Why Christians Need Confessions

  What good are confessions in a church?  Or, in other words, biblical confessions are a blessing for the church and the Christian.  But how?

1) Confessions delimit church power.  …This is what stops churches from becoming cults: clear and open statements about where church authority begins and ends, connected to transparent processes of exercising that authority.

2)  Confessions offer succinct summaries of the faith.  The church with a good confession and a good catechism has a ready-made pedagogical tool for instilling the truth into its people.

3) Confessions highlight that which is of importance.  A good, elaborate confession provides the church…with a fine resource for teaching the people about what really matters and why.

4) Confessions relativize the present and connect us to the past.  …The use of creeds and confessions is one intentional means of connecting ourselves to the past, of identifying with the church of previous ages, and thereby of relativizing our own significance in the grand scheme of things.

5) Confessions fulfill a vital part of Paul’s plan for the post-apostolic church.  …Without a ‘form of sound words,’ [the church] would drift from her theological moorings, losing touch with her past and with other congregations in the present.  A ‘form of sound words,’ a confession, [is] crucial for maintaining both continuity with the apostles and unity among the Christians in the present.

These are five (edited) points of seven found in Carl Truman’s helpful little pamphlet, Why Christians Need ConfessionsIf you’re in a Reformed and confessional church, this pamphlet is a good one to buy in bulk (for a discount!) and hand out to visitors wondering “Why confessions?”  Or, if you yourself are not convinced that confessions are a blessing, I recommend Trueman’s book length discussion of this topic: The Creedal Imperative.  Confessions aren’t an unbiblical “paper pope;” they are a way for churches to stay biblically sound in an age where truth is not prized.

rev. shane lems

sunnyside urc

Christians and TV News

Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative  In the past five years, I probably have watched a total of three hours of TV news (and thirty minutes of that was at an airport waiting for a flight to depart).  We don’t have cable or dish, and I never watch network TV news.  I have better things to do that watch the news, and I avoid it because it seems to me the rhetoric is usually over the top and the logic is full of holes.  So Carl Trueman’s commentary on this caught my eye.  In chapter three of Republocrat he tackles the claim that Fox News is unbiased reporting.  Here’s part of his summary of that chapter – critical and constructive.

“…All news channels have their biases and their agendas, all are shaped by those who pull the financial strings, and Fox [owned by Rupert Murdoch] is no exception.  So no one should ever spout the ‘Fox is the unbiased news channel’ nonsense, especially Christians, who, with their understanding of the malignant and complex impact of sin on human psychology, should understand the need for a certain skepticism regarding all such media  outlets.”

“Fox is not unbiased, never has been unbiased, and frankly never can be unbiased, any more than any other outlet.  Yes, it is true that liberal pundit Keith Olbermann is about as nuanced and sophisticated in his political analysis as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly; so, from the perspective of serious political discussion, I say a plague on all their houses.”

“When it comes to listening to the news, Christians should be eclectic in their approach and not depend merely on those pundits who simply confirm their view of the world while self-evidently using terminology, logic, and standard rules of evidence and argumentation in sloppy, tendentious, and sometimes frankly dishonest ways, such as Mr. Beck and his ‘welfare means totalitarianism’ claims.  There is a sense in which we are dependent for our view of the wider world on those media that give us access to that world, so surely it is incumbent on us to make sure that we expose ourselves to a variety of viewpoints on the great issues of the day.”

“…It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of viewpoints.  The listening is not an end in itself, as so many postmodern conversationalists would have it; the purpose is to become more informed and to have better-grounded and better-argued opinions.  But that can happen only when watching the news becomes more than just having our gut convictions continually confirmed.”

Carl Trueman, Republocrat (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010).

rev shane lems

Yes, You Do Have A Creed

  One major thesis in Carl Trueman’s new book, The Creedal Imperative, is that all Christians have creeds.  He argues well that no Christian or church simply believes the Bible.  In other words, no Christian, when asked what they believe, is going to start reading Genesis 1:1 and end at the last verse of Revelation.  Every church and Christian will give a summary of what they believe when asked.  That is essentially their creed or confession. 

Trueman tells the story of a man who once told him that he had “no creed but the Bible.”   He then writes, “What he [this man] really should have said was: I have a creed but I am not going to write it down, so you cannot critique it; and I am going to identify my creed so closely with the Bible that I am not going to be able to critique it either” (p. 160).

“There are numerous obvious ironies here, not least that last point.  It is probably this person objected to creeds on the grounds that they represent a man-made framework which was imposed upon the Bible by the church and thus distorted how the Bible was read.  In fact, by refusing to acknowledge even the existence of his own framework, he removed any possibility of assessing that framework in the light of Scripture.  Thus, he invested more absolute authority in his private creed and his tradition than even the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox, who at least have the decency to put their confessional standards into the public domain.”

“The standard evangelical objection to creeds and confessions is simply not sustainable in the light of its own self-referential incoherence, the Bible’s own teaching, and the history of the church.  I argued in an earlier chapter that creeds and confessions actually fulfill a vital role in the 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 confession or something that fulfills the same basic role, such as a statement of faith.”

“Here, I want to make the point that those who repudiate such ideas are being unintentionally disingenuous: they still have their creed or confession; they just will not write it down and allow you to look at it and scrutinize it in the light of Scripture.  They are in a sense more authoritarian than the papacy” (p. 160-161).”

Again, I highly recommend this book to our readers: Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative.  It’ll really help you understand the beauty, necessity, and importance of creeds and confessions. 

shane lems

We All Have Creeds…

 For those readers of ours who worship at a church without a creed, this book is for you: The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman.  Also, this book is for readers of ours whose church used to be confessional, but has now tucked the confessions away in the closet of dusty irrelevance.  Finally, if you are in a confessional church that actually exists as as one in the pulpit and pew, this book will remind you what it really means to be confessional – essentially it means to be a Christian in the biblical, historical, orthodox, and practical sense of the term.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

“I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (p. 15).

“Anyone who has ever been told by a friend that the Lord led such a friend to do something completely silly, or anyone who has ever been at a Bible study where the burden has been to explain ‘what the text means to me,’ regardless of what the words on the page and the grammar and syntax might otherwise indicate, has experienced an evangelical mysticism that is not really distinguishable from traditional liberalism at the level of its understanding of what constitutes truth” (p. 35).

“Modern culture has not really rendered creeds and confessions untrue; far less has it rendered them unbiblical.  But it has rendered them implausible and distasteful.  They are implausible because they are built on old-fashioned notions of truth and language.  They make the claim that a linguistic formulation of a state of affairs can have a binding authority beyond the mere text on the page, that creeds actually refer to something, and that something has a significance for all of humanity.  They thus demand that individuals submit, intellectually and morally, to something outside of themselves, that they listen to the voices from the church from other times and other places.  They go directly against the grain of an anti-historical, antiauthoritarian age.   Creeds strike hard at the cherished notion of human autonomy and of the notion that I am exceptional, that the normal rules do not apply to me in the way they do to others” (p. 48).

I could go on.  And I’ll come back to this book again here later on.  For now, spend the $11 bucks or so and get it yourself – or spend $22 and also get one for your pastor, elder, or friend.

Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

shane lems

Eric Metaxas, History Writing, and Martin Luther

Earlier, in my critical review of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, I noted that there were a few significant historical and theological inaccuracies in the book.  Later this week, having read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, I hope to interact a bit more with Metaxas’ biography.  For now, I want to point out Metaxas’ inaccurate portrait of Martin Luther and the Jews.

The topic of Luther and the Jews is a large one and has been discussed by many scholars and theologians for many years.  It’s not an easy subject; there are quite a few angles and different nuances to consider (obviously we can’t do it all here).  Metaxas oversimplifies the issue by attributing Luther’s later polemical writings against the Jews to his crankiness, anger, and multiple illnesses.  In just three pages, Metaxas says that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings had everything to do with his ailments near the end of his life: Meniere’s disease, constipation, hemorrhoids, mood swings, depression, gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, abscesses on his legs, short temper, and uremic poisoning.

Here’s how Metaxas explained it.

“As his health declined, everything seemed to set him off….  His language waxed fouler and fouler. … Luther seemed to have an absolutely torrid love affair with all things scatological.  So it is in this larger context that one has to take his attitude toward the Jews, which, like everything else in his life, unraveled with his health  …What he wrote during this time would rightly haunt his legacy for centuries and would in four centuries become the justification for such evils as Luther in even his most constipated mood could not have dreamed.  …As the lights began to dim, he became convinced that the Apocalypse was imminent, and his thoughts toward everyone took on darker and darker tones.  The thought of reasoned persuasion went out the window; at one point he called reason ‘the devil’s whore.'”

In other words, Metaxas said that Luther’s poor health and fanatical grumpiness near the end of his life showed he was coming apart at the seams – this is why he was so anti-Jewish later in his life.

Here we have an example of irresponsible historiography.  I’m wondering if Metaxas has even read and studied Luther.  Based on these statements, it doesn’t seem like he has.  In fact, Metaxas’ bibliography doesn’t include any of Luther’s writing or secondary sources on Luther’s life and theology.  He talks about the “larger context” of Luther’s life, but this is no larger context at all; it’s simply one of many things to consider when dealing with Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.

The last sentence quoted above shows that Metaxas indeed misreads Luther.  Luther didn’t write against reason simply because he was grumpy and constipated; there’s a ton of theology, history, and philosophy behind Luther’s distaste for unaided human reason.  For Luther, unaided reason had to do with the theology of glory, which attempted to climb up to God while avoiding the suffering and death of Christ on the cross.  The reformer discussed this already in 1518, well before the end of his life.  Concerning Luther’s scatological language, Heiko Oberman’s interaction with it is certainly more accurate than Metaxas’.

Metaxas is simply wrong here.  Luther’s writing on the Jews deserves more nuance.  It is foolish and inaccurate to attribute it to the end-of-life rantings of an angry and sick man.  (By the way, some of Luther’s later sermons are outstanding explanations of the gospel).  I’m not trying to absolve Luther here, I’m simply arguing for better history writing.  There are other such examples in other sections of Metaxas’ book where he muddles up history and theology, which is part of the reason I don’t recommend this book if you want an accurate picture of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.

In case you’re interested, Carl Trueman discusses this very topic – Luther and the Jews – in chapter three of Histories and FallaciesTrueman takes a far more modest, contextual, and nuanced approach to Luther’s writings on the Jews.  In summary (read it for yourself!), he notes that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings were somewhat typical in the late medieval era and were based on religious and theological beliefs rather than ethnic distinctions.  Again, this doesn’t necessarily absolve Luther, but it gives us a more nuanced, balanced, and contextual approach than Metaxas does in Bonhoeffer

In Trueman’s words, “Every historian makes mistakes; the important thing is to gain an understanding of why they are mistakes.  Once that is done, they become much easier to avoid in the future” (p. 168).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Great Reformation Book, Great Price!

 Image 1 Reformation Heritage Books has Carl Trueman’s Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow on sale for $5.00 (for a limited time).  I just ordered copies for my elders and deacons – it’ll be on our winter reading/discussion list.  If you don’t have it, I highly recommend getting it!  It’s not long (120 pages) but it is good, straightforward, and applicable.

shane lems

Where The Focus Is Upon God…

 Here are a few insights from Carl Trueman in a book he wrote explaining why and how the Reformation is still important today:

“We must be aware that the usefulness of Reformation theology lies in its emphasis upon God.  The theologies, the catechisms, and the liturgies which flowed from the Reformers’ pens all indicate that theirs was a piety which was concerned above all with God.  The emphasis of the Reformers was always much more upon the identity and action of God than upon human experience of him.  The two are, of course, inextricably linked, but the accent always falls upon the divine half of the equation.  This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Calvin’s works give so little insight into the man that he was: he talked little of himself because he was concerned with the proper subject of theology, and that was God.”

After going on to talk about Luther’s emphasis on God, Trueman said, “This is in marked contrast to much of what we witness today.  …One of the elements which most marks contemporary evangelical piety is the obsession not so much with God as with self.”  (I agree – and for the record, I tend to skip sections of Christian books where the authors tell stories about themselves to introduce each chapter or help make their points.  For some books, that means it takes half as long to read!) 

Trueman notes that we also need to contemplate what this God-centered emphasis means for our own churches.

“The question we need to ask is whether this God emphasis which we find in the Reformers is as evident in the life of our own churches as we so often assume that it is.”

In other words, when we rightly criticize others for being self- instead of God-centered, we also need to evaluate our own theology and practice.

Get the book and read this section I’ve mentioned (and of course read the whole thing!): Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.  The above quotes were taken from pages 22-23. 

shane lems