I wrote an article for the Spring 2010 print issue explaining why To An Unknown God does not have a statement of doctrine. Darren Hsiung has challenged some of the arguments I made in that article, helping me clarify a few thoughts. The exchange also makes me believe it would be worthwhile to publish a post explaining my understanding of what a statement of doctrine is and what its proponents hope it will accomplish. (Again, within the context of explaining why To An Unknown God does not have a statement of doctrine.)
A statement of doctrine, statement of faith, confession of faith, creed, or other similarly-titled document is a summary of the beliefs subscribed to by a particular organization or church. The most famous such creeds (from credo, Latin for “I believe”) are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. As summaries or explanations of beliefs, creeds may be helpful, but my concern is that they often become something more: a means to stymie discussion and silence opponents.
The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed
The church existed — and flourished — for a long time without the aid of any creeds. The Apostles’ Creed, despite its name, did not originate with the apostles but rather was first formulated around the year 150, several generations later. The Nicene Creed was not formulated until the fourth century.
The earliest creeds were developed in response to contemporaneous beliefs that were considered heresies. Those creeds were originally baptismal vows intended to distinguish true believers from the heretics. For instance, a close examination of the Apostles’ Creed shows that it was constructed as a reaction to the Marcion and Gnostic heresies, which accounts for many of its particular phrasings and explains why certain statements were chosen for inclusion in the creed. Likewise, the Nicene Creed was a reaction to Arianism.
Those gathered at the Nicene Council who opposed the Arians found that they were unable to clearly reject Arianism using only Scripture. The Arians relied on verses such as Colossians 1:15, John 14:28, and Proverbs 8:22 to argue that Jesus was not God himself but rather was the first created being. Although many of Jesus’ claims about himself do point to his divinity and to the doctrine of the Trinity, nothing in Scripture clearly explains that doctrine. The Nicene Council was nevertheless determined that Arianism had to be soundly and forever rejected. Those at the council therefore considered it necessary to adopt a statement of doctrine that went beyond Scripture.
The Nicene Creed states that Christ is “begotten” of the Father and that he is “of one substance with the Father.” Both of these beliefs were hotly debated before, during, and after the council. For instance, some feared that the Nicene Creed came close to denying the doctrine of the Trinity by proclaiming that Christ was “of one substance” and they instead suggested the phrase “of a similar substance.” Their opponents countered that “of a similar substance” suggested the existence of three gods and thus rejected monotheism.
Even today, there are important controversies about what it means that Jesus is the “Son of God” or “begotten” of the Father. For example, the February issue of Christianity Today reported on the active debate over translations of the Bible that refer to Jesus not as the “Son of God” but as “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God.” The latter translation is more palatable to some Muslims who viscerally reject the notion that God had sex with Mary to give birth to Jesus. Christians, of course, also reject that notion, but do we really understand what it means that Christ is the Son of God? Or could we explain how our conception of “Son of God” is different from the translation “the Beloved Son who originates from God” that Christianity Today reports many Christians have rejected as heretical?
Although many Christians mouth the words in church every Sunday, few could give even a passing explanation of what it means that Christ is “begotten” of and “of one substance” with the Father. I might go so far as to argue that those statements lack meaning except insofar as they were once helpful to declare certain beliefs heretical. Can we humans really presume to describe the substance of God?
As the above examples show, even the earliest confessions were reactionary efforts to delineate between true believers and heretics. I do not object to creeds insofar as they represent attempts to summarize or explain certain Christian doctrines. The problem is that creeds have never been used simply as summaries or explanations — they have consistently been used to exclude, and in that capacity, they have often gained more weight and authority than Scripture itself. Some of the beliefs codified in these creeds are not clearly contained anywhere in Scripture, yet these creeds are used to marginalize and silence those who oppose them — even if the arguments of those opponents are rooted entirely in Scripture. It is to this reality that I object.
The Westminster Standards and a Contemporary Example from the PCA
A significantly longer statement of faith that has achieved particular prominence within certain Protestant denominations is the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession itself runs about 12,000 words, not including the two catechisms, the Shorter and the Larger (together, these documents are referred to as the Westminster Standards). As would be expected of such a long document, it draws significantly more inferences from Scripture and makes more judgments about theology than the much shorter creeds. Yet it is still primarily used as a reactionary document. It was for allegedly violating the principles of the Westminster Standards that Peter Enns was suspended and later dismissed from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.
The Westminster Standards have their roots in a political compromise reached during the English Civil War. In 1643, the parliaments of England and Scotland signed the Solemn League and Covenant. Part of this agreement pledged to “endeavour to bring the Churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church-government, confession of faith, form of church-government, [and] directory for worship and catechising.” A group of more than a hundred clerics was assembled by the English Parliament for the purpose of writing a statement of faith that could be agreed to by both the English and the Scots. The underlying purpose of the English Parliament in signing the Solemn League and Covenant was to secure the loyalty of the Scots against Charles I.
The confession written by the assembled clerics was eventually adopted, with amendments by the English Parliament (including an amendment that followed Parliament’s request for the clerics to add Scripture references to back up their statements). As originally adopted, it declared that the Pope was the Antichrist and that civil rulers have the authority to root out heresy in the church. Of course, it was nonetheless an admirable distillation of many important theological concepts, albeit in much longer form than some of the earlier creeds.
In light of its history, the contemporary reverence some denominations accord the Westminster Standards strikes me as particularly odd. As with other creeds, it has often come to supplant Scripture as the final arbiter of religious disputes. For instance, it was not against Scripture that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) recently measured the work of theologians such as N.T. Wright, but rather against the Westminster Standards. Although acknowledging that the Westminster Standards are subordinate to Scripture, the committee charged with evaluating N.T.Wright and the Federal Vision theologians reiterated that the Westminster Standards have been adopted by the PCA “as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice.” From their treatment of the Westminster Standards, it appears the committee actually viewed those Standards as superseding Scripture, since the report (which was eventually adopted in whole by the PCA General Assembly) used only the Westminster Standards to critique the views of N.T. Wright et al., on its way to concluding that those views were incompatible with the Westminster Standards and were thus not to be taught by pastors in the PCA.
I’d like to take a moment to examine in detail the apparent logic of the leaders of the PCA. They acknowledge that the Westminster Standards are subordinate to Scripture. When some well-respected theologians, however, make sound arguments from Scripture that seem to be at odds with the Westminster Standards (at least as interpreted by one committee — others took issue with their analysis), they instruct the pastors in their denomination not to preach the views of those theologians, warning them that it is their duty “to condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the Church.” Why? Because the views of those theologians disagree with the Westminster Standards, not because they disagree with Scripture – as noted, the committee did not even attempt to address whether the theologies subscribed to by N.T. Wright and the Federal Vision theologians were consistent with Scripture. So, what is subordinate to what in the PCA?
The above incident in the PCA is ironic in light of the fact that the Westminster Confession itself declares: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (I.10). In other words, the Westminster Confession itself commands that the Westminster Standards are not be used to determine religious controversies. Instead, the Westminster Confession commands that the Bible is to be used.
As I hope the examples above demonstrate, statements of doctrine are often, in practice, used to silence or ostracize opponents. It is because these are the primary uses of creeds and statements of doctrine that I believe they are particularly unsuited for a Christian magazine whose purpose and very name dedicate it to being an open forum for discussing Christianity.
When Paul confronted the Athenians, he stood before an idol dedicated “To An Unknown God” and declared: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He proceeded to engage the Athenians in dialogue, even quoting their own philosophers and poets. Likewise, we will not silence those with whom we disagree but will rather engage them in conversation, hoping that it may help them, and us, better understand the mysterious gospel that we proclaim.
Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 78–79.
Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II, The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 204.