Saturday, February 19, 2011

Francis Beckwith on creeds

I was not writing about the Protestant confessions, since they are not creeds. Confessions are, well, confessions; they express the beliefs that a community agrees to believe. Creeds, on the other hand, are expressions of belief that the community ought to believe because the appropriate authority issued them.

Really? Would it not be more reasonable to say the community ought to believe a creed because the creed is true?

This, it seems to me, puts Protestants in a particularly difficult quandry.

It might be a quandary if, like Beckwith, you miscast the issue.

I suspect that each Protestant community that publishes a confession thinks that it is issuing normative guidelines of belief that depend on certain truths. In that case, from the perspective of the Reformed, anyone who denies any aspect of the Westminster Confession is in fact a heretic. But that means that a confession is more than just a summary of biblical doctrine, rather, it is a brief against heresy issued by a body with the authority to prosecute and convict. In that case, the confession has become a creed. And now we have the equivalent of a conciliar pronouncement with real teeth. But that would require a living magisterium, if there was real historical continuity between those that penned and published the WC and their successors. But there does not seem to be. Is it the PCUSA, PSA, RCA, or OPC, etc.?

i) Well that’s rather silly. For instance, a denomination can use a creed as doctrinal standard for church officers or laymen. In that respect, the creed also functions as an accountability mechanism in church discipline.

Church officers and laymen agree to the accountability system as a condition of ordination or membership. The creed will then be interpreted and applied for disciplinary purposes.

So what is Beckwith’s objection, exactly? Is it that Protestants lack an infallible magisterium? But how many cases of church discipline in his own denomination involve an infallible verdict regarding the guilt or innocence of the defendant? How many cases involve an infallible punishment?

So, it’s merely a confession after all, a literary relic from the past that people choose to believe today. For this reason, they can amend it, taking out the parts that offend contemporary sensibilities, not unlike removing the ‘N’ word from Mark Twain novels.

Of course, the Roman church amends older “creeds” by conveniently reinterpreting them via the doctrine of development. And, in the process, it eliminates things offensive to contemporary sensibilities.

And it’s not as if the Roman church systematically excommunicates members who defy its teachings. Indeed, the Roman church is exceedingly lax. 


  1. If "Creeds...are expressions of belief that the community ought to believe because the appropriate authority issued them." then our good Dr. Beckwith is certainly in a pickle.

    It seems that of the four "authoritative" creeds of his church, the Creed of Pius IV proclaims the following:

    I also admit the Holy Scripture according to that sense which our holy mother the Church hath held, and doth hold, to whom it belongeth to judge of the true sense and interpretations of the Scriptures. Neither will I ever take and interpret them otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

    Where, perchance, is the "unanimous consent of the Fathers" with regard to Rome's use of Matthew 16:18, that Scripture singular in its importance in establishing - if one is to believe the Catechism - the very vicar of Christ on earth? That required unanimous consent is, of course, nowhere to be found.

    So what of Dr. Beckwith? Is he bound to follow this "authoritative" creed or the "authoritative" Vatican Council I which clearly, directly and concisely contradicts it?

    It seems that good Dr. Beckwith's mystical, magical Magisterium has not helped resolve the issue but has left him swimming in his own contradictions.

    So what are we to believe Dr. Beckwith? The Magisterium that "authoritatively" requires a unanimous consent in the days of St. Pope Pius IV, or the Magisterium that proclaims, de fide, its pronouncement on the matter absent such unanimity?

    And by what magisterial authority shall we decide between conflicting Magisteria? Hmmmm.


  2. After reading a wonderful new history on the final 500 years or so of the Western Roman Empire with appropriate description of the Eastern Empire and its destructive effects on the West. And its great description of the codifying of the church structure to resemble the crumbling Roman structure -- not an Apostolic succession -- the Roman apologist is in a pickle on more than just creeds.

  3. Hi Grev,


    Would you mind sharing the book you referenced?


  4. Here is another book -- Byzantium by Judith Herrin which is also a good read. I will try to find the title of the other.

  5. The other book is The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James O Donnell.

    The chapter on the efforts of one of the early Popes to provide an efficient administration in Rome as the Political structure was increasingly ineffective is quite convincing in answering questions as to what did Rome look to for structuring the Church which lays claim to Apostolic Succession.

  6. Thanks, Grev. I appreciate it very much.

    Peace to you.