An Analysis of Five Symbols: Confessions, Catechisms and/or Creeds On the Reformation/Post Reformation Era
An Analysis of
Five Symbols: Confessions, Catechisms and/or Creeds
On the Reformation/Post Reformation Era
A Paper in Systematic Theology 1
It is always interesting to go back in time and look at how the past relates to the present and how it could influence the future. A way to do this is to study theology which is also a study of sociology – of people (7 and 8). A good metric for studying the ever-changing nature of people is its history. One of the facets of history’s fabric is the marriage of ideologies and actual social situations –particularly during a time when both these areas experience tremendous change or shifts.
This paper aims to dissect or at least shortlist the key aspects of five symbols which are in the form of confessions, catechisms or creeds on the Reformation/Post Reformation Era. It should be noted that the variety and full range of symbols presented in this paper stem from a collective manuscript known as The Bible.
The Bible is acknowledged to be the all-time bestseller of all literature having been handed from at least two thousand years ago by word of mouth into numerous error-prone translations as we know its many but related versions today (1, 4 and 12).
Hermeneutics, the study of the general principles of biblical interpretation, is considered to be a cornerstone of the objections to doctrines and practices in the medieval church more commonly known as the Reformation (1 and 2). The Reformation movement incidentally shared the same timeline as the Renaissance where leaders of new thought, social and political ideologies mushroomed from the invention of the printing press and other inventions that helped spur the spread of the spoken word – and then the printed word (1,2,7, 8 and 11) . The medieval and early-modern sense of the word Reformation, enshrined from the Latin reformation (1), concerned the re-alignment of an institution and specifically of the Church with its original pattern and ethos, its true and immaculate form (10).
The governments of Europe were predominantly ideologic and Christian in authority and administration with the bishop as local dispensing figure reporting to the then all-powerful pope who wielded economic, political as well as moral suasion over the ruling class or royalties (1, 2, 7, 8, 9 & 11). The king, as head of royalty, was then recognized as offspring of divine lineage worthy to represent God on earth. In this regard, the royalties or blue-bloods of the medieval times tried to a literary fault to keep their bloodlines pure by preventing inter-class marriages with the lower castes of society. Social classes were subdued under the pretense that there had to be religious leaders pre-ordained by their lineage as well as the working class who were born into a lifetime of servitude – one of the key concepts that Reformists objected to which they called predestination. It was the explosion of the middle merchant class and their thirst for knowledge as well as the breadth of their traveling experiences which led them to power that combined their academic strength as well as the experiential collective.
The medieval invention of universitas, latin for any group of people who shared common interests, helped further the cause of spreading information more than ideologies as law and theology permeated the fertile and ambitious minds of the burgeoning middle class from all borders of Europe across the world (1, 10 and 11). Universitas, or universities as we now call them, were the known repositories of the scholarly information and documents. These documents were scattered when the church’s internal conflicts led to the Great Schism from 1378 to 1417. The reasons for the Great Schism are attributed to personal and political factors rather than differences in faith or in practice (7, 8, 9 & 11).
Furthering the diversification, like the legendary Tower of Babel, were the factionalization within the church as well as between the church itself and the state. The different levels of education, idiosyncracies of language and personal interpretation led to the various versions of the church-controlled bible contents.
Church-controlled universities were increasingly subject to state control focusing on local folklore and ideology (10). A heightened thirst for knowledge fanned the flames for queries and reforms which rode on the appearance of humanism and the Renaissance. An increasingly sophisticated economy and society required more graduates – as well as governmental bureaucracies. The law and theology students were joined by students from science, arithmetic, astronomy, literature and music with focus on more quadrivium or scholastic areas which represented the corpus of knowledge (1 & 2). The focus of study therefore transferred from deity and society to more about the individual person, personal responsibility and individual freedom.
It is in this context of socio-economic and political flux that the Reformation took place. As a matter of facilitating the study of the period, symbols were used to indicate levels of thought: these are Creeds, confessions and Catechisms (3, 4, 5 & 6). Creeds are authoritative summaries of the principal articles of faith of various churches or bodies of believers. Since doctrines are subject to elaboration and interpretation that cause differences of opinion, detailed creeds become necessary to emphasize the differences between the tenets of schismatic branches. They also serve as formulation of belief when liturgical usage, as in the administration of baptism, requires a profession of faith. The Apostle’s Creed is the first symbol to be tackled in this paper.
Confessions are a manual of Christian doctrine drawn up in essay format, typically written in chapter form and grouped according to subject. These are normally longer given the text format which is why the Shorter Westminster Confession is the lone sample from the Confessions in addition to having a long version as well as a natural segue to the Westminster Catechism, as discussed later.
Catechisms differ from confessions in the question and answer format they are in, emphasizing religious instruction. The English scholar Alcuin compiled the first such manual although memorization by rote which is the method of Catechism has diminished in recent years (1 & 3). The Baltimore, Heidelberg and Puritan Catechisms round up the five areas of focus in this paper.
Discussion of the Five Symbols
The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostle’s Creed is also known as the Old Roman Creed, being the earliest known dating to sometime in the first or second century AD, closest to after Christ’s death (1,2,3,4 & 5) . It does not appear in this present form before 650 with two material differences from the Nicene Creed which is underwent revision from the original in 325 AD Nicene Council. The main differences of The Apostle’s Creed differs from the updated Nicene Creed are: the omission of “He descended into hell” from the latter and, the “resurrection of the dead” in the Nicene as compared to the Apostle’s Creed “resurrection of the body”.
The usage and interpretation among Protestants and Roman Catholics are largely consistent. The Creed is one of the examples where there is little or no question as to the content – rather more on the interpretation particularly in the translation from the original Hebrew to the more cosmopolitan language then, of Greek and Latin. The phrase indicating descent into hell also shows the strong anti-predestination focus on doctrine as compared to the more malleable discipline.
It is also interesting to note that the usage of dead as the object of resurrection in the more recent Nicene indicates a more colloquial interpretation of the spirit of the scripture: a being has to give up its physical life or manifestation before having the ability to be resurrected. A body, in literal sense, can be defined to be alive or dead. This is a very good example of updating the discipline while maintaining the doctrine. This is also in following the pristine objective of passing on the doctrine as Jesus Christ did to his fellow carpenters and fisherfolk – translating the old testament ten commandments into the sermon on the mount and the two most important laws: loving God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s strength and, loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
The Westminster Catechism – Short Version
The Shorter Westminster Catechism, together with the Longer Catechism was adopted in July 1648 by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. (1, 3, 4 & 5) They are also known to be the standard catechisms of the Presbyterian churches throughout the countries of the former British Empire and the United States as compiled by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster.
Compared to the Creeds discussed beforehand, the Shorter Westminster Catechism requires a more extensive view of day to day living of the early Reformists. The English translation of the first question apparently highlights the individualistic and person-centric nature of the era although it defines man as living in order to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever. Taken in this context, the Catechism being reviewed also reflects a more personal religion between Christian and his God and the purpose of being which gives rise to God’s supremacy as shown in the succeeding questions and answers.
The basic doctrines are also brought to their pristine and unabridged definitions through simple and relevant English – whether they be true to their translated spirit, we are not at liberty to discuss given the limitation of our English-only resource. The power of pure scripture is also highlighted with one-sentence questions that contain at most two ideas. In the English language, a simple noun-predicate structure is painstakingly followed – almost to the point of rawness. Here is where the rote memory process takes over as the clarity and simplicity of statement structures lend to almost a singsong rhythm and elementary knowledge. However, the statements build upon themselves as the next topic of discussion usually relies on the past proclamations. An almost didactic approach is assumed in the Catechism that the rhythm and style lend to easy memorization and hopefully, practice.
The Shorter Westminster Catechism highlights the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments as well as the New Testament’s Lord’s Prayer – in such order. Similar to the generic structure of basics first then build upon onto more complex ideas and teachings, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer are dissected on a line by line basis. The basic precepts of faith, scripture and practice are well explained by questions of fact followed by concise dogma. Even the treatment of words and terms are consistent – at least in the English language while keeping in the spirit of imparting faith through simple and relevant means.
Interestingly, the related Westminster Confession expounds more theatrically on the teachings within its thirty five chapters, each focusing on key beliefs held to require purification by the Reformists. The Westminster Confession starts, similar to its Catechism, with a basis for all its proclamation: Of the Holy Scripture. From this point, the reference of all discussion is anchored towards building the mindset for the practicing Christian. The Confession lays the ground in the first few chapters on the basic teachings such as God, the Holy Trinity, Creation – almost as if taking a Salvation History approach. Albeit younger and earlier than the other confessions such as the Puritan and Baltimore Confessions, the Assembly of Divines in the mid 1600s sought to harmonize the premise of Christianity as a subject and creation of God as well as a human being with a societal role. This was also the time when the Renaissance and scientific discoveries lent inquiries on the validity of the historical accounts in the Bible. In the Westminster Confession, the seeds of humanity’s deep faith anchored on God’s divine being were strengthened as unchangeable doctrine separated from the relevant discipline of executing the sacraments. Thus, the Reformation from highly theatrical rituals to basic sacraments.
The Baltimore Catechism
A committee of American bishops were behind the publishing of the Larger Version and Smaller Version of the Baltimore Catechism in 1885 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Maryland (1 & 3). It is said to be a direct descendant of Robert Bellarmine’s catechism of the sixteenth century. This Catechism lent itself to the propositionalism understanding of revelation which was a nineteenth-century view that God had communicated through Jesus and that the Spirit is a set of propositions that contained truths expressed eternally for all times and places. As timeless truth is considered such, the text was used indiscriminately for the instruction of people of all ages – going to the extent of localizing the teachings through inclusions of cartoon-like diagrams that may seem quaint for present-day applications.
This particular catechism recognizes that the Bible is a product of an oral tradition, with 1,400 questions parsed into thirty seven lessons. The English translation of the Baltimore Catechism has more direct with questions answerable in yes or no as well as short and crisp replies compared to the earlier Westminster Catechism which had longer and more explanatory sentences. This is because the Westminster Catechism was during the earlier stages of the Reformation and thus had to be more eloquent in explaining their propostions compared to the latter Baltimore Catechism where certain groups of believers were starting to coagulate and stabilize in their memberships as well as locus. Thus, the objective of the latter symbol, in addition to spreading and accumulating its numbers, was also to stabilize and normalize the ideological perspective of its members through more teaching – oriented language structure. The symbol follows the tenet of starting from basic doctrine and expounding on the scriptures to answer basic questions in beliefs and the sacraments. The first question, unlike the Westminster Catechism, does not even have the word man in it – relating to more matured editing and selection of terms to spread the God-centric nature of the Christian religion. This carries on until the 100th question that defines the role of Divine Providence in the spreading of the Gospel. In effect, the Baltimore Catechism mimics a mini-reformation in redefining and going back to grassroots Christianity as the whole world was opened to the explosion of ideas, experiences and Christendom.
The Heidelberg Catechism
The German theologians Caspar Olevianus, the superintendent of the Palatinate Church (1536-87) and Zacharias Ursinus, a professor of the theological faculty of the University of Heidelberg (1534-83) were responsible for compiling the Heidelberg, or Palatinate, Catechism at the request of the Elector Frederick III (1 & 3). It was accepted at the annual Synod of the Palatinate Church and has become the standard of the German and Dutch Reformed Churches of America since its 1563 publishing and translation into all languages of Europe.
It should be noted that one of the objectives of the Elector Frederick III for the Heidelberg Catechism was to conciliate the Protestant groups in Germany, despite preferring the Reformed faith. Frederick III hoped to obtain a united movement that included the orthodox Lutheran party and the more moderate Lutheran followers of Philipp Melanchton who were using the Augsburg Confession. In the Heidelberg Catechism, the controversial doctrine of Predestination was very mildly stated and the authors sought to bring their Reformed statements as near to the moderate Melanchthon-Lutheran position as they could. The strength and appeal of the catechism was the fact that it was a practical and devotional work, rather than an intellectual, dogmatic, or polemical one. Thus, despite being one of the more widely spread and translated works of catechism, the objective of watering down and compromising on highly flammable ideologies during a time of fierce debate did not give Frederick III a united movement. It was also done at a time when the Reformation movement was peaking and that any form of compromise on the exploding world of information and ideology was perceived to be an acknowledgement of weakness.
A positive offshoot of the Heidelberg Catechism, however, is its ability to offer the historian and student to appreciate an overview of the key issues being fiercely debated at that time. Unlike the other Catechisms which took on most relevant issues at their time, the Heidelberg Catechism sought to consider and incorporate the various ideologies and beliefs of the emerging pockets of reformation movements.
The extensiveness of teachings incorporated into the Heidelberg Catechism is seen in the structure taken by the authors of this work. The first question opens with quite a heavy concept of life and death with a strong individual-centric tone that builds upon the spirit similar to the first question of the Shorter Westminster Catechism: what value is man without God – unto which a series of biblical annexed scriptures are referenced to maintain the purity of the interpretation. The manner of using a mixture of old and new testament references to support the doctrine in the same question of the Catechism indicates a very strong direction towards purifying the fat although in the process of simplification and reference, the readers and students of catechism can be overwhelmed by the overload of information as compared to the simpler and shorter Puritan Catechism which shall be discussed shortly.
The Puritan Catechism
Charles Spurgeon was only 21 years old when the Puritan Catechism together with the A Puritan Confession of Faith was published in 1855, around the same time The Baltimore Catechism was born (1,2 & 3). Several thousand witnessed the birth of the Puritan Catechism on October 14, 1855 at the New Park Street Chapel when Spurgeon preached Sermon No. 46 announcing its beginning.
The Puritan Catechism’s author acknowledges its birthright from the Westminster Assembly’s and Baptist Catechisms, being a pastor who has written many sermons and who has seen a good part of the Reformation evolve before his time. As such, the Catechism embodies the spirit of the short Westminster Catechism while updating the style of referencing scriptural passages to support the answers to the questions. The lesser number of questions and answers reflect the more concise treatment of some doctrines as some of the previous doctrines asked in the Westminster Catechism – without adding to the confusion and while sticking to the basic tenets of the scripture.
A number of ideas are also left out from the dated Westminster Catechism such as the Ten Commandments being Moral law, the prefaces of the symbols of faith signified by the Apostle’s Creed, hope signified by the Lord’s Prayer and charity signified by the Ten Commandments. The manner of presenting the three prayers are also very direct compared to the Westminster treatment where prefaces and requirements are noted. The Puritan version employs more directive language as well as not including the Lord’s Prayer.
Overall, the Puritan Catechism is a good example of how the Reformation could go on: by integrating some aspects in order to emphasize an ideology – or relegate some points of question into the background to enable the leaders to focus on the burning platforms of their day.
From the analysis of the five Reformation Symbols, the following can be ascertained:
The Bible has remained to be an institution with content that has been divinely inspired and conferred upon by an infallible spirit (12). The numerous handoffs from the original form of the Bible to its present day editions take into consideration the idiosyncracies of the varied languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, French and Spanish – as well as the personalities of those involved in the translations. The Bible itself exemplifies the fallibility of man from the hesitant boat-builder in Noah to Saint Peter, the apostle most trusted by Christ despite his threefold betrayal – prior to making him the Church’s first pope and thus provide for intrinsically the error-prone nature of humankind. Further that the contents of the Bible can only be appreciated by man’s glorification of God and that pure is what enables mankind to experience divine intervention through practice of pristine religion.
The Reformation focused primarily on realigning the Church’s teachings, structure and presence back to the pristine and Bible-based spirit of the Catholic religion. In some way, the apostles after Jesus’ time were functioning as reformists as they tried to validate the Old testament and incorporate more relevant teachings into their Gospels and letters which have been convoluted by those in power to keep then in their positions. The subtle inclusions of Gentiles and uncircumcised brethren as part of the flock in the new testament took off from Jesus’ manner of taking divine law into human perspective. However, the Reformation as we know it does not question the basic content of the Scripture but the interpretation thereof. The Bible Scripture takes precedence over all symbols, confessions and catechism. The confessions themselves do not establish doctrine nor do they treat all articles of doctrine. To quote directly from Theodore Schmauk in The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, General Council, 1911: Confessions are the underframework of the Church – the spars and the ribs of the ship, resting upon and extending from the center of strength, the Word, to give protection to any point in the circumference, the Church, where there may be weaknesses and consequent possibility of wreck. Confessions are the rails; and, let us understand well, not the roadbed or the solid rock on which the ecclesiastical trains run. The bed is Scripture and the rock is Christ, and they determine the direction; but the rails are of human workmanship, condensing the roadbed to an effective point, and giving guidance, protection, and impetus to the moving train (6).
The environment in which the Reformation took place, together with the Renaissance and rise of Humanism contributed to the propagation and widespread dissemination of the Reformation – particularly the invention of the printing press. The social and educational institutions during the Medieval times were fertile ground for the masses and their new leaders, the educated middle class, to break free of the ideological bondage wrought upon them by the kings and bishops. The rise of the cities, the power of the merchants and the emergence of an educated middle class created much discontent with the scholastic views on finance and economic affairs that fettered the enterprise of men in search of wealth. The educated middle class particularly harbored convincing evidence that in certain matters of doctrine the purity of the ancient church had been perverted by self-seeking popes and clergy.
The Reformation continues to this present day as society becomes more sophisticated and information is spread around the world faster than a whiff of breath. Society has become more critical – hyper critical if to say the least. While it is true that the September 11 attacks were done by a specific group of religious fanatics, they do not represent the entire populace of their religion. The same is true of some errant men of cloth who took advantage of innocent children and damage the religious beliefs which they themselves were supposed to advocate. However, there is hope as the tools which make things more difficult to hide are the same tools that makes things more accessible such as modes of transportation and communication – especially television and the internet.
In closing, it should be considered that the Reformation is much a socio-cultural phenomenon as it is a theological and even economic one considering the period it occurred. The assertions of the symbols, five of which are found in this paper, have a common thread as all religions also share a common objective. These, as in society, shall continually evolve until they prove themselves to be irrelevant to society.
Merriam-Webster's Encyclopaedia of World Religions. Wendy Doniger, Consulting Editor, 1999, Springfield, Massachusetts, USA
The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition Copyright 2000, Columbia University Press
www.studylight.org - Excellence in Christian Homeschooling
www.ccel.org - Christian Classics Ethereal Library
www.iphc.org - International Pentecostal Holiness Church
www.wls.wels.net - Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary
History Today, July 2000, The Reformation World: A book review, Diarmaid Macculloch
English Historical Review, June 2001, The Reformation World: A book review, Christopher Haigh
Christian Sentry, 8 Sept 1999, The Politics of Religious Studies, Daniel L. Pals
Introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Traditional Themes and Contemporary Issues. Edited by Berard L. Marthaler. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994
The European Reformation, Euan Cameron, Clarendon Press, 1991
Systematic theology, Charles G. Finney, 1878, J.H. Fairchild (Ed.)
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