Why a Seventeenth-Century Baptist Used the Creeds

by Steve Weaver

In 1680, Hercules Collins (1647—1702) published An Orthodox Catechism. This modified version of the historic Protestant Heidelberg Catechism was published, as stated on the title page: “For Preventing the Canker and Poison of Heresy and Error.” Collins was concerned with defending his fellow Baptists against charges of heresy while at the same time providing an instrument of instruction in order to prevent the spread of further false teaching among their number. Thus, the catechism had both polemical and pastoral functions. Collins believed the historic creeds were a useful aid to both of these ends.

The Heidelberg Catechism originally contained the Apostles Creed. Collins, however, would follow the General Baptists’ An Orthodox Creed in adding the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. Thus, what Steve Harmon has said of the Orthodox Creed as a confession of faith can equally be said of the Orthodox Catechism as a catechism, namely that “most explicit and thoroughgoing referencing of the patristic tradition” among Baptist catechisms. In his preface to An Orthodox Catechism, Collins would explain his rationale for including the three creeds from the patristic tradition:

I have proposed three Creeds to your consideration, which ought throughly to be believed and embraced by all those that would be accounted Christians, viz. The Nicene Creed, Athanasius his Creed, and the Creed commonly called the Apostles; The last of which contains the sum of the Gospels; which is industriously opened and explained; and I beseech you do not slight it because of its Form, nor Antiquity, nor because supposed to be composed by Men; neither because some that hold it, maintain some Errors, or whose Conversation may not be correspondent to such fundamental Principles of Salvation; but take this for a perpetual Rule, That whatever is good in any, owned by any, whatever Error or Vice it may be mixed withal, the Good must not be rejected for the Error or Vice sake, but owned; commended, and accepted.

Here we see that Collins assumed that the classic Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy contained in the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds would “be believed and embraced by all those that would be accounted Christians.” Their content, he argued, should not be rejected simply because of their form, antiquity or because composed by humans. Collins also issued a preemptive strike against one of the main reasons many Baptists might have been averse to the creeds—their link to the Roman Catholic Church. Collins avers that truth must be recognized wherever it may be found, even if mixed with error.

This insightful statement by Collins reveals not only how he utilized the creeds, but may also reveal how he would read the church fathers, and even the Reformers and Puritans with whom he might have significant disagreements. His advice is simple. He says in essence, “Eat the meat, spit out the bones.” Contemporary Baptists would do well to learn from Collins’s example and admonition to recognize truth wherever it is found.