last two chapters of the book deal primarily with the usefulness of the creeds and confessions for the church. Chapter five explores the doxological benefit of creeds and confessions, while in chapter six Trueman seeks to cover a broad array of other benefits creeds and confessions carry. To bookend the book, Trueman includes an introduction and a conclusion as well as an appendix on revising and supplementing creeds and confessions.

Critical Evaluation

The Creedal Imperative was not meant to deal with an entirely original subject matter. The argument for the necessity and usefulness of creeds and confessions is nothing new. However, where other works have sought to be more exhaustive and academic in their approach, or where older works present themselves with much more archaic language, Trueman has offered the millennial generation something much more pithy and accessible.

His trademark cultural commentary and his masterful use of wit and illustration in the first chapter grabs readers’ attention from the start. However, there is a sharp drop in rhetorical form from chapter one to chapter two. The Trueman-esque humor and wit that the casual reader of the Reformation21 blog has come to expect only reemerges in tiny flashes here and there throughout the rest of the book. Arguably, this approach is commendable in that the author’s personality takes a backseat to the delivery of the intended content.

Regarding the fifth chapter, “Confession as Praise,” the author might have been more forthright in titling the chapter “Creeds in Worship,” because he spends the bulk of the chapter building a case for the recitation of creeds in liturgy. His argument is based on the fact that creeds and confessions provide the theological foundation for doxology. In the end, Trueman does not claim that it is imperatival that creeds and confessions be used in the order of worship at church meetings, but in his words, “The question is not so much ‘Should we use them?’ as ‘Why would we not use them?’” (158). Trueman is not legalistic about his liturgical commitments, but one might argue that such a strong suggestion falls just shy of a direct imperative seeming to equate confessional Christianity with liturgical, high-church Christianity.

Also dispersed throughout the book are Trueman’s trademark warnings about the dangers of evangelicalism. Trueman is not reserved in declaring his conviction that confessional Christianity and evangelicalism find themselves at odds with one another. He argues that evangelical minimalism sends 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” (46-47). He also takes issue with the pairing of the terms “confessional” and “evangelical” to describe the same object. He argues:

What we have today in confessional evangelical circles is rather an eclectic pick ‘n’ mix approach to classical confessional Protestantism, where those matters which seem helpful to building a broad evangelical parachurch consensus are highlighted and those matters which divide—and have always divided Protestants—are set to one side as of less importance (132).

Finally, Trueman does well in arguing that an adherence to creeds and confessions does not lead to an abandonment of Sola Scriptura. Rather, it actually aids churches in understanding what they mean when they use such terms. One can claim “no creed but the Bible,” but through what grid then does one interpret the Bible? The answer is obvious. Everyone who sets themselves to the task of Bible interpretation inevitably falls back on some creed or another, whether written or implied. At least with confessional churches, their doctrinal and hermeneutical standards are put in writing for all to see and criticize. However, for those who claim “no creed but the Bible,” there is no such accountability. They can interpret the Bible however they see fit, with as much variation from week to week as seems best to them. In this way, creeds and confessions help explain what churches mean when they claim Sola Scriptura, and they provide a safeguard against those who would abuse it for whatever reason and to whatever end.

Conclusion

Overall, Trueman makes very strong arguments for his case that creeds and confessions are not only beneficial for the church today, but they are also necessary. He touches on a wide array of issues relating to the issue of creedal and confessional subscription. His work is neither original nor exhaustive, but it is nonetheless important. In its construction, it commends itself to both the layman and the academician. At once it is both witty and devotional, both provocative and informative, both succinct and broad-scoped. Finally, it is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of its subject matter for the Christian church in the West today.

Pick up The Creedal Imperative today:

Creedal Imperative

The Creedal Imperative paperback
by Carl R. Trueman

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