Review: Fesko’s Need for Creeds Today

D. G. Hart

Presbyterians have a reputation for being creedal Christians—Orthodox Presbyterians even more so. In the typical map of Reformed Protestants that divides the landscape among pietists, culturalists, and doctrinalists, the OPC is the prime example of those Reformed Protestants who stress doctrine (as opposed to the pietism of Puritans and the transformationalism of Kuyperians).

Despite that reputation, Presbyterians’ relationship to creeds has been highly contentious. In colonial America, when ministers wanted the Synod of Philadelphia to prescribe the Westminster Confession and Catechisms for the young Presbyterian communion, others objected because confessional subscription allegedly violated liberty of conscience. Although the Synod of 1729 did eventually adopt the Westminster Standards, the coming of awakenings, great and small, did not bring a peaceful settlement to the victory for subscription. The revivals encouraged among some a strong sense of the Spirit’s work that man-made forms and restrictions (creeds and polity) should never impede. In the nineteenth century at the time of the Second Not-So-Great Awakening, antagonism to creeds in general and the Westminster Standards particularly was easier to spot. Charles Finney, along with his colleagues, openly questioned the covenantal scheme of salvation taught in the Westminster Confession even while warning about the danger of man-made creeds. A century later, Presbyterian modernists pled for liberty of conscience in the face of confessional subscription, even as they claimed to affirm the spirit of the confession. The OPC emerged from the controversy over modernism with a high regard for the Westminster Confession, which may explain the name of a certain seminary.

A brief reminder of American Presbyterian history is part of the context that J. V. Fesko has in mind with this book, The Need for Creeds Today. The author, now a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson), writes specifically to overcome common objections to creeds. What makes Fesko’s case especially laudable is that he does not merely celebrate his subject. He also acknowledges historical circumstances that produced creeds and rendered them dubious. That combination makes this book highly effective.

An early sign that this is not going to be your grandfather’s case for creeds is a chapter that Fesko devotes to an incident of dueling at the Synod of Dort. This is not the sort of anecdote one might expect from a book in praise of creeds. But that does not stop Fesko from narrating the episode when, soon after the Synod dismissed, a public theological debate took place between Franciscus Gomarus, the leading defender of Reformed orthodoxy, and Matthias Martinius, a defender of Arminianism. As the debate progressed, Gomarus sensed that Martinius (though accounts are sketchy) would not debate the substance of doctrine. Instead, Martinius resorted to insults. As a result, Gomarus challenged Martinius to a duel. Cooler heads prevailed for a moment, and the moderator led the audience in prayer. But even after that petition, Gomarus repeated his challenge to Martinius. The duel never took place. Each man went his separate way that night and apparently dropped the matter. But Gomarus’s attachment to correct doctrine, which led to an attempt to vindicate his views by a common method at the time of defending personal honor, is one way that defenders of creeds have damaged the reputation of orthodoxy. Fesko uses the incident, not to detract from the importance of creeds, but to counsel about the temptations of pride that accompany even the best theologians.

That lesson is also part of the author’s broader effort not to hide the unsavory circumstances that produced creeds. At one point, Fesko explains the decline of confessions this way: “The convergence of bloody warfare and confessionalism cannot be ignored and was unquestionably a factor in the large-scale demise” of creeds (49). Even without drawing a simplistic link between religion and violence the way some recent scholars have, Fesko’s point reminds readers that creeds emerged from the establishment of Christianity as part of civil rule in Europe. Without civil magistrates adopting the church, Christianity would not have creeds or confessions. In practically every instance of a creed, its origin comes either from the state (think Constantine and Nicea) asking church officials to define the boundaries of acceptable belief for a civil realm or believers (like the Belgic or Gallican confessions) explaining their beliefs to a hostile ruler. The Westminster Confession itself, the gem of orthodoxy for Presbyterians, would not have been written had not the English Parliament asked pastors to draw up new standards for the Church of England. When wars broke out in Europe after the Reformation, religion may have been merely an excuse rather than the basis for a ruler to expand his territory. For Fesko to acknowledge the political origins of creeds is a welcome addition to defending confessionalism. A frank understanding of confessions’ context puts apologists in a better position to answer objections. At the same time, church history, warts and all, is no reason to denigrate or reject the church. The same goes for confessions.

On the positive side, Fesko makes several observations in defense of confessions. Aside from their role in setting boundaries and maintaining the church’s corporate witness, Fesko also argues that confessions are not simply man-made expressions but actually biblical in both content and even form. In what may be one of the book’s most original chapters, the author contends that Scripture itself at various points in redemptive history points to, assumes, and even relies on creeds. For instance, Paul’s appeal five times to “trustworthy sayings” allows Fesko to assert that “under divine inspiration, [the apostle] incorporated these digested forms of revelation into his own letters” (10). This means that “there is biblical warrant for the church to create and maintain confessions of faith” (10).

Although this book is short, it packs a punch both theologically and historically. Its size is all the more reason that The Need for Creeds Today should not be ignored.

The author, a professor at Hillsdale College and a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan, reviews The Need for Creeds Today: Confessional Faith in a Faithless Age, by J. V. Fesko. Baker Academic, 2020. Paperback, 160 pages, $15.99.