Note to the readers of the SB: Before we respond to various points raised by the brother in the above letter (dated mid-April) our readers should know that brother Salmon and I have carried on some correspondence over the issues he raised and have come to the conclusion that we are closer to each other about the importance of the creeds than may appear from this first letter. But because the issue concerning the character and authority of the confessions is of such importance today, and because the brother’s ‘reservations’ about what we wrote is quite likely shared by others, especially by those who, having left creedally-based but apostatizing denominations have been strongly rebuked for doing so by the very officers who refuse to be bound by those selfsame creeds, we asked his permission to print the personal letter sent to myself, together with a response. He has graciously consented.
The question the brother raises about the creeds and the right to speak about them as the work of the Spiritthrough the church of the past is, in our judgment, the point at issue and needs to be discussed and explained.
What follows contains the essence of my response to the brother, but now in an edited and revised form to make it suitable for publication.
Good Brother Salmon:
Be assured we of the SB have the highest regard for readers such as yourself, and we much appreciate your past encouragement and support. What you raise about the creeds and what weight and authority they have is one of the great issues of our day, an issue that needs to be discussed and thought through. Just keep in mind, good brother, that it is especially the modern day heretics in apostatizing Presbyterian and Reformed churches (Federal Vision men come to mind, to say nothing of leaders in the Emerging Church movement) who want either to set aside the creeds completely (as ‘mere man-made traditions’) or to minimize them to such an extent that they no longer have binding authority upon those who have vowed to subscribe to them.
So that they may be free to teach their unReformed and unbiblical novelties in the churches without being challenged on the basis of the creeds. Their common argument is, “We are going back to the Bible in direct, exegetical fashion, and now, through us, the church is at last rediscovering firsthand what the apostles themselves originally taught.”
As if the Spirit has waited for two millennia to begin to open up the true meaning of the Scriptures to Christ’s church and believers, the Spirit leaving Christ’s church in ignorance on fundamental gospel doctrines for thousands of years. And, mind you, we are talking about the church that the apostle calls “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15).
It is exactly by loosing the Bible from the centuries-old creedal explanations that these men give themselves free rein to give a biblical passage any explanation their ‘spirit’ pleases at the moment. And if you disagree, it is simply your word (as a mere common believer who knows nothing of the ‘nuances of the Greek,’ after all!) against theirs. As a result, no doctrine is settled in the church, and even so fundamental a doctrine as justification by faith without works, the hinge upon which the whole gospel of grace swings, is up for grabs. We are now to believe that justification does not mean what the great Reformed creeds for centuries have declared it to mean, but rather something Romish after all. As a result, doctrinal confusion rules the day, a climate in which heretics have a field day, free to teach whatever novelty they please.
This is our great concern. So we are pressing the importance of the great Christological and Reformed creeds, as well as faithfulness to them.
In response to your first assertion that “The Creeds are not the work of the Holy Spirit. They are man’s words summarizing particular biblical doctrines,” we would ask, not the work of the Holy Spirit in any fashion at all?
If by the words “The Creeds are not the work of the Spirit” you mean, not in the same sense as the Scriptures are, we would agree. We neither assume nor assert that the creeds are infallible (although, until a teaching is shown to be contrary to Scripture, they are to be received as trustworthy in what the creed teaches). But if you mean, they are not the work of the Spirit in any sense at all, or even in a special sensethat distinguishes them from all other theological writings of good men, we must disagree.
It is your second sentence, “They are man’s wordssummarizing particular doctrines” that brings us, I think, to the nub of the issue. To describe the creeds simply as ‘man’s words’ does not do the creeds justice. Such could be said about Calvin’s Institutes or Bavinck’s Dogmatiek—man’s words summarizing biblical doctrines—but not about our confessions. Rather, a proper description of the historic Christian creeds is that they are the words of Christ’s churchsummarizing biblical doctrines. And that reality puts them into a different and special category. This is what gives the creeds their special weight and binding authority.
What we are asserting is that declarations made by the faithful church of Christ speaking in concert is the Spirit’s way of giving those pronouncements a seal of authority that other documents produced by believing theologians do not have.
I may read Calvin’s Institutes with profit and Bavinck’sDogmatiek (and even the SB!), but they have no power or authority to bind you or me to what they teach. It is different with the great Christian creeds. To them the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit who has enabled God-fearing church councils to set forth what the Scriptures in fact teach on a doctrine of controversy, gives a special weight and authority.
Significantly, the faithful church of Christ understood this from earliest times. This is evident from the opening words of the Athanasius Creed, drawn up to expose and refute a host of early errors concerning God as God triune. Those who hammered out that creed, as they brought the Scriptures to bear on the deadly errors threatening that fundamental doctrine, had the boldness to begin that creed with these words.
Whosoever will be saved, before all else it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith; 2. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without a doubt he shall perish everlastingly. 3. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; 4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence….”
How could they make such a pronouncement with such boldness? “Believe this, confess this—or perish.” Only because they were confident that what they had produced was not of themselves but was under the leading of the Spirit of Truth.
The Athanasian Creed, definitive when it comes to how we confess God triune, is not the same as Scripture. It uses words not even found in the Scriptures, such as Trinity, person, and so on. But it was certainly produced under the leading of the same Spirit who had inspired the apostles who wrote the Scriptures. It is the fruit of Christ’s own Spirit working in men as they approached the Word of God by faith and prayer. Without that Spirit working in the great church councils of the past, we would all be Arians, Sabelleans, Eutycheans, or some such misled sect today.
That first of all.
Second, good brother, I would urge you to consider once again the significance and implications of the great church council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15.
What we find striking about that council is that the Holy Spirit did not decide to settle the issue of the status of the uncircumcised in the church simply by revealing it directly to the apostle Paul (or Peter) and then having them, under divine inspiration, settle the issue for the church. He could have, but He did not. Instead He directed the apostles to call a council that gave toelders (teaching and ruling) equal voice with the apostles! The emphasis of Acts 15 is upon the involvement of the elders of the church and what they contributed to the final creedal statement of that church council. As we stated in March, the phrase “apostlesand elders” is found no fewer than five times. James, the brother of Christ, was not an apostle. Nor was Barnabas. How did these elders contribute? By quoting and applying the Scriptures (Amos 9) to the heresy facing them at that time. That’s what the Spirit of Christ in James enabled him as an elder to do. And even the apostles paid heed and made that explanation their own.
Most significant are the words of verse 28, “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” That ‘to us’ refers not only to the apostles and their claim of Spirit-derived authority, but to the elders as well. The presence of the apostles at that time was exactly to assure the New Testament church that they could trust what was coming from a great church council in which God-fearing, Bible-believing ministers and elders were involved.
What this means, we are convinced, is this: we must not think that while the apostles lived, the church (and her elders) had the guidance of the Spirit and could say over against error, “This is in accordance with the Word of God and a fruit of the guidance of the Spirit,” but once the apostles died, church councils could not say that with any confidence anymore. That is not true. That is the whole point of the value of the Canon of the New Testament Scriptures—the New Testament church has at its disposal the apostolic word and its wisdom in its entirety. What is the implication? This: when God-fearing, Bible-believing officers of the later New Testament church councils and synods were called to defend the gospel of grace against heresy, and did that by bringing the apostolic word to bear, thereby producing those great Christian creeds, they were being directed by the same Spirit who directed the council and elders of Jerusalem in the book of the Acts. The apostles, being dead, yet speak! And therefore, what later biblically-faithful church councils have produced (the creeds) can be and, in our judgment, ought to be called the work of the Spirit, having great authority as a result—not independent of the Bible, but as faithful applications of the Word of God as directed by the Spirit.
You understand, we are not talking about just any creed that officers of a church decide to write out, but those that are the result of godly men bringing the apostolic word to bear on a heresy (such as Arminianism) threatening the gospel of grace. Such creeds and confessions are the work of the Spirit in the sense of His enabling believing officebearers to take God’s Word and to declare “This is error. And this is truth!”
I think the key for finding common ground on this issue is the description with which you close your letter, in which you express a fear of “Creeds… [as] enforced byself-righteous officers….”
I could not agree more.
Indeed, when self-righteous officers get involved (i.e., those who justify themselves as they depart from truth) every high-handed evil under the sun results. They are not above even using creedal-authority itself as a club against those who dare challenge their ‘new perspective’ on things—”How dare you say such things about church-approved officers. And now you talk about leaving this creedally-based church whose creeds tie you in with the church of the past? Woe to you!” And this, mind you, by men who refuse to be bound to those very creeds they vowed they would uphold.
As Kevin Reed labels it, “Imperious Presbyterianism” indeed.
But weakening or diminishing the authority of the great biblically-based creeds is not going to help avert this abuse. In fact, it will play into the hands of these dishonest men, allowing them to twist the Scriptures into any shape they want, all the while remaining as preachers in good standing while they do so.
The Federal Vision men come to mind, men trying to foist upon the church novel interpretations of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, and of election itself, interpretations of the Bible that are clearly at odds with and even condemned by the Reformed confessions. And this is exactly why these men keep insisting on discussing things only on the basis of exegesis of biblical texts, and why they so strongly object when faithful elders bring the confessions to bear on this ‘new perspective’ of theirs—because the great Reformed confessions quickly demonstrate that what they are trying to introduce into the church stands in flat contradiction with what the faithful church of the past has always taught about these same biblical doctrines.
They hate being so easily detected and flushed out. Hence, away with the creeds!
But where Bible-honoring, honest officers are involved, a different ‘Spirit’ is at work. Where such men yet govern the church, the creeds and confessions can be used properly. In fact, we would say that, in their hands, the creeds are a powerful and God-given tool to be used against dishonest, deceiving theologians, men who having promised to teach God’s truth as set forth in the creeds, then proceed to contradict those very doctrines they have vowed to uphold.
With your statement “They should never [emphasis ours] be used to bring men to trial or charge believers with crimes against them” we must respectfully disagree. If an officebearer has had the honesty to inform his church where he disagrees with a creedal teaching, and explained why he cannot subscribe, that’s one thing (though it may mean he must be relieved of office in that church if he remains unpersuaded); but if a man has subscribed to the creeds, promising to teach what they teach, and then simply starts introducing doctrines at odds with what he has subscribed, that’s another matter. Our Church Order declares that such a one is ‘de facto’ (by that very fact) suspended. Such a man has proved dishonest, and is to be charged with teaching things contrary to Scripture and the confessions.
Finally, thanks for sending the booklet by Kevin Reed (Imperious Presbyterianism). I am familiar with the booklet, as I am with any number of other excellent treatises published by the Trinity Foundation. Though it may surprise you, I agree with almost everything Reed writes in his booklet, or at least I thought I did. Having read your letter I begin to wonder if there is something I overlooked. If so, I have not found it as yet.
However, in light of a number of excellent observations Kevin Reed does make about the apostasy of our day and high-handed Presbyterians (officebearers), we may well review the booklet in a future SB installment.
—Rev. Kenneth Koole