For most of the 20th century, American evangelicals became increasingly out-of-touch with something that served as one of the most important sources of theological cohesiveness for the previous 1,700 years: the historic creeds. Many Bible-believing Christians still seem to be spiritually allergic to them. There were a variety of reasons for this trend, and in virtually all cases the intentions were good. If only the results had been as good as those intentions.
In 1955, a book was published titled, Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It, by Robert Flesch. It inspired Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, and after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, it helped fuel the perception of a crisis in American education that led to the revival of Phonics in teaching English to children in the 1960s. It also inspired sound-alike titles such as Morris Kline’s Why Johnny Can’t Add (1973), William Kilpatrick’s Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong (1992), and T. Gordon David’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach (2009). Like their prototype, all these books sought to address a crisis of education in either secular or Christian society.
There is presently no book titled Why Johnny Can’t Confess His Faith, but the closest to it would be Carl R. Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative (2012), in which he advocates for the only solution the church has ever known to the kind of out-and-out doctrinal and moral chaos that is taking over evangelicalism, and that’s the ability to briefly and accurately summarize what we believe that is given to us through creeds, confessions, and catechisms.
“No Creed But Christ”
Some 35 years ago I remember driving through one of America’s major cities in the South (I can’t recall whether it was Nashville or Atlanta, but I think it was one of those two) when, from the expressway, I saw a huge sign, hanging on the front of a church, obviously intended for the benefit of interstate travelers. It read, “No Creed But Christ.” I understood the point, but at the time I was rather ambivalent about it.
“Isn’t the Bible our only authority for faith and practice?” they ask. “If so, what do we need creeds for?”
It’s a good question. It has a kind of all-American air of practicality to it, doesn’t? We Americans are fond of little pragmatic proverbs, like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Well, if the Bible isn’t broken, why would I need to fix it with a creed?
But by the time I read that sign, the matter wasn’t quite so simple for me.
On the one hand, I had been raised in a church in which every Sunday we recited the Nicene Creed, and frankly, that ritual had struck me as rather artificial and lifeless. Later, when I started reading the Bible as a new believer, I became so enthusiastically wrapped up in it that I couldn’t imagine studying anything else, let alone a creed.
On the other hand, by the time I read that sign I had more recently begun to appreciate just how amazingly precise and accurate the wording of that Nicene Creed was, hammered out as it was not only at a church council in AD 325, but then further revised at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, and then reaffirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, along with another creed called the “Definition of Chalcedon.”
So, here were two major church documents, the former shepherded by multiple generations of faithful students of God’s word, many of whom had suffered intense persecution for their faith, and the latter equally the product of generations of study—and these two documents elegantly encapsulated the essence of the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity and the Deity of Christ so accurately, and in such a manner as to unite the whole church in its understanding of God and Christ in opposition to heresy, and to provide me, more than a millennium and a half later, with not only a way to summarize those doctrines, but with a kind of syllabus I can use to go back and study what the Bible teaches on those subjects.
And at least as important: I don’t have to argue with anyone, whether a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon or any other kind of cultist or heretic, over what exactly the historic teaching of the church has been concerning the nature of God and the nature of Christ. That part has been established by the historic creeds. Now I can proceed directly to what the Bible teaches, where I find those teachings amply supported.
It’s not that the Bible was broken and so I needed to fix it with a creed. It’s that my own ability to present what the Bible teaches needed help, and the Nicene Creed and Definition of Chalcedon came along to help me—in much the same way many other trusted Bible teachers have helped me put together words that accurately summarize biblical teachings.
We Americans have another pragmatic proverb: “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” With these creeds, I don’t have to.
So, here I was this still-newly-minted evangelical back in the 1980s, converted to Christ in a denomination with a strong aversion to clergy, recently set free from bondage to “the traditions of men,” and my new theological “bff’s” were a bunch of pointy-hatted (well, probably not way back then) bishops from the early church. I was becoming a firm advocate of the early church creeds.
Yes, the Bible remains my ultimate authority. The creeds are not inspired, and therefore not inerrant. And yes, as a Christian I must always, always, always begin with Scripture to establish my faith. But every time I do, when it comes the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity, I end up on the same page as those guys from the 4th and 5th centuries!
“Christian, What Do You Believe?”
And so, some 20 years after reading that sign, I found myself back in a church that, occasionally at least, uses creeds in worship. On one particular Sunday when we were to recite the Apostle’s Creed during worship, our Associate Pastor rose and addressed us with a single question: “Christian, what do you believe?” And then we recited the creed.
That moment sent a small rush through my body. Yes! I believe this! The reason reciting words like these had seemed so artificial and lifeless 30 years earlier was because, at that time, I didn’t.
Now I had tools, provided for me by the early church, to help me articulate what I believe. Surely, they’re not my only tools. And even though over the course of church history Christians have developed differing understandings of two or three points they address (but then, this can be said even more of Scripture), they’re still useful, sturdy, and they set an example for us to follow with respect to all of what the Bible teaches. We should be able to accurately summarize what we believe Scripture says for others.
And this is precisely our problem today, isn’t it? Why can’t Johnny do this?
“In Your Own Words, Please Tell Me…”
When I taught Bible and theology at the middle school level, one of my students asked me, “Why do we even study theology, anyway? Theology is just the word of man. We should be studying the word of God.” I love it when young people ask these kinds of questions, because it shows they’re thinking on a deeper level than many adults are!
But the answer to her question is simple: as teachers, we are not satisfied when our students parrot back what we say to them, because that tells us nothing about their level of comprehension. If I communicate properly and they understand what I’m saying, they should be able to explain what I said in their own words. That’s the idea with theology. Steve Brown wrote:
You see, when He gave us His book, He didn’t give us a list of doctrines, a confessional statement, a systematic theology, and an index. That’s what we gave Him, and getting to the truth isn’t a half bad gift to give God.
[Steve Brown, How to Talk So People Will Listen, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1999; 2008), 118. Italics added.]
And every time you explain to me what the Bible teaches, in your own words, you’re giving me your theology. Yes, whether you know it or not, at that moment you became a theologian! And you can tell everyone I said so.
The same applies to a creed. As one 19th century church historian wrote:
It is not a word of God to men, but a word of men to God, in response to his revelation.
[Phillip Schaff (1819-1893), The Creeds of Christendom, revised by David S. Schaff, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, reprinted 1985), 1:16.]
In this sense, it sets an example and establishes a pattern. When unbelievers question me and heretics challenge me, just as we find demonstrated for us in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, I need to be able to respond with a coherent statement that unapologetically begins with something like, “I believe…” And just like in the Nicene Creed, where smack dab in the middle of it we find the words, “according to the Scriptures,” the Bible needs to be central to my presentation of what I believe.
Little did I know that during all those years in which I stood up to recite the Nicene Creed in the church of my youth, wondering what the point of it all was since I wasn’t sure whether I even believed in any of that stuff, and later rejecting the whole idea of reciting creeds, that whole time I was being trained in how to sum up my faith before an unbelieving world.
But now that I was in churches where this did not happen—where children were not only never asked to recite a creed but never even heard of a catechism—I began to notice something. Many of them were growing up and leaving home without being able to sum up exactly what it is they were taught to believe as children about who God is, who Jesus is, what the word “Trinity” means, and so on. They could talk about how they “asked Jesus into their hearts,” but they didn’t really know exactly who it was they had invited in.
It gets worse. I’ve asked kids who have attended Christian schools to define the word “gospel” for me, and to tell me what the gospel says. They couldn’t. They could not articulate the concept of justification by faith. It wasn’t for lack of biblical instruction. By the time they graduated 8th grade they’d had hundreds if not thousands of hours of that! And it wasn’t for lack of Bible memorization, either.
How did this happen?
I submit it was for lack of instruction in theological memorization, lack of what folks from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations called “catechizing.” It was something no longer being done in the church of my youth by the time I came along, but it’s no longer being done in most churches. I think we need to bring it back in a big way.
Catechizing is a concept that’s based on a Greek word that occurs 17 times in the New Testament. When Paul wrote that “in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others,” (1 Cor 14:19 ESV), the Greek word for “instruct” he used is the one from which we get our words “catechism,” “catechize,” and “catechesis.” It means to “teach by word of mouth.” This kind of instruction should include more than rote memorization, but it should not leave it out, especially with children.
Phonics vs. Sight Words
Robert Flesch’s book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, reopened a controversy between two approaches to teaching vocabulary to children. Should they simply be given a list of words to memorize, so that they recognize them on sight? This is called the “Sight Words” approach. Or should they be taught to “sound them out?” This is called the “Phonics” approach. Flesch was convinced that children were being hurt by the Sight Words philosophy and that Phonics was the cure. Many teachers today will insist that both methods are necessary.
We might compare the Phonics vs. Sight Words controversy to the conflict between two methods the church has used to teach its people: one, which I call the “Piecemeal” method, and the other which is historically known as the “Catechetical” method. Just as Flesch convinced a generation of educators that the Sight Word method of reading instruction hurts kids, so also a generation of Christians became convinced that the Catechetical method of training people in the faith is similarly hurtful. I think that is a tragically mistaken notion.
Now, the Piecemeal method is not a bad method. In fact, it’s both good and necessary. But by definition, it’s unsystematic, because (a) that’s the way Scripture was given to us (i.e., unsystematically), (b) our teaching methods should at some point reflect the pattern of Scripture itself, and (c) especially when it comes to teaching children (but also adults), biblical stories lend themselves quite nicely to the Piecemeal method.
So in this way the Piecemeal method comparable to the Phonics method. Give the kids the tools and the raw materials let them put the bigger concepts together. This is what happens in most Sunday School classes and in most adult Bible studies and it has so many advantages that we should always use it. But as a stand-alone, which is the way most churches seem to use it, the Piecemeal method leads to a big problem. People can’t see the forest for the trees. They have all the pieces, they’re just not getting the help they need to put them together properly.
Yes, the Bible, as Steve Brown pointed out, is not a systematic theology. But God made us to think, ask questions, and look for answers in some kind of organized fashion. So, we need more than that. We need to hear the way others have put the bigger concepts together in the past, because when we see how they put biblical doctrine into their own words, it can help us do the same. That’s where the Sight Words approach is most effective when it comes to teaching reading, since it gives students the whole word to memorize, which is especially helpful when it comes to the most basic, frequently-used words. And this is what happens especially in catechesis, or the use of catechisms for instruction: they ground us in the most basic, frequently-needed concepts of the faith. So, we also need the Catechetical method, for both children and adults.
Remember those kids who couldn’t explain the gospel’s concept of justification by faith? Consider the following question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was designed for children, and was published in 1647:
Q. 33: What is justification?
A.: Justification is an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
[Archaic language was updated.]
Now, I should point out that copies of this catechism include references to Bible verses, so that the catechumen (the person being catechized) can see where these things are taught in Scripture. That’s important. And it’s also helpful that newer versions of this and other confessions and catechisms of the Protestant Reformation are in print that make this even easier to read.
Objections to Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms
At this point I should distinguish between creeds, confessions, and catechisms. The word “creed” tends to be reserved for important statements of Christian belief dating back to the early church. “Confession” is generally used as a label for later statements of faith, particularly those coming out of the Protestant Reformation and later. “Catechism” refers to some sort of instruction guide for the Christian life, many, though not all of them, presented in a question-and-answer format.
Over the centuries there have been many naysayers when it comes to these kinds of documents, and usually the objectors lump them all in together, and seek to toss them all out. People have complained that creeds, confessions, and catechisms eventually replace the Bible for some people, and to the extent that this is true, I and most others who use them freely acknowledge that that’s a bad thing. But if there was ever a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s throwing out something useful just because someone else misuses it.
Others object that these documents are divisive, because they exalt “traditionalism” and exclude people who don’t go along with the tradition. But history shows that even those without creeds, confessions, and catechisms have been every bit as divisive and exclusionary as those who have them.
Experience teaches that those sects which reject all creeds are as much under the authority of a traditional system or of certain favorite writers, and as much exposed to controversy, division, and change, as churches with formal creeds.
[Schaff, Ibid., 1:9.]
And besides, as Schaff implies and as Carl Trueman directly points out, there’s more than a bit of inconsistent thinking involved in that position:
I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true.
[Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, Kindle edition, page 14.]
Even churches that adopt the motto “No Creed But Christ” will often have some kind of statement of faith that amounts to the creed or confession of that particular church. And I know very few believers who take their faith seriously who would be comfortable attending any church that didn’t have one. Would you?
Watering Down the Creeds
About ten years ago many in conservative evangelicaldom were worried about something called the Emerging Church. Some folks are still worried about it.
You can stop now.
The vast majority of those “emergent” types who tried to commandeer conservative churches, denominations, and movements a decade ago have packed up their prayer labyrinths, Brian McLaren books, and incense candles and wandered off into the mists of whatever theologically-liberal, woker-than-thou, ecclesiastical nirvana they were looking for. But don’t relax too soon: other wolves in sheep’s clothing were already waiting in the wings.
Anyway, one day back in 2007, one of the “emerging” leaders, Doug Pagitt, recorded a video of himself ranting about the creeds. He said,
Creeds are not summations of Christianity – they’re not summations of faith. Creeds are articulations of particular understandings inside of a certain contextual context. There were questions being asked – and there were responses to those questions. What do we believe? We believe these particular things as these people in these places. And that doesn’t mean at all that I’m suggesting that I wouldn’t hold to them. What I’m suggesting is they’re not to be used as summations, they’re to be used as particular beliefs. So if we talk about creeds as summaries, and we suggest that you have the scriptures and then you have the summary of all of that in this little package, in this little thing and all you have to do is look to that and have that be the shortest most simple amount of agreement that you can find…it de-bowels creeds of their life and their strength.
Now I had two personal rules when it came to the teachings of the Emerging Church movement: (1) If they were for it, I was against it, and (2) If they were against it, I was for it. (I’m only mildly joking here.) Sometimes they functioned more like guidelines, but when I re-read stuff like this, it reminds me why I had them.
No, it’s not true that creeds are not “summations” of Christianity. That was one of the working definitions of “creed” centuries before any of us were born. You find it in Noah Webster’s English dictionary, and you also find it in the preeminent reference work on the creeds:
They are summaries of the doctrines of the Bible, aids to its sound understanding, bonds of union among their professors, public standards and guards against false doctrine and practice.
[Schaff, Ibid., 1:9.]
There are so many things wrong with Pagitt’s prose here (what exactly is a “contextual context?” why “de-bowels” instead of “disembowels?”), as well as his Pollyanna mischaracterization of the heretical attacks on the church as “questions being asked.” Oh, really?
The creeds were not mere responses to to theological curiosity. They were aids for distinguishing the true Christians from those holding a false gospel.
This is a clear and brazen attempt to relativize the early creeds. According to Pagitt, while he’s not pointing out anything specifically wrong about them, creeds were for “those” people, in “those” places, at “those” times, which, of course, although he doesn’t come right out and say it, implies that they’re not necessarily for us.
The simple fact is that theological liberals don’t care for the creeds very much. The more liberal they are, the less they care for them, and some are so liberal that they hate them. For those of us who care about the truth of Scripture, this fact alone should motivate us to give them a much higher priority than we historically have.
Confessing What You Believe
Of course, the first order of business when it comes to faith is to understand what we believe. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who enlightens our minds to give us this understanding (Eph 1:16-18), but God also uses teachers who “instruct us by word of mouth” (i.e., catechize us) in this process (Eph 4:11-12). The second order of business, then, is to make sure we believe it. That leaves the third order of business: to confess it, to be able to tell people what we believe.
Paul puts the confession of our faith at the heart of the Christian life: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV) This is obviously an abbreviated form of what we should be able to confess. We know Paul wasn’t saying that it was enough to parrot the words, “Jesus is Lord,” because elsewhere he made it clear that he didn’t want Christians following some “other Jesus” than the one he had preached to them (2 Cor 11:4). And so, because there are plenty of false “Christs” out there, we need to have a confession that sets the true Jesus apart from the false ones. The same applies to our confession when it comes to other crucial teachings, such as the doctrine of salvation.
There is a more than adequate supply of creeds, confessions, and catechisms available from the reservoir of the early church and the Reformation. If the Westminster Confession is too Presbyterian for you, you might look into the Savoy Declaration for more congregationalist church polity, or the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 if your church practices believer’s baptism only. Also recently available is the New City Catechism, which is based on four Reformed catechisms from the 16th and 17th centuries. Or, you can start with your own church’s statement of faith, and develop your own catechism.
The question is: how long will you keep Johnny waiting?Ω
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