The Need for Creeds Today

by | Nov 2, 2020 | Book Review | 2 comments

Do you feel the need? The need for creeds? Does the church have such a need? J. V. Fesko effectively says, “You bet it does.” He makes his case over the course of five chapters in what is a useful and fairly short book from Baker Academic—The Need for Creeds Today: Confessional Faith in a Faithless Age

In chapter one, the author attempts to prove that God’s Word instructs us to use creeds or confessions of faith. Are there “biblical arguments for confessions” as the chapter’s title claims? Unfortunately, I felt Fesko’s case was a little wobbly here. And I want someone to be able to make the case! I have nothing against confessions. I had to write and defend a doctrinal statement at my ordination. My church has its own doctrinal statement. I encourage the use of such documents. But these eight passages, which I will list, do not form the basis for a compelling argument that creeds are a divine requirement. 

Exod. 13:14–15

Moses tells the Israelites to use the redemption of the firstborn as an opportunity to teach their children about the Passover. This shows there is precedent for God’s people passing on what they know of Him and His actions. Traditions are handed down through the generations. But at the same time, Moses is telling them what to say, and this is God’s Word. The responsibility of God’s people is to share what God has instructed them to share, which is plainly stated here. Fesko’s purpose would have been better served if he had used 13:8–9 or, better yet, 12:26–27. Both of these passages explicitly deal with the Passover, rather than the redemption of the firstborn, which is the topic of 13:14–15.

Deut. 6:4–6

This is a confession of faith; no question about it. You can call it a catechesis. But, again, it’s a divine catechesis from God. 

1 Tim. 1:15
1 Tim. 3:1
1 Tim 4:7–9
2 Tim. 2:11–13
Titus 3:4–8

These five are grouped together as the “trustworthy sayings” of Paul. Fesko claims this is a catechetical formula. Commentators live for this kind of stuff. Marshall and Towner both have an excursus on these, and there is no consensus on whether these are accepted tradition or just true statements. The claim that “the fundamental principle that underlies them all is that the church appropriated scriptural revelation, restated it in its own terms, and promulgated it within the church” is bold. The evidence is simply not that convincing.  

Jude 3

I do not disagree that “Jude presents that idea that the Scriptures contain a deposit of truth that the church has to pass down and guard from generation to generation.” He’s talking about the gospel here. So a creed that clarifies the meaning of the gospel could help achieve this, but it doesn’t say that’s how you have to do it. 

Others may see it otherwise, but I remain unconvinced that any of these passages argue in favour of a “scripturally subordinated confessional tradition.” Nevertheless, there are still some excellent thoughts in this chapter. Tradition cannot replace the Word of God. Confession and piety are linked. And Fesko uses a word that everyone should learn: irrefragable. And he’s right. We can restate what the Bible says in our own words. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have sermons. We would just read Scripture. We have to interpret and explain it. So, logically, confessions are a great help to the church for that reason. 

In the second chapter, he traces the history of Reformed confessions from 1500 to 1700. I’m no expert on this slice of church history, but Fesko’s unique contribution here is arguing against conventional wisdom to say that the confessions of the Reformation and post-Reformation era are not at odds with each other. They are organically linked. He also shows how the creeds of this period developed and adapted over time. And nobody had a problem with taking and modifying earlier confessions to use as their own. 

The third chapter offers an explanation why the use of creeds has waned in the modern church. The roots of opposition towards creeds go back pretty far on the timeline of history. In the sixteenth century, the opposition came from skeptics who said we just can’t be certain about any of this doctrinal stuff. Other detractors of confessions might point to their nexus with the Thirty Years’ War and English Civil War. People indirectly went to war with each other over doctrinal differences. Add to that the rise of individualism, the Enlightenment, and biblical theology, higher criticism, and the modern German university, and it’s a wonder there’s still such a thing as orthodoxy. This chapter also includes mysticism and pietism as contributors to the de-emphasis of creeds. Fesko says a lot about Philip Jacob Spener, the “father of pietism.” But it’s almost entirely a defense of Spener showing how he did not so much oppose creeds, but only “sow the seeds of individualism and mysticism.” 

Chapter four gives the benefits creeds have to offer. And, boy, do they offer benefits. They draw a line in the sand between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Good confessionalism readily acknowledges the authority of Scripture. Confessions are not inspired, nor are they infallible. Good confessionalism also allows flexibility in areas where Scripture does not deal explicitly. And, finally, creeds allow the church to preserve and transmit its doctrine. These creeds aren’t the silver bullet that will save the day. The church still has its responsibilities to maintain orthodoxy. But the confessions are a help. This chapter is an excellent analysis of the value of confessions. My one complaint was that Fesko unfairly lumps all fundamentalists together as the enemy of diversified orthodoxy in the chapter’s conclusion. Fundamentalism at its best concerns itself with biblical authority and doctrinal purity. To be sure fundamentalism has not always been at its best and has opened itself up for critique against its unwillingness to allow for diversity in opinion where such diversity is warranted.1 Dr. Fesko kindly clarified his intent here in personal correspondence.

Chapter five uses a theological debate that almost ended in a duel to warn against sin and worldliness. This was a surprise. Not only because it’s an interesting story from church history, but you wouldn’t expect to read an ethical analysis on dueling in a book on confessions. It kind of works though. The two points are that the church shouldn’t become like the world and that we must live as saints in Christ. Don’t handle disputes over Christian doctrine like the unsaved handle their disputes. Love your neighbour. These points of application are especially pertinent in the age of social media. 

Fesko has made an important contribution here in defence of the church and its use of confessions. I remain on the lookout for compelling biblical evidence that demands or at least encourages their use. The strongest argument in favour of the creeds may simply be practical necessity. But his analysis of why their use has declined is insightful. There is a great deal of value to be had in their use as this book makes clear. And there are important reminders to keep in mind as we use them to the glory of God.   

Special thanks to Baker Academic for providing me with a free digital copy of this book through NetGalley. This did not influence my thoughts regarding this work. Quotations could change in the finished book. Pages for quotations are not provided due to reading a digital copy.

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Associate Pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.

2 Comments

  1. Stephen Brown

    Are you (Brent) a minimalist or a maximalist with regard to creeds/ confessions of faith? That is, do you prefer a document which by its selectivity highlights the fundamentals of the faith, or one which by its thoroughness says as much truth as possible and/or precludes as much error as possible?

    Just curious as to your thoughts, as this is a tension I feel.

    • Brent Niedergall

      Hi Stephen! I think John Frame was onto something when he made the point that we can’t be too strict outside matters of orthodoxy. Even reading this book by Fesko, it becomes clear that being too specific (where the Bible is not even so specific) creates more problems than it helps. You’re right. There is a tension.

      Seems like there is always tension in matters of theology, doesn’t it. Perhaps someone should write “A Theology of Tension.”

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