I suppose I should begin by thanking Richard (a.k.a., Stephen Francis) over at In Unitatum Fidei for inspiring this post. While I was reading one of his excellent articles, the following statement (taken from the middle of a sentence) jumped out at me. Richard wrote,
…we profess our Faith with more detail than the ”sinner’s prayer” generally ever has.
which set my mind to thinking about my own relationship to the historic ecumenical creeds, and the Westminster Standards, which is the confession of faith for the Presbyterian church.
The statement above set my mind to pondering the way that Presbyterian and Reformed churches use our creeds and confessions in worship. One (somewhat) regular aspect of the church’s worship every Lord’s Day in most Presbyterian churches is the inclusion of one of the creeds or a portion of the Westminster Confession as part of the worship of God. When I transitioned to worshiping in a Presbyterian church, this practice stuck out to me as different, but just another one of the odd things that separated Presbyterians from the Baptist churches of my childhood.
What I’ve come to realize, especially as I’ve seen how many try to set up doctrine and worship as antithetical to one another, is that the confessions are themselves doxological––that doctrine (or dogma, if you like) is an intrinsic element of all Christian worship. Those churches that include recitations of the creeds and/or Confession are just being a lot more open about it than others are.
As I’ve been supplying the pulpit for a church in my hometown, I’ve been preaching through Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, and the last time I was there the passage before me was 1 Timothy 1:15-17:
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (KJV.)
Paul has been instructing Timothy to refute the false teachers that have gained a grievous influence over the church, infiltrating the leadership itself. While all of the precise details of the content of this false teaching aren’t completely clear, it appears to involve enigmatic interpretations of the law, blunting it’s purpose which is to expose the sin of all humanity. In contradistinction to this, Paul invokes the proper use of the law and then offers himself as an example of God’s race and as a standard case of how the gospel works.
But then he suddenly moves from his own condition to a statement about Christ’s mission to an outburst of worship in 1:15-17 (quoted above).
This passage is a wondrous example of how doctrine and doxology are intertwined. There is no opposition here between what Christ has done and what Paul has experienced. You might call this the relationship between theology proper and practical theology. But even more noteworthy for the purposes of this post is how Paul connects his confession (the “trustworthy statement” of v. 15) with theology, polemics, and worship.
In attacking the false teachers as false, Paul inescapably asserts true teaching and doctrine as the alternative. For Paul such an assertion cannot stand on its own and it moves Paul to naturally to praise. But the content of this praise, is itself highly polemical. If we praise God as the eternal King, we necessarily deny the claims of anybody else to quintessential kingship. In this manner, Paul is setting the entirety of creation within the context of the ultimate sovereignty of God. To give God praise as immortal is to insist upon the Creator/creature distinction––contending that God and God alone is completely different from everything else. Praising God as invisible is to identify him with the God of the Old Testament, whom no man could see and live and who must not be represented by an image or idol. To praise Him as the only God is to deny the claims of any other thing to deity.
While Paul’s polemic leads him to praise, a consequence of praising God rightly is that the praise is itself polemical. Whether we are aware of it or not, our praise is always doctrinal and will always be polemical. Our worship cannot ever rise higher that our conception of God, and our conception of God is inevitably doctrinal, whether we want to admit it or not.
This is why we include the creeds, Confession, and catechism in our worship––so that our doctrine can create our doxology.
- Power of Faith: 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- The Anniversary of the Death of Zacharias Ursinus, The Author of the Heidelberg Catechism (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Presbyterians, Homosexuality, and Book of Confessions (juicyecumenism.com)