A Confessional Ministry: Seminary Graduation 2013 (2)
By Barry Gritters
This is the second part of the graduation speech—slightly modified for publication—given on Thursday evening, June 13, 2013, at Hudsonville PRC, in the presence of synod, the church, and the family and friends of Mr. Erik Guichelaar. First installment can be found in the July 2013 issue, p. 418.
A Defense of Being Creedal
Being creedal is not contradictory to the Protestant rejection of Roman Catholic tradition. Some might suppose that, as heirs of the reformation that rejected Roman Catholicism, we must trumpet: “Tradition OR Scripture,” “Man-made documents OR God’s Word,” “Church tradition OR the supremacy of Scripture.” Not so! First, Protestantism’s rejection of Roman Catholic tradition was a rejection of their mistaken tradition, tradition contrary to Scripture: the immaculate conception, purgatory, etc. Second, Protestantism rejected the view of tradition held by Rome that elevated tradition to a position equal to or above Scripture, rather than being subject to Scripture. Protestantism rejects that tradition and that view of tradition. Our creeds themselves make that confession, trumpeting as it were: “Nothing we believe may contradict Scripture! Everything we believe comes from Scripture!”
Besides, not to be creedal—to adopt the theme “no creed but Christ”—is not only impossible, it’s fatal. As one faithful Lutheran theologian said over 200 years ago, as he was battling to maintain the historic Lutheran confessions: “Experience teaches us that those who reject a Creed, will speedily reject the Scriptures themselves.”1
The safety of the people of God requires that the church they join be a creedal church.
That is not to say there are no dangers associated with being creedal—real dangers with which the devil tempts orthodox, creedal churches, our churches!
There is a danger—real danger!—of imagining that creeds are automatic guarantors of truth preservation (which is dead orthodoxy).
There is the danger—real danger!—of embracing creeds as though they are the conclusion of all dogmatic study, the climax and end of all biblical enquiry, as though no development of truth is needed or even possible beyond them.
There is the danger—real danger!—of teaching the creeds without making clear their biblical basis.
Related, there is the danger—real danger!—of allowing creeds to supersede the Bible in any way, even practically. That is, that we use them more than we use the Bible, and the people of God come to know them and love them more than they know and love the Bible. I may teach the young people how to view the creeds in their proper relationship to the Scriptures, but if my practice in catechetical instruction contradicts what I tell them, I have misused the creeds.
And there is the real danger of having them but not using them; of keeping them as valuable antiques hardly to be touched, much less put into use; of preserving them as something to be looked at and admired, but not properly utilized.
That reminds me of the father of one of my boyhood friends who had tools, it seemed, for the sake of having tools. His tools occupied his garage walls like fine china—to be seen but hardly ever touched. Tools! He would buy another pliers, not because he needed more pliers, but because he liked pliers. Tools! He was so enamored of tools, and how clean his tools were, that his life seemed miserable—at least his son’s did. He spent his time cleaning tools that never got dirty
because they never had anything to fix. In contrast to my father’s rather cluttered tool assortment, where they were always dirty and often missing because they were being used, to fix bikes that we rode hard on our paper routes and to fix lawn-mowers that we used to buy motorcycles that we rode even harder. We used the tools for what tools are meant for.
Some people value creeds like my friend’s father valued tools.
Mr. Guichelaar, be careful how you exercise your confessional ministry! Value creeds because they are useful, and then use them.
The Blessings of a Creedal Ministry
There are rich blessings in a creedal ministry.
First, the blessing is theological. Creeds serve the important purpose of defining and defending theological orthodoxy. If you trace the history of the creeds, you will find almost without exception that they are the fruit of the Spirit in the church when the church faced heretics, and the people of God were threatened with denials of the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God, by men who claimed to believe the Scriptures! Because “every heretic has his text,” the faithful church was compelled to confess truth over against the misuse of the Scriptures.
These creeds then served the great purpose, over the centuries, of defining and helping defend theological orthodoxy. This is what our confessions are for us today. To put it differently, confessions serve, as Carl Trueman recently put it, as “instruments of exclusion.”2 Creeds are like walls, keeping out those who do not belong.
You must not be offended by an attitude of exclusivity and this excluding function of the creeds, for every church—even the most liberal—is exclusive, though most will not admit it. The liberal will exclude from his pulpit any conservative! Evolutionists lock out creationists from writing responsibilities in the church periodicals. And anyone who believes that women are to submit to their husbands and be silent in the church will be unwelcome in the gatherings of egalitarians. It’s not just confessional Christians who are exclusivists.
Our creeds have that role: They define orthodoxy and defend truth against those who would threaten to undo it, by excluding heretics from membership and especially from teaching positions.
Second, the blessing of creeds is historical. This is the main point we have been making, but let me highlight that benefit here. Creeds connect us to the church of the past. Christianity is rooted in history. Having confessions honors the church-directing work of Christ’s Spirit in that history, as Jesus promised He would provide in John 14-16. Being creedal is the way in which we “walk in the old paths where is the good way” and “hold the traditions which [we] have been taught.” It is towering arrogance to act as though we are the first ones in the long history of the Christian church to read the Scriptures.
Thus, being creedal helps us to think historically. Or (as I often put it) to “ask the question of history.”
That is, whenever a question is faced, first ask, “How has the church in the past answered this question?” I try to train the students in seminary, whether that’s in church government, liturgy, or missions, to ask: “How have our fathers answered this question?”
In my reading of one of the Reformed church magazines, I have been struck by the approach taken by the editor of the Q&A rubric. Such a writer has a very responsible position in leading a denomination. But for the past few years (I confirmed this recently by re-reading these columns carefully), almost every answer he has given has made no appeal to the creeds and no references to the church’s position on the matter in history. Although his answers may have been correct, his method of answering is not a good Reformed method. There were questions regarding Sabbath observance, congregational meetings, free will, church unity, Christian discipline, Old Testament prophecy, and more. By taking that approach, the author is failing in a fundamental respect—to teach the people of God to think historically!
Recently I was asked about the PRC position on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The question was asked in a hospital waiting room, a location not conducive to opening Scripture to defend and explain our position biblically. But I would not have started there even had it been possible. Instead, I said, “Let’s meet for coffee some time to look at the scriptural evidence. But I want you to know that this strict position is not the invention of the PRC. The teaching on marriage that the PRC now hold—for the most part—not so long ago was the position of your churches. It is what your fathers believed.”
It is my conviction that every hard question Reformed Christians face must be answered in that way. Being “creedal” puts us in that mindset. Studying history inoculates the people of God against diseases of heresies past. Being creedal keeps the people of God from loving novelty, from adopting the Athenian philosophy that if it is new, it must be good (see Acts 17:21).
Brother Guichelaar, be a confessional pastor!
Third, their blessing is practical, and let us not minimize the practical.
Creeds identify us, as churches. That’s why creeds are often called “standards” or “banners.” We fly our creedal “flag” so that everyone knows who we are and what we stand for. If you are inclined to join the “Community Church” down the road, which has no creed to identify it, how will you know whether Pastor Bob will preach pre-millennial eschatology or post-millennial, Arminian or Calvinistic soteriology, Trinitarian theology or Socinianism? Or whether the elders will have an untrained member preaching, or the young people leading the next worship service? But to anyone who visits your confessional church you can say: this is what we believe and this is how we behave in worship.
Being creedal is good for our pastor, and our relationship to him. It makes very clear what we expect of him. It does not allow him to be a lord of the church whose sermons are unpredictable; but it compels him to be a servant of the church whose sermons must always be within the bounds of the confessions.
And who will ever minimize the practical importance of teaching the children? The practical benefit of creeds is pedagogical. What will the church teach our children? The instruction of the youth has always been an essential part of the church’s purpose with creeds. The ecumenical creeds were intended to be memorized. The Lutheran catechisms were designed for children. One of the deep-felt goals of Elector Frederick, when he commissioned Ursinus and Olevianus to write the catechism of Heidelberg, was to teach the youth. And one hardly needs to be Presbyterian to know that, for Presbyterians, the Shorter Catechism is aimed at children.
So we teach the creeds to the children as soon as they have the capacity to learn them.
Already in 8th grade, at age 12 or 13, they begin memorizing the church’s confession. When they finish the Heidelberg they go on to the systematic approach of the Belgic Confession. And when they complete their study of Reformed doctrine’s essentials, they advance to a study of the Canons or the Church Order of Dordt, or one of the liturgical forms.
I thank God that we are creedal churches!
Fourth, the blessing of confessions is doxological.
Theology and doxology may never be separated. Confession is worship. Our “I believes” are intended for the sanctuary. As Calvin emphasized, proper theology has as its goal proper worship—doxology! Worship is extolling the great worth of God, magnifying the blessed name of God, and the worth and name of God are extolled and confessed collectively in the creeds! Worship is confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, that He saved us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—as a work of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You recognize these as essential themes of our creeds.
Thus, our confessions are not only boundary markers—instruments of exclusion—important as that function is. They are instruments of praise, which praise is expressed with doctrinal precision, sometimes even polemically, but from a redeemed and glad heart.
Remember, too, that the central element of Reformed worship is preaching, in which truth is spoken and God is praised by that truth-speaking. So, if the confessions are the churches’ delineations of and defenses of truth, the confessions are the delineations and defenses of proper worship. We may never separate confession from praise!
That is the function of creeds among us. We explain the Heidelberg Catechism in public worship. We recite the Apostles’ Creed in public worship. Lengthy as is the Athanasian Creed, I love the use of it in special worship services as a beautiful and memorable confession of the Trinity. The liturgical forms all are used for the public gatherings of the church.
For this reason reciting or reading an article of the Belgic Confession in public worship after the church recites the Apostles’ Creed would be a wonderful way to utilize this beautiful creed.3 What better place than in public worship, among believers of like faith, to say with Article 1, “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that He is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.” Worship!
For the sake of God-glorifying worship, be a creedal pastor.
Powerful Forces Working Against Being Creedal Ministers
There are powerful forces in society and in the church against holding such instruments of praise.
Modern culture is not good soil in which to promote creedal Christianity. Consumerism promotes that Athenian philosophy—it must be new! Pragmatism declares the goodness only of that which is useful.
The wildly popular emergent churches—the newest species of mysticism—emphasize Christianity as a way of life rather than a set of teachings, belonging rather than believing. The emergent movement has no use for creeds, which one of them characterized as “brick-ianity” rather than Christianity. In the culture where proof is exclaiming, “I just know it in my heart,” and “It’s true for me even if it isn’t for you,” and “The Lord showed it to me,” creeds cannot survive. For mysticism like this, the standard for truth and life will certainly not be some institutionally adopted statement of faith.
Behind these forces is unbelief. Sweeping, devastating, rank unbelief. Confessions are statements of faith. Creed, remember, means “I believe….” Thus, the force behind anti-creedalism is unbelief itself.
Brother Guichelaar, if you commit to being a creedal pastor, then by God’s grace you will be a great blessing for the faith of the people of God. God will use you as an instrument in His hand to bless the Protestant Reformed Churches with well-grounded members, God-centered members, that is, with members who with their hearts believe, and with their hearts confess, to God’s glory.
1 vonAmmon of Dresden, quoted in Schmauk and Benze, The Confessional Principle and the Confessions… Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1911. 685.
2 The Creedal Imperative, 44, 184.
3 Although I believe the churches ought to adopt liturgical changes denominationally.