Book Review: The Creedal Imperative, by Carl Trueman
Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 208 pps, $16.00.
In The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman argues that, if a church hopes to “follow the pattern of the sound words” that has been entrusted to it (2 Tim. 1:13), that church requires a robust confessionalism.
Trueman begins the book with an anecdote about a preacher who held the Bible in his right hand and said, “This is our only creed and confession” (12). It is a statement that has a noble and pious ring, but it is ultimately false. Trueman aptly points out that everyone has a creed and confession; everyone holds to a particular summary and synthesis of what the Bible teaches (15). The difference is that some make their creed explicit by writing it down while others do not.
The Creedal Imperative demonstrates both the value of creeds and confessions for the life of the local church and the serious consequences that follow if we refuse to make our doctrinal beliefs explicit in writing.
A CASE FOR CONFESSIONAL PROTESTANTISM
Over the course of six chapters, Trueman makes his case for what he terms “confessional Protestantism” (189). In chapter one, he demonstrates that those who claim to hold no creed or confession but the Bible are probably more influenced by modern cultural forces than they realize.
In chapter two, he argues from Scripture that the motto “No creed but the Bible” is not as biblical as it might seem. The crux of Trueman’s argument is his exposition of 2 Timothy 1 (72-79). There, Paul commands Timothy to “hold fast the form of sound words” he had received from Paul (2 Tim. 1:13 KJV). Trueman writes, “To claim to have no creed but the Bible, then, is problematic: the Bible itself seems to demand that we have forms of sound words, and that is what creeds are” (76). Indeed, as Trueman points out, the command of verse 13 comes directly after Paul gives Timothy just such a “form” in 2 Timothy 1:9-10.
In chapter three, Trueman moves from Scriptural to historical arguments. He observes that, from the earliest times, churches have formulated creeds and confessions. He begins with the Rule of Faith and the Apostles’ Creed and then deals with the creeds of the seven ecumenical councils.
In chapter four, Trueman surveys the creeds and confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He highlights how each confession linked itself to the ancient creeds of the church, as well as built upon them (130).
In chapter five, he makes a case for using creeds and confessions in the formal gatherings of the local church. He notes that in Paul’s writings, “doctrine and doxology are not separated: the truths of the gospel drive him again and again to praise” (136).
In chapter six, Trueman concludes his argument by noting several ways that creeds and confessions are beneficial to the health of a local church.
A VERY USEFUL BOOK
Here are three reasons why this is a very useful book.
A Skillful Critic of Modern Culture
First, Truman is a skillful critic of modern culture. Chapter one is a wake-up call: Christians do not live in a vacuum. There are cultural forces at work against the church as we labor to fulfill our responsibility to pass along sound doctrine to the next generation. Trueman catalogues these forces and argues that, while they have not made creeds untrue, they have made creeds and confessions distasteful to modern sympathies (48). Pastors particularly need to be aware of what is influencing their people’s thinking so that they can counteract these cultural lies with biblical truth.
A Display of Strong Theology
Second, this book displays a strong and broad-chested theology. Truth claims make people in our culture uneasy, and so it is tempting to soft-pedal the truth with excessive nuances and caveats. Say something like “Marriage is between one man and one woman” or “Jesus is the only way to heaven” and you will meet with hostility and persecution. But counter to cultural expectations, Trueman encourages his readers to adopt theological precision and firm conviction.
One example will suffice. He writes: “[C]hurches need to take a position on certain things. Take infant baptism for instance: it is either legitimate to baptize infants or it is not. There is no middle position. Further one really cannot equivocate on this matter, because the answer one gives has a profound effect on how one understands entry into the church, the Christian life, and the nature of Christian nurture” (131). As a credobaptist, I disagree with Trueman on baptism, but I agree with his call to take stand one way or another. Many today prefer not to take a stand at all. The church needs this kind of careful doctrine and firm conviction if we hope to flourish in the days to come.
Worth the Price of Admission
Third, chapters three and four alone are worth the price of the book. Trueman’s discussion of the historic creeds clarifies what was at stake at each point in history and illustrates why these creeds were necessary then and remain so today. More than this, Trueman demonstrates how the theology of the church developed. Therefore, chapters three and four are also helpful primers on historical theology.
It’s not fair to critique an author for not writing a book he did not mean to write. So let me pose my only possible critique as a question: has Trueman targeted the best audience? There are a few people today who hold adamantly to a “No Creed but the Bible” position. I have met one, in fact, living as I do in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. But the majority of professing Christians today belong to churches which do have some sort of statement of faith, but they barely if ever pay attention to it. Further, they fail to see how an ancient confession can have any relevance today. Meanwhile, those who do hold to “No Creed but the Bible” are not likely to read this book.
Though Trueman’s book will no doubt serve a broader audience, by helping them to see the importance of the creeds they presently ignore, he may have unnecessarily limited his audience by setting up the “No creed but the Bible” position as the focus of his criticism. It is not only that crowd who will benefit from this good book.
WHO SHOULD READ IT?
So who should read this book? I’d recommend it to pastors and interested church members who either want a concise introduction to the creeds and confessions of the Church or who want to think deeply about how these creeds are necessary for the health of the local church today.
Further, those who want to understand better the authority of creeds and confessions vis-à-vis the authority of the Bible will find help in The Creedal Imperative.