I’m starting a new four part series over the coming weeks which will be looking at the different historical creeds of the Church which have been recited, used and handed down for two millennia, beginning with the very first formal creed: the Apostles Creed. This series will be a mixture of historical background plus a commentary on the creed itself to see where each statement is based in Scripture, and why we can trust them to accurately portray the Faith.
What are creeds and why should we accept them?
The word “creed” comes from the Old English crēda, and from Latin crēdo meaning “I believe”. A creed is basically a set of beliefs which you profess; a statement of faith. Many non-creedal (or non-denominational) churches have a ‘statement of faith’ on their websites to highlight and specify where they stand on certain doctrines – which is essentially just stating their own type of creed instead of listing an ancient and historically accepted one. Even those who declare “no creed but Christ”, or “I just believe the Bible”, are ironically making a creed, albeit a short one with no solid definition.
The Church has been declaring creeds for as long as it has existed, despite the sometimes common accusation that creeds are “unbiblical” or “non-biblical”; statements which couldn’t be further from the truth! Even in the Apostles time they were making statements of faith in short creedal formats, and a few of them are preserved in the New Testament, primarily in Paul's letters. One of the longer examples can be found in the first letter to the Corinthians, and has a similar form and wording to what came to be known as the Apostle’s Creed:
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For I passed on to you as most important what I also received:
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,
then to the Twelve.
Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time;
most of them are still alive,
but some have fallen asleep.
Then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one abnormally born,
He also appeared to me.
That places this creed well within the first 20-30 years after the crucifixion and resurrection, and is thus one of the earliest examples of orthodoxy and eye-witness accounts we have, possibly pre-dating the writing of the New Testament itself. The way Paul begins this passage with the “I passed on what I received” formula shows that this was an already existing set of established beliefs which were passed onto him, and which he now passes onto the Corinthians. Paul wasn’t just making this up, or summarising what he believed – no, this was, and is, a great example of the faith of the Early Church most likely passed around as oral history, which was handed to them by the eye-witness Apostles themselves. These creeds were eventually used in the daily liturgy and worship of the Church as part of baptisms and hymns, and were also expected to be committed to memory by new converts to the faith.
Another well-known example of what could be arguably a creed of sorts, is found in Galatians 3:28 which, upon further inspection, appears to contradict and oppose the more popular expressions and "blessings" that were used by Greeks and Jews of his day.
Contrast Paul's wording to the Galatians...
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Apostle Paul, Gal 3:28)
With that of the Greek and Jewish sayings:
“There are three blessings for which I am grateful to fortune: First, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; Next, that I was born a man and not a woman; Thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian” (A quote attributed to Socrates or Thales; Diogenes Laertius, Thales 1.33).
“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” (This appears as part of a sequence of blessings found in the Talmud, which men would recite in their morning prayers)
There’s also other examples of early New Testament creeds, of various lengths, which can be found in: 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29; Romans 1:3-4; 10:9; 1 Timothy 3:16, 2 Timothy 2:8; and possibly the more well known one, in Philippians 2:6-11. I encourage you to look them up and read them all, as you’ll see that short, statement based clear expressions of doctrine and belief are intertwined with the Scriptures and life of the Church since the very start. Having more formalised versions just came out of an already existing practice and often had various reasons behind them being required. We’ll look more into those reasons as we carry on through this series and examine each creed in more detail.
The creeds I’ll be covering in the coming weeks will be:
- The Apostles Creed
- The Nicene Creed
- The Athanasian Creed
- The Chalcedonian Creed
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