Doctrine and the Necessity of Creeds – May “Tabletalk”

TT May 2015Yesterday before worship services I read two more articles in this month’s Tabletalk, which has the theme of “Doctrine for All of Life.”

The first is by Robert Rothwell, an associate editor of Tabletalk. His article is “Where Did I Go Wrong?”, and addresses the importance of Christians standing with the church of all ages when it comes to embracing sound doctrine.

This is how he opens his treatment of this subject:

It’s a thrilling episode—Martin Luther, standing before the Diet of Worms, the only faithful Christian in his day, proclaiming his God-given right to read the Bible however he saw fit: “Unless I am convinced by my self-determined understanding of Scripture, I will not recant. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Obviously, I’ve embellished the account. No historically informed Protestant would say outright that Luther was the only faithful believer in His day. Neither would an informed Protestant confess that Luther’s protest came from his private reading of Scripture apart from the work of his theological forefathers and contemporaries.

Yet I fear that the way many people tell Luther’s story betrays an implicit belief that the German Reformer was a mad individualist for whom the supreme arbiter of truth was his own opinion and who sought to turn the church into a collection of like-minded individuals with no theological authority over its members. But while Luther’s work was driven in large measure by his quest for a personal assurance of salvation, he was not a radical individualist. Luther certainly didn’t endorse the belief that we should have “no creed but the Bible” or that the work of studying and formulating doctrine is left up to the individual.

And later he adds this:

God never meant for us to study doctrine as isolated individuals. The study and formulation of doctrine is first and foremost a communal doctrine. After all, the Lord revealed Himself to a corporate body. The Bible is not written just to me personally but to all the saints of God. Thus, God designed us to plumb the depths of His revelation together as individual congregations and larger church assemblies. There should be no such thing as autonomous doctrinal study, but we should examine doctrine in concert with our forebears and contemporaries. We should read their works, check our reading of Scripture against theirs, and doubt our conclusions if no one else has reached them. In this, the reformers are our model. Though they affirmed the Bible as the sole infallible source of doctrine, they understood the proper role of God’s corporate people in knowing His truth. They charged that the medieval church had abandoned the best of its earlier thinking, but did not say that we should cast off all who studied Scripture before us.

The second article I read is this one by Dr. David W. Hall, titled “Why Creeds and Confessions?” You would do well to read his contribution as well. Here are a few paragraphs to get you  started:

As Christians, we must embrace a mature biblical norm of confessing our faith. Let me offer briefly five reasons why a written confession is helpful:

First, written confessions represent maturity. A confessional communion is more than fly-by-night. It is relatively easy to produce a personal statement of faith or a position paper on a narrow subject. However, only those confessions that are tested by many generations endure. Just as yesterday’s pop music hardly inspires anymore, so a transient confession is slightly embarrassing. But classic creeds, produced by seasoned Christians, stand the test of time. a confession is a mature, proven set of beliefs. Wouldn’t you rather be guided by such a statement than by an ill-defined set of beliefs or an immature statement of faith?

Second, written confessions keep believers from having to reinvent the wheel. Creeds and confessions can put the student at the head of the class in a hurry. If one need not formulate every bit of doctrine himself, that is, if he is humble enough to listen quickly to other saints (James 1:19), he can spare himself considerable time and countless dead ends. He will avoid paths that are “useless to further reconnoiter,” as theologian Abraham Kuyper recognized.

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