The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which is the first word in the Apostles’ Creed. It means “I believe.” Sometimes called a rule or symbol, a creed is a confession of the content of one’s faith. Confessions of faith can be any length, long like The Westminster Confession of Faith or short like the creeds. A creed is a short confession of faith which can be more easily memorized and recited.
What is creedalism?
In what has become the gold standard compendium of the Christian creeds, John Leith writes, “Christianity has always been a ‘creedal’ religion in that it has always been theological. It was rooted in the theological tradition of ancient Israel, which was unified by its historical credos and declaratory affirmations of the faith. No pretheological era has been discovered in the New Testament or in the history of the Christian community. From the beginning Christianity has been theological, involving men in theological reflection and calling them to declarations of the faith.” (Creeds of the Churches, 1). While some contemporary Christian denominations may eschew creeds in principle, they are nonetheless creedal in the broadest sense of the term. The short quip, “No creed but Christ,” or “No creed but the Bible,” is itself a creed—although a bad one to be sure! The moment a minister opens his mouth to interpret and apply the teaching of Scripture, he is declaring and encouraging those who hear him to share his belief (i.e. his creed). Our choice is not therefore between creedalism and non-creedalism but between good creeds and bad creeds. To reject a robust and self-conscious creedalism is really to prefer one’s own private creed over the public creeds that have time-tested pedigrees in the church. In his excellent book The Creedal Imperative Carl Trueman writes, “Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (15).
Oftentimes the use of creeds is rejected on the grounds that it undermines the Protestant tenet sola Scriptura (i.e. the Scriptures are our only infallible rule for faith and practice). But, ironically, the formal rejection of creedalism actually undermines that tenet. Sola Scriptura requires the creedal tradition of the church for its implementation. After all, the Scriptures teach that Christian faith and practice, including biblical interpretation, must be worked out in the context of Christian community.
Proper biblical interpretation cannot coexist with individualism. Christians need one another across the centuries as well as today, because the Holy Spirit didn’t begin his work of illumination in our time or with any single individual. Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Christian doctrine is the business of the church. The history of doctrine is not to be equated with the history of theology or the history of Christian thought. If it is, the historian runs the danger of exaggerating the significance of the idiosyncratic thought of individual theologians at the expense of the common faith of the church. The private beliefs of theologians do belong to the history of doctrine, but not simply on their own terms. For one of the most decisive differences between a theologian and a philosopher is that the former understands himself as, in Origen’s classic phrase, ‘a man of the church,’ a spokesman for the Christian community” (The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1, 3). Creedalism recognizes and applies this truth by employing publicly received statements of faith from the past as authorities in the life of the church today.
No doubt, the Scriptures are the primary and only infallible authority for our theological reflection, answering the most basic question, viz. what has God revealed? But the creeds serve as secondary authorities, answering the less basic—but no less necessary—question about what we believe God’s revelation teaches. Every heretic has his proof text; therefore it is the second question that forms the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between Christian doctrine and non-Christian doctrine.
What are some of these creeds?
The Bible itself contains several creeds. The most ancient is the shema of Deut. 6:4. The text says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This text was recited each time the priest presided over Israel’s public worship. It is what set Israel apart from the pagan nations around her. Israel believed in the one true and living God; the nations believed in many gods. We find similar formulations in the NT. Most NT scholars believe that Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 is a creedal formulation that was being used in the public worship of the church. The apostle writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” We see a similar kind of formulation in 1 Tim. 3:16. The text says, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” This is most likely an example of the “words of the faith,” “good doctrine,” and “the teaching” that Paul charges the young Timothy to guard and faithfully set before the church in 1 Tim. 4:6-16.
In the time after the Apostles the church continued to produce and use creeds. Just as Israel’s shema was taken up in an apologetic context to distinguish her from the nations (i.e. those without) and the sound doctrine about which Paul wrote Timothy was taken up in an apologetic context to distinguish true teachers from false teachers (i.e. those within), so we find the post-apostolic church doing the same. Pelikan writes, “When the the church confessed what it believed and taught, it did so in answer to attacks from within and from without the Christian movement” (11). Leith agrees, writing, “Generally speaking, creeds have not been written in the quiet periods of history but in those moments of historical intensity when the Church has been engaged by foes from without, or when its mission or life has been endangered from within” (2).
In the late third and early fourth centuries one of the most ancient creeds was formulated in defense of the full deity of Christ. A teaching called Arianism, named after the north African presbyter Arius (256-336 AD), had arisen within the church. The Arians taught that the Son was not eternal like the Father. He was the first and highest creation of the Father but not his equal. Arius summarized his teaching by saying of the Son, “there was when he was not.” In 318 AD the church called an ecumenical (i.e. universal) council to decide the matter. In 325 AD that council produced the Nicene Creed, defending the full deity of the Son against the Arian detractors. The creed was later revised and updated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. In its final form it states:
We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
By the late fifth century several challenges had also arisen with respect to the nature of the Son’s incarnation. Some taught that Jesus was only divine (i.e. the docetists). Others taught he was only human (i.e. the adoptionists). Still others taught that his divine nature was complete but the human incomplete (i.e. the Apollynarians). Others taught that his divine and human natures combined to make a third nature that retained aspects of each but was neither fully (i.e. the Eutychians). Others taught that Jesus was both divine and human but never simultaneously (i.e. the Nestorians). An ecumenical council met at Chalcedon and in 451 AD and issued the creed known as the Definition of Chalcedon. It says:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
Along with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are typically considered the ecumenical creeds that established Christian orthodoxy in the early to medieval church (100-1500 AD).
How have creeds been used?
In the early church creeds were used to train and identify recent converts. In his book “I Believe”: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed, Alistair McGrath notes that Jews who had already been trained in the Scriptures from birth were only required to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah before being baptized. This belief was formally professed through the simple creed: “Jesus is Lord” (Acts 2:36; Romans 10:9; 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Php. 2:11; Col. 2:6). But for Gentiles who had no such Scriptural foundation more was needed. The church produced more substantial creeds for that purpose. Such catechetical training typically lasted three years. After that time converts were required to profess their faith before the assembly by reciting the creed on Easter Sunday. Afterward they were baptized and received the Eucharist for the first time (11-12).
Creeds have also been used in the church’s liturgy. Christians not only need to make public profession of their faith in the interest of becoming members of the church. They need to continue to make such professions as an aspect of their collective identity as the church. Therefore, an element of public worship is their common confession of faith. As the Apostle writes, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, emphasis added).
Beyond these two most basic uses, and because creeds are confessions of faith, we might apply to creeds some of the same uses Carl Trueman ascribes to confessions in his booklet Why Christians Need Confessions. Among them we should include: (1) Creeds delimit church power, (2) Creeds offer succinct summaries of the faith, (3) Creeds highlight that which is of importance, (4) Creeds relativize the present and connect us to the past, (5) Creeds represent the substance of our worship, and (6) Creeds fulfill a vital part of Paul’s plan for the post-apostolic church.