‘Creed’ [from Latin credo (“I believe”); from credere to believe, trust, entrust]: a brief authoritative formula of religious belief; a set of fundamental beliefs; a guiding principle.
The Creeds and Confessions produced by the Christian Church over the centuries are not inspired additions to Scripture nor in any way replacements for the words of Christ and his apostles or the prophets which preceded them. Instead these human documents are carefully considered and usually thoughtfully worded responses to various issues, heresies and historical situations that have troubled the Church and the world over the centuries. Creeds are statements of faith that are true and authoritative insofar as they accurately reflect what Scripture teaches. Those linked here have been found useful either by the entire Church or by important segments and/or denominations of it over the ages. They are thus helpful “measuring sticks” for orthodoxy. Canons but not the canon.
Some have said the creeds are man made and hence should be ignored in favor of Scripture. Should we then dispose of all sermons, Bible study texts, commentaries, doctrinal outlines, books on theology, devotionals, et cetera? Certainly not! The creeds do not masquerade as Scripture and many specifically point out that it is the Scriptures themselves which are “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Yet as Christians is it not valuable to consider how the Holy Spirit has spoken to our brothers and sisters over the millennia as they have struggled with various issues, poured over the Scriptures and often fasted and prayed heartily with their fellow Christians in the light of the inspired texts? Surely, to quote the pulpit prince C. H. Spurgeon to his students,
“…you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound the Scripture without the assistance from the works of divine and learned men who have labored before you in the field of exposition…It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” (Commenting and Commentaries)
Even if we reject some of their insights at least we should pause to consider what they have gleaned from Holy Writ and how their historical situation influenced their Biblical interpretations. Let us remember the words of Peter when he said, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)
– Michael Anderson, What is a “Creed”?
The Creeds: A Long History
The term “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, and means: “I believe.” The most famous creeds were forged by the early church. But the Old Testament also contains what could well be considered creedal statements as well. A good example would be the Hebrew Shema which is found in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:4), “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God—the Lord is One.” Now in the New Testament there are several passages which can be considered to be creedal statements. A good example would be 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For what I received I passed on to you, that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.” In fact here we have a clear example of the biblical base for the creeds, not to mention a good summation of the message of the Christian faith.
The Creeds: Important Christian Creeds
As I mentioned earlier, the formal creeds were developed during church history. They are, by the way, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Creed of Chalcedon. These creeds were written with very specific purposes in mind. First and foremost, they were written to refute heresies that had arisen in the church. For example, the Nicene Creed was written to counteract the dangerous Arian heresy. This heresy denied the full and unqualified deity of Christ. Secondly, the creeds also provide a very positive affirmation of what we as Christians hold in common. The Athanasian Creed, for example, affirms the truth of the Trinity, Christ’s Incarnation, Ascension, second coming, and the final judgment. So it’s not a bad idea to teach the creeds to our children and to reinforce them in church.
The Creeds: Subject to Scripture
A quick note of caution: Although the creeds summarize biblical truth, they were written by imperfect men, and thus they are subject to the last court of appeals, that is, the canon of Scripture. Creeds are valuable because they summarize biblical truth, but unlike the Bible, they are not inspired. To know them is fantastic, but not mandatory — to know Scripture, however, is a divine imperative.
– Hank Hanegraaff, Creeds: The Importance of the Creeds
My favorite part of the Sunday service at my church is collectively reciting the Apostles’ Creed and receiving the Lord’s Supper (communion). In my church’s liturgy (form of public worship), these activities occur weekly. Since many Christians come from non-liturgical churches and are unfamiliar with the creeds of Christendom, allow me to introduce the role that the creeds have played in the Christian faith and why they should be highly valued.
The term creed is derived from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe.” Creeds are considered authoritative pronouncements that set forth the central articles or tenets of the historic Christian faith. While the most famous of creeds were developed during church history, specific statements in Scripture have also been used as creeds.
For example, in the Old Testament the Israelites used the Shema as a creedal expression of the unity and uniqueness of Yahweh: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the New Testament, several passages are used as protocreedal statements during apostolic times. The apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 10:9 about confessing “Jesus as Lord” was certainly used as an early Christian creedal confession. The use of creedal expressions, therefore, stands on a solid biblical base.
In many cases these biblical statements were used as models for the formal creeds developed later. The four formal creeds used in church history include: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Creed of Chalcedon.
The creeds were written with several purposes in mind. First, they corrected various heresies (profound doctrinal deviations from Scripture) that had arisen at that time. For example, the Nicene Creed was written to combat the Arian heresy that denied Christ’s full and unqualified deity. The Creed of Chalcedon countered heresies that challenged the biblical teaching concerning Christ’s human and divine natures in one Person (Nestorianism and Eutychianism). Thus, creeds have a direct apologetics significance by helping to both define and defend the faith.
Second, the creeds affirm essential Christian truth. The Athanasian Creed, for example, affirms the truth of the Trinity, Christ’s incarnation, resurrection, ascension, second coming, and final judgment. Creeds, therefore, have an appropriate and critical use both in Christian instruction as well as in worship services.
Creeds also help us identify what is essential doctrine from peripheral points. For example, the creeds do not discuss disputable areas in eschatology (the study of last things) such as the rapture, the tribulation, or the millennium. Rather, the creeds simply state—as does the Nicene Creed—the central issue (which in eschatology is that “He [Christ] shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end…and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen”).
The creeds draw attention to a common, historical Christian heritage (“mere Christianity”) and, thus, help believers avoid being too narrow in our presentation of the faith. Because the creeds are summary expressions of biblical truth, they are authoritative. However, like any statements written by imperfect men, they are to be subjected to the supreme authority—Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15–17). Unlike the Bible, creeds are not inspired or inerrant; and they were never intended to replace Scripture.
Nevertheless, the creeds do reflect how the early church interpreted Scripture and how they understood in particular the nature of God (the Trinity) and the person and nature of Jesus Christ (his divinity and humanity). Therefore they have remained a crucial guide for the church in affirming doctrinal truth, refuting error, and encouraging doctrinal instruction among the faithful.
– Kenneth Samples, The Importance of Christendom’s Historic Creeds
Today many churches and Christian organizations publish “statements of faith” that outline their beliefs. But in the past it was expected that documents of this nature would be so biblically rich and carefully crafted that they would be memorized and used for Christian growth and training. They were written in the form of questions and answers, and were called catechisms (from the Greekkatechein which means “to teach orally or to instruct by word of mouth”). The Heidelberg Catechismof 1563 and Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms of 1648 are among the best known, and they serve as the doctrinal standards of many churches in the world today.
The Lost Practice of Catechesis
At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience. Also, the catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.
In short, catechetical instruction is less individualistic and more communal. Parents can catechize their children. Church leaders can catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. Because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be integrated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.
Because we have lost the practice of catechesis today: “Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today…” (Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way)
Catechisms were written with at least three purposes. The first was to set forth a comprehensive exposition of the gospel—not only in order to explain clearly what the gospel is, but also to lay out the building blocks on which the gospel is based, such as the biblical doctrine of God, of human nature, of sin, and so forth. The second purpose was to do this exposition in such a way that the heresies, errors, and false beliefs of the time and culture were addressed and counteracted. The third and more pastoral purpose was to form a distinct people, a counter-culture that reflected the likeness of Christ not only in individual character but also in the church’s communal life.
A Biblical Practice
In his letter to the Galatians Paul writes, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6). The Greek word for “anyone who receives instruction” is the word katechoumenos, one who is catechized. In other words, Paul is talking about a body of Christian doctrine (“catechism”) that was taught to them by an instructor (here the word “catechizer”). The words “all good things” probably means financial support as well. In this light, the word koinoneo—which means “to share” or “to have fellowship”—becomes even richer. The salary of a Christian teacher is not to be seen simply as a payment but a “fellowship.” Catechesis is not just one more service to be paid for, but is a rich fellowship and mutual sharing of the gifts of God.
If we re-engage in this biblical practice in our churches, we will find again God’s Word “dwelling in us richly” (Colossians 3:16), because the practice of catechesis takes truth deep into our hearts, so we find ourselves thinking in biblical categories as soon as we can reason.
Such instruction, Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander said, is like firewood in a fireplace. Without the fire—the Spirit of God—firewood will not in itself produce a warming flame. But without fuel there can be no fire either, and that is what catechetical instruction is.
– Tim Keller, New City Catechism Introduction
“Creeds are to the head what good works are to the heart: creeds express truth, the head’s food, as good works express love, the heart’s food. Both are sacred.
If there is any doubt about the need for creeds, it can be settled by fact: the fact that the Church established by Christ, the Church Christ promised to “guide into all truth”, has in fact formulated and taught creeds.
The first bishops, the apostles, formulated the Church’s first, shortest, and most important creed, the Apostles’ Creed. Whether the apostles literally wrote it, as tradition says, or whether it was written by their disciples to preserve the apostles’ teaching, in either case it is the teaching of the apostles. When we recite this creed we speak in unison with them.”
– Peter Kreeft, What’s the Point of Creeds?
“It is easy to be cynical about confessions when confessing carries no danger. The term “confessor,” it is worth remembering, originally referred to those in the early church who had been arrested and tortured for their faith, though not (like martyrs) actually killed. We may now treat the confession of faith so casually because it comes so easily. We perhaps have become too comfortable in various ways to take confessions seriously enough.”
– William Placher, Why Creeds Matter
– Jaroslav Pelikan, Why We Need Creeds
– Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos?
– Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils, and Christ
– Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition