Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom: A Most Valuable, Free, Electronic Resource

There are other collections of ecumenical creeds. There are other collections of the Reformed confessions (e.g., Reformed Confessions in the 16th and 17th Centuries). There are other surveys (e.g. Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Credo) but there is still nothing that does just what Philip Schaff’s 3-volume Creeds of Christendom does, namely to gather together primary source documents with translations and to put them in their historical context. This volume is in the public domain (though it can still be purchased in print and as an e-book, e.g., from Logos). The good folks at Log College Press maintain a huge library of online texts from the 19th century. Today they are calling attention to their collection of Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom.  The link is to the Schaff section of the collection. Just page down until you find these three volumes. Along the way you should see his 8-volume history of the church and many other volumes. He was a remarkably productive scholar.

A caveat about Schaff (1819–93). He was a probably a genius. The scope of his learning is extraordinary. He was a German who  came to the new world (the USA) and flourished. Along with John Williamson Nevin (1803–86) he was one of the leaders of the Mercersburg Theology movement. This movement, though it was claimed to be entirely independent, paralleled the Oxford Movement in the UK. What they had in common was a debt to Hegel and German idealism. Under that influence, Schaff and Nevin sought to reconnect the German Reformed Church (RCUS) to the ancient church but also to marginalize the Reformation as just one phase in the ongoing dialectical movement of the church toward eventual, future unity. The Mercersburg Movement did a great deal of damage to the RCUS. It led some ministers to begin calling themselves priests and to setting up altars. In one instance, according to J. I. Good (an opponent of the Mercersburg Movement), one RCUS congregation became fed up with their “priest” and tossed him bodily out of the church and his altar with him. Who says that Reformed church discipline is always slow and inefficient?

The old RCUS never recovered from the effects of this movement.  Eventually, most of the RCUS would enter into a series of mergers, first forming the Evangelical and Reformed Church and then eventually landing most of the congregations in the mainline, liberal United Church of Christ. To this day, should one visit a UCC congregation, one can usually tell by looking at the cornerstone whether it was originally congregational or Reformed. A continuing RCUS remnant stayed out of the merger in the 1930s. The RCUS exists today as a conservative Reformed witness with congregations in the plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa) California, and Pennsylvania among other places. The RCUS is a member of NAPARC.

The history of the Mercersburg Movement serves as caution since it is fashionable among proponents of the self-described Federal Vision theology to tout the Mercersburg theology as a remedy to American revivalism. Yes, in the early part of his career, while still somewhat under the influence of Princeton and its common sense epistemology, Nevin effectively critiqued the so-called “Anxious Bench” and revivalist approach (QIRE) to theology, piety, and practice. This critique is still quite worth reading. It is true that he also promoted Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper (contra Hodge) but even in that volume, toward the end, one sees the influence of German idealism. One wants to read him critically (i.e., not swallowing all he says without due consideration).

Lay readers especially should be aware that Schaff’s debt to Hegel colors his history too. Further, there has been a lot of research done since Schaff’s death and as great as it was, it must be regarded as a product of its time (as will all historical research). I offer this caveat to say that Schaff is a fine place to begin one’s research but a poor place to end it.

Still, there is a great lot to learn from Schaff, even things that he might not have intended. E.g., he published a collection of hymns to Christ, some of which are ancient but if one looks at the dates of the hymns, not occurs before the AD 360s. They were ancient yes but they were not second-century hymns and we may not easily assume that they were used ecclesiastically. Even in that collection we can see that non-canonical (i.e., extra-biblical) hymns did not really begin to proliferate until the late 4th century and not really until Gregory I, when hymnody began to rival the psalms for place in the church’s worship. Even then, the church was still a psalm-singing institution. No age in the history of the church has ever been so psalm-less as ours. Shame on us.

Here is the Schaff archive.

On Schaff (chronologically):

Nichols, James Hastings. Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Graham, Stephen Ray. Cosmos in the Chaos : Philip Schaff’s Interpretation of Nineteenth-Century American Religion. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 1885.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


Comments are closed.