Growing up in a non-liturgical church, the Church’s creeds and confessions did not play a role in my faith. As I have grown into Reformed theology, I have come to appreciate the value and significance of creeds and confessions in the rhythm of church life and my own faith. I was pleased to receive a copy of John V. Fesko’s The Need for Creeds Today from Baker Books to explore the role and need for creeds a little bit more.
Fesko is mainly concerned in this book to address those who, under the influence of Western individualism, have dismissed the need or even the propriety of creeds and confessions. His tone and topic suggest that he is writing for a theologically attuned lay audience, although he uses extensive citations and introduces his argument in a formal manner. He writes to defend the thesis, “confessions of faith are therefore necessary for both the being (esse) and the well -being (bene esse) of the church.” The book takes up this task over five chapters. In Chapter 1, Fesko argues that the Bible mandates the creation of confessions of faith. In Chapter 2, Fesko considers the development of confessions in the Reformation and post-Reformation period, elucidating the processes and complexities involved in their creation. Chapter 3 considers several reasons for the apparent decline of confessionalism. These include the association of confessionalism with war, individualism, scepticism, and the Enlightenment with all its social implications. After answering these charges, Fesko then argues for the advantages of confessions in chapter 4: they distinguish heresy from orthodoxy, create room for a diversified orthodoxy, and codify the church’s historical witness. Chapter 5 ends with a story from the Synod of Dort, arguing for the need for piety in the process of the creation of confessions.
I came away from The Need for Creeds Today with mixed feelings. It does several things quite well and others not so well. Chapters 2-4 helpfully illustrate the complexities of historic confession making and will be eye-opening for many readers, serving to tear down caricatures of Reformed confessions. Fesko also shows why many of the common objections to confessions are not persuasive and the genuine good that confessions achieve. For the reader who thinks that confessions are antithetical to evangelical and Biblical faith, this will indeed be helpful.
On the other hand, the first chapter does not, in my opinion, demonstrate a Biblical mandate for the creation of confessions. The passages Fesko puts forth are undoubtedly consistent with creed creation, but the Old Testament passages (Exod 13:14-15; Deut 6:4-6) are more relevant for intrafamily discipleship than a formal creedal process. Fesko’s argument from the passages in Paul’s writings where he uses πιστὸς ὁ λόγος (pistos ho logos, “the statement is trustworthy”; 1 Tim 1:15, 3:1, 4:-9; 2 Tim 2:11-13; Titus 3:4-8) involves a lot of assumptions which are far from self-evident. In short, I don’t think the sayings introduced with pistos ho logos can be used to argue for a creedal mandate. Fesko also takes several shots at one of my favourite theologians, John Frame, which hardly do justice to his thought (see The Doctrine of the Christian Life for an example of his use of the creeds and confessions). Finally, what I perceive to be the biggest issue with creeds and confessions in the contemporary Church is not addressed. Namely, what sort of authority do the creeds possess for those who confess sola Scriptura? An answer to this question is not easy and yet necessary if we are to use confessions in a formal context. Also, chapter 5 felt like an excursus less than a proper contribution to the argument.
For the reader wanting a perspective on the positive value of confessions for the Church, The Need for Creeds Today will be helpful. For those wrestling with the role of creeds and confessions in liturgy, personal faith, and denominational structures, Fesko’s book will not provide much guidance.