Book Review: The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

Many thanks to Crossway Books for this review copy of The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman, professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

An Overview

According to Trueman, the burden of this book is his belief that creeds and confessions are vital to the present and future well-being of the church.  So, in a way, the reader finds Trueman throughout the book anticipating and rebutting objections to the books burden, especially the “No creed but the Bible” folks.  Professor Trueman alerts his readers that he teaches at a confessional Presbyterian seminary and is an ordained minister in a confessional Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The book contains six chapters, with each sort of building on the other.  Professor Trueman’s writing style is an acquired taste.  The reader will do well to anticipate this.  Every so often, Trueman throws in an illustration or two, from either his British background or his current American context.

After addressing what he terms the enemies of creeds and confessions in chapter one, a very good chapter, I might add, professor Trueman lays the foundations for creedalism in chapter two.  He begins this chapter with the subheading “The Adequacy of Words,” and after moving through other noteworthy subheadings, Mr. Trueman concludes with “A Form of Sounds Words,” essentially making his case here for the burden of his book from 2 Timothy 1:13, favoring the King James Version rendering.  Along the way, he argues forcefully, “Anyone who claims to take the Bible seriously must take the words of Paul to Timothy on this matter seriously.  To claim to have no creed but the Bible, then, is problematic: the Bible itself seems to demand that we have forms of sound words, and that is what creeds are” (p. 76).  He then adds, “Paul is at the very end of his apostolic career.  Indeed, the time of the apostles is coming to a close, and he needs to set in place structures to maintain true teaching in the postapostolic world” (p. 77).

Once the reader gets beyond chapter two, “The Foundations of Creedalism,”  which I believe is the key chapter, the rest of the book falls into place, as each chapter, though taking a form of its own, draws on the previous, especially chapter two.

Appendix: Revising and Supplementing Confessions

I found this appendix instructive for several reasons.  First, there is always that temptation to reconstruct the past based on new developments.  For example, many object to the line “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed, and so they either reword it to fit their theology or exclude it altogether.  Professor Trueman advises caution in any attempt to revise or supplement creeds and confessions (p. 193).

Second, when any revision must be done, professor Trueman argues that such must be done, not by an individual, but by the church (the reason is explored in chapter two, “The Foundations of Creedalism,” under the subheading “The Church as Institution”) and “specifically by those in the church charged with ensuring the soundness of her teaching, that is, the elders” (p. 192).  On this note, it is interesting to note that Mr. Trueman doesn’t argue for a sole pastor leadership of the local church but a capable body of elders.


Though you may not be a confessional Presbyterian or stand in the Reformed tradition, or may even be suspicious of creeds and confessions, setting aside these differences for the moment and giving The Creedal Imperative a read, may help you to appreciate the place that creeds and confessions occupy in church history, dating back to the postapostolic Rule of Faith, Apostles’ Creed, etc.


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12 Responses to Book Review: The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

  1. Pingback: Creed as Praise | New Leaven

  2. Simon says:

    TC, Carl Trueman is certainly one of the more sensible Reformed theologians and thinkers.

    I just wonder how Carl deals with some of the early Councils of the Church, which Protestants are wary of. For example, the Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the “Theotokos” or the “Mother of God”. This doctrine developed because of the early Christological disputes. Who was Christ? Was he really God and Man? If so, what does this say about Mary? Was he that was in her womb really God? Yes he was, and therefore she is the Mother of God – holding the doctrines of the Incarnation of God and the full humanity of God in Christ together.

    Other Councils such as Nicaea II (condemning the iconoclasts) in 754 are outright rejected by Protestants. What is the rationale for rejecting Nicaea II, but not Nicaea I? “The Bible”, Protestants will respond. But how do we know that Nicaea I or Chalcedon interpreted the text correctly and that Nicaea II didn’t? You see, for the Reformed, I think, you take the Creeds in isolation and ignore the context of the Church and who the Church was to the Bishops that formulated those Creeds. For example, look at the structure of the Church that formulated the Nicene Creed. There was a threefold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Why don’t Presbyterians or Baptists have this? Well the early church was wrong about polity but right about the Trinity they will say. But I think this is playing fast and loose with the Early Church. The Reformed use the common Tradition all orthodox Christians share as a buffet, pick and choose what you like. I don’t find this consistent. You can appeal to Scripture, but at the end of the day, you cannot prove to me why Ignatius, Chrysostom and co were wrong and Calvin correct on church polity, predestination, the atonement and so on. This is the great Reformed dilemma – you want to be catholic and orthodox, but there is little support in Church history for Reformed positions. You can’t find any of the peculiar Reformed doctrines in the Fathers. Augustine is often mentioned, but of course Roman Catholics are also devoted to Augustine and do not find Calvin’s doctrines there. The Greek Fathers all had a very robust doctrine of human free will.

    Reformed Patristic scholars like Trueman should know this. I find it hard that he could still hold to Reformed theology, whilst studying and teaching the Fathers. I guess this is why many Reformed Christians are turning to Rome and Constantinople.

    • TC says:

      Simon, your concerns are noted, but they were not so much the concerns of Trueman in his book. Yes, some are leaving Geneva for Rome, so to speak. But let’s not miss the big picture here. Matters of church polity remain secondary. And don’t forget that the Fathers often contradicted themselves. I find it interesting that everyone claims Augustine.

      Do you believe the Fathers’ have the final say on the interpretation of Scripture?

      • Simon says:

        I don’t believe that Church polity is a secondary issue. It wasnt for St Ignatius, one of the Apostolic Fathers, writing very shortly after the Apostle John’s death. He said the Eucharist must be presided over by the Bishop or those whom he appoints. Sacrament, church polity and so on are seen as central and vital. This is why we don’t see diversity in Church polity anywhere, from Ethiopia to Germany, from India to Alexandria. All had the same governance structure. Bishops, priests and deacons. This is because the Early Church thought that unity of the Body of Christ was of paramount importance – following Christ’s and St Paul’s admonition in Scripture. There was unity in diversity. No one is trying to claim that there were no contradictions between Fathers or diverse views among different Church leaders. But there was a common faith, based around Eucharistic communion, around the authority of the Bishop. Schism was to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Competing voices on matters were tolerated, unless they crossed certain boundaries. You had the Alexandrian school and the Antiochian school of Scripture interpretation. The former was alegorical, the latter more literal. They had heated debates, but never excommunicated each other. Protestants tend to look at the differences in the Early Church and accentuate these (presumably because it suits their narrative and justifies their own existence). But Protestants simply don’t know how to live with diversity without schism. Further, they put every teaching of the Church on the table for dispute. Which is why baptism was questioned, the sacraments were questioned etc. Even though there came to be a unanimous position held on these issues by the Church everywhere. Again, we are not saying that doctrine didnt develop over time. It did, and this was necessary as the church faced numerous challenges. Father John Behr gives a really great talk on orthodoxy in the Early Church on Youtube. Well worth a look. Protestants, even conservative ones, tend to collude with modern secular historians in claiming that the orthodox Church was this monolithic, persecuting organization bent on political gain. But this is not right.

        I think your question about the Fathers and interpretation of Scripture is not the right question. I don’t think that you are going to find the “correct” commentary on every single passage of Scripture in the Patristics. This was not what they set out to do. They set out to help people actually live a Christian life. I do, however, think that the Church’s Tradition guides how we interpret Scripture. And this does leave room for individual interpreters to discover and rediscover teachings in Scripture. The Tradition, handed down by the Apostles and Fathers, sets the boundary for this. For instance, much is made about NT Wright’s take on the new perspective on Paul. Conservative evangelicals say that this is completely new and therefore can’t be correct. Actually, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are rather comfortable with his interpretation of Paul. This is because it sits within the boundaries of Tradition of the Church. Though the formula is new, they can recognize Wright’s overarching point and that it is consistent with the Tradition of the Church. I don’t think Wright himself would put it like that. But this is how, I think, Catholics and Orthodox would see him. So the Fathers are not simply infallible interpreters of Holy Writ. But we do find wisdom in them when it comes to understanding Scripture. Further, they are not simply isolated individual interpreters – one voice among many. Here is how one Orthodox theologian explains this in relation to Chrysostom:

        “For us as Orthodox, Chrysostom is not merely one commentator among others; he is the commentator, the one whose exegeses have, more than any others, been taken up and absorbed into the very fabric of Orthodoxy. This does not mean that he is infallible. No doubt he had his blind spots, as we all do. But it does mean that for us he is not simply an isolated voice stating his own private opinions. He is one who spoke on behalf of the Tradition, and who has been accepted by the Church as having spoken well. If we find his statements incomplete or obscure, we are free—indeed, obligated—to supplement them as necessary from elsewhere in the Tradition in order to determine their fuller meaning. This is, I believe, the way in which Chrysostom himself would have us read him.”

        But I go back to my main point. The primary function of the Fathers (and indeed the Church) is not to interpret Scripture. It is to help us live a life in union with Christ. Protestant focus on the text can become a distortion. Often it leads to ideologies stemming from a theological “system” that tries to explain Scripture, and much of the time forcing interpretations on passages that seem unnatural (e.g. the Reformd interpretation of passages that indicate God’s universal love for all mankind). And when Scripture simply becomes a tool for theology and ideology, we have missed the point. RC Sproul and many other Reformed commentators fall into this trap I think. (Doug Wilson and Grudem, astonishingly, use Scripture to justify their political ideology) Fidelity to their system of theology is what drives their interpretation of Scripture, even when this would be contrary to what is good and lovely. The Early Church was commited to love for all as personified in Christ. Love always was and always will be the guiding principle of the Church because this is what Christ came to show us most fully. Our humanity, our truly human existence, is one of love. Christ is the truly human one, the second Adam. When we reduce love to only one of God’s attributes, we miss the point for the sake of our ideology. Our ideology then allows us to hate, and this is somehow rationalized by Scripture. You see guys like Driscoll do this. And hate is contrary to the Gospel.

  3. TC says:

    Simon, learn quite a lot from your comment. Thanks. Now, remember, I’m coming from a Baptist viewpoint here, and for me, matters of church polity remains secondary. I don’t need to go to the Fathers here. Second, while I admire guys like Chrysostom, they do not have the same weight in my world. Third, I do appreciate your emphasis on the Christian life and love. Yes, sometimes our systematicians miss the ball on this one. But I remain in dialogue with guys like you from another tradition. 😉

  4. Simon says:

    TC, thanks for your comments. I understand where you’re coming from. Forgive me for playing “devil’s advocate” :).

    I think we give much more weight to the Fathers, even if we don’t recognize this. It was they who shaped the faith we know today. Think of the Trinity, the two natures, the formation and preservation of Scripture itself and so on. It’s just that Protestants don’t have a very good appreaciation for the history of the Church – I would even include here guys like Trueman and Ligon Duncan who did their work on Church history. To be Christian is not to stand aloof from these leaders of yesteryear, but to stand with them in the faith that they believed and practised. I just think the likes of Duncan and Trueman, whilst good historians, in many ways stand aloof from the Church in certain important areas. In this way they are more like secular historians. For instance, you can’t have Athanasius without his teaching on deification (theosis). I heard Duncan state that theosis was a “bizarre” teaching ( It’s definitely bizarre from an American evangelical perspective. But evangelicalism would have been considered bizarre by Athanasius. And Duncan makes some incorrect statements regarding theosis. The teaching was front and center for many fathers – particularly Athanasius whom many evangelicals like because of his role in the Arian controversy. In his epic book, On the Incarnation, Athanasius said this “For He was made man that we might be made God.” Now this book is considered a classic of Christian orthodoxy even by the Reformed. Duncan is just clearly wrong about theosis. They just take what they like out of works like On the Incarnation, without really understanding the inner logic of the argument. For Athanasius, Christ’s deity and our deification are things that belong together. You can’t use Athanasius as proof of the Church’s belief in Christ’s deity, without doing business with his teaching on deification. You can’t have one without the other. All were central to his thought and argumentation. This is abundantly clear if anyone would just pick up and read Athanasius. I just wonder as to the intellectual honesty of some of these Reformed Church historians… anyways I’m rambling!!!

    • TC says:

      I enjoy your ramblings, my friend. But we must take only that which we think accords with the truth of Scripture, as we understand it. Again, even the Fathers differed among themselves. I just have to pick up Kelly do be reminded. I can see how many evangelicals consider the theosis “bizarre.” It’s a hard doctrine.

      To be Christian is not to stand aloof from these leaders of yesteryear, but to stand with them in the faith that they believed and practised.

      Isn’t recitation of the ecumenical creeds enough? Why do we need it all? I sense a logical fallacy here. 😉

  5. Pingback: “He Descended Into Hell” | New Leaven

  6. Hi T.C.
    I think this is one of your best reviews. Thank you.

    Could you tell me what you mean by, “Professor Trueman’s writing style is an acquired taste.” I have read blog posts and listened to him on the web, but haven’t read a book of his yet.

  7. TC says:

    Jeff, thanks for even reading the review. Well, he doesn’t flow say like a DA Carson, or is concise and cogent like a Packer. His sentence structures appear a bit awkward at times, or it’s just me. But all and all, once you begin to get familiar with his writing style, you appreciate what he is saying more. At least, that was my experience. Hope this helps.

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