Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Christian Counterculture, Part Two

Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative
This review follows A Manifesto For a Christian Counterculture.
If, as I contend, Protestant churches are bleeding membership because we have softened our public expression of shared beliefs, the answer seems logical: we must reclaim our heritage of ancient creeds and confessions. This seems like a small issue, but many church traditions, particularly charismatic and evangelical, have embraced the belief that creeds are man-made documents that verge on idolatry. Seminary historian Carl Trueman disagrees.

The classic ecumenical Christian creeds were devised out of great controversy, out of the need to answer important questions in a way that accords with Scripture, but keeps us united as believers. But where Christians through the ages have seen these statements as brief introductions to our beliefs, certain emotive evangelical leaders see these as man-made documents of lesser, or no, authority. These beliefs prove hugely persuasive in some circles.

Carl Trueman comes from a conservative Protestant tradition—conservative in the sense of possessing principles founded in age-old Christian mores, not politically conservative. He counters the “No Creed but the Bible” ethos with copious use of the Bible, and the struggles of Christians in the years after the New Testament. While nobody could mistake this for light reading, his explication of Christian confession through the ages is enlightening and deep.

The belief that only the Bible can provide a creed, Trueman says, not only lacks Biblical foundation (he cites multiple Pauline passages that clearly resemble creeds), it lacks any Christian basis. Rather, he sees it as a product of worldly influence, particularly the gestalt we call “postmodernism.” In other words, churches that reject millennia of confession are privileging that which is in the world over that which is in us.

Trueman comes across as distinctly anti-modern, though that may be a somewhat narrow view. He sees current culture dominated by contradictory forces: faith in science causes us to reject the past and idealize the future, yet imposing scientific complexity causes a retreat into fuzzy emotionalism. These forces create a cultural milieu that honors the present tense, while suspending reason. This favors youth and naivete over learning and experience.

Creeds, confessions, and catechisms connect us with the Christian tradition between the Apostolic era and the present. They provide a context for our beliefs, such that we do not need to reinvent the wheel every generation, or every Sunday. They let us define and explain our beliefs without having to fumble through disparate Scriptural passages that may sprawl across hundreds of pages. In short, they give Christians a shared public vocabulary.

Additionally, creeds give individual Christians and congregations the power to redress abuses. When churches lack such public declarations, pastors and leaders can preach inconsistent, self-serving messages. They can change doctrine and deny any change. They can elevate themselves to levels of power not reserved to human authority. Creedal churches have immediate answers when that happens, and can correct or remove heterodox influences.

All churches, Trueman explains, have creeds. All churches and congregations have shared interpretations of Scripture and other influences. The difference is whether they state these beliefs aloud, in a transparent manner that invites and permits public discussion. Churches that have only an implicit creed are breeding grounds for Jonestown-style abuses. Churches which share a public confession empower individual Christians to have a voice in their life and belief.

More than once in this book, Trueman uses the word “counterculture,” making explicit what was only implicit in Craig Barnes. For Trueman, Christianity has a role in the world to counterbalance the weight of short-term, earthly views. But for Christians to form a meaningful, influential counterculture, we must first have a culture. We must have shared, public set of beliefs, which we can speak with a balance of concision and detail. Culture requires creed.

Do not undertake this book lightly. As both a pulpit minister and a university historian, Trueman’s language can at times be pretty intimidating. He uses theological terms—soteriology, docetism, eschaton—without pausing for definitions. Clearly he writes for his fellow pastors, though professionals of course don’t have a monopoly on terminology. This may not bother everybody, but even this experienced theological reader had to reach for the dictionary more than once.

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, frequently quotes Proverbs 29:18—”Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Carl Trueman agrees, and says is applies to the church as much as a nation. So we need clear statements of what we believe, which balances detail and brevity. In other words, we need confessions, catechisms, and creeds. Trueman confidently proves why.

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