Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology , by Aza Goudriaan. Dr. Goudriaan is Guest Professor of Historical Theology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, and Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at the Faculty of Religion and Theology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Reformed Confessions, Creeds, and the Fathers
One of the most enduring, structural, and affirmative forms of reception of doctrinal beliefs is the inclusion of these beliefs in ecclesiastical confessions. Creeds and confessions articulate doctrines and standards that the church believes to be true and correct for any generation. For Reformed theology today, confessions from the Reformation era are still channelling early Christian theology, especially by their acceptance of early Christian creeds. As a matter of fact, the Reformed confessions of the early modern period include so many references to creeds and church fathers that the most recent edition of the Reformed confessions, published from 2003 onwards on behalf of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), saw reason to include indexes of patristic citations (Faulenbach and Busch 2002). An early modern confession that endorses an ancient creed thereby provides what is probably the strongest form of theological continuity that can be considered here.
These early modern endorsements are found in several confessions, both among Lutherans (e.g. Formula concordiae, 1584, Epitome 2; Schaff 2007: 95) and among the Reformed (Quantin 2009: 43–7). The Reformed French Confession of 1559, for example, states its adherence to the ancient creeds while indicating the supreme authority of the Bible: ‘And therefore we confess the three creeds, to wit: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, because they are in accordance with the Word of God’ (art. 5; Schaff 2007: 362). The Belgic Confession (1561) likewise admits, speaking on the Trinity and on heretics that were condemned by the early councils: ‘Therefore, in this point, we do willingly receive the three creeds, namely, that of the Apostles, of Nice[a], and of Athanasius; likewise that which, conformable thereunto, is agreed upon by the ancient fathers’ (art. 9; Schaff 2007: 393; Busch 2009: 347; Müller 1903: 236). Accordingly, the Confession also rejected the views of those heretics who ‘rightly and for good reason have been condemned by the orthodox Fathers’ (art. 9).
The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563; 1571) state: ‘The three Credes, Nicene crede, Athanasian Crede, and that whiche is commonlye called the Apostles’ Crede, ought throughlye to be receaued and beleued: for they may be proued by moste certayne warrauntes of holye scripture’ (art. 8; Schaff 2007: 492; 1571 edn; for historical context, see Quantin 2009). This stance is repeated in the Irish Articles of 1615: ‘All and every the Articles contained in the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Athanasius, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought firmly to be received and believed, for they may be proved by most certain warrant of holy Scripture’ (art. 7; Schaff 2007: 528).
These examples are by no means exhaustive. The Apostles’ Creed has been integrally included in the Spanish Confession de Fe Christiana (1559/60–1560/61), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Zweibrücker Katechismus (1588), and it is cited in the Confessio Bohemica (1575/1609) (cf. Vinzent 2006: 44–5). The Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed are also referred to in the Confessio catholica of Eger and Debrecen (1562; printed in Müller 1903 as the ‘Erlauthaler Confession’) and in the Confessio Bohemica (1575/1609).
By accepting these creeds, Reformed churches affirmed early Christian dogma and showed that the Reformed faith was catholic and orthodox, not heretical. Thus, when the Council of Trent reconfirmed the Nicene Creed specifically as a foundation for its proceedings (4 February 1546; Denzinger and Hünermann 1991: no. 1500), the Reformed lawyer Innocent Gentillet wrote: ‘according to this [decree] they cannot hold us for heretics, since we receive and believe all the articles of the aforementioned creed’ (suiuant iceluy ils ne nous peuuent tenir pour heretiques, parce que nous receuons et croyons tous les articles dudit Symbole). In fact, added Gentillet, the Reformed affirmed the Nicene Creed more fully than the Roman Catholics did by believing two comings (not numerous eucharistic appearances) of Christ and one catholic church (not a Church of Rome) (Gentillet 1586: 36; cf. Polman 1932: 256–7).
Accepting the Nicene Creed, or ancient creeds more generally, had primarily the theological motivation of confirming one’s orthodoxy and catholicity, but it had also legal and political implications. As Albrecht Ritschl noted long ago, the Reformers’ adherence to ancient creeds had the (perhaps unintended) political and legal implication that the Reformation remained catholic in the sense of the Justinian legal codex that was at the time still politically relevant. The Codex Justinianus required the observation of the Nicene faith that it considered the touchstone of ‘the Catholic religion’ (Ritschl 1903: 146–9; see also Coleman-Norton 1966: 364–6; Codex Iustinianus 1.1.2). Accordingly, subscribing to ‘Nicaea’ (325) had a political as well as a theological meaning.
For early modern Reformed theology, the authorship of the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed was not a significant issue. While assuming, for the Apostles’ Creed, an origin in the apostolic times, John Calvin considered the authorship an issue of minor importance (Vinzent 2006: 44; Mooi 1965: 43). About a century later, writing after the historical investigations of Gerardus Joannes Vossius and others, Gisbertus Voetius argued that ‘the Creed as it presently is has nowhere existed before the fourth century’, having been written by ‘unknown authors to whom should by no means be ascribed an authority equal to that of Christ and the Apostles’ (Voetius 1648: 68 and 65; Vinzent 2006: 60–61; on the genesis of the textus receptus, see e.g. Westra 2002). What turned out to be controversial among Reformed writers was not the authorship of the Apostles’ Creed but rather its article on Christ’s descent into hell (Quantin 2009: 114–30; 253; Van Dixhoorn 2004). Still, Voetius expressed a more general hesitation when, considering the needs of his own time and especially the controversy with anti-trinitarians, he expressed his preference (ausim praeferre) for other confessions over the Apostles’ Creed. More contemporary relevance was, in his opinion, possessed by the Reformed Catechisms, the Harmonia Confessionum, the Nicene(-Constantinopolitan) Creed, and the Athanasian Creed (Voetius 1648: 72–3).
The Athanasian authorship of the Athanasian Creed seems to have been widely assumed in the sixteenth century, but in 1606 the Heidelberg theologian Abraham Scultetus listed the Creed in the category of dubia: ‘[I]n no manuscript, at least those that I have seen, does it appears among the works of Athanasius. It can be read in one, but with the author’s name suppressed. It is found in the historical fragments of Hilary’ (Scultetus 1606: 74; Benrath 1963: 25). Johann Heinrich Hottinger of Zürich likewise counted the Athanasian Creed among the works of uncertain origin (Hottinger 1654: 77), but André Rivet, while quoting Scultetus’ critical assessment, noted the Creed’s orthodoxy and its ‘great authority in the Church’ and declared himself ‘persuaded that it is from Athanasius’ (Rivet 1660: 261). In the seventeenth century, historical arguments were made that denied the authorship of the Creed to the historical Athanasius: this basic conclusion of Gerardus Joannes Vossius’ work was left intact by the subsequent investigations of James Ussher—both were Reformed scholars, though Vossius had a clear sympathy for the Remonstrants. Later in the century, the Anglican scholar Daniel Waterland, living in a country where the liturgy contributed to making the Athanasian Creed a much more central factor than it was on the Continent, defended the Creed as scripturally warranted, dating its origin between 420 and 431 (Kelly 1964: 3–5; Quantin 2009: 43–7).
Some Reformed confessions of the early modern era included references to the church fathers as a group. The Confessio Helvetica posterior (1566), for example, has a section ‘On the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, and on the Fathers, Councils, and Traditions’ (Müller 1903: 172–3; Campi 2009: 275–6). The Helvetic Confession appreciated the ‘interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin Fathers’—as well as the decisions of councils—only if these were in accordance with scripture. This conditional approval is said to be fully in line with the intentions of the fathers themselves, who submitted their writings to the norm of the biblical canon. The Swiss expressed a common Reformed conviction when they declared that in theological controversy scripture is decisive, not the ‘naked opinions of the Fathers, or decisions of councils, much less received customs, or even the multitude of those who think the same, or the prescription of a long time’.
Particularly profuse in its patristic references is the Confessio catholica von Eger und Debrecen (1562). The opening sentence starts with an orthodox consensus: ‘we confess unanimously with Holy Scripture, and in accordance with the right confession of the orthodox fathers and the tradition of truth that is in conformity with Scripture’ (Müller 1903: 265; Bucsay and Csepregi 2009: 11). Throughout this confession, time and again the claim is being made that the professed doctrines are consonant with Scripture, the Fathers (occasionally even ‘all Fathers’, in rare cases the subcategory of ‘the better Fathers’ (Patres saniora), and ancient councils.
Being included, or acclaimed, in Reformed confessions, the early Christian creeds—and certain teachings of the Fathers—have clearly become part of the Reformed theological identity, expressing its catholicity and orthodoxy. Here especially, as Irena Backus has argued more generally (Backus 2003), the patristic heritage is used not so much as providing proof-texts but rather as a constructive element of the Reformed identity. At the same time, the subordination of patristic ideas to the norm of scripture shows that a critical attitude towards the fathers was, likewise by confession, an integral part of the Reformed identity as well.
From The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.