RS 150


Spring 2000 MW 3:30-5:00 p.m.

Telford Work
Porter Center 15
(805) 565-6087

Office Hours: MW 11:30-12:35 at the Study; F 3:15-3:30 (or later); by appointment

Course Syllabus

  3. TEXTS


This course explores one particular historical facet of Christian life: The widespread and wide-ranging use of confessions of faith ("statements of faith," in evangelicalese).

Christians have used formal confessions to describe their faith in Jesus Christ ever since biblical times. These confessions have played very different roles in the Church's corporate, public, and private life over the centuries and across cultures. So our survey of Christian confession will be a re-introduction into the life and times of the Church in the ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern eras; in the East and West (and then the North and South); and in its many denominational forms. Above all, we will appreciate the role confession has played in Christian worship in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions.

You will learn to read "between the lines" to see confessions not simply as true or false statements about Christian faith, but also as historical, contextual documents of Christian affirmation that have served many different purposes. The course is structured according to the historical eras of the Church: Pre-Constantinian (30-300); Constantinian (300-800)and Medieval (800-1500); Reformation and Tridentine (1500-1700); and Modern (1700-present). We will of course also examine Westmont's statement of faith. It is, after all, a historical confession of an evangelical college in the middle of this (twentieth) century.

At all points we will pay particular attention to historical context, asking what work these texts do in their communities and comparing historiographical approaches to the history of creeds.Our panoramic view allows us to ask some "big-picture" questions as we go: What is Christian doctrine? How does it work (and fail)? What does it owe to its historical and cultural contexts? How does it develop and change over time? Are Christians of different traditions doing the same thing when they confess their faith?

As in all history courses, we will see how (1) our pasts form us, and (2) we form our pasts. "History" is not a self-contained deposit of information that passively awaits our investigation. Rather, history is a living project where what we retrieve is shaped by what we expect, and what we retrieve changes how we live and think (and what we expect to retrieve in the future). Through our look back upon the Christian faith, we will revive the past, and the past will revive us.


Sleepy students, beware: This is not a lecture course. Class time will concentrate on student presentations and discussions. I will offer occasional lectures, especially on our "big-picture" questions, but we will usually be hearing from (and interrupting) students. You will be responsible not only for the content of your own presentations, but also for your colleagues'.


John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 3d ed., Westminster/John Knox, 1982.
This "reader in Christian doctrine" is simply a collection of confessional texts from biblical times to the present. Included are hits such as the Apostles' Creed, the creeds of the seven ecumenical councils, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Schleitheim Confession, the articles of Trent, the Barmen Declaration, and the WCC's statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Still awake? In this book are the milestones of Christian confession, arranged with brief, helpful introductions and short bibliographies. This is our course's main reference work, our point of departure for presentations and discussion. Nevertheless, it is merely a point of departure, for the all-important historical contexts for these texts are not included. We will be supplying them from our own background and research. As we do, you will see that the apparently two-dimensional texts on these pages "pop-up" into real life.

Frances M. Young, The Making of the Creeds, Trinity, 1991.
Young's lucid introduction into the early Church serves several of our purposes beautifully. First, the object of her enquiry is the same as ours: In this case, the Apostles' and Nicene creeds, unrivalled as confessions of faith. Second, she concentrates on the historical contexts behind the making of these confessions. She offers precisely the kind of background material we need for our project. Third, her work is a model for our own work on the material that comes later in the course. You will find her very helpful as a guide as you put together your own presentations and papers on Christian statements of faith.

Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform, IVP, 1999 (optional/recommended).
Some of you may not have had historical survey courses on the Christian Church. This does not disqualify you from this course, but it does mean that you will need an introduction to Church history to put these statements of faith into any historical context at all. Olson's book is a readable guide to the history of Christian theology. He will initiate you into the discipline of historical theology and provide some of the content that will bring Leith into 3-D.

Some of you have already taken historical survey courses on the Christian faith, and you are already familiar with whatever survey text you used in that class. If so, there is no need for you to buy or read Olson's book; I would actually prefer that you read another (even simply your own again). This way we will bring some variety to the table and have more to discuss.


1. Attendance at class sessions and participation in discussions is required. If this is true of lecture courses, it is even more so in seminars. You are allowed two absences in the semester. Each additional absence will take 2% off your final course grade. Ouch!

So that discussions are fruitful, you must read all required material before the class sessions that discuss it. This means Olson too (or your own substitute text). If you come to class unprepared, it will show. And you don't want it to show!

2. To stimulate discussion, this class will have its own e-mail discussion group you will use to take class discussions into and out of class sessions. This is a place for you to post responses to "ice-breakers" (see below), thoughtful questions for others, and thoughtful answers to others' questions. I will lurk, responding and posing questions only when I consider it necessary. Send e-mail to

3. Each of you will give a 20-30 minute in-class presentation on a confession of faith (or some section of one). Here you will provide helpful context for other students, make observations, and raise questions for us to discuss. This amounts to about six single-spaced pages. Please distribute copies to your classmates on the day of your presentation. (You may also e-mail me an HTML copy for publication on this site.) Your presentation will count as 25% of your final grade.

4. You will write a 12-page analysis of a statement of faith. This should be another confession from your in-class presentation, but I may be willing to make exceptions if you bring in sufficient additional material (further research, or answers to questions raised in your presentation). In this assignment, you will need to draw on secondary sources beyond the course reading. The analysis is meant to develop and test your ability to draw on historical and theological works in, and especially after, your time at college. Analyses will be due the last day of class. Your analysis will count as 50% of your final grade.

As you prepare to write your paper, please refer to my suggestions for writing papers for helpful suggestions, cautions about Internet "research", ultimata regarding late papers and plagiarism, and so on.

7. There will be a take-home final exam on presentations and readings that covers the entire course. The exam is meant to develop and test your ability to recall and especially to use the course material. Your final exam will count as 25% of your final grade. It is due before 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 4.

All of these assignments are meant not only to teach you theological history, but to help you continue to learn after this course is over. For a while you may feel somewhat at a loss for a good angle for your presentation or analysis. This too is part of your training: I would rather you feel this way now than later, when Westmont's resources are no longer at hand to guide you!


Date Subject Reading
(required/ recommended)
Presenter Ice-Breakers
Mon. 1/10 Introduction Leith 1-11; Young ix-xii; Olson 11-23 Telford Work What have you gotten yourself into?!
Wed. 1/12 Biblical Creeds Young 1-15; Leith 13-19; also, read at least four biblical passages in context Telford Work How is the Christian practice of confession being put to different uses in the particular circumstances of these biblical passages? Do any of these uses surprise you?
Mon. 1/17 (Martin Luther King Day)
Wed. 1/19 Ante-Nicene Creeds and Apostles' Creed Leith 20-26; Young 16-32; Olson 25-135 Telford Work How do second- and third-century confessions resemble New Testament confessions? How is the practice of confession adapting to different historical circumstances?
Mon. 1/24 Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed Leith 26-33; Young 33-48; Olson 137-196 Dan Weatherby For the first time, we see a church-wide confession of faith. Why? What does this "new epoch in creed-making" (Leith) owe to (a) political circumstances; (b) theological circumstances; (c) ecclesial circumstances?
Wed. 1/26 Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed Young 49-64 Brenda Navarette

What is it about the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that has made it the most successful (long-lived, widely appreciated) Christian confession of faith?

How legitimate is it to draw lines between "authentic" orthodox Christianity, generally delineated in terms of the Nicene Creed, and "heretical" Christianity? Try to answer as a historian.

Mon. 1/31 Chalcedonian Formula Leith 34-35; Young 65-79; Olson 197-249 Lara Maxwell How is Chalcedonian language about Christ different from Nicene language about Christ? Why did the Church feel the need to resort to it? Why might it have been less successful than the Nicene Creed?
Wed. 2/2 Statements of Later Ecumenical Councils: Orange, Constantinople II and III, Nicea II Leith 37-56; Young 80-104; Olson 251-303 Daniel Bacquet How are the issues of the Nicene era continuing to surface in later centuries? How are the earlier conclusions of Nicea and Chalcedon being put to use to address them? Are these uses of Nicene and Chalcedonian theology new in any ways?
Mon. 2/7 Medieval Canons: Lateran IV, Florence; the Filioque Leith 56-61; Olson 304-367 Alisa von Schimmelmann In what ways to the emphases of these canons match the medieval setting of Western Christianity? What continuities do you see with both earlier Christianity and later Catholicism and Protestantism? How are Western and Eastern Christian traditions diverging?
Wed. 2/9 John Henry Newman's vision of doctrinal development The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine; excerpts from An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Abby Diepenbrock Is Christian doctrine developing over the centuries along the lines Newman sees? If not, then is there a greater coherence to the history of Christian confession, and what is it? If so, then should we be Roman Catholics after all, as Newman contends?
Mon. 2/14 Augsburg Confession (Lutheran) Leith 63-107; Olson 369-396 Jake Werley

What kinds of affirmations do you see here that you have not seen in the creeds of earlier times?

This confession is much longer than any we have seen so far. What is it about Protestant faith that lends itself to (or requires) such long dogmatic statements?

Wed. 2/16 Luther's Small Catechism Leith 107-126; Olson 473-492 Ken Moore How does this confession for laypeople differ from the Augsburg Confession, which stakes theological claims in more technical language? In other words, how are technical experts confessing their Christian faith in different ways from common believers?
Mon. 2/21 (Presidents' Day)
Wed. 2/23 Second Helvetic Confession (Reformed) Leith 127-129; 129-130; 131-193; Olson 397-413 Kathryn Butterfield How does Reformed Christianity differ from Lutheran Christianity? How do the two traditions reflect different social circumstances (for instance, Luther's and Calvin's/Zwingli's backgrounds, political differences between Germany and Switzerland, and so on) as well as theological insights?
Mon. 2/28 Thirty-Nine Articles (Anglican) Leith 266-281; 230-266; Olson 429-449 Andrew Petersen

How does Anglican confession reflect Reformation England's peculiar political situation?

How does a confession of faith in a centrist tradition differ from a confession of faith in a sectarian tradition?

Wed. 3/1 Schleitheim Confession (Anabaptist) and Dortrecht Confession (Mennonite) Leith 281-292; 292-308; Olson 414-428 Michael Niednagel How are Anabaptist confessions different from magisterial Protestant confessions -- not only in content, but also in tone? Do they do the same work in the lives of churches and the wider society?
Mon. 3/6

Canons and Creed of Trent (Catholic)

Confession of Dositheus (Orthodox)

Leith 399-442

Leith 485-517

Jim Thibodeaux

In what ways is Trent a Catholic Reformation? How is Tridentine Catholicism a creature of the historical context of the Reformation? In what ways does it recover medieval Catholicism, and in what ways does it depart from it?

How does the Orthodox rejection of Reformed Protestantism reflect its own character in the first millennium, and how has it developed in the intervening centuries?

Wed. 3/8 Westminster Confession of Faith (Puritan) Leith 193-230; Olson ; 451-472; 493-517 Ann Moore

How does the Westminster Confession of Faith reflect the times in Cromwellian England? How is it negotiating the different currents of Anglican and Reformed tradition?

The Westminster Confession is deeply influential in America, from Puritan times onwards. Where do you see this confession of faith influencing American Christianity?

Mon. 3/13 Experientialists: Theses Theologicae of Robert Barclay (Quaker); Twenty-Five Articles of Religion (Methodist) Leith 324-333; 354-360; 360-385; Olson 518-553 Alex Espinoza

How do the Methodist Articles of Religion differ from the Church of England's Thirty Nine Articles, from which Wesley adapted them? What historical factors might help account for these differences? Though Wesley remained Anglican, his followers soon became their own denomination. Do you see in this document the beginning of a new denomination, or merely a movement within a denomination?

Quakers are "anti-creedal"; the material here merely represents a widely regarded example of what distinguishes Quakers among Christians. How is the Christian practice of confession different among "anti-creedal" Christians?

These are the first modern confessions of faith we have encountered in this course. Where in them do you see the concerns of modernity manifest?

Wed. 3/15 Separatists: Cambridge Platform (Congregationalist), New Hampshire Confession, Abstract of Principles, Statement of Baptist Faith and Message (Baptist) Leith 385-399; 334-352 Laurie Buhler

These are American "free-church" traditions, meaning that they emphasize the political and doctrinal independence of every local Christian community. They are similar to the Anabaptist traditions we explored earlier, but they are born in America rather than continental Europe. How do American values come to be reflected in (a) America's magisterial traditions, and (b) America's free-church traditions?

How does a denominational confession of faith work in a denomination bound together merely by the conviction that each church should be autonomous?

Mon. 3/20 Nineteenth Century Catholicism: Vatican I and Papal Dogmas Leith 442-457 Meagan Kinmonth This is the first Catholic confession we have examined since the rise of modernity. How are Enlightenment concerns addressed in these statements? How are traditional Catholic cultural and theological traditions reflected in them? Does nineteenth century Catholicism represent a Newman-like development of doctrine, or a Catholic innovation?
Wed. 3/22 George Lindbeck's vision of the nature of doctrine Leithart?; The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age Sonia Geary Which of Lindbeck's three types (cognitive-propositional, experiential-expressivist, cultural-linguistic) best fits the Christian practice of confession as we have seen it so far in this course? Does your historical research lead you to one type over the others, or to some combination or alternative?
3/27- 3/31 (Spring recess)
Mon. 4/3 World War II: The Barmen Declaration (German Confessing Church) and the Relation of the Church to the War (American churches) Leith 517-554; Olson 570-589 Aaron Sizer

How is the Christian practice of confession functioning in the life of wartime churches?

How is the Christian confession in Nazi Germany different from that in America?

Wed. 4/5 American Evangelicalism: Westmont College Statement of Faith Westmont Statement of Faith; other statements of faith; Olson 554-569 Ryan Smith

How does our statement of faith reflect our place within American evangelicalism?

Find statements of faith for three other Christian colleges or seminaries. How does Westmont's compare?

Mon. 4/10 Westmont College Statement of Faith   Jim Eddy

What did (and does) Westmont's statement of faith do for the college?

How is our statement of faith in need of revision to reflect historical changes between then and now?

(skipped) Alister McGrath's doctrinal criticism The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism; Leith 555-566

In what ways is McGrath's alternative to Lindbeck's proposal an improvement? Does McGrath adequately understand Lindbeck? How is McGrath's evangelicalism leading him in a different direction from Lindbeck's liberal Protestantism?

Newman's, Lindbeck's, and McGrath's projects look respectively like the traditions from which they come, don't they? Then is confession so different within different traditions that one cannot make useful generalizations? Or is there an overarching commonality to the historical practices we have examined that makes it possible to speak of "Christian confession" in general?

Wed. 4/12 Modern Catholicism: Vatican II Leith 459-484; 724-736; Olson 590-613 Lori Shelledy How does twentieth century Catholicism look different from its sixteenth-to-nineteenth-century versions? How have Protestants failed to appreciate these changes? How is it accommodating Catholicism's new historical contexts?
Mon. 4/17 Confessing Together: The Ecumenical Movement Leith 566-567; 568-604; 604-658 (BEM) Christi Bolanos

How does ecumenical confession look different from denominational or sectarian confession? How does it reflect its different purposes?

Is the Nicene Creed ecumenical confession, sectarian confession, or both?

Wed. 4/19 Postscript: Christian Assembly, a local church Christian Assembly handout Telford Work How does this (or your own church's) statement of faith reveal (a) historical legacies and contexts, and (b) contemporary contexts and needs? What work is it doing in the life of its local community?
Mon. 4/24 (Easter recess)
Wed. 4/26 Conclusion and Review

(Analyses Due!)

Review others' presentations and your own notes

Telford Work Ready for summer yet?
Thurs. 5/4, 2 p.m. Final Exam due   Telford Work Can we still be friends?