Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Confessing the Faith and Guarding the Flock
12/10/2008 - Jeff DownsBelow is a paper I recently finished for an Ancient Church History course at GPTS. A PDF file (perhaps a bit more readable) can be downloaded by clicking here.
The Apostles Creed is one of old the earliest1 confessions of the Christian Church. The
doctrines avowed in this creed were clarified and expanded upon during the early centuries of the
Church, in subsequent creeds. For example, the Nicene Creed produced in A.D. 325, addresses
whether Jesus is God in the same way as the Father. In A.D. 381, the Council of Constantinople
attended to the issue of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Decades after these and other councils
assembled, in the mid-1600’s the Westminster Assembly gathered and produced the Westminster
Confession and Catechisms. As it is with the earlier creeds, the Westminster Standards are (for
the most part) affirmations of various biblical teachings. Week after week, churches around the
world use one or more of these documents to affirm, not only the faith of individual members,
but are vocalized in unison to affirm the unity of the Church.
Creeds were not unique to the early church nor the 17th century. In fact we find creedal
statements throughout both the Old and New Testaments.2 The most well known creed in the
Old Testament is found in Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear O Israel!, the Lord is our God, the Lord is
one!...” Moses, with reference to this creed, addressing the people states that they “shall be on
your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit
in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And
you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And
you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (6:6-9). A New Testament example,
which made its way into the Apostle’s Creed, is Paul’s statement in 1Cor. 15:3 “for I delivered to you as of first
importance what I also receive, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried,
and that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (emphasis mine).”
We tend to think of creeds and confessions as simply positive affirmations of Christian
doctrine; but there are various uses.3 Creeds not only unite the people of God around central
biblical doctrine, they also exclude teachings and their adherents which are contrary to scriptural
teaching. For example, the Nicene Creed was hammered out in the midst of a controversy
between Arius and Alexander over the deity of Christ. Not only did Nicea affirm particular
doctrines, it condemned Arius and his teachings as heretical. In fact, the earliest version of this
creed included the following anathema “And those who say: there was a time when he (the Son)
was not; and: lie was made out of nothing, or out of another substance or thing, or the Son of
God is created, or changeable, or alterable; - they are condemned by the holy catholic and
apostolic Church."4 The condemnatory nature of creeds and confessions was also in view when
the Westminster Divines gathered and hammered out the Confession and Catechisms. According
to George Gillespie, "the Confession of Faith is framed so as its great use against the floods of
heresies and errors that overflow that land; nay, their intention of framing of it was to meet all the
considerable Errors of the present tyme, the Socinian, Arminian, Popish, Antinomian,
Anabaptistian, Independent errors, etc. The Confession of Faith sets them out, and refutes them,
so far as belong to a Confession"5
Our early church fathers were not setting a trend to condemn heresies; and that the men
of the seventeenth-century merely followed suite. In fact, both were carrying out the duty of
shepherds of God‘s flock, following the examples and commands of the apostles themselves. In
fact Paul’s motivation for writing to the Colossian church was to guard the church from vain
philosophy. Donald Guthrie makes the following observation:
It is never easy to reconstruct the precise tenets of a heresy when the only
available data are indirect allusions in the course of a positive statement of
doctrine intended to counteract it. Yet such is the situation in the Colossian
Epistle. It is impossible to determine whether or not this heresy had any coherent
form, and we must content ourselves with extracting those particular emphases
with which Paul deals and which he immediately recognized as constituting a
definite danger to the Christian Church.6
We have official (scripture) writing condemning particular heresies the Church faced, while at
the same time setting forth “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” But not only do we
have an example of writing, we have exhortation from the apostles themselves. Again, Paul, as
he addresses the elders7 of the Church at Ephesus exhorts them to shepherd the flock of God.
This shepherding was to include teaching the truths (the Faith) given to them by the apostles
(Acts 2:42); which would guard against the “savage wolves” who would come among them
“speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Act 20:27-31).
While church members and church bodies today, believe it is intolerant to condemn the
teachings of another, the true Church of Christ has always8 (positively) set forth the Faith; at the
same time denouncing those who oppose inscripturated revelation.
The purpose of this paper is to briefly survey, the emphasis placed on guarding the flock
of God from heresy, throughout church history. This will be done primarily by comparing John
Chrysostom’s Treatise On the Priesthood (a fourth century document) with the Westminster
Standards (seventeenth-century documents). Even though these particular time periods and
documents are the focus, we’ll also see that in the twenty-first century, the reasons for guarding
the flock of God are the same.
Someone might ask the perennial question “what does John Chrysostom have to do with
the Westminster Divines?”9 The answer lies at the heart of their calling. All too often in our day,
when we hear of the refutation of heresy and the promotion of biblical orthodoxy, it is carried out
by individuals who have not been called into gospel ministry.10 Chrysostom and the Divines
were shepherds of God’s flock; and as shepherds they understood their calling of confessing the
faith and guard the flock.11 They understood that Christ gave the Church the keys of the
kingdom; that the Church is the pillar and foundation of Truth.
The apostle Paul is quite clear when he instructs Timothy to “preach the word; be[ing]
ready in season and out of season.” The reason for Paul’s instructions at this point in Timothy’s
life is to warn him that men “will not endure sounds doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled...they will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2Tim. 4:1-4). False teaching and the lack of sound teaching was not to discourage Timothy, and by extension, any minister of the gospel.12 John Chrysostom and the Divines were men who followed Paul’s
admonition. The preached word and the application thereof was central to their life. For
Chrysostom "preaching was a vital necessity to him. Just as the congregation hungered to listen,
so, he said, he hungered to preach. 'Preaching makes me healthy; as soon as I open my mouth, all
tiredness is gone'"13 The centrality of preaching is also clear in the Westminster Divines when
they write "the Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an
effectual means of convincing and converting sinner, and of building them up..."14 The
preaching and application of the Word provides the hearer with the life saving message, and also
protection for them against errors, in and outside the Church. 15 Again, Chrysostom and the
Divines, through holding forth the Words of life, were simply fulfilling their calling.
In his work On the Priesthood, where Chrysostom begins to give attention to false
doctrine, he introduces it with a discussion on the primacy of the Word of God and its application
to the sick. Quickly, he moves from the physically sick to the spiritual sick, stating "but in the
matter of spurious doctrine, when any soul is diseased thereby, then there is a great need of the
Word, not only in view of the safety of our own people, but in view of the enemy without.”16
Chrysostom was well aware of the times he lived. The New Testament church was still in
her infancy, although by this period various heresies and heretics were condemn. Despite the fact of condemnation and excommunication, men continued to promulgate their heresies. In fact, it seems the heretics simply moved to places where they were able gain the hearing of the “innocent,” with little repercussions.
As Chrysostom writes On the Priesthood, he “sets forth how venerable and how difficult
is the office of the priesthood, and it shows how to fulfil it as it ought to be fulfilled.”17 As was
pointed out above, the key to Chrysostom’s ministry was the preaching of the word of God. But
to be a good preacher “the priest must be equipped with the knowledge required to meet the
attacks of all Greeks, Jews, and heretics, especially of the Manichaeans and the followers of
Valentinus, Marcion, Sabellius and Arius.”18 At this point Chrysostom contrasts what he calls
“common warfare” with the warfare in which the shepherd is engaged. He states:
in common warfare, indeed, each man repels the enemy by discharging the
particular duty which he has undertaken. But here it is otherwise; and if any one
wishes to come off conqueror in this warfare, he must understand all forms of the
art, as the devil knows well how to introduce his own assailants through any one
spot which may happen to be unguarded, and to carry off the sheep.19
Therefore, the shepherd is to be well skilled in the use of his own weapon: the word of God. But
Chrysostom sees guarding the sheep as more then knowing and using your own weapon. One
must know the enemy and know how to refute each one. The shepherd himself must guard
against all forms of error, as he states:
For what purpose does a man contend earnestly with the Greeks, if at the same
time he becomes a prey to the Jews? or get the better of both these and then fall
into the clutches of the Manichaeans? or after he has proved himself superior to
them even, if they who introduce fatalism enter in, and make havoc of the flock?
But not to enumerate all the heresies of the devil, it will be enough to say that
unless the shepherd is well skilled in refuting them all, the wolf, by means of any
one of them, can enter, and devour the greater part of the flock?20
We also see Chrysostom picking up on this aspect of pastoral ministry as he comments on the pastoral epistles. He develops Paul's words on the qualifications of an elder, noting:
That he may be able by sound doctrine to exhort, that is, to retain his own people,
and to overthrow the adversaries. And to convince the gainsayers. For if this is
not done, all is lost. He who knows not how to combat the adversaries, and to
bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and to beat down
reasonings, he who knows not what he ought to teach with regard to right
doctrine, far from him be the Teacher's throne.21
As the reader considers the above material from Chrysostom, one should recognize that
Chrysostom is abundantly concerned, not with heretics themselves, but with his own flock. And
as he writes On the Priesthood, he does so with future shepherds in mind; instructing them as did
Paul in his pastoral epistles. The refutation of heretics is to safeguard the flock of God, so that
His people are conformed (without the hindrance of deceptive doctrine) to the truths of
scriptures. As a shepherd of God’s people, he was well aware of the various uses of Paul’s
writings as he states “for his writings are not only useful to us, for the overthrow of false doctrine
and the confirmation of the true, but they help not a little towards living a good life.”22
The theological scene in the days the Westminster Standards were formulated, were not
much different than that of John Chrysostom. They too were concerned with contending for the
“faith once delivered,” against the heretical sects of their day. One writer states that “the
theological chaos in England in the 1640's contributed rather significantly to the form of the
documents produced by the Assembly"23 And as Carruthers notes “To them truth was truth and
error was error, and that was all that was to be said; and error, they rightly recognized, was
dangerously rife.” Carruthers continues, “Yet it must have been an appalling thing…to see such
a flood of loose and often wild preaching spreading over the land. It not merely outraged their sense of decency, it roused in their hearts a fear for the spiritual welfare of the nation, the thing
of which they were the guardians.” 24 As was already mentioned above, the errors which
pervaded the landscape to which the Divines responded included, Socinian, Arminian, Popish,
Antinomian, Anabaptistian, and Independent errors.
One example from the Standards will suffice to convince the reader that the authors were,
in large measures, opposing doctrines contrary to the “faith once delivered.” The opening
chapter of the Confession of Faith deals with the matter of Scripture stating “The authority of the
Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony
of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore
it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”25 When the Divines wrote this statement, the
Roman Catholic Church and her claims to the canon were in mind. A.A. Hodge in his
commentary on the Confession writes:
This proposition is designed to deny the Romish heresy that the inspired Church
is the ultimate source of all divine knowledge, and that the written scripture and
ecclesiastical tradition alike depend upon the authoritative seal of the Church for
their credibility. They thus made the scriptures a product of the Spirit through the
Church; while, in fact, the Church is a product of the Spirit through the
instrumentality of the Word…the authority of the scriptures is no more derived
from the Church than that of the king from the subject who proves the fact that he
is the legal heir.26
And so it was in the midst of religions pluralism that the Westminster Assembly gathered
to produce positive declarations of the Christian faith. These documents were to be used to
instruct Church members (young and old) in the “faith once delivered to the saints.” As shepherds of God’s flock, these men were also concerned about heresy creeping in the church;
and it was their duty, to protect the church from such assaults. But the primary aim in publishing
the Standards was to produce in their people a deeper knowledge of Holy Writ and their Author.
Given that John Chrysostom and the Westminster Divines were pastors, called to
shepherd the flock of God, they were to guard against the heresies of their day. Both
accomplished their duty mainly through their own pulpits and local churches. The writings of
these men are what survive and give example to the Church. The religious landscape of our day
is not much different then that of the fourth or the seventeenth century. And so it is with this
brief look at the reaction of Chrysostom and the Westminster Divines to heretical teaching, the
hope is, the shepherds of our day will follow suit.27
1 According to Justo Gonzalez “...its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year [A.D.
150]” The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. One Volume Edition, (Peabody, MA: Prince
Press, 2007), 63. But as William Cunningham tells us "we have no notice of the Creed in its present form till about
the end of the fourth century..." Historical Theology (vol. 1), (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), 82. It is not
the purpose of this paper to debate the origins of this creed. I would refer the reader to Cunningham and The
Apostles' Creed (vol. 1). Reprint 1993. Herman Witsus (Escondido: CA; The den Dulk Christian Foundation), 1-15.
2 The point I am making here is that creeds and confessions are legitimate. And in fact, subscription to
creeds is a legitimate practice. I would refer the reader to Holding Fast to the Faith: A Brief History of Subscription
to Creeds & Confessions with Particular Reference to Presbyterian Church. Morton H. Smith.
3 Cornelius Venema states that there are six uses in which "creeds and confession are always indispensable
to the life and mission of the Churches of Jesus Christ.” I am simply going to list Venema’s uses without stating his
reasons: “declarative,” “defensive or apologetic,” “educational, unitive,” “doxological or liturgical,” and “juridical.”
What We Believe: An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed. Cornelius P. Venema (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship,
1996), 9-10. For the most part, church leaders assume these uses, but when the opportunity arises, ministers explain
what the creed/confession/catechism is doing.
4 Philip Schaff, “Arianism,” Early Church.org.uk, http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/arianism-schaff.html
(accessed November 6, 2008).
5 Quoted in B. B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. VI: The Westminster Assembly and
Its Work (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981), 58.
6 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: The Pauline Epistles, (London: Tyndale Press, 1961), 162.
7 Notice that the call to shepherd the flock in this way, is to the elders of the Church. I believe that in our
individualistic society and in light of (parachurch) the flood of Countercult ministries, we would do well to pay
attention to the context of such passages. A biblical ecclesiology does not permit individual Christians running
around calling other individuals heretics, without the direct involvement of the Church being involved. How this is
practically worked out is not the topic of this paper and will have to be dealt with elsewhere.
8 I am not here denying the historical developments of theology.
9 Of course I am borrowing from Tertullian’s famous question “What does Jerusalem have to do with
10 The refutation of heresy, the interaction with cultists, etc., is done by men and women who believe (for
the most part) they have been called into discernment ministry. In fact, there are seminaries and various other
institutions in which one can obtain a degree in apologetics and/or Countercult ministry with the express purpose of
working outside the confines of the Church. And since these individuals have not been called into gospel ministry,
we simply have parachurch ministries administering the keys of the kingdom, when they have no authority to do so.
For an excellent discussion on "Who Should Judge" see Robert Bowman's Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide
to Doctrinal Discernment (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 97-100. Para-church ministries are launched,
for the most part, because the Church is failing in a specific area. For example, the Church has failed (in large
measures) to properly ground its people in Christian doctrine. And because our people do not know what they
believe and why, they are swept away by heresy. The cults continue to be “the unpaid bills of the Church.” But the
answer to this problem is not the church handing over the keys of the kingdom to every man and women, boy and
girl. The Church needs to be the Church. Elders need to fulfill their ministry. And while false doctrine will always
plague the church, our people do not have to be tossed to and fro by every wind and wave of doctrine.
11 This label is created for express purpose of this paper. There is obviously much more to gospel ministry
than proclaiming the word of God and guarding the flock. Actually, I want to make the point in this paper that
proclaiming the word does protect the flock. Most of what a pastor does could very well come under this label.
12 As in the days of Timothy and the early Church, in the 17th century and in our day, Paul’s warning to
Timothy continues to materialize.
13 The Fathers of the Church (Combined Edition). Hons VonCampenhausen (Peabody: Hendrickson),
14 The Shorter Catechism. (Willow Grove, PA: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005), 96, emphasis mine.
15 For this paper I am referring to specifically to theological errors. There is also striking similarity in
understanding between Chrysostom and those assembled at Westminster Abbey, regarding the lack of Christian
living in their day.
16 John Chrysostom, Treaties on the Priesthood. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers
of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 64.
17 Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol. 3, (Allen TX: Christian Classics), 459.
18 Ibid., 461.
19 Schaff, 65.
20 Ibid., 65.
21 John Chrysostom, Homily on Titus. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the
Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 525.
22 Schaff, Nicene, Vol. 9, 68.
23 Samuel T. Logan, Jr., "The Context and Work of the Assembly" in To Glorify and Enjoy God: A
Commemoration of the 35th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly ed. John L. Carson and David W. Hall
(Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 33.
24 S.W. Carruthers, The Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly, (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic
Press, 1994), 125.
25 The Shorter Catechism. (Willow Grove, PA: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005), 4.
26 A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster
Confession, (Edenburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958), 35-36. I would also refer the reader to James White’s discussion
of the canon in his Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority and Authenticity (Grand Rapids:
Bethany House, 2004), 95-119.
27 May pastors “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made
you overseers, to shepherd the church of God…” “Preach[ing] the word; be[ing] ready in season and out of season;
reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (Acts 20:28; 2 Tim. 4:2).