I. SCRIPTURAL BASIS
1. In the Old Testament
2. In the New Testament--Gospels
3. In the Epistles
(2) Later Writings
II. HISTORICAL FORMS
1. The Apostles' Creed
2. The Nicene Creed
(1) Origin, Date, Character
(2) "Filioque" Clause
3. The Athanasian Creed
(2) Question of Imposture
(3) Value and Features
4. The Reformation Creeds
By "creed" we understand the systematic statement of religious faith; and by the creeds of the Christian church we mean the formal expression of "the faith which was delivered unto the saints." The word is derived from the first word of the Latin versions of the Apostles' Creed, and the name is usually applied to those formulas known as the Apostles', the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds.
In this article we shall first indicate the Scriptural foundation and rudimentary Biblical statements upon which the distinctive dogmas of the church are based; and, secondly, briefly describe the origin and nature of the three most important symbols of belief which have dominated Christian thought.
I. Scriptural Basis.
There are three forms in which the religious instinct naturally expresses itself--in a ritual, a creed and a life. Men first seek to propitiate the Deity by some outward act and express their devotion in some external ceremony. Next they endeavor to explain their worship and to find a rationale of it in certain facts which they formulate into a confession; and lastly, not content with the outward act or the verbal interpretation of it, they attempt to express their religion in life.
Pagan religion first appears in the form of a rite. The worshipper was content with the proper performance of a ceremony and was not, in the earliest stage at least, concerned with an interpretation of his act. The myths, which to some extent were an attempt to rationalize ritual, may be regarded as the earliest approach to a formulated statement of belief. But inasmuch as the myths of early pagan religion are not obligatory upon the reason or the faith of the worshipper, they can scarcely be regarded as creeds. Pagan religion, strictly speaking, has no theology and having no real historical basis of facts does not possess the elements of a creed. In this respect it is distinguished from revealed religion. This latter rests upon facts, the meaning and interpretation of which are felt to be necessary to give to revelation its values and authority.
1. In the Old Testament:
Even in the Old Testament there are not wanting the germs of a creed. In the Decalogue we have the beginnings of the formulation of belief, and in the proclamation, "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one Yahweh" (De 6:4), we have what may be regarded as the symbol of the Old Testament faith and the earliest attempt to enunciate a doctrine.
2. In the New Testament--Gospels:
It is to the New Testament, however, we must turn to find the real indications of such a statement of belief as may be designated a creed. We must remember that Christ lived and taught for a time before any attempt was made to portray His life or to record His sayings. The earliest writings are not the Gospels, but some of the Epistles, and it is to them we must look for any definite explanation of the facts which center in the appearance of Christ upon the earth. At the same time in the sequence of events the personality and teaching of Jesus come first, and in the relation to Him of His disciples and converts and in their personal confessions and utterances of faith we have the earliest suggestions of an expression of belief. The confession of Nathanael (Joh 1:49), "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God," and still more the utterance of Peter (Mt 16:16), "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," and the exclamation of Thomas (Joh 20:28), contain the germ of a creed. It is to be noted that all these expressions of belief have Christ as their object and give utterance with more or less explicitness to a conviction of His Divine nature and authority.
3. In the Epistles:
But while these sayings in the Gospels were no doubt taken up and incorporated in later interpretations, it is to the Epistles that we must first go, for an explanation of the facts of Christ's person and His relation to God and man. Paul's Epistles are really of the nature of a confession and manifesto of Christian belief. Communities of believers already existed when the apostle directed to them his earliest letters. In their oral addresses the apostles must have been accustomed not only to state facts which were familiar to their hearers, but also to draw inferences from them as to the meaning of Christ and the great truths centering in His person--His incarnation, His death and resurrection (as we may see from the recorded sermons of Peter and Paul in Acts). It is to these facts that the Epistles appeal. It was at once natural and necessary that some expression of the faith once delivered to the saints should be formulated for a body whose members were pledged to each other and united for common action, and whose bond of union was the acknowledgment of "one Lord, one faith." Paul recognizes it as vital to the very spirit of religion that some definite profession of belief in Christ should be made: "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Ro 10:9). These words would seem to imply that a confession of the Deity, the atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus was the earliest form of Christian creed.
It must also be observed that from the very first the confession of faith seems to have been connected with the administration of baptism. Already in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Ac 8:37 the King James Version) (a passage indeed of doubtful genuineness but attested by Irenaeus and therefore of great antiquity) we find that as a condition of baptism the convert is asked to declare his belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The passage in 1 Tim (Ac 6:12; compare Heb 10:23), "Lay hold on the life eternal, whereunto thou wast called, and didst confess the good confession in the sight of many witnesses," may refer to a confession required only of those who were being ordained: but the context leads us to infer that it was a baptismal vow asked of members not less than of ministers of the church. The probability is that the earliest form of creed reflected little more than Christ's final command to baptize all men "into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19), or perhaps simply "into the name of the Lord Jesus" (Ac 19:5). The verse in Ac 8:37 the King James Version, though disputed by some, is instructive in this connection. Faith in Jesus Christ was regarded as the cardinal point of the New Revelation and may have been taken to imply a relation to the Father as well as a promise of the Holy Spirit.
It is evident that the creeds that have come down to us are mainly an expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as embodied in the original baptismal formula derived from Our Lord's commission. Already indeed in some places of the Old Testament this doctrine is foreshadowed; but it is first clearly incorporated in the Lord's command just mentioned and in the benediction of Paul (2Co 13:14), and subsequently in the Christian doxologies. Some scholars have preferred to find traces in the later writings of the New Testament of a more definite summary of belief: as in the allusion to the form of sound words (2Ti 1:13), the "deposit" or "good deposit" which was to be kept (1Ti 6:20 the Revised Version, margin; 2Ti 1:14 the Revised Version, margin); also in "the faithful words" enumerated in these epistles (1Ti 1:15; 3:1; 4:8-9; 2Ti 2:11); and in the remarkable passage in the beginning of Heb 6:1-20 in which the elementary doctrines of the Christian religion are enumerated; first on the subjective side, repentance and faith, and then objectively, the resurrection and the judgment. There are also brief summaries in several of the Pauline Epistles of what the apostle must have considered to be essential tenets. Thus for example we have the death, burial and resurrection of Christ mentioned in 1Co 15:3 f; Ro 1:3 f. Such summaries or confessions of personal faith as in 2Th 2:13 f are frequent in Paul's writings and may correspond to statements of truth which the apostle found serviceable for catechetical purposes as he moved from one Christian community to another.
(2) Later Writings:
It is not indeed till a much later age--the age of Irenaeus and Tertullian (175-200 AD)--that we meet with any definite summary of belief. But it cannot be doubted that these Scriptural passages to which we have referred not only served as the first forms of confession but also contributed the materials out of which the articles of the church's faith were formulated. As soon as Christian preaching and teaching were exercised there would be a felt need for explicit statement of the truths revealed in and through Jesus Christ. It may be said that all the main facts which were subsequently embodied in the creeds have their roots in the New Testament Scripture and especially in the Pauline Epistles. The only exception which might be made is in the case of the virgin birth. It does not lie within the scope of this article to comment upon the silence of the epistles on this subject. This, however, we may say, that the omissions of Paul's reference to it does not prove it untrue. It only proves at most that it was not a part of the ground upon which the Christ was commended to the first acceptance of faith. But though no direct allusion to the virgin birth occurs in Paul's writings the truth which gives spiritual value to the fact of the virgin conception, namely, God's new creation of humanity in Christ, is a vital and fundamental element in the faith both of Paul and of the whole early church. The Christian life is essentially a new creation (2Co 5:17; Ga 6:15; Ro 6:4) in Jesus Christ, the second Adam (Ro 5:12-21), who is from heaven (1Co 15:47). Into this spiritual context the facts recorded by Matthew and Luke introduce no alien or incompatible element (compare W. Richmond, The Creed in the Epistles of Paul; Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ). And therefore the story of Christ's birth as we have it in the Synoptics finds a natural place in the creed of those who accept the Pauline idea of a new creation in Christ.
See VIRGIN BIRTH.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the evidences of development in the main doctrines of the gospel, but however the later ages may have elaborated them, the leading tenets of the subsequent faith of the church--the doctrine of the Trinity; our Lord's divinity and real humanity; His atoning death and resurrection; the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and of the catholicity and unity of the church--stand clear and distinct in these earliest Scriptural sources.
II. Historical Forms.
Faith implies a creed as a confession and testimony. Such a confession and testimony answers to a natural impulse of the soul. Hence, a profession of faith is at once a personal, a social and a historical testimony. A formal creed witnesses to the universality of faith, binds believers together, and unites the successive ages of the church. It is the spontaneous expression of the life and experience of the Christian society. As the purpose of this article is chiefly to indicate the Scriptural sources of the creeds rather than to discuss their origin and history, we can only briefly describe the main historical forms which have prevailed in the Christian church.
1. The Apostles' Creed:
The Apostles' Creed, in ancient times called the Roman Creed, though popularly regarded as the earliest, was probably not the first in chronological order. Its origin and growth are involved in considerable obscurity (see separate article, APOSTLES' CREED; and compare Heurtley, Harmonia Symbolica).
2. The Nicene Creed:
(1) Origin, Date, Character:
The Nicene Creed, called sometimes "the Creed of the 318" from the number of bishops reputed to have been present, was authorized at the Council of Nice in 325 AD, and completed by the Council of Constantinople in 381, when the clauses which follow the mention of the Holy Ghost were added. The opinions of Arius at the beginning of the 4th century created such unrest as to call forth not only the admonition of bishops but also the intervention of the emperor Constantine, who, as a professed Christian, had become the patron of the church. The efforts of the emperor, however, had no effect in allaying the dissensions of the church at Alexandria, which, upon the banishment of Arius, spread throughout eastern Christendom. It was decided, therefore, to convoke a general council of bishops in which the Catholic doctrine should be once and for all formally declared. This, the first ecumenical council, met at Nicea in Bithynia in 325 AD. There is no detailed record of the proceedings. "We do not know whether it lasted weeks or days" (Stanley, Lects on East Ch.). Arius; being only a presbyter, had no seat in the conclave, but was allowed to express his opinions. His chief opponent was Athanasius.
(2) "Filioque" Clause:
The controversy turned upon the nature of the Son and His relation to the Father. The word homoousios ("of one substance with"), used in the course of the argument with a view of disputeing the extreme orthodox position, became the battleground between the parties. The Arians violently condemned. The Sabellians or Semi-Arians to evade its full force contended for the term homoiousios ("of like substance"). But the majority finally adopted the former expression as the term best suited to discriminate their view of the relation of the Father and Son from the Arian view. The assent of the emperor was gained and the words "being of one substance with the Father" were incorporated into the creed. The clauses descriptive of the Holy Spirit were added or confirmed at a later council (382), and were designed to refute the Macedonian heresy which denied His equality with the Father and Son, and reduced the Holy Spirit to a level with the angels.
The phrase "proceedeth from the Father and the Son" is also of historical importance. The last three words are a later addition to the creed by western churches, formally adopted by the Council of Toledo in 589. But when the matter was referred in the 9th century to Leo III he pronounced against them as unauthorized. This interpolation, known as the Filioque, marks the difference still between the Latin and Greek churches. From the 9th century no change has been made in the Nicene Creed. It has remained, without the Filioque clause, the ecumenical symbol of the Eastern Church; and with the addition of that word it has taken its place among the three great creeds of the Western Church.
3. The Athanasian Creed:
The Athanasian Creed, or the Symbolum Quicunque, as it is called, from its opening words, differs entirely in its origin and history from those we have just considered. It is not a gradual growth like the Apostles' Creed, nor is it the outcome of synodical authority like the Nicene Creed. "When the composition appears for the first time as a document of authority it is cited in its completeness and as the work of the Father whose name it has since, in the most part, borne, although it was not brought to light for many centuries after his death" (Lumby, History of the Creeds). Without going into the full and intricate evidence which has been brought forward by scholars to prove that it is incorrectly attributed to Athanasius, it is sufficient to observe that both authorship and date are uncertain. Dr. Swainson proves in the most conclusive manner that the existence of this creed cannot be traced before the age of Charlemagne, and that its origin may probably be ascribed to then existing demand for a more detailed exposition of the faith than was to be found in the Apostles' Creed. It is nowhere mentioned at synods before the end of the 8th century, whose special business it was to discuss the very matters which were afterward embodied within it in such detail.
(2) Question of Imposture:
The question of imposture has been raised with regard to this creed, and it has been maintained by some that it was originally a forgery of the same nature as the "false decretals" and the equally famous "Donation of Constantine" (Swainson). But it may be said that the word "imposture" is incorrectly applied to "a natural and inevitable result of the working of the mind of the Western Church toward a more elaborate and detailed confession of its Trinitarian faith" (Tulloch, Encyclopedia Brit). The imposture, if there was any, consisted not in the origin of the creed but in the ascription of it to a name and a date with which it had no connection. This was done no doubt to secure for it credit and authority, and was supposed to be justified by its special doctrinal import.
(3) Value and Features:
This symbol, though too compendious and elaborate to serve the purposes of a creed, itself standing in need of exposition and explanation, has its value as representing a further stage of doctrinal development. If the Apostles' Creed determined the nature of God and the Nicene Creed defined the character and relation of the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Athanasian Creed may be regarded as establishing the great doctrine of the Trinity. Its distinguishing features are the monitory clauses and its uncompromising statement of the value of the Christian faith. The other creeds set forth the mercies of Revelation; this adds the danger of rejecting them. The others declare the faith; this insists also on its necessity. This, also, alone insists upon the necessity of good works (Yonge, An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed). The closing warning is based on Christ's own words: "Depart from me," etc. (Mt 25:41,46). If this creed is solemn in its admonitions, we must remember that so also are the Gospels. On the whole it is a comprehensive summary of truth, laying down the rule of faith as a foundation, following out its issues of good or evil. True belief is closely connected with right action.
With the adoption of the "Athanasian" symbol, the creed-making of the early and medieval church ceases. Of the three mentioned one only in the broadest sense, the Nicene, is Catholic. Neither the Apostles' nor the Athanasian Creed is known to the Greek or oriental church which remained faithful to the faith settled by the holy Fathers at Nicea. The two others adopted by the West are really gradual growths or consequences from it, without any definite parentage or synodic authority. But the faith as defined at Nicea and ratified by subsequent councils is the only true Catholic symbol of the universal church.
4. The Reformation Creeds:
With the Reformation a new era of creed-formation began. It will not, however, be necessary to do more than mention some of the confessions of the Reformed churches which consist mainly of elaborations of the original creeds with the addition of special articles designed to emphasize and safeguard the distinctive doctrines and ecclesiastical positions of particular branches of the church. Of this nature are the Confessions of the Lutheran church--the Augsburg Confession of 1530; the Genevese or Calvinistic of 1549 consisting of 26 articles, defining particularly the nature of the Sacraments; confessions of the Dutch church confirmed at the Synod of Dort in 1619 and known as the "Decrees of Dort"; and the famous Heidelberg Catechism. To this series of Protestant confessions must be added the 39 Articles of the Church of England and the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the doctrinal standard not only. of the churches of Scotland, but of the principal Presbyterian churches of Britain and America.
Winer, Doctrines and Confessions of Christendom (translation Clark, 1873): Lumby, History of the Creeds; Swainson, The Nicene and Apostles' Creeds (1875); Heurtley, Harmonia Symbolica (1858); Zahn, Apost. Symb. (1892); Harnack, Apost. Glaubensbekenntnis; Swete, Apostles' Creed; Hefele, Councils of the Church; Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom. For exposition, and of a more popular nature, may be mentioned the works of Hooker, Barrow, and Beveridge, and especially Bishop Pearson; Westcott, Historic Faith; Norris, Rudiments of Theology; W. W. Harvey, The Three Creeds; J. Eyre Yonge, An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed (1888); Wilfred Richmond, The Creed in the Epistles of Paul (1909).
Arch. B. D. Alexander