Theology, Piety, and Practice
We need creeds. So, how do we do it? There are two basic assumptions I want to bring to the forefront of our minds about the creeds and confessions. 1. They are God’s system of doctrine communicating in our present context. 2. There is a system of doctrine in Scripture. I will explain the first of these this week, and the second next week.
Creedal formulation, in a very prominent way, is the quest for context. We seek Biblical context by the various theological disciplines: exegetical, Biblical, and systematic theology. It also has the obstacle of the current context into which the creedal formula will communicate. By this I mean, it has got to communicate to the culture and worldviews of our day. By nature, the creeds and confessions are confrontational of unbelief, false teaching, and unrighteousness.
The creedal quest is to find terms that fit, or can be easily reinterpreted to fit, a given doctrine in order to bring our language into the Bible’s system of doctrine. The discipline of history is one way to gain these contexts. The final say must go to Scripture interpreted by Scripture. Nevertheless, history is a helpful handmaid to theological formulation because we are liable to repeat the same mistakes of the past if we do not pay attention to what has been believed and practiced before.
One common example of this is what inevitably occurs when at our Church we confess the Apostles’ Creed. There never ceases to be a line of visitors at our church waiting to ask the Pastor, “Why do you confess the catholic church if you are protestants?” The term catholic means universal, since there is only one Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. As my Eastern Orthodox friends are often fond of reminding me (Probably in order to get me to stop talking about distinctions in our theologies; but I just can’t help myself!), yet it causes consternation because the contemporary manifestation of the Roman Catholic Church is defined by the term Roman. This modifier of the term Catholic implies that there is one church, and it is in Rome alone. This was even more clearly stated in the Papal Bull, Unum Sanctum, which denies any other “Christian” church to be part of the catholic church, if they are not within the Roman Communion. This is a piece of near silly irony; but what in Rome is not so? Of course, they took this back after Vatican II, which argued for the doctrine of all religions as able to respond to the light of revelation in their own situation and be saved. But that is a whole other story.
Historically, the catholicity of the church has been confessed, not because of initial unity of the church, though this was the case, but because of Biblical precedence. Ephesians 4:4-6 reads, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; (5) one Lord, one faith, one baptism, (6) one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” There can only be one church that is defined, not by the Papal Bishop of Rome, but by the Ministry of the Gospel, used by the Spirit, to gather one Body into trust in the one Faith, to the praise of one God.
All this is to say that what the term catholic historically meant was a Biblical principle. Therefore the protestant churches confess it. But that is just the point, we confess the catholicity (single unified body) of the church because it is Biblical! The term catholicity is an accurate term to categorize this truth, so we still use it.
Terms have meaning in the present context. They have different meaning than they use to. Yet, this does not make them wrong, nor unbiblical. –Ben Rochester
After a two week hiatus, TTP is back by popular demand. I have been making the argument for creeds and confessions as summaries of the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. In the last edition, in September, I began showing the evidence for my main claim. We need creeds and confessions because things mean things in context, and we need to use human language to describe the meaning and context of what Scripture teaches. I showed this in various ways.
My main point is the same. We need creeds. In this issue is want to bring a second piece of evidence to bear upon the subject. The second piece of evidence is not only do we form creeds by using human language, but we also must realize that the Bible itself teaches that it has a system of doctrine. When we talk about the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, we talk about them, not as scripture, but as summarizing the system of doctrine taught in scripture. A system of doctrine is a whole worldview which is logically consistent, and is based ultimately and authoritatively upon the text of Scripture.
The Bible itself actually teaches that it has a system of Doctrine. This is because our God is a God of order (1Cor 14:40). This is why we can look at scripture and find that in the Old Testament and New Testament both teach the same system of doctrine. It is like our bodies know when one part is hurt by sending signals to the brain, which in response sends the signal of pain to the cognitive faculties so that we know the body is in distress. If your leg hurt, you would probably not think, “I should bandage my head.” Ouch! If you do say something like that then you should probably stop seeing the witch doctor for your medical treatment. There is a unity to our body. Similarly, there is a unity to the System of Doctrine taught in Scripture.
This unity of scripture is the backdrop of what the Reformation pastors called the analogia fide. This Latin phrase means the “analogy of faith.” It means: because we believe that scripture teaches one unified system of doctrine, we can find similar texts on similar (analogous) themes in order to understand the truth about those themes when we compare one passage in scripture to another similar one.
Let me illustrate. All great authors write with a theme in mind. All authors have assumed systems of doctrine, whether they realize it or not. The Great Author, The Holy Spirit, who carried along the Biblical writers, had themes in mind when spoke through the prophets. Those themes make up the revealed system of doctrine by which God would have us think about him. As Shorter Catechism Q/A #3 answers, “Scripture principally teaches what men are to believe concerning God, and duty God requires of man.” Further, because all scripture is God breathed, there is neither any passage we can ignore, nor one passage we cannot incorporate into that living system of doctrine.
Think about how practical this is. You can unravel the deepest darkest doctrines in scripture by way of the simple technique of cross-referencing! In fact, cross-referencing is just the search for context within the book. Further, it is a book that is an infallible self interpreter! So it makes sense that cross-referencing is the most powerful tool you have in your Bible study arsenal. Scripture interprets scripture.
If you have a Westminster Confession of Faith with footnotes to Scripture passages you will notice that this is basically what the Puritans did. You may be faced with a difficult passage this week in your reading. Don’t lose heart. The best way to resolve and understand the difficult passage is to cross-reference. There are other techniques, but they all rest on the assumption that the Bible teaches a single system of truth. –Ben Rochester