The Great Creeds

The Creeds The Catholicity of the Anglican Church

In the early centuries the word “catholic” was used for those whose faith was defined by the Ecumenical Creeds. This word derives from the Greek words kathholike,| “according to the whole” and was explained as “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all”. [1]

Historically, those who deviated from these “catholic” beliefs were deemed “heretics” (the original word hairesis meant “self-chosen opinion”) and “schismatics” (the original word schizein meant “to split”). The words “heresy” and “schismatic” are old fashioned and rather confrontational yet, they express the reality that the “catholic” faith is a defined faith that calls for convinced commitment from church members. Accordingly, the creeds are instruments of godly unity. Those who deviate from them do so wilfully and idiosyncratically, based on their better judgements and in consequence they divide the body of Christ.

Evangelism, Baptism and the Creeds

It is evident from the New Testament that evangelism, instruction and baptism were a continuum. Before he departed Jesus gave this instruction.

Make disciples from all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you… Matt 28:19-20

Jesus calls for three connected activities: first, “going, make disciples”; second, baptizing them in the triune name; and, third instructing them in Jesus’ teachings.2 Just as Jesus “made disciples” and “instructed” them, so they in turn were to do, with his promise, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age”.

By early second century we see the emergence of doctrinal summaries that (a) referred to the three persons within the Godhead, and (b) expanded the section about the Son with items taken from the gospels.

For example, early in the second century Ignatius affirmed the deity, humanity and Messiahship of Jesus in these words.

For our God Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit…

By the mid-second century the triadic “shape” with expanded second Christological section was confirmed, e.g., by Justin Martyr.

…we worship the Creator of this universe…and that with good reason honour him who taught us these things and was born for this purpose, Jesus Christ,who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea in the time of Tiberius Caesar, having heard that he is the Son of the true God and holding him in second rank, and the prophetic SpiritApology 1.13

The Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds of later years had their beginnings in these early creed-like statements that were based on the embryonic trinitarianism of the New Testament and its explicit Christology (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Pet 1:2; Rev 1:4-7).

Function of Creeds

The earliest function of the creeds was baptismal, that is for instruction beforehand and interrogation of the candidate at the baptism itself. Between their embryonic beginnings and ultimate finalization of the creed in the forms we have them further elements were added. This was because the era between the New Testament and the finalization of the Creeds in the fourth century was chaotic, with the intrusion of serious doctrinal errors threatening the survival of apostolic truth and the unity of the church. These errors came from the surrounding cultures.

From early in the second century the western church was under dire threat from various kinds Gnosticism, which in their repudiation of the material universe rejected the teaching that God was Creator and therefore the genuine humanity of his Son and his bodily resurrection. The wording of the Apostles’ Creed was designed to defend the church against Gnosticism.

In the Eastern Church the challenge came from Arius at the beginning of the fourth century. Arius held a form of Platonism that asserted the indivisibility of God that led him to reject the intrinsic trinitarian being of God and the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ. The words that the Son of God was “of one substance with the Father” inserted into an older creed at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) buttressed the church against the effects of Arianism that threatened to swamp the church.

In other words, the apostolic doctrines, which in any case were not yet stated in systematic terms, were subject to various forms of cultural syncretism. In this respect the history of the post-apostolic church is a kind of parallel with the faith of Israel, subject as it had been to Baal worship and other ancient near eastern syncretisms. Accordingly, although the creeds were for baptismal instruction and baptismal interrogation, by the fourth century they had taken on an extra role, for the definition of heresy.

Nonetheless, the creeds also continued their original function for the baptism of those who had been evangelised. Catechists typically instructed baptizands over many months, article by article. Since the creeds evolved as much as a means of defence against heresy as for positive doctrine it required a deepening reflection by church teachers and catechists.

Meanwhile a third aspect of credal use had developed, the gathered church’s declaration of its members’ faith. This is the primary function of creeds today. Unfortunately, the baptismal activities of instruction and interrogation have tended to fall away.

Doctrines of the Creeds

(i)            The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed begins by asserting that God is the “almighty” sovereign over history, the Creator of the universe and “the Father” of his Son and of those who belong to him.

The second article arises from the gospel about the Christ/Messiah, asserting him to be “[God’s] only (i.e., only begotten) Son” and “our Lord”, thus identifying him with YHWH/the LORD. There follows the affirmation of his conception by the Holy Spirit and birth from the Virgin Mary (teaching manhood and deity), his sufferings under Pilate, his crucifixion, death, burial, descent to Hades, from which he arose on the third day, thereafter ascending into heaven to the Father’s right hand, whence he will come again as the judge of all.

The third article directs faith towards the Holy Spirit, the holy, catholic church, the fellowship of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Each element is directly or indirectly scriptural. Clearly its teachings were relevant against the threat of Gnosticism. Equally, however, the elements of this creed touch the neo- Gnosticism of modern times, the denial of the Creator, the rejection of the deity and the bodily resurrection of Christ.

(ii)            The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed4, like the Apostles’ Creed is shaped by the trinity and like the Apostles’ Creed having an extended Christological section. Many items are identical in doctrine, if not in words. Its most noticeable differences are that the Son of God is “eternally begotten of the Father…begotten not made, one being with the Father (homoousion to| patri)…through whom all things were made…who came down from heaven…was incarnate of the Virgin Mary…became man”, elements that emphatically excluded the Arian heresy that had contended that God was an indivisible monad.

Thus the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed employs philosophical terminology where the Apostles’ Creed is more straightforwardly biblical in terminology. Given the subtleties of the Arian heresy it was necessary the orthodox leaders to use correspondingly subtle terminology to refute those errors.

By AD 381 the Second Ecumenical Council was necessitated by other heresies that had arisen. One was Apollinarianism, which asserted that the Son of God lacked a genuinely human mind or will, but was merely passively human. The words, “he came down from heaven…by the power of the Holy Spirit he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man” were inserted to refute this heresy. Another error was Macedonianism, which questioned the deity of the Holy Spirit. This heresy was addressed by the insertion of the words, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified”.

The doctrines of the Trinity of God and the deity of Christ are the bedrock of Christianity. It was the brilliant achievement of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed to secure these great truths for the worship and instruction of the churches in the years since.

Importance of the Creeds

Jesus’ Great Commission to his apostles was to go to the Nations, evangelise, baptise and instruct. From that time the “ministers of the word” began to devise simple triadic summaries as a basis for the instruction of those who had been evangelised, preparatory to their baptism. With the passage of time those summaries needed to expand to answer the challenges to apostolic teaching, in particular about the Creator and the relationship to him of the One who came, Jesus the Christ. By the fifth century there had been numerous such challenges with correspondingly detailed rebuttals from Ecumenical Councils and the Creeds they issued.

It is probably fair to say that the Creeds that dealt with those early challenges have at the same time anticipated the majority of the challenges that have arisen in the centuries since that era.

Notwithstanding their massive importance the Apostles and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds did not anticipate every challenge to orthodoxy, for example, the nature of the atonement, the work of the Spirit within the life of the believer (who though saved remains a fallen person wrestling with remaining sin), or the nature of the sacraments, ministry and church order, civic vocation, intra-gender issues or more modern concerns like the future of our planet..

Evangelism, Baptism, Creeds, Catechisms and Catechists

Enough has been written to establish the historical continuum beginning with evangelism, continuing through baptism-and-instruction and perpetuated in church-based credal declarations, Sunday by Sunday. The creeds played a critical role as bases for instruction for baptism but also to define orthodox truth in the face of destructive error. Creeds, however, imply catechisms and catechisms imply catechists.

The eventual creation of new catechisms must surely call for the recruiting and training of catechists. But this must be seen as part of a dominically mandated continuum that Christ himself began and was continued by his disciples made disciples, instructing and baptizing them. Furthermore, in the face of modern heresy and schism we need to reclaim the notion of the “catholic” church, whose members’ personal faith is circumscribed within the teaching of the faith set out in the Creeds.

[1] The so-called Vincentian Canon, formulated by Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century, in which he defined the meaning of “catholic”.

Paul Barnett