Why You Ought to Listen to Creed: a book review

The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

Most Christians throughout history had some sort of confession or creed which delineated for them proper Christian doctrine.  The ancient church had the rule of faith and the Apostle’s Creed. When controversy around the nature of the Trinity erupted, the Nicene Creed was born. There have also been numerous other creeds, confessions and hymns which declared what Christians believed.  And yet in many congregations today, you are unlikely to hear a creed recited or hear what confessional standard the church adheres to.  And many are suspicious of anything written by ‘dead white males’ and wonder how the creeds can speak with any relevance to us today.

Carl Trueman is a professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OCP) pastor.  The OCP is a Presbyterian denomination which holds  to the Westminster Standards whereas other Presbyterian churches have moved away from them(PCUSA). As a confessional evangelical (and historian), he has a lot to say about the abiding value of creeds and confessions for the ways in which they summarize Biblical teaching (not as replacements for proper Biblical authority).

Trueman presents his case for confessionalism in six chapters and a conclusion. In chapter one, he describes the  contemporary case against confessionalism/creedalism, stressing how technology, consumerism  and has made us suspicious of  the past and doubtful about the existence of a universal human nature.  Against these assumptions, Trueman argues that (1) the past is import and is of positive relevance to us, (2) language is an appropriate vehicle to commicate truth across geographic space and time, and (3) there is a body (the church) which can compose and enforce creeds and confessions authoritatively (p.22-3).  These assumptions are fleshed out more fully in chapter 2 where he lays out the foundations for Creedalism.  In chapter three, he examines the Biblical data and the witness of the early church to demonstrate the priority the early church placed on passing down right doctrine and how this develops into the rule of faith. He also goes on to describe the ecumenical councils and the formation of the early creeds. In chapter four Trueman turns his attention to the historic Protestant Confessions ( i.e. the 39 Articles, the Book of Concord, The Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Confession, Canons of Dordt, the Westminster Standards). In Chapter five Trueman discusses the ways in which confessions and creeds give shape to corporate worship, and inform it with its Trinitarian character. Finally chapter six describes the abiding usefulness of creeds in guarding right doctrine, passing on the faith,  providing accountability for congregants and pastoral elders, etc.

I enjoyed this book a lot and I think that Trueman makes a number of cogent points. I especially liked how he was able to root confessionalism and the concern for right doctrine in New Testament texts.  He is able to demonstrate that Creeds are not formulated to provide authority over the text, but as summaries of biblical theology to help people apprehend the gospel better. Trueman is also convincing in his assertion that the past has something to teach us (i.e. Ancient creeds, hymns, writings actually have something to say to Millennials and beyond).

However my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), describes itself as non-confessional/non-creedal.  Trueman does discuss why many contemporary Evangelicals are non-creedal by attributing it to the widespread contemporary suspicion of tradition and authority. In the case of the ECC, they formed as a Pietist revival movement  from within the Swedish Lutheran state church.  In Lutheran tradition, clergy and laity all subscribed to the Book of Concord; however the theological orthodoxy  of the Swedes did not guarantee any spiritual vitality. The founders of the movement rejected confessionalism in favor of  affirming the authority of scripture and the necessity of new birth (as well as other theological distinctives). They didn’t reject creeds per say (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are reproduced in the Covenant Hymnal and the Covenant book of Worship) .   They rejected the idea that creeds and confessions made you a Christian. They didn’t reject instruction, or passing on the faith (they still had a trained clergy.  I think that Trueman is really good at addressing some of the modern and postmodern qualms about confessionalism but he is less eloquent in addressing the concerns of Pietist critics.

Trueman says at a number of points that every church has a confession whether they are ‘confessional’ or not. Either they give authority to creeds and confessions–public documents open to the scrutiny of the entire church, or they interpret scripture through some less defined, and private theological grid. I think he is right about that and I am in agreement with his main points.  I think this is a great book for exploring the nature of ecclesial authority and the history of theological reflection.   I would recommend this book for those who is curious about the foundations of confessionalism and the virtues of it.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Bad Hebrew but a good book: a book review

Sometimes, I am overly critical and curmudgeony against mega-churches and their pastors but I like Craig Groeschel a lot. And I really like this book, Chazown, a lot, but I got problems with the title. So while this is generally a pretty positive review, the next paragraph is a little cranky. If you’re avoiding negativity in your life, you might want to skip it and pick up this review in paragraph three.

The title, Chazown comes from the Hebrew: חָזוֹן or ḥāzôn (Romanized according to SBL). As Craig says, it means vision and he’s right, but why he chose to spell it this way irks me. When you a quick google search of “Chazon,” “Hazon,” or Chazown, you discover that the first two spellings are in far greater usage. Most of the hits for “Chazown” seem to relate directly or indirectly to Craig’s book, a couple of online lexicons and a Youtube clip from a documentary on Cher’s son’s sexchange operation (Chaz- Own). Maybe this is a legitimate way of writing a holem vav(a pointed vav indicating an ‘o’ vowel) but it is not what I was taught, and it doesn’t seem to me to be that common. I kind of think it’s similar to me writing a book called Selah Vee from the French for “That’s life?” Why not spell it like everyone else? In the accompanying website chazown.com, Groeschel pronounces “Chazown” with a hard k (Kazone) instead of the soft guttural kh sound. Of course beyond faulty spelling and pronounciation, why name it “Chazown” anyway? The answer: marketing. Beyond a brief reference to the King James Version’s rendering of Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish (newer translations have the much more liberating, ‘cast off restraints’ instead of perishing),” there is little discussion in the book of the Hebrew concept of vision; instead Groeschel loads the term with his own understanding of what vision is. The use of the Hebrew here, is simply because if you saw another Christian/personal development/leadership book with “vision” in the title, you probably wouldn’t buy it. But you don’t know Hebrew so Chazown is exciting.

All right, rant over. This is very helpful book which is thoughtfully engaged in helping people achieve God’s ‘chazown’ for their life. Groeschel helps people cast a vision for becoming all that God made them and take steps to walk into it. He begins in part 1 to get people to envision of where they want their life to end up (writing your epitaph). In part 2, he presents three overlapping circles which point to God’s vision for your life: your core values, your spiritual gifts and your past experiences. In part 3 he talks about the convergence of these three areas and how they reveal where God may be calling you. In part 4, Groeschel presents the image of a wheel with five ‘spokes’ which hold things together and allow us to acheive our vision. It is his contention that if we are to stay on track with “God’s chazown” in our life we need to cultivate our: (1) relationship with God, (2)relationship with people, (3)integrity in our finances, (4)make healthy choices about diet and exercise, (5) and attend to meaningful work. While I have a theological objection to placing God as another spoke in the wheel of our dreams (God is the center, the axle and the wheel itself), I like how holistic Groeschel is in his approach. His image illustrates how these areas are not ‘seperate spheres’ but interrelated and necessary components which need our attention.

In part 5, Groschel talks about the need for accountability. In the end matter of the book, he gives helpful advice for picking up the pieces when we feel like we’ve failed God and ourselves.

I have read through the book and found it challenging at different points and think it has some useful tools for self discovery, attending to areas of spiritual/physical health, and discovering where God may be calling you. I have finished the book, but plan to reread sections and go back and complete several of the exercises. the book also includes questions for personal use or group discussion making it a thoughtful choice for a church small group. As someone who has worked in college ministry, I think that this would be particularly helpful in that context.

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and honest review (albeit cranky in places).

You could read this post if you want to but it will probably bore you to tears.

In about twelve hours I’ll be boarding a plane to Edmonton, the city that unleashed me on the world. While there I am taking a class on the history of the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is the denomination that my wife Sarah and I have joined up with since seminary and I have been going through their ‘orientation process’ hoping to find a pastoral position with the denomination. So I’ve been taking classes to learn about their history and theology. While at Regent, we attended a Baptist church but didn’t really have strong denominational ties anywhere. It might seem strange that we chose to join up with a denomination we have no history with and I haven’t gotten a job with (yet). But it seems like a good fit for us, so for better or worse, we’re committed.

Having spent the last few weeks reading long lists of Scandinavian names and tapping into the denominational history, I feel rather inundated by “Swedes in Tweeds,” so here is a short post on why I feel like God has us where he wants us. Please, don’t think I’m trying to convert you to my peculiar Christian brand. This post is mostly my way of cataloging some of the things that have really resonated with me as I have explored where we should be:

  • The Evangelical Covenant is one of the churches that fully and enthusiastically ordains women. This is important to us as a dual M.Div family where my spouse and I both feel called to full time Christian work. This means in the ECC, Sarah is less likely to find herself kicking anyone in the goads.
  • The Bible remains central to the Covenant. Their historic formulation is “the Bible is the only perfect rule for faith and conduct” and I appreciate the rootedness this provides. However they do not force you to sign off on any sort of sign off any particular statement of verbal inspiration and inerrancy. This allows for a certain plurality in interpretation and understanding of scripture that is not too dogmatic, but not too loose either.
  • I have been really impressed with the sensibility the denomination brings to social issues and areas of justice. They have published several resolutions over the years, on topics ranging from the criminal justice system, human sexuality, creation and environmental care, abortion, etc. These are not paternalistic and moralistic papers but are well thought out and cognizant of the issues. Additionally the church as a whole is committed to racial reconciliation. I’ve really been impressed with some of their initiatives as someone who has been deeply impacted by the CCDA world.
  • The ECC’s theology of the sacraments appeals to me. From their Lutheran for-bearers they retain a theology of the real presence in communion (though they do not define how Christ is present). They also practice both infant baptism and believers baptism, respecting the freedom of each family to form their own convictions about how to practice this ordinance.
  • The denomination also seems to have a really good system of support for clergy. While there is a congregational polity in Covenant churches, this doesn’t mean clergy are left on their own. There is a strong value on collegiality in the denomination and I’ve had the opportunity to see this and experience it in my interaction with Coventers from various churches at conferences and annual meetings

And so I am jobless but trust that God has me where he wants me and will use me for his glory someday, sometime. Until then, me and Michael W. Smith are ‘roaming through the night to find our place in this world, our place in this world.’ But in my sojourn, my journey seems to be with the Covenant.

The ECC, Spener, the Bible and Me.

Since moving back to the states after both getting Masters of Divinity degrees from Regent College, my wife and I have attached ourselves to an Evangelical Covenant Church. We have begun to really love the Covenant for its stances on justice, the ordination of women, its sacramental theology and the value it puts on scripture. In many ways we feel like we have found a theological home with the Covenant and we are not kicking against the goads.

Recently my wife has taken a job at our church, and though I have yet to find a ministry job anywhere, I sense that God has led us here and I am in the right spot. Late January I took a couple of classes in Chicago (hence the blog hiatus) and am still really happy with this church.

One of the things about the ECC, is they really own their Pietist heritage. The denomination grew out of a Swedish Pietist revival movement and it is pretty central to who they are as a denomination and how they understand themselves. I know that in some theological circles, Pietism is looked down upon for its navel-gazing interiority and legalism. It is true that Pietism has at times devolves into an unhealthy mysticism and legalism but at its core there was a spiritual vitality which manifested itself in graciousness and social justice. The early Pietists met in coventicles (small groups) to study the Bible; these groups themselves were not culturally monolithic but broke with social conventions and broke down socio-economic and gender barriers. Likewise many of the early Pietists were social activists and not mere mystics. This is a great heritage.

SPener Phillip Jacob Spener is credited as the founder of Pietism (though he drew on earlier spiritual writings). His Pia Desideria is the classical work of the early movement. As I have read some of the writings of the early Pietists I came across an essay by Spener titled The Necessary and Useful Reading of Holy Scripture. I went to seminary and know how to read my Bible well employing various exegetical tools (translation, word studies, discourse analysis, historical and cultural background studies, etc.), I can synthesize insights from various hermeneutics perspectives (patristic, higher criticism, feminism, post colonial, literary, structuralist, poststructuralism, etc.) but Spener doesn’t address the tools as much as he the disposition of the Bible reader. He argues that to read with understanding the following are necessary components(my paraphrase):

    1. To understand scripture we need heartfelt prayer. The act of reading and praying belong together.
    2. To understand scripture (and pray effectively) we need a repentant heart. An unrepentant heart doesn’t really want God’s will and so can’t understand scripture
    3. To understand scripture we need to take what we read and practice it. Sometimes we only understand scripture when we get it into our bones.
    4.To understand scripture we must read attentively. Spener is saying by this point that there are treasures in scripture for both the simple and the wise, but they will not show themselves to the person who is not really looking for them. If you aren’t looking you won’t really see.
    5. To understand scripture we need to listen for God’s general word and his immediate word. That is, what does this scripture say in its original context and to people across time and space and what does it say to me in my context. I find myself wanting to quibble with Spener’s language on this point, but I think his point holds true. The Spirit who inspired the text has a general meaning and ‘word for today’ for the one who reads it.

This disposition was not explicitly taught to me in seminary though I think in general my professors would affirm a prayerful,repentant, active, attentive, and discerning disposition. Okay they all would affirm that, though they might argue with Spener’s specific articulation of that. Certainly the tools of exegesis and various insights into the nature of the text help shape our understanding and these are important, but not instead of reading expecting to hear God speak.

One of the exciting things for me about church these days is I am part of a church which approaches scripture with this sort of reverence and expectancy. As we prayerfully attend to the Word, our own condition and faithfully seek to live out what we read there, God reveals himself to us.