I continue to learn theology at one of our local malls. Last fall I learned about True Religion. More recently I was at Eddie Bauer. Upon putting away the store receipt I happened to notice a little blurb on the back titled, “OUR CREED.” Confessionalist that I am, I couldn’t help but read it. It says, “To give you such outstanding quality, value, service and guarantee that we may be worthy of your high esteem.” My first reaction was to think, “That’s not a creed, that’s a promise. After all, ‘creed’ is derived from the Latin verb, ‘credere,’ i.e., ‘to believe.’ The Eddie Bauer creed wasn’t propounding any doctrine about God or man.” On reflection, however, I realized that Eddie has a point. Creeds do normally confess weighty doctrines, and Eddie’s creed doesn’t do that, but creedsare also promises. They are promises by those who confess them to those who hear them. Eddie’s creed gets half of it right. When a congregation or a denomination adopts and confesses a creed, it is making a promise to itself and to the members thereof: “This is what we believe, this is the theology, piety, and practice to which we will hold one another accountable.”
Creeds of one sort or another are found throughout the Bible from Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One”) to 1 Timothy 3:16:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
In the history of Christianity, the church has confessed four genuinely “catholic” (i.e. universal) creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. The Protestant or Evangelical churches of the Reformation (Lutheran and Reformed) confessed their faith through the catholic creeds but also by confessing the faith in response to Roman Catholicism and other errors. The Reformed began confessing their faith in the early 1520s. The first great Lutheran confession (some version of which was signed by John Calvin!) was the Augsburg Confession in 1530. We confessed our faith in the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619) and in the Westminster Standards (1647). For a time the great Protestant or Evangelical churches were faithful to these confessions or promises, but gradually that fidelity faded. Adherence to these promises became increasingly nominal (in name only) or formal (mere outward profession). When a denomination holds a creed only nominally or only formally, that’s “dead orthodoxy.”
Eventually, by the late 19th century, some within the Protestant churches began to attack the faith. In some cases, they did so (as in the case of Charles Augustus Briggs) by asserting that they were being more faithful than others and by alleging that those who actually believed the confessions were unfaithful! The tension between the substantial rejection of the confessions and the outward profession of them was too great to maintain. It created an Alice-in-Wonderland world. Those who no longer believed the old creeds eventually came clean and confessed that they no longer really believed the old confessions of faith. On this, see Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism
Nevertheless, there was a fairly lengthy period of time—it was different in each case—where folk had substantially broken the promise they made to each other, where pastors broke the promises they made to the members of the congregations and where members of the congregations broke promises they had made to each other and to their children, and yet they all went on mouthing the creeds and confessions. Then, gradually, they no longer even bothered to recite any creed and then few could even say what the creed of their church was or even where it was to be found.
Of course there is nothing entirely new about this. In 2 Kings 22–23 the very same sort of thing is recorded. Remarkably, despite having sworn blood-soaked oaths before God and man (Exodus 24), the church lost track of God’s Word! “We will do all the words of this law” became, “Huh?” When the law was recovered, King Josiah’s reaction is instructive:
And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.
Notice how the king and the people reacted to recovering the Word of God. They made a covenant. They took oaths, they made promises of fidelity. That’s the proper response. They heard the great story of redemption again. They believed it again and they confessed their faith again. Notice how intertwined are the ideas of confessing, covenant, and promise. The one leads to the other and they to the next. They recovered their identity as the redeemed people of God. They took up the divine Word again and they confessed that Word and they promised fidelity to that Word. This is what God’s people do.
We live in a time of casual relations to promises. They seem to be easily made and easily broken. Businesses do it all the time and the economy is in ruins because of it. Perhaps they learned from the great, prestigious mainline, tall-steeple Protestant churches? After all, after recovering the good news of justification with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone we confessed our faith, made promises, and swore solemn oaths. But those promises didn’t last very long.
The recent crisis in the Church of Scotland, provoked by the blatant challenge to the authority of God’s Word in the church, provides an opportunity for those in the C of S and elsewhere, in the mainline, borderline, and sideline churches, to reevaluate their relationship to the Word of God and to the confession of that Word in the church. Where are we? Do we confess the faith heartily or have we forgotten that we even have a creed? Could we find it before the elders visit? Do the elders even care about it any more? Does it inform our theology, piety, and practice or are we merely mouthing the words?
We in the borderline and sideline churches, however, should not imagine that nominalism and formalism exist only in the mainline. There is plenty of it in our circles. The mainline did not assume room temperature overnight. They passed through stages. The mainline churches became merely nominally Reformed and merely formal (outward) in their confession—if they bother to confess at all. If it happened to them, it could happen to us. It is happening to us.
Take a lesson from Eddie Bauer. A creed is more than a collection of truths; it is a promise. Forgotten or ignored creeds are broken promises. Take a lesson from King Josiah. The only proper response to broken promises is a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Of such is the kingdom of God. Of such is the beginning of a recovery of the Reformed confession.
This post first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2009.