Of Creeds, Confessions, Catechisms and Christianity

In my limited time as one who believes the historic ecumenical creeds of the church universal, as well as the further and most necessary fleshing out of our “faith once for all delivered to the saints” in the historic Reformed confessions and catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries, I have found what had been lacking in my own knowledge (and experience, by that transformative truth of Scripture), in what I shall call, for the purposes of this article, both Calvinism and evangelical Christianity.

Coupled with reading various historical accounts of both the development of the exposition of the great doctrines of evangelical Christianity throughout the history of the church universal, which our great God willed we recover and make known among the nations through the Protestant Reformation, I have also read various historical accounts of the opposition to that which has come to be called Calvinism (in the historic sense), by which I intend the Reformed (which is to say Biblical) faith.

The book I finished reading, most recently, is The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray. Despite the title, the book concentrates not so much on biographical materials as it does the main controversies which were a part of Charles H. Spurgeon’s time of ministry. The most obvious, most insidious of these was, in my opinion, what has come to be called The Downgrade Controversy.

Now, I know that not all the Reformed confessions are in lock-step with each other, and this is proven by the reticence and outright hostility of some who hold to paedobaptist confessions of faith to acknowledge that such formulations as the London Baptist Confession of Faith (to be fair, the door swings both ways, mostly due to ignorance on either side[1])  deserve their due place in the history of the long line of those who followed, and still follow, in the footsteps of the first and subsequent Reformers of the church. Such details, however, are beyond the scope of this article, and I shall confine myself to those areas where we are agreed, as was the greater intention of all the great Reformed confessions.

By both Calvinism and evangelical Christianity, I intend that body of doctrines given us by our Lord and God which permeate the Scriptures[2]. These doctrines are included in a frame of what has come to be known as Covenant Theology, which is set forth in no uncertain terms in the great Reformed confessions. Such includes the soteriology which has come to be known, variously, as the Five Points of Calvinism and the Doctrines of Grace.

Now, many have recovered his soteriology, yet have not accepted the covenantal structure of Scripture. While we rejoice at the many who have been taught the truth of such monergistic salvation which glorifies our God, we must note that without the understanding of the covenantal structure in which it takes place, that there have been errors which cannot help but come forth when the covenantal structure of the Scripture is unacknowledged. The doctrine of Scripture is a coherent whole, a harmony of God’s teaching that cannot be taken apart and considered apiece, unless it once again be looked at together in the final analysis.

Past these introductory comments, what I wish to observe, in this article, is that the faith once delivered to the saints has faced its enemies, without and within the church catholic, throughout redemptive history. This can be said to be true of the entity which was the church prior to the establishment of the New Covenant, that national entity which alone was elected by God to give witness of His inestimable glory to the world at large, and which is known in Scripture, and world history, as Israel.

Objectors will no doubt point out that Israel was not the church of the New Testament; this is true. However, it was the body elect of those who were to put forth the truth of God to the people of not only their own nation, but the world, and as such, being that elect body, comprised the vast majority of those who were the chosen people of God, during that long period of time, for that purpose. In noting that such was the case, it must be noted, also, that the greatest challenge to the purity of God’s people witnessing to His glory was not the surrounding nations, or those false gods they worshipped, or those nations’ paganistic cultures, but rather, the assimilation of all these various elements of the seed of the Evil One, the Devil, who deceived the woman and whose deception was readily and freely embraced by the first man, Adam.

The history of the world is a composite of the redemptive purposes of God for His people, and the efforts of the Evil One to subvert and destroy those redemptive purposes. Ultimately, it is all about God’s redemptive purposes, for none of that which the Devil has, can, or will yet do, can stand against God’s purposes, anymore than a solitary straw could stand still being exposed to the wind of a hurricane. (All through the Scriptures, God’s sovereign power is represented in no uncertain terms, such as in Job 42:2 and Daniel 4:34-35). The force of the will of the sovereign uncreated Creator can no more be thwarted by the Devil than any other being God created, and this is part and parcel with our hope of salvation.

In Reformed Covenant Theology, which is supremely represented in the great Reformed confessions, there was a recovery of that structure by which God deals with His creation, primarily directly with man, whom He created in His image. The fall – the marring of that image of God in man – was intended to show man the futility of endeavoring to reach that blessed communion with his Creator of his own efforts, yet it was also the beginning of the plan of God in redemptive history – set forth from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-11; Titus 1:1-3; 2 Timothy 1:9) – brought forth in the first promise of the gospel (Genesis 3:15).

This structure is readily apparent throughout the Scripture, and is shown to go forth in progressive steps[3] towards those two momentous events which are the pivot and end of history: The first advent of our Savior, in order to suffer the wrath of God on our behalf, reconcile us to God by His solitary work, and give us that life eternal He alone worthily earned, and the second advent, where He will come to grant us those bodies which will no more suffer and sin, but be like His glorified body, at the same time judging those who hate Him.

With these two objective truths of Scripture in mind, we see the slowly revealed progress of each historic covenant to serve that purpose of God which culminated in our Lord, and we see the two main structures of Covenant Theology, which have two representative heads, or federal heads:[4] Adam, for those who are yet trying to be justified by their own efforts, and Christ, who justifies those who place their faith in His completed work to the Father’s glory and His people’s eternal benefit. Every other historic covenant, with regard to membership, is a mixture of these two,[5] where the evil seed of the Devil (the children of the flesh), and the righteous seed of the Messiah (those born again of His Spirit by grace through faith), abide side-by-side, yet at purposes opposed.

This brings us to our next point in this article, which is this: The children of the Devil are not only known to be represented by Adam, but every time we see opposition to God and elevation of man in Scripture, we see a microcosm of that final salvation and judgment which will come when our Lord returns for the second, and last time. There is the world which hates God, recognizing there are those who are God’s, who are in the world, yet not of the world (1 John 2:15-16; John 15:18-19; 1 John 4:2-5; 5:19). These two federal bodies of people must exist together, yet distinct, until the end of things, and this is also something that is brought out in the great Reformed confessions. This dichotomy has been referred to by various labels, but for our purposes, we merely note its existence.

Which, finally, brings us to our main point: Everywhere the church of our Lord Jesus Christ has flourished, it has been with, at least, a minimal understanding of the progressive and intermixed purposes of the historic covenants, and most especially the two conglomerations represented by their respective heads, the first and last Adam, in what has commonly and explicitly come to be called the Covenant of Works (first Adam) and the Covenant of Grace (last Adam, Jesus Christ). Where these have been denied, idolatrous autonomy, falling in line with the respective judgments which are shown to take place every time man seeks His own glory above that of His God’s glory, has ensued, along with like judgments (One example of this would be the teaching of dispensationalism, which has formed a system that professing believers could shallowly embrace, thinking themselves free of having to deal with persecutions and tribulations).[6]

Furthermore, all these things have been painstakingly set forth as plainly as possible by our God in His Holy Scripture – at least, plainly enough for His purposes and our understanding.

This brings us to our final point: The church of our Lord Jesus Christ realized, in its infancy, the truth of these things in a manner which was lost sight of, for a time, then recovered and expounded upon by what we know as the Protestant Reformation. As the Light of the World shone forth in the pages of Scripture during His first advent, so He willed to again shine forth the light of His truth in the pages of church history by the recovering of the very doctrines which God had set forth through His Son, apostles, and prophets for our instruction, admonishment, and worshipful service to Him and one another.

These truths, despite some disagreements, are set forth the most explicitly in the great Reformed confessions, which are a compendium of the great doctrines of Scripture in synthetic format (by which we mean separate doctrines, joined together, comprise the whole of that glorious body of truth God has given us). To say that these are not an exposition of greater understanding of those truths laid out for us in Scripture would be to dismiss those very truths, as the God who set them forth for us laid them out to be discovered, meditated upon, and expounded upon for the benefit of His people, to His everlasting and redounding glory. More, it would be to discount the very sovereign purposes of God, and so at least a tacit denial of Him to various degrees, to disallow that this is what He intended.

These truths were set forth to be discovered; first, by direct revelation to the apostles and prophets, and secondly, by the enlightenment which comes from studying such truths from the same Spirit of God who indwelt the first believers of the church, up to believers of this present time. They were not meant to be discovered in a vacuum, but in the broad context of the history of the church, by men so gifted of the Holy Spirit.

This is exactly what happened with the recovery of these truths in the Protestant Reformation, and it is exactly what continued to happen since that time, with the high expression of the grand body of Scriptural doctrine being set forth plainly, yet robustly, in the great Reformed confessions of faith.

Since these confessions have been penned, there has not been one moment in church history where these truths have not been promoted and expounded upon with greater clarity. There has been ebb and flow of such discovery and exposition, but where the church has flourished, so have these sublime doctrines, and where the church has floundered, it has been because of the willingness of various segments, large and small, of the church of Jesus Christ to embrace the elements of the world to the sacrifice of these truths for the sake of a seeming unity which discounts these very same truths.

It has been well said, in several ways, that there can be no true unity of the church which sacrifices the great teachings of the Christian faith. This is proven and shown in the very pages of the New Testament, was proven and shown in the very pages of the Old Testament, and continues to be proven and shown in the pages of the history of the church.

Men cry “The Bible alone is our creed!” while knowingly, or unwittingly, failing to acknowledge that the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church, most especially since the time of the Reformation onward, are the highest standard of revering both that Word of God and the God who gave us that Word.

Where men have failed to uphold the truths of Calvinism, the church has invariably followed the nuances and predispositions of those who built the tower of Babel in Genesis, who arrogantly sought to establish their own prominence and glory over that of the God who created them, saying “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4) Seeking to make a name for themselves, even well-meaning men have set the creature above the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. They affirm their independence, and that they can approach the glory of heaven by their own strong arm, which always turns out to be a flimsy reed that breaks under the weight of such arrogance. Also invariably, God confuses their purposes and scatters them to seek that which they were after, as at Babel, yet within such judgments, His purpose always inexorably forges ahead, for it could not be otherwise.

Also, when men set themselves to deny those splendid doctrines which have the covenants as their structure, and the New Covenant (which is to say, the Covenant of Grace realized and ratified in redemptive history), they open, either inadvertently or purposely, the doors of the church to new methods of interpretation of the blessed Scriptures of our God, which methods turn out to be nothing other than new forms of Babel, set for judgment, to the detriment of the church and the misery of men.

In conclusion, it is our contention that where the great Reformed confessions, creeds, and catechisms have held sway, and the people have applied themselves to learning those great Biblical truths of the evangelical church contained therein, the church has met with much success, and God has received the doxology of praise which is only rightfully His. However, that which brother Spurgeon experienced, to his grief, and the churches of that day’s demise, already mentioned above as The Downgrade Controversy, has been a constant companion of the truth of God – the peoples yet remain mixed, and the churches, individually and as a whole, where they depart from these great truths of the Reformed confessions, find themselves not only adapting to the world, but adopting its ways, and so rather than being a light to the world which reflects The Light of the World, they become mirrors of the world, reflecting its own self-righteous aggrandizement back to it, where the simple gospel becomes a simpleton’s gospel, devoid of those truths which are the backbone, foundation and cement of the church, for as our Lord said, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17).

Such is the case today that we have seen, yet again, another recovery of “the old paths;” yet, as always, it is not without the admixture of Babel seeking to reach heaven by the strength of men without the strength of Christ.

To continue on the narrow path, we need those old truths which are timeless, because they issue from He who is outside of time, and directs all time to His ends. We need to once again be confessional, creedal, and covenantal in our approach to and application of God’s Word, if we wish to see the current atmosphere of recovering the true faith, the Reformed faith, continue. We need to let our God’s prescribed methods of the ordinary means of grace in the singing and preaching of the Word dictate our worship.

Where any church, or group of churches, stray from these things, Babel will once again seek to raise its ugly tower of man’s preeminence, where he seeks to be like God, and brings judgment upon himself and his fellows. God grant that we continue along that path He has willed until that glorious day, and that He downgrades the Downgrade that yet seeks to undermine His Holy Purposes. We know He will prevail, for it cannot but be so.

[1] Thanks to Patrick McWilliams for pointing this out to me; also, thanks to my brother for reading and suggesting valuable edits to the article. Patrick proofreads professionally, so for those of you looking for professional help with editing of books and articles, you can find his email address at his blog, The Sovereign Logos.

[2] I cannot help but refer the reader to Spurgeon’s outstanding defense of these doctrines at http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm

[3] The language of “further steps” is used in describing the progressive nature of God’s revelation of His gospel promise in the Covenant of Grace through promissory and typological form in chapter 7, paragraph 3, entitled Of God’s Covenant, in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (hereafter 2 LBC). This points to a difference in the formulation of Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology from that of our paedobaptist brethren. For a comparison, go to http://www.proginosko.com/docs/wcf_sdfo_lbcf.html.

[4] LBC chapter 7. The language of “federal” and “federalism” is used to define that system of theology, inherent in the Scriptures, by which all individuals in history (whether one calls it divine history, redemptive history, or simply, history, it remains the same), line up under one or the other of the two active covenants which remain until the New Heavens and New Earth are inaugurated by our Lord Jesus Christ. These two covenants are, respectively, under their federal heads, the Covenant of Works (Adam as the federal head of all unsaved peoples) and the Covenant of Grace (Christ Jesus as the federal head of all saved peoples). As such, “federalism” is synonymous with Covenant Theology.

[5] By “mixture,” we do not intend the dual administration model adopted by our paedobaptist brethren, but rather, the co-existing of the substance of the Covenant of Grace in promises and types alongside the physical and material promises of the historic covenants, whereby the substance of the Covenant of Grace is not conjoined to that of the substance of the historic covenants. Although together in the historic covenants, they are not of the substance of the historic covenants, but rather, that of the promises of the gospel, which would be ratified in the coming, life, death and resurrection of the Messiah.

[6] This, of course, is not true of all that hold to dispensationalists, but of those who embrace the doctrine with no question for the purpose of holding to that which appeals to the flesh. Persecution is not welcome, but it is promised us (Acts 14:22b; 2 Timothy 3:12), and with a shallow embrace of what amounts to escapist eschatology by immature believers, this truth is one which is dismissed all too readily.

SDG – Bill