church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

I have just finished reading Crisis of Confidence:  Reclaiming the Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity, by my friend Carl R. Trueman.  Dr. Trueman is professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, and a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (which, despite the title, has no connection with our own Eastern Orthodox Church).   

As with everything else Dr. Trueman writes, it was a fascinating volume, well-researched, quite readable, and suffused with its own brand of quiet humour and prophetic critique.  His basic thesis is that those Evangelical Protestants who declare they have “no creed but the Bible!” and who thus reject any use of creeds as somehow disrespectful of the authority of Scripture should think again.  Creeds and creedalism, he insists, are eminently Biblical and indeed essential to the Church in its mission.

       As far as us Eastern Orthodox are concerned, of course, Dr. Trueman is preaching to the choir.  The mere existence of the book (which is indeed needed in the western Christian world today) tends to throw into relief the difference between Orthodoxy and the Protestantism in which Dr. Trueman ministers and works. The Nicene Creed is not only sung every Sunday at Divine Liturgy, but also finds a place in the private prayers customarily said every day.  Orthodoxy also regards as authoritative the credal statements produced by the early Ecumenical Councils such as those of Ephesus and Chalcedon and of course the statement of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 declaring the legitimacy of icons.  The importance of Church Councils in Orthodoxy makes the Orthodox Church the credal church par excellence so that naturally Dr. Trueman’s book will find a cheering section among the Orthodox.

       Chapter 1 which outlines “the cultural case against creeds and confessions” is especially helpful in that it digs into the cultural roots which make our contemporary society hostile to the whole concept of credal authority.  In particular things like “expressive individualism” (the notion that authenticity comes solely from within an individual), the modern obsession with scientific progress and technological advance, which tempts one to devalue the past as inferior to the present, and a consumerism which glorifies what can be obtained in the future all combine to convince the children of this age that the ancient past has no relevance now.  What can a statement produced in 325 A.D. by a bunch of dead white guys possibly mean to us today?  (Never mind that they weren’t all white.)  In examining the necessity of creeds, Dr. Trueman reminds us that it is important to know one’s enemy.

       I was also happy and a bit surprised in a Reformed work to see that Dr. Trueman listed all seven ecumenical councils, while of course mentioning that the Roman Catholics count 22 councils as ecumenical and Protestants “have only a limited use for a number of the original seven”.  It gladdens the Orthodox heart to see the Second Council of Niceae mentioned at all.  As Dr. Trueman described each of the original seven councils in turn, I was greatly looking forward to his take on Niceae II.  Imagine my disappointment to see that after dealing with the Council of Chalcedon he dove into the Athanasian Creed (which was not produced by a council) and then did not deal with Niceae II at all.

       I also had hoped that he would deal with the question of what makes a council ecumenical—i.e. accepted as authoritative and reliable in its teaching throughout the οἰκουμένη/ oikoumene, the inhabited world.  In other words, why was the creed produced by the Council of Niceae finally accepted as ecumenical and authoritative while the creed produced by the Council of Sirmium rejected?  The answer, of course, is “reception”:  the Christian world as a whole eventually came to accept the teaching of Niceae while it eventually  rejected the teaching of Sirmium. 

The Church is guided by God into all truth (as the Scripture itself witnesses; see John 16:13, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 3:10, 1 Timothy 3:15).  That obviously does not mean that when bishops assemble in council God magically makes them infallible—as false councils like that of Sirmium prove.  But it does mean that eventually, after much debating, praying, arguing, excommunicating, reading, and to-ing and fro-ing the Church will eventually get it right.  That is why we believe that the Church was right in its final condemnation of Arianism.  Groups like the Unitarians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses will doubtless say that the Church got it wrong in 325 and ever afterward and languished in heresy until they came along much later.  But such a view would mean that God does not effectively guide His Church into all truth and that Christ’s promise that He would so guide them was a lie.  That is impossible; we believe Christ that God has not left us at the mercy of our own resources and stupidity, but that through it all, God ultimately guides His Church.  When the Church finally settled into a conviction that Arianism was wrong, we can therefore now be sure that Arianism is wrong.

Please note:  the real and historical reason we now believe that Arianism is wrong is not because the Bible says so (though it does), but because the Church ultimately and finally received the Council of Niceae as speaking the truth.  That is, the issue is one of the Church’s eventual and final reception, not one of exegesis.  Groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses want to make the matter into one of exegesis and keep pointing to the Bible (in their own whacky and inane way).  But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came along in the late 1800s and attempted to argue against the divinity of Christ, they were too late for the party.  The issue had long since been settled, and for those who believe that God guides His Church the J.W.s attempts at exegesis were already ruled out of court.

It is the same, the Orthodox believe, with the Second Council of Niceae which ruled in favour of icons.  The Church eventually came to accept that Council’s teaching, and so accept the legitimacy of icons.  The iconoclastic council of Hieria rejected icons in 754, but the Church eventually chose to side with Niceae, not Hieria.  That is how we Orthodox know that icons are okay and should be a part of church life.

Anyway, the question of how one knows which creed or council to accept is an important one, and I would have loved to see Dr. Trueman turning his considerable learning to the issue.  One gets the impression from the book that the creeds were produced without too much real controversy, whereas in fact all the creeds and the councils that produced them were soaked in controversy.  In fairness to Dr. Trueman, he was writing for a Protestant audience inimical to the use of creeds, and so perhaps was reluctant to go down a long historical rabbit hole on a subject of little relevance to his target audience.

Also odd for the Orthodox was the consistent equation of creeds (which we Orthodox have) with confessions (which we don’t have).  That is, there is no Orthodox equivalent to the Westminster Confession or any large document outlining all major Orthodox beliefs.  The early church never had or saw the need for such a document and neither do the Orthodox today.  Our major doctrines are not found in a succinct document, but are suffused throughout our worship, being found in our hymns, prayers, icons, and canons.  In other words, our lex credendi can be found in our lex orandi—what we believe is contained in how we worship.  The Reformed insistence on the necessity of having a confession reveals the tremendous gap between churches of the Reformation and the praxis of the early church—and of contemporary Orthodoxy.

This is an important book, especially for Protestants to whom it was primarily directed and for whom it was written.  There is much for the Orthodox to applaud in the book.  It should be required reading for Evangelicals, and will provide interesting reading for any Christian.  It is available through Amazon here.

Note about my recently-published commentary: It has come to my attention that the version of my recently-published commentary on the Psalter (available through Amazon) was the one not sufficiently proofed. I apologize for the error and am working hard to correct it. If anyone who purchased the uncorrected version would like to contact me I would be happy to mail them a copy of one of my akathists as a token of gratitude for their patience.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.