The Development & Use of Symbolics

While in the early church symbols were used for centuries, there never was as far as we know, scientific study of the various symbols. Tyrannus Rufinus write around the year 400 a commentary, on the apostolic confession. This was for his day an important source of opinions concerning this confession but a real historical examination of the ecclesiastical confessions. First came up in the 16th Century because of reformation and humanism. Theologians were interested in the background of the ancient church creeds. In the 17th Century, it was especially Vossius and Ussher who wrote a scientific examination concerning the source and the development of symbols in ancient Church history.

A total new development in symbolics arose because of the conflict between Rome, Reformation, Arminianism, and Anabaptism. The various Reformers wrote various confessions. This led eventually in 1810 to a study written by Marheineke on the various confessions. He called his study “symbolics”. In the 19th Century various books were written displaying the difference between Rome and the Reformation in their symbolics. In the Netherlands it was especially Abraham Kuyper who emphasized the necessity of studying symbolics in theology.

Symbolics is the doctrine that studies the various creeds and confessions of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. These confessions give a reflection of the truth according to this church community. We can reflect upon the truth in theology in four different ways. In the first place we can speak about catechetics. Hereby we are concerned with passing the truth on to the younger generation. Secondly we can refer to the truth in a polemical manner. Then we are dealing with apologetics. Then we defend and uphold the truth against heresies. Thirdly, we can consider the truth by analysing and systematically studying it. Then we have systematic theology. In the fourth place we can also examine the truth and than summarize the truth into various statements. These statements are confessions. This is what we call the study of symbolics.

The church has its calling to uphold and maintain the truth. The church received this calling from the Lord. Article 27 of the Belgic Confession refers to the Church as a “holy gathering of true believers in Christ”. It is to these believers that the words of God are entrusted. They are like a precious jewel entrusted to her. The church has to take care of that jewel. In other words, we can say that the church has to uphold and propagate the church, the Word of God. The church is called to be a pillar, (a foundation) of the truth. She has to watch over the doctrine according to godliness. She has to maintain the truth and with the sword of the Spirit, she has to defend the truth against all the assaults of the devil and the world.  The church has to build up her members in the truth.

The church has the obligation and the duty to confess the truth. Every member has this calling to bear witness of the truth. The church and her members stand in the midst of a world full of error and evil. If the church would not stand firm on the truth, than these powers of evil would destroy her. This is something the church understood from her beginnings. Therefore the church felt the need to confess the truth and that is why the early church already stated the Apostolic Confession from which later on the other ecumenical creeds came forth.

It was very important for a church to have confessions. Especially, to express and confess what God’s Word states as the truth. We saw already that the early church had to resist different kinds of heresies that came up against the church. Arius is an example of one who denied Christ’s divinity. Nestorius was one who made the separation between the divine and human nature of Christ so that the salvific word of Christ was denied. Eutychius taught that the Mediator only had one human nature. Pelagius denied that Adam’s fall had consequences for the whole human race. The church had to maintain her position and uphold the truth against these heresies. Therefore the church was compelled to express and summarize the truth in confessions. Later we find the same impetus in the Reformation church over against Rome and the Anabaptists.

The confessions characterized the church. We can call these confessions the banner under which the members of Christ are gathered. It is in these confessions that the believers recognize one another. It wants to join these various people together and keep them together.

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One Comment on “The Development & Use of Symbolics”

  1. ethomasyoung says:

    I have only read half so far, but this is fascinating. Thanks.


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