Not the Rule of Faith: Why I Care

On this blog I am frequently doing my best to drive a wedge between the Bible (and good biblical interpretation) and systematic theology, the rule of faith, and the like. Several times I have revisited the question of why the story of Jesus, rather than the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, should be our interpretive grid–and what defines our identity as Christians.

Why do I care?

There are a number of ways to approach that question, but part of it has to do with a combination of personality and past experience.


Do you know the Enneagram?

I regret to inform you that I am an Eight. In brief, this means that I’m a controlling jerk. Well, that’s the worst of it.

Eights tend to be passionate about truth and justice. Of course, we’re always right, so this can be self-serving, but the redemptive edge of this passion is that we care about those who don’t have power. We care about the injustice and control that can dominate people’s lives when the wrong people use their power in the wrong ways.

The redemptive moves for 8 include becoming agents of mercy and justice, and inspiring others to follow along this path.


I have experienced that the theology of the church is a way to control people, and that this control often comes at the expense of honest readings of the Bible and honest articulations of what people actually believe.

I was in a denomination that had an 85+ page Confession of Faith, and any ordination candidate had to delineate every place he disagreed with it. And the list of disagreements had better be close to zero.

I discovered that this sort of Confessional magisterium (ask me to sing my “paperback pope” song for you sometime): (1) created disingenuous theologians, who affirmed things they disagreed with; (2) controlled biblical interpretation in ways that were distracting and just plain bad; and (3) served as a strong means for controlling the “insiders club” for the good ol’ boys (and they were all boys, no girls allowed) who had the power and only wanted to share it with those who were happy to help them build what was theirs.

Theology as the defining marker of the church creates systems of control that look nothing like the Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The Rule of Faith, while quantitatively shorter, is qualitatively the same if it is functioning as rule. Trinitarian theology, similarly, can play this role of church control. It requires us to frame our reading, our gospel, our understanding of Jesus, in a way that binds us to the church rather than freeing us to follow Jesus–though going through that guarded church door might lead us into the company of Jesus as well.

But I rebel against the Creedal control because I don’t want you to think you have to experience what I did: that the only way into the fullness of participation in the body of Christ is through strange and foreign structures that often have little to do with the Bible through which God has chosen to make the Word of life known to the world.

But does it have the power, the authority to demand that we read in accordance with its traditions, its creeds? No, I’m too Reformed to say yes. And, I believe enough in the fidelity of what the creeds say that is true to demand that they control our reading of scripture: if they are right, then a good reading of scripture will generate these affirmations without those affirmations being the prerequisite assumption for reading the Bible rightly.

I want you to be free to discover that the Creeds are right. And, perhaps once every few hundred years, where they aren’t. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

ed note: I realize after posting this that it leaves unanswered about half a million questions about the place of the church in our christian practice. Please stay tuned for my next Church Dogmatics post for more theologically and ecclesially developed musings

ed. note 2: I think this post is a dud. I need to work on how I actually want to delineate the tensions I feel in different hermeneutics and their relationships to power, freedom, and the Christian story. I might have inadvertently gone Quito (Mtn Goats reference) in true 8 fashion

26 thoughts on “Not the Rule of Faith: Why I Care”

  1. Why is it we eights always feel the need to apologize for our eightness?

    Interesting point about unbinding our reading of the gospel – but couldn’t using Jesus as the interpretive frame serve the exact same purpose? “Jesus” isn’t exactly a transparent contentless lens. He is a person with specific qualities, a concept with specific referents. What if I want to read the Bible through the lens of Hinduism as an interesting text that may testify obliquely to an incarnation of Vishnu? Or what if I want to hear the stories of the New Testament through the lens of Neopaganism that sees in all this male savior talk a rebellion against the triple goddess? What if as a Christian I read the Bible through a demythologizing lens which sees Jesus as a fanciful tall-tale built on an underlying true individual who was just a lay-rabbi who got himself crucified?

  2. Daniel,

    I’m very sorry that you had that experience with theology and the creeds. I don’t blame you for having that reaction; I would, too. But let me assure that the vast majority of those of us doing serious work in positive systematic theology today have no intention of perpetuating — in fact, are also actively against — these systems of dogmatic, creedal, confessional, and theological control. I would even say, we do systematic theology precisely so that we can combat these terrifying abuses of the Christian faith. Some of us have experienced the same things you have, but instead of abandoning theology, we seek to reform it from within. I hope you can understand that this is an equally valid and necessary task.

    1. I hear you, David. I do intend to draw Barth to my cause on Friday! But… Weren’t you recently advocating for a Rule of Faith here? ISTM that RoF is inherently controlling in this way–that it is by definition and was created for just this purpose.

      1. Daniel, first let me say an Amen to the vast majority of what your’e saying here. I’m as anti-confessionalism as you are – really, I am. Though I have never been a part of a narrow Reformed church, I have several friends who are and think I understand some of the ugliness and control you’re talking about (it might surprise you to know I’m a lifelong and happy member, now pastor at, a large non-denominational Rick Warren-ish church, though I’m a bit of an odd duck here).

        Second, I also want to give a whole hearted Amen to David’s comment. The answer to bad theology isn’t to banish all theology from biblical study but to do good theology, which is equivalent to doing good biblical interpretation.

        The one big problem with your post is assuming that the Rule of Faith is qualitatively equivalent to Westminster et al. Its worth differentiating between, for instance, Tertullian’s understanding of the rule, which is open to your accusation and ought to be rejected, and Irenaeus’s, which was more concerned with the Truth itself in freedom from and Lordship over any formal expression of it. It is meant to express the idea that the deposit of faith once for all entrusted to the saints has a definite cognitive shape, though without necessarily implying that that shape can be formally expressed and then wielded as a theological bat to beat people up with. (Note: I’m really not an expert on patristic theology. This whole argument is taken from a footnote in my dissertation dealing with this differentiation as T. F. Torrance makes it primarily in his essay “The Deposit of Faith”.) When the RoF is understood simply as the notion that Scripture as a whole must be interpreted according to the coherence it finds in the person of Christ, the locus of control ought to shift from any ecclesial hands to Christ’s. As Aric pointed out and you clearly already know, driving a wedge between systematic theology and biblical studies provides no serious guard from manipulative readings of the text. A “storied-theology” is just as liable to alien control as is any kind of more self-consciously systematic theology.

        1. Adam,

          No offense meant, but Irenaeus’ articulation of the Rule of Truth remains overtly polemical, just as Tertuallian’s. I do not see how Irenaeus “is more concerned with the Truth itself in freedom from the Lordship over any formal expression of it” in the way you seem to be using that here. Sure, Irenaeus claims that it expresses “the idea that the deposit of faith once for all entrusted to the saints has a definite cognitive shape,” but his point in taking this position is precisely to use it “as a theological [and hermeneutical] bat to beat people up with.”

          For Irenaeus the Rule of Truth does not get at some general notion of a deposit of faith delivered to the apostles that is up for legitimate discussion by all Christians. For Irenaeus it means that his polemical theological-hermeneutical positions against all the Christians he writes against are simply part of this apostolic faith. Let’s put that another way, Irenaeus identifies his views with those of the apostles and, furthermore, makes-up/adopts a genealogy of heretics and identifies all views of Christians he doesn’t like with places on that genealogy. Where exactly is the openness to discussion and finding mutual-critical theological truth from biblical discussion here?

          1. Stephen, no offense, and yet point, taken. My point, if at all valid as it rests on T. F. Torrance’s patristic expertise rather than my own, is that Tertullian’s notion of the rule is more of an appeal to a rigid formula of doctrine under our human control while Irenaeus, while being no less a polemical s.o.b., nonetheless makes his appeal directly to Christ himself to make his case. I guess you can say he calls on Christ himself to beat people up, rather than thinking the expression of a doctrinal formula puts the bat in his own hand. Is that a grasping for control? Its certainly engaging in theological controversy and something like modern battles for truth rather than an open discussion of differing ideas, but I’m not sure such an open posture would have been appropriate in light of the challenges gnosticism et al made to the faith, nor am I sure that modern theology should lay aside the insights gained from those struggles.

      2. We can define “rule of faith” in many different ways. I try to keep it to a very minimal definition, something like: Jesus is the mission of God’s reconciliation of the world in the power of the Spirit (just off the top of my head). I would never want to define it as some creed or confession that requires intellectual submission to a specific set of doctrinal commitments in order to interpret scripture properly. That’s not what I mean, so apologies if I gave you the wrong impression.

    2. Really, David? “The vast majority of those of us doing serious work”? And no true Scotsman wears aught under his kilt… Speak for yourself and without blame — you’re supporting as much of a magisterium as anyone else talking like this. “Methinks the theologian doth protest too much.”

        1. Sorry for the delay, and the unclarity. And it’s not like I disagree with you about the goals of (post)modern theology — even as a confessional theologian. Confessionalism doesn’t have to lead to the sin of pride — it should stand as exposition of faithful understanding. I’m fighting the “orthodoxy” of control just as much in my own bailiwick.

          But as to “which magisterium,” I’ll let you name your own claim to a discipline-dominant “we” teaching a reasonably uniform (if oppositional) position. It isn’t a claim to a traditional teaching office — it’s a claim against traditional teaching offices. But for that reason it’s like saying “no creed but the Bible” — claiming the negation reinforces the position. It’s still a project. It’s no less a power claim, and no less an attempt to keep the discipline involved in building up “my” position. It’s just the one you’re in, not the one Daniel is pushing away from.

          It’s what we do — we form schools, and we are formed by them.

          1. Fine, but that’s not the issue here, as I see it. My “magisterium,” if you really want to call it that, is inherently and infinitely reformable. Daniel’s concern is with an institutionally enforced orthodoxy that requires conformity and intellectual submission. I think there’s a pretty stark difference between those two.

  3. Some of us have had very different experiences, and find ourselves moving in very different directions. When I finished my Ph.D. program, I could spell out for you in the greatest detail all the ways in which each of the biblical writers differed from the others, and how each was speaking in a distinct–even unique–historical context. But when I started teaching ministerial candidates, I found myself lacking in the capacity to help students see the coherence of the New Testament in terms that connected their readings to the broader Christian tradition. So rather than coming from a context where diversity was squelched in the name of an enforced unity, I come from a context where diversity was taken for granted, and the challenge was to find coherence amidst radical plurality. I actually think that the rule of faith can point us in some productive directions in this regard, not as an enforced presupposition that predetermines our reading of texts, but as a compass that can keep us oriented amidst lots of terrain where it can be easy to lose your bearings.

  4. Your thoughts appear to me as an unnecessary bi-polarization, rather than the spiritual integration of Christ and the church. The spiraling journey of faith, doubt, and new orientation is a progressive journey, rather than a linear “from here, to there” approach, is it not? Beware of dualisms.
    Yes, within certain denominational structures, there is a deep need for correction and a wedge (so that systems don’t supplant good exegesis). But does everyone need this same wedge? And isn’t the wedge merely for a time, until better integration can occur?

    1. If a bone has knit badly, we break it again and try to set it in the right alignment. But at the same time, while young bones are growing and malleable, we attempt to make sure they take the right shape — that ill-fitting shoes don’t produce ill-formed feet for generations.

  5. That we find snippets of early hymns and creeds in the New Testament suggests to me that such instruments are not inherently inimical to faithful interpretation. That they are normed by the Christ event (a “creedal” or “storied” summary itself) perhaps suggests the inescapability of such instruments.


  6. c. trueman suggests contemporary theological approaches are becoming too autobiographical. i find this idea very interesting. when i hear such disparate writers as nietzsche and trueman saying similar things it makes me wonder. what do you think?

    btw, just released, 18 newly commissioned essays on the authority of scripture:


    1. Well, I could just try to pretend that I’m not involved in my theological story, but that’s not the case. People like Carl have been instrumental in my seeing the corrupting power of theological systems, and I’m thankful for how they have opened my eyes to ways in which I was denying the gospel of freedom.

    2. Carl should be one to talk. It’s kind of a tautologous observation though: are views are what they are because of what we’ve experienced, and what we experience is a product of what we believe. So of course there’s going to be a personal story attached.

      BTW, pretty shameless advertising, eh Carlos? :)

  7. isn’t there a point where we end up reducing “theology” to “personal drama writ large”? perhaps this is where we as a Christian culture are finding ourselves now.

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