Thursday, June 27, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, Objections Answered, Part 2

2. The 2nd objection frequently made against creeds and confessions is that they interfere with the rights of conscience and lead to oppression and tyranny.

Again, this is a very specious argument. Fleshed out, the argument looks like this: “What right has any church to impose a creed on me and dictate to me what I must believe? Such an attempt is tyranny, and submission to it is tantamount to surrendering the right of private judgment.”

Advocates of this objection need a history lesson. This objection would only have ground if creeds or confessions were imposed by the civil government with stiff penalties for any who did not agree. But such a case does not, and cannot exist in the free world. The objection is illegitimate in reasoning and false in fact. We are not talking about living under sharia law.

If a body of professing Christians has the right to associate and extract their own creed from the Scriptures, and to agree upon the principles by which others may join them, isn’t it also equally manifest that they have the same right to refuse admittance to those with whom they believe they cannot be in agreement?

Turning the situation around and viewing it from the other end will show exactly what I mean. Suppose a person comes to this body of Christians and demands admittance into their association while openly and vehemently declaiming against the doctrines they profess to embrace, and openly refusing to be governed by the rules they have agreed to adopt. What answer would they apt to give this person? They would say, “You are being unreasonable. Ours is a voluntary communion and one designed for our mutual spiritual benefit. We didn’t ask you to join us, and therefore you have no right to force yourself into our body. You have the whole wide world before you: go where you want. We cannot receive you unless you’re willing to walk with us upon our own principles.” Is this unreasonable? Is this tyrannical? Any reasonable person would deem this to be the proper response. Would anyone think this man had common sense if he were to claim that that he had been persecuted or injured? Of course not. This church, if they were compelled to receive him, would cease to be free themselves and would become his slaves.

The point is clear in the case of a ministerial candidate offering his services to the church. If they were to present to him a copy of their creed and confession, along with their form of government and worship, which they had unanimously adopted, and asked him whether he could subscribe to these or not, where is the so-called oppression and tyranny? They have not judged his status before God. They have not judged the reality of his profession of faith. They have imposed no ecclesiastical censure. He has not been injured or persecuted in any way. Aren’t the rights of conscience reciprocal? If they have the freedom of conscience to join together based on mutually agreed-upon principles of belief, why must they surrender this right of conscience for the sake of opponents of their views who wish to join their number? It is sheer insanity to charge them with oppression and tyranny. It is in fact the applicant who is the tyrant. If the members of the church or denomination have no right to agree upon the principles by which they will associate, and to refuse membership to those who are hostile to their principles, there is an end to all liberty. They have become slaves to the dictates of their enemies!

Someone might respond that the church is not actually a voluntary association, but a community instituted by Christ and that its laws are given by Him as its Head and Lord. The rulers of the church are in fact only stewards who must conform themselves and all that they do to His will. This is all true. The church cannot properly be regarded as a mere voluntary association in the same way that other societies may be viewed. The church is the property of Christ. His will is the basis of its establishment. And, of course, no one can be admitted or excluded from the church except upon the principles of His own Word. But none of this alters the reasoning of our foregoing argument. The union of Christians in the church state must still be a voluntary act. If it were not so, it would not be a moral act at all. If the union is voluntary then those who form it must be supposed to have a right to follow their own convictions as to what the Lord has revealed respecting the laws of their union. If they can't judge in this matter, who can? Has Christ, as Head of the Church, prescribed any qualifications as necessary for private membership or admission to the ministerial office of His church? If so, what are they? What degree of departure from purity of faith and practice is enough to exclude a man from membership or ministry? To whom has Christ committed the task of applying this law in any particular case? Does this task belong to the church as a body of believers voluntarily associating with each other on the basis of agreed-upon principles” Or, does it belong to applicants and/or those who refuse to subscribe because of dissenting views? Obviously, the church has no right to require assent to anti-scriptural principles. But freedom of conscience, and indeed liberty in any form, is destroyed and banished from the face of the earth if the voluntary associations of men must surrender their guiding principles to those who wish to join while adhering to contrary principles. This argument is false because it's insane. It charges the wrong side with tyranny. It is not the church who is guilty of oppression and tyranny; it is the dissident applicant who is the tyrant. He demands that the entire association of believers reject and repudiate their right to conscience so that he may practice his, when in fact he can go down the street and easily find groups who substantially agree with him. There is no other purpose in joining a group with whom you disagree except to limit and curtail their freedom and right of conscience.

Since Christ has authorized and commanded His church to excommunicate those who are heretical and immoral, as well as those who preach “another gospel,” then it is certainly clear that when the church acts upon this authority she is doing no one any injury. If the church excludes a private member from her communion or deposes a minister from office in the regular exercise of scriptural church discipline, she deprives neither of any natural right. She is only practically saying, “You can no longer be a minister or member with us in a way that is consistent with our views of either obedience to Christ or Christian edification. You can go be happy and helpful in any other way and in any other place. But we must take away the authority and privileges that we once gave you, because if you continue to exercise these, it will be subversive to the very principles we have solemnly pledged to support.” Is this unreasonable language? Is it oppressive and tyrannical? Would it be more just and more favorable to the rights of conscience if the individual could retain his place as a minister in this church contrary to their wishes and in subversion of their faith?

When a church uses a creed or confession in the way that we have described, as a bond of unity or barrier against heresy, in conformity to what they believe to be the will Christ, they are in reality - in the most enlightened way, and on the largest scale - maintaining the rights of conscience. If the church were to surrender their testimony to the truth, and to surrender their own comfort, peace, and edification for the sake of complying with the unreasonable demands of a corrupt individual, they would be subjecting themselves to a state of the worst kind of slavery. When the rights, interests, and happiness of the many are subjected to the dictation of one, this is the essence of tyranny.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, Objections Answered, Part 1

We will now look at the principal objections which are advanced by the adversaries of creeds and confessions.

1. The first objection which is generally advanced against the use of creeds or confessions as a test of orthodoxy is that it is superseding the Bible and making a human composition a standard of faith.

Of all of the objections against the use of creeds or confessions this one is the most specious of all. When this objection is fully unpacked it usually runs like this: “The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is complete and it needs no human addition. It is understandable and therefore needs no human explanation. Why then subscribe ourselves or call others to subscribe to any other creeds than this plain, inspired, and perfect declaration of truth? Doesn't the use of a creed or confession as a test of orthodoxy insult the Scriptures as a virtual declaration that it is not infallible or sufficient?” As I said at the beginning of this paragraph, this objection is the most specious of all objections urged against creeds and confessions.

The whole argument is founded on a false assumption. No Protestant has ever professed to regard his creed as of equal authority with the Scriptures, and certainly not of paramount authority. The creeds themselves reject this principle and so do all the defenses of creeds that had ever been written. We've already urged several times that all that the creed professes to be is an epitome, or summary of what the Scriptures teach. Because it professes to be deduced from the Scriptures, it refers to the Scriptures for all of its authority. Therefore when one subscribes to the creed or confession he is not dishonoring the Bible, he is rather paying public homage to it. By subscribing to that creed or confession, he is declaring how he understands the Bible, and what doctrines he considers the Bible to contain.

Let me summarize what I'm saying. Socinians profess to believe the Bible, but understand it to be teaching the mere humanity of Christ. Arians profess to believe the Bible, but understand it to be teaching that Christ is a mere creature, albeit the most exalted of creatures. Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians profess to believe the Bible, but interpret it in such a way as to denigrate the grace of God and magnify human nature. I profess to believe the Bible, and I believe with all my heart that it is the infallible word of God, the only perfect rule of faith and practice, and the only ultimate test of all controversies. And I believe it to teach the total depravity of human nature, the Deity of Christ, the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ, and regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. I profess these to be the fundamental principles of the plan of salvation. Now I ask: What is there in all these statements that is dishonoring to the Bible? What have I said to denigrate its ultimate authority? Haven’t I simply stated what I believe to be revealed in that Word? Documents such as the 3 Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, and the 39 Articles of the Church of England are chock-full of Scripture. Every sentence of every paragraph of every article reveals their dependence and subservience to the Bible.

As a subset of this argument it may be asked what right has any man, or church to interpose their authority to deal out the sense of Scripture for others. Is this not an improper assumption over the minds of our fellow men? I would argue that this reasoning proves too much, and therefore proves nothing. If we admitted the force this logic then all preaching of the gospel would be presumptuous, because preaching always consists in explaining and enforcing the meaning of Scripture – in the words of the preacher himself! This line of reasoning carried to its logical conclusion would force us to say that no minister of the gospel should do anything but simply read the very words of Scripture from the pulpit in the original languages. All translations of the Bible are the words which uninspired men have chosen to express the sense of the original words. So if we admit the objection that no man is at liberty to teach the revealed truth of Scripture in a way which undertakes to assert the sense of Scripture over the minds of others, then we must say that no man is at liberty to speak in the pulpit except he read the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament. This is the logical and legitimate consequence of that erroneous argument.

In short, this whole line of argumentation is nothing but a red herring. It sets up a false premise, which it attacks, and then declares it has won the day. It is a sad day for your cause when the best you can do in your favor is to misrepresent your opponents and their positions.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, A Defense, Part 7

7. My final argument in favor of the use of creeds and confessions is that the most fiery and zealous opponents to them virtually employ creeds and confessions in their own internal ecclesiastical proceedings.

The very people who constantly squawk against the use of a creed or a confession as a standard measurement of orthodoxy will themselves use something equivalent to a creed or confession when a doctrinal crisis emerges in their own communion. Have you ever heard of a wild-eyed Oneness Pentecostal church hiring a Calvinist preacher to be their pastor? Of course not. Why? There should be no issue here is these creed rejecters lived by their own principles. Doesn't the Calvinist preacher come with the Bible in his hand, professing to believe it as ardently as they do? Isn't that enough for these advocates of liberty of conscience? But we all know this will never happen. Before this church would consent to hire this man as they are preacher and spiritual guide they will want to know precisely how he interprets the Bible, which is another way to say, “What is his creed?” They want to know whether his confession of faith is substantially the same is theirs or not. And if it is not, he will not get the job. What is this but the principle of demanding subscription to a creed or confession carried out with as much rigor as the most ardent advocate of orthodoxy?

The only difference between this practice and the practice of those who are friends of creeds and confessions is that with those who advocate the use of creeds and confessions, theirs is a written doctrine. The rejecters of creeds and confessions demand subscription to their creed, albeit theirs, because it is not written can be applied in the most capricious and tyrannical manner against which there is no recourse.

There is no getting around this fact. The enemies of creeds cannot get along one day without one. It is very common to find the enemies of creeds saying, “No creed but the Bible.” But let us ask for a moment what a creed is. A creed is nothing more than an organized statement of what we profess to believe the Bible teaches. Opponents of creeds always argue that creeds are man-made, and for this reason they are unbiblical and therefore not binding upon believers. But this argument implodes under the weight of its own stupidity. What is “No creed but the Bible,” if not a man-made statement of what these people believe? The statement itself is not found in Scripture, and it can therefore be argued that it is unbiblical. In summary, “No creed but the Bible” is a creed!

In summary, the arguments in favor of the use of creeds and confessions are these: they serve as a basis of unity; they help the church be the guardian of truth she was established to be; they inform fellow believers and the watching world of what we in fact believe; they tend toward the informed study of the Bible; the early church's own example shows their utility in testing teachers and their doctrine; only heretics or latitudinarians have generally rejected them; even their opponents use them when push comes to shove.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, A Defense, Part 6

6. Generally speaking, the most ardent opposers of creeds and confessions have been latitudinarians, if not heretics.

This is not to say that the use of creeds or confessions has never been opposed by people who were substantially orthodox. But it is to say that such a rejection of the use of creeds and confessions is a relatively recent circumstance. We have no example of it in earlier church history. Neither is this to say that heretics have not formed and maintain their own corrupt creeds. Church history abounds with examples of this as well. But what we are asserting is this, as a general fact the most ardent and loud opponents of creeds have been those who held corrupt opinions. This should not strike us as a fortuitous occurrence. This is exactly what we should expect. This is exactly what the underlying principle should logically develop into.

In the early 19th century, the loudest opponent of the use of creeds and confessions was the denomination of the Unitarians. Is it any wonder that those who hold doctrines which are demonstrably un-scriptural should refuse to accept a formula which tends to make visible the line of distinction between truth and error? It has often been observed that men are seldom found to oppose creeds until the creeds and become opposed to them.

If we look a little into church history, especially within the last 200 years we find this strikingly exemplified. Whenever we find a group of men beginning to slide away from orthodoxy, they generally try to conceal their fall by speaking against creeds and confessions. And that is because it is these documents that will expose how far they have deviated from sound doctrine.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, A Defense, Part 5

5. The Church's experience in all ages has found creeds and confessions to be indispensable.

Even in the days of the Apostles, there were those who were peddling a 'false gospel.' How did the Church respond to such a situation? Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote that Christians should not be content with a mere profession of belief in Christ, but that teachers should be examined to ascertain whether their doctrine accorded with the “form of sound words,” which he had taught them. Paul adds to this the fearful warning of a curse on the head of anyone who brings a message other than the one they had received from him. 

What we have here is, in effect, an instance – with Divine warrant, I might add – of employing a creed as a test of orthodoxy. A naked profession of belief in God or the Bible was insufficient. It had to be determined in what sense they understood the Gospel. The peculiar situation of the Church in that early age probably required a short and concise confession, but a confession nonetheless. Whether the confession Paul sought agreement with had one article or 100 is irrelevant; the principle is the same.

When we come to the 2nd Century, in the writings of Irenaeus, or the 3rd Century, in the writings of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, and Gregory Thaumaturgus, we find creeds and confessions occupying a prominent place in the Church as a safe-guard against error. This is especially important when we remember that by this very standard, large swathes of both Tertullian's and Origen's works were ruled unorthodox by their contemporaries and later generations. 

By the time we get to the 4th Century, the exigencies of the Arian heresy forced the Church to respond at the Council of Nicaea with the Nicene creed, a standard of orthodox Trinitarianism which has stood both the test of time and the ravaging winds of theological innovation.

With Arius, a creed turned out to be an indispensable tool. Arius was exceptionally crafty. It was extremely difficult to pin him down theologically. He almost always resorted to the actually words used in Scripture when pressed for an explanation of his teaching, but it was always evident that something was still awry. Whenever the members of the Council attempted to pin him down on the question of what he believed to Bible to teach, or, in what sense did he understand the language of Scripture, he was found to equivocate and evade the questions put to him. As long as he was permitted to hide behind a veneer of general profession, his errors were not readily apparent. The solution was to draw up a statement of what the Fathers believed to be the Scripture's teaching on the deity of Christ. When Arius was confronted with this and asked to subscribe to it, he was flushed out as the heretic that he was. The Council was proven correct in their judgment of him, for by his refusal to subscribe to the creed, he showed that he understood the Scriptures in an entirely different sense than the rest of Christendom. This has repeatedly been case throughout history. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, A Defense, Part 4

4. A further argument in favor of creeds and confessions is that they promote the study of Christian doctrine.

The only way in which those who fundamentally differ from each other concerning the doctrines of Scripture can have any harmony in ecclesiastical fellowship is by becoming indifferent to the truth. If Christians are indifferent to the truth will they not then be apt today neglect the study of truth? And if the study of truth is neglected, will not ignorance eventually prevail? The simple fact is this: when men love the truth of the gospel enough to study it, they soon learn to evaluate it adequately. And only then will they be disposed to contend for it against its enemies.

If a professing believer entertains the notion that creeds and confessions are un-scriptural (and therefore unlawful), he is half a step from concluding that all contending for doctrine is useless and even sinful. It is easy to see from this how small the transition is to abandoning of the study of doctrine. The enemies of creeds and confessions assume a principle, which, if carried to its logical conclusion, would discourage all zeal in maintaining the purity of the doctrines of the Gospel. If the pulpiteers of the average church in Evangelicalism had it as a goal to make their hearers indifferent about understanding and studying the fundamental doctrines of Scripture, they could adopt no better plan than to do as they actually do in their rejection of creeds and confessions by crying, “Matters of opinion are between God and a man's own conscience. No one else should meddle with that.” Isn't this just another way of saying, “Believe whatever you want; it doesn't matter anyway.” This, of course means that serious study of the doctrines of Scripture is both a waste of time and not conducive to so-called “unity.” No self-respecting minister would actually assert this, but who cares if his practice works on the same underlying framework? Either the doctrines of Scripture are important and should be studied, or they are not important and need not be studied. If we would have churches with Biblically-literate members, nothing is more conducive to this than a creed or confession of faith, which lays out in an orderly and systematic way the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, A Defense, Part 3

3. Creeds and confessions of faith are simply the truth and candor that every Christian church owes to the other churches and to the world around her.

Let us imagine a hypothetical believer, a devout and religious man, who wants to form a deep in spiritual bond to a body of believers of like mind. Before he joins any church, he will want to know something of their faith, their government, and their general character. He will also want to know their doctrine. How will he find any of this out? It will certainly not be by going from church to church within a 50 mile radius of his house trying to ascertain from what he hears from the pulpit what that particular church holds for Bible truth. This would require an impossibly long amount of time and effort which no one can afford. And even supposing he had the time to spend in such an endeavor, he would never hear enough of the doctrine of anyone church to be able to decide what the universal and uniform character of that particular church was. He would have no way of knowing whether what he saw and heard on any given Sunday was standard procedure or a mere fluke.

But supposing that this hypothetical inquirer finds that we have a published creed or confession of faith, which declares how we understand the Scriptures, and further details the great truths which we have agreed to unite in maintaining, he can ascertain in a very short time without even leaving his own living room, what we profess to believe, and how far his views accord with our published confession.

Creeds and confessions therefore, rather than alienating and embittering Christians and churches who think merely alike, in fact make them better acquainted with each other while laying the foundation for mutual confidence in harmony as fellow believers and members of the church of God. Whole denominations exist, whose doctrinal standards are virtually identical, yet no one would know how far they are agreed without these standards being published and subscribed to in a public manner.

The aforementioned hypothetical believer merely presents us with one half of the equation. But the same logic applies with regard to our witness to the world around us. Do not churches and denominations owe the world around them an honest and candid presentation of their beliefs? Surely no one would dispute this. This is precisely what creeds and confessions do.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Creeds and Confessions, A Defense, Part 2

2. Another argument for the importance of creeds and confessions appears from considering what the church was established to be, namely a depository, a guardian, and a witness of the truth.

Scripture represents Christians, collectively as well as individually, as witnesses for God. They are exhorted to contend earnestly for the faith and to hold fast to the form of sound words which they have received and to strive together for the faith of the Gospel.

Surely this implies taking effective measures to distinguish between truth and error. Surely this implies the duty of drawing a line between those who profess to believe the Bible, while in reality denying its essential doctrines, and those who humbly receive the truth.

There is only one way that this can be done. The only way a distinction can be made between those who deny the essential doctrines of Scripture and those who embrace them – while both professing to receive and believe the Bible – is by ascertaining and explicitly declaring how the church understands and interpret the Bible. In other words the church must extract articles of faith from the Scriptures and compared those articles with the professed belief of those whom she suspects to be heretics. But what is this if not a creed or Confession of faith? To this point, Samuel Miller writes, “It does really appear to me that those orthodox brethren, who admit that the church is bound to raise her voice against error, and to 'contend earnestly' for the truth; and yet denounce creeds and confessions, are, in the highest degree inconsistent with themselves.” A truer sentence was never written.

Demanding a church members and her ministers uphold a truth, while refusing to give them the tools to do it, beyond a naked “I believe in the Bible,” is like the Egyptian taskmasters sending the Israelites to their brickwork without supplying down the necessary materials to meet their quota. There really is no other alternative. You must either have “a form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), or you can have no security that any two decisions about the faith will be made on the same basis.

Visitor Counter

Flag Counter