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.
For further study on the creeds and their importance, I recommend the following resources:
- Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils, and Christ
- Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition
- Robert Bowman, Orthodoxy and Heresy
- Kenneth Samples, Without a Doubt (see chapter 4)