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The Benefit of Ancient Creeds for the Contemporary Church

Creeds are tools of truth, they help us learn our faith, teach our faith and defend our faith.

I recall standing with an outstretched arm in the morning assembly at school reciting the Indian national pledge on Republic Day and Independence Day. The national pledge is an oath of allegiance. It also reminds us of our identity as part of a national community bigger than our individual selves. 

The church of Jesus Christ similarly has pledges that remind us of our corporate identity as the people of God. These pledges are called the creeds of the church.

The word creed comes from the Latin word credo meaning “I believe.” A creed is a truthfully and carefully crafted, time-tested summary statement of the Christian faith. They help us learn fundamental Christian truths. And, in our constant reaffirmation of them, creeds help us remember these truths and live by them.

Creeds have served the church well for centuries. They are useful as a tool of communication to teach the faith, as a tool of apologetics to defend the faith, and as a tool of ecumenicalism to foster fellowship between churches.

Why Should We Use Creeds?

The Shema (Deut. 6:4) was a creedal statement for ancient Israel that reminded the people of their allegiance to a monotheistic faith against the surrounding polytheistic religions of the Canaanite nations. This creed was repeated morning and night and was the central pillar of the Jewish faith. Even in the New Testament, we see the Shema quoted by Jesus (Mark 12:29) and early church leaders (Gal. 3:20; James 2:19).

A creed is a truthfully and carefully crafted, time-tested summary statement of the Christian faith.

In the New Testament church, the earliest creed to develop was the statement, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11). The doubting disciple Thomas, when he encountered the risen Jesus cried out a variation of this creed and pledged his life to Jesus saying, “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

This simple creed that “Jesus is Lord” (Kyrios Iesous) was a countercultural creed to the imperial cult of the Roman Emperor who demanded all confess that “Ceasar is Lord” (Kyrios Kaisar). This is another way creeds help deepen and defend our faith—by resisting cultural norms with the truths of our faith.

Other creeds in the Bible include Saint Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16; Cf. Acts 8:36-37), the “trustworthy sayings” mentioned by the apostle Paul (1 Tim. 1:15; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11), the confession of the “mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16) and the confession of the unity of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:4-6). These biblical instances establish that creeds were used extensively in the life of the church through the ages.

What Could Go Wrong?

Risks of both misuse and disuse are common in the way churches use creeds. The creeds of the church, even the most ancient ones, do not have divine authority on their own. Their authority upon the church and the believer’s conscience is only to the extent they are in accord with the Bible.

Creeds are not inspired documents and are always to be submitted to the authority of the word of God. One grave error is to  misuse creeds by giving them undue authority.

On the other hand, some churches dismiss creeds as human inventions which have no place in the church. Thus, we have the often-touted phrases “no creed but Christ” or the similar “no creed but the Bible.” Ironically, these very anti-creedal statements themselves are also, in fact, creedal themselves.

To disuse creeds entirely leaves the church poorer—without a distinctive doctrinal identity and susceptible to every new idea. This is the other possible error.

How Are Creeds Useful?

The early church creeds were developed to uphold fundamental truths in the light of erroneous and heretical teachings. Thus, the creeds of the early church became a yardstick or measure of faith.

Creeds stood guard against subtle or overt errors; heresies of the orthodox scriptural understanding of the Christian faith. They were vital for the proclamation and the preservation of the Christian faith. They also promoted unity within the churches of Christ based upon a common core confession of faith.

This simple creed that “Jesus is Lord” (Kyrios Iesous) was a countercultural creed to the imperial cult of the Roman Emperor who demanded all confess that “Ceasar is Lord” (Kyrios Kaisar).

Creeds are best used in teaching the faith. They are great catechetical tools to teach the essential doctrines of the church. The Apostles’ Creed mainly is beneficial to teach those who are joining as members of the church. It is also helpful to teach children to understand even at a young age what they believe.

It is also beneficial to publicly confess creeds together as the corporate body of Christ. There is a particular beauty when the members of the church confess and affirm the faith they rest their lives upon. One way to inculcate this practise is to add the confession of creeds in the liturgy of the worship service.

Creeds also unite the contemporary church to its historical roots. Christians who confess and subscribe to the creeds are provided with an orthodox identity and share a common unity with saints around the world and throughout the ages.

What Are Some Creeds We Should Know About?

Here is a quick primer of a few well-known ecumenical creeds that are affirmed by all the major church denominations.

The Apostles’ Creed

The history of the Apostles’ Creed is shrouded in mystery. Its authorship is unknown. The earliest form of the creed comes from the fourth century—centuries after the lives of the apostles. But there is evidence the creed was already in use in the church as early as the second century.

This has become perhaps the most well-known creed of Christendom due to its concise summary of the apostolic teaching. The Apostles’ Creed continues to be widely used to instruct new believers in the faith and prepare candidates to be received into the church as members.

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed came out of the first great ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325. The first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine convened this council to combat Arianism—a heresy which claimed Christ Jesus was not the eternally begotten Son of God but rather begotten in time and subordinate to the Father. The council condemned Arianism giving rise to the Nicene Creed.

In the First Council of Constantinople (AD 381) a few lines were added to the creed giving rise to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Finally, the Western Church in AD 581 added the statement that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Filioque). This is the current form of the creed that the Western Church confesses. The Eastern Church confesses the creed but without the addition of the Filioque.

The Chalcedonian Creed

The Chalcedonian Creed originated from the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. The Emperor called the council to combat the heresies of Eutychianism (the belief that the human and divine natures of Christ are united as one nature) and Nestorianism (the belief that Christ exists as two distinct persons—human and divine).

The Council affirmed the Nicene Creed and set forth the Chalcedonian definition that Christ is one person with two distinct natures (hypostatic union). This definition has become the hallmark of the orthodox expression of the person of Jesus Christ.

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed is recognised as the classic Christian exposition of the catholic (universal) faith. The creed depicts with clarity the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ. The authorship of the creed is unknown though modern scholarship attributes it to the fifth-century Gallic monk, Vincent of Lérins.

It was named after Athanasius, the stalwart defender of Nicene orthodoxy in the early church. This creed is unique in that the final part includes an anathema (condemnation) of anyone who fails to believe the contents of the creed as one without salvation.

Creeds are a beautiful part of church history because they have helped Christians understand, remember, proclaim, defend, and enjoy what we believe. Any church that uses them well will be richer in its faith for it.

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