The Impossibility of Preaching Jesus Without A Creed (Vos)

A church without a creed is a church to avoid.  Why?  Because a big part of the Christian’s faith includes knowledge of biblical doctrine, factual truth-statements to which faith clings.  Geerhardus Vos said it quite well:

“Faith presupposes knowledge, because it needs a mental complex, person or thing, to be occupied about.  Therefore, the whole modern idea of preaching Jesus, but preaching Him without a creed, is not only theologically, not merely Scripturally, but psychologically impossible in itself.  In fact knowledge is so interwoven with faith that the question arises, whether it be sufficient to call it a prerequisite, and not rather an ingredient of faith.”

“The very names by means of which Jesus would have to be presented to people are the nuclei of creed and doctrine.  If it were possible to eliminate this, the message would turn to pure magic, but even the magic requires some name-sound and cannot be wholly described as preaching without a creed. …To be sure, mere knowledge is not equivalent to full-orbed faith, it must develop into trust, before it is entitled to that name.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 389.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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We Always Need the Gospel…Always

Product Details I’ve often told people that if they do not constantly and clearly hear the gospel preached in their church, something is terribly wrong.  They need to 1) pray, 2) lovingly approach the elders/pastor(s), and if change doesn’t come over time, they need to 3) find a church that preaches the gospel constantly and clearly.  By “gospel” I of course mean the proclamation of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension – his work to save sinners from misery and hell.

Here’s a great section from a sermon Martin Luther preached on Luke 22:7-20 (April 2, 1534).  This is part of the reason for my statements above – why we need to hear the gospel constantly and clearly.  If we do not, the result is faith-damaging.

“But someone might say, ‘Are we to proclaim nothing but that Christ died for us? Isn’t it enough to preach about this one time only? I have heard it [the gospel] so often and know it so well.’  Answer: the Jews were required to hold the deliverance from Egypt in remembrance not once only, but always, year after year.  But should we Christians trouble ourselves continually to repeat the remembrance of the deliverance Christ wrought for us from sin, death, devil, and hell?  Are you among those who say, ‘I have heard it all before; why must I hear it again?’  If so, your heart has become dull, satiated, and shameless, and this food does not taste good to you.  This is the same thing that happened to the Jews in the wilderness when they grew tired of eating manna.  But if you are a Christian, you will never grow weary, but will long to hear this message often and to speak about it forever.”

“Allow me a personal comment: I am a doctor of the Holy Scriptures; yet the more I consider the Children’s Creed [the Apostle’s Creed used to teach children], the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the sacrament, the better it all tastes to me.  I also could easily say with the bored, satiated spirits, ‘I know the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the words of baptism and the sacrament, the Psalms, and so on;’ but daily I experience and must confess that, even though I have confessed my faith in the words of the Creed, spoken the Lord’s Prayer, reviewed the words of baptism and the Sacrament, yet, if tomorrow I do not review these  things item by item, my heart will become cold and lazy.  And if I don’t repeat it on the day following, I will become even colder and more indolent, ultimately arriving at the point of disdain.”

“For seven years [when Luther was a monk] I had no desire to partake of the sacrament, because I was then so very perfect.  That is what I got out of the papacy.  But when I became aware that it was the devil who was impeding me and leading me away from the sacrament, I said, ‘Devil, perfect or not, I am in the need of the sacrament and cannot do without its comfort; therefore, I shall attend and no longer offer excuses.’  And so I went, sometimes even without confessing my sins.  Not that I had rejected confession, despised or neglected absolution; but that sometimes I went without confessing my sins only to spite the devil who wanted to keep me away….”

Read that again!  The sermon is found in volume 6 of the Baker 7 volume series.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Religion Of, By, and For the People

I’ve mentioned Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again.  This is the book you need to read if you’ve ever wondered how Christianity got so screwed up in the United States.  If you’ve wondered where goofy patriotic hymns originated, if you want to learn when Americans began to dislike creeds, confessions and church membership, if you’ve wondered about the origin of evangelical superstars, or if you want to learn about the source of the phrase “no creed but the Bible,” you must get this book.  Hatch’s book is far too detailed to summarize here, so I’ll simply quote an insightful paragraph now and blog on it again some other time.

In chapter four, Hatch discusses the 19th century democratic, republican, and populist view of religion – that each man should approach religion and the Bible independently, freely, and as his own source of authority.

“[They] called for common folk to read the Bible as if mortal man had never seen it before.  People were expected to discover the self-evident message of the Bible without any mediation from creeds, theologians, or clergymen not of their own choosing.  This explicit faith that biblical authority could emerge from below, from the will of the people, was the most enduring legacy of [this] movement.  By the 1840s one analyst of American Protestantism concluded, after surveying fifty-three sects, that the principle ‘No creed but the Bible’ was the distinctive feature of American religion.  John W. Nevin [a German Reformed theologian] surmised that this emphasis grew out of a popular demand for ‘private judgment’ and was ‘tacitly if not openly conditioned always by the assumption that every man is authorized and bound to get at this authority in a direct way for himself, through the medium simply of his own single mind.’  Many felt that the exhilarating hope that democracy had opened an immediate access to biblical truth for all persons of good will.  Americans found it difficult to realize, however, that a commitment to private judgment could drive people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity.”

I’m not against democracy, but I do believe Christians should be careful not to let democracy creep into the church (including hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theology, and so forth).  Also, we should be self-critical: how have our own churches been affected by democracy?  Does the will of the people rule our churches (songs, sermons, theology, worship) or God’s word given to the church?  In what ways are our own churches more democratic than Christian?  How can we exist in a democratic culture without letting it direct our churches?  What steps can we take in our churches to become less democratic?

Again, I strongly recommend this book: The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems

Jesus, Creed, Knowledge, and Faith

 Most of us understand that the phrase “No creed but Christ” is very unhelpful for two reasons: 1) it is illogical because it is creed in and of itself, and 2) one has to define “Christ,” and in so doing, the result will be something like a creedal statement.  Geerhardus Vos tackled this unhelpful anti-creedal attitude which was evidently around 100 years ago:

“Faith presupposes knowledge, because it needs a mental complex, person or thing, to be occupied about.  Therefore, the whole modern idea of preaching Jesus, but preaching him without a creed, is not only theologically, not merely scripturally, but psychologically impossible in itself.”

And more.

“The very names by means of which Jesus would have to be presented to people are nuclei of creed and doctrine.  If it were possible to eliminate this, the message would turn to pure magic, but even the magic requires some name-sound and cannot be wholly described as preaching without a creed.  The vogue which this programme has acquired is to some extent due to the unfortunate, and altogether undeserved, flavor clinging to the term ‘creed,’ as though this necessarily meant a minutely worked out theological structure of belief.  That is not meant, but belief there must be before faith can begin to function, and belief includes knowledge [Matt. 8.10, Lk. 7.9].  This knowledge may have been gathered gradually, almost imperceptibly, from countless impressions received during a brief or longer period of time, but epistemologically it does not differ from any other kind of mental act however acquired.  To be sure, mere knowledge is not equivalent to full-orbed faith, it must develop into trust, before it is entitled to that name.”

For more on this from Vos, see the context of page 389 in Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.

shane lems