If you grew up in the church, you may have spent your Sunday school or Catechism classes learning and memorizing one of the well-known Christian creeds. And even today, you may regularly join your congregation in reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed each Sunday?
Have you ever thought about the origins, history, and purpose of our creeds? Why have churches continued to teach, share, and recite creeds for so many centuries?
Creeds provide the church with an effective means of articulating, teaching, and affirming our core beliefs. And as individuals, creeds help us to understand our faith and center our study on the essential truths of scripture.
What are Creeds?
By definition, a creed is a statement of belief. The word ‘creed’ derives from the Latin credo, meaning ‘I believe.’
Creeds are summary statements intended to convey the core doctrines of belief. And though they do not replace scripture, they provide a basic understanding on which we build our faith and interpret teachings as we study and learn.
The Origins of Creeds
Although we understand creeds as church doctrinal statements, creeds are not unique to the church. Creeds can be found in a number of belief systems. In fact, one of the earliest and best known creedal statements is found in the Old Testament:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. – Deuteronomy 6:4-5
This passage, which provides the opening lines of the ancient Hebrew Shema prayer, is part creed and part command. It has been memorized and recited by Jews and Christians alike for thousands of years.
Summary statements like these were essential to teaching the faith in ancient cultures, where writing was scarce and literacy even scarcer. A simple, essential belief such as this (the Lord is One) is easy to memorize, easy to understand, easy to recite, and easy to teach.
Creeds in the New Testament
As the church grew in the years following Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, Christian creeds began to emerge as well. Some simple creeds are preserved in scripture. One of the best examples is this summary of beliefs from one of the earliest New Testament books:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
Here, Paul begins a lengthy commentary on Jesus’ resurrection with a creedal statement of the essential facts of the resurrection:
- Christ died
- He was buried
- He was raised
- He appeared
The creeds that we memorize and recite today work much the same way. But how did our creeds develop from the few sentences of Paul’s summary to the several paragraphs that we now share?
How Creeds Develop
In the earliest days of the church, the New Testament did not yet exist. It took over 50 years for the letters and narratives to be written. And after that, it would be more than two centuries before the writings were reproduced, circulated, and collected into the single volume that we know today.
During this time, various teachings emerged that promoted ideas that contradicted the eyewitness testimony of the apostles, and even the words of Jesus himself. In order to effectively refute and rebut these heresies, early church leaders recorded summary creeds. And as new heresies circulated, clarifying statements were added to existing creeds.
Creeds and Heresies
Here are a few examples of well-known heresies that the early church refuted with creedal statements.
- Docetism: An offshoot of Gnosticism, Docetism taught that Jesus was not really human, but only had the appearance of being human. Both the Apostles’ Creed ([he was] born of the Virgin Mary) and the Nicene Creed ([he] was incarnate) testify to Jesus’ humanity and bodily existence.
- Ebionitism (and Adoptionism): Taking the opposite extreme from Docetism, these heresies taught that Jesus is not divine by nature (although Adoptionism teaches that he was later given full divinity by the Father). In refuting this heresy, the Apostles’ Creed calls Jesus ‘our Lord’, and the Nicene Creed elaborates even further, saying that he is of the same essence as the Father.
- Modalism: This peculiar teaching suggests that God manifests in different ways (modes) at different times, first as the Father (Old Testament), then as Jesus (Gospels), and finally as the Holy Spirit (Church age). The creeds address this false teaching by demonstrating the interrelated nature of the Trinity, declaring that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Apostles’ Creed) and begotten of God (Nicene Creed).
- Pelagianism: Pelagius taught that people are not born with a sinful nature and that we may simply choose to reject sin and follow the example set by Jesus in order to be saved. However, the creeds testify to God’s grace through Jesus as the means of redemption. The Apostles’ Creed professes [I believe in] the forgiveness of sins. And the Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came for our salvation, while also acknowledging one baptism for the remission of sins.
In an earlier post, we examined the question of whether or not Jesus descended to hell. Even today, different faith traditions do not agree on the answer to this question. And this reflects in the particular version of the Apostles’ Creed that each such tradition chooses to use.
Here, it is important for us to remember that, unlike scripture, creeds are not inspired writings. They are tools that are useful in a variety of contexts but are subject to amendment as needed to address the issues that the church faces at any given time.
Also, this variation helps us to distinguish between essential and non-essential Christian doctrine. Jesus’ divine nature and our salvation being found only in His death and resurrection are essential doctrines for every Christian to know and believe. By contrast, a belief that Jesus descended (or didn’t descend) to hell is not essential to our salvation or the practice of our faith.
Are Creeds Still Useful?
In the twenty-first century, literacy is the norm in the developed world, and Bibles are readily available in just about every written language known today. So what value do creeds still have for modern Christians?
Creeds Cover the Basics
If you’ve even gone through the process of searching for a church, you may have visited the church’s website to read a statement of beliefs. Though some churches may add other statements to their website that make their position known on modern controversies (such as same-sex marriage), most churches craft their belief statements from a direct citation or close approximation of one of the common creeds.
By doing so, the church lays out clear expectations to all who would worship or join, that this is the belief and practice that the members are affirming and promoting. After all, the church cannot reasonably expect anyone to agree to join without first understanding what they are agreeing to.
Creeds and Catechism
In traditions that practice confirmation or catechism (usually in the teen years), creeds are vital in teaching essential doctrines. The Bible is a big book, and studying it is a lifelong process. So the creeds offer a useful way of providing the foundation on which a life of study and learning is built.
Creeds and Identity
In many churches, particularly in liturgical traditions, reciting a creed in unison is a common element of worship services. As the gathered church, when we join together as one voice, we reinforce not only our identity as Christians but also our unity in the Spirit and our shared commitment to one another and to God’s kingdom.
From the ancient church to the modern, the creeds continue to help us articulate our faith, affirm the truth, and teach the next generation. Through our creeds, we are reminded that we are one church, across many generations and continents, called, saved, and sent by the One True God.