The Birth of Christian Creeds

© Irina Dubovik | 123rf.com – christian symbol fish

In “Legend of the Apostles’ Creed,” I looked at the belief of how the Twelve Apostles agreed upon a standard for their future preaching that came to be known as the Apostles’ Creed. But this legend was just a “pious fiction.” However, there was evidence for “creeds of a looser sort,” lacking the textually determined state of the later confession and creeds. There was even a brief survey of “creedal elements” present in the New Testament. Formal creedal statements seem to have not emerged until the middle of the third century. However, “It is indisputable … that the root of all creeds is the formula of belief pronounced by the baptizand, or pronounced in his hearing and assented by him, before his baptism.”

The reader of the New Testament will continually come across creed-like sayings, which became slogans expressing the new faith. J.N.D. Kelly said in Early Christian Creeds that: “Creeds in the true meaning of the word were yet to come, but the movement towards formulation and fixity was under way.” Particular occasions, like when a candidate sought to be admitted to the Church, called for some kind of assurance of faith; some kind of statement of belief. So catechetical instruction and the baptismal rite itself called for declaring what you believed. Preaching was another occasion that would have lent itself to the formulation of doctrinal sayings.

The day-to-day polemic of the Church, whether against heretics within or pagan foes without, provided another situation [favorable] to the production of creeds. Yet another was supplied by the liturgy; solemn expressions of faith, in the form of hymns, prayers and devotional cries, had a natural place there.

“Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is the Son of God” were simple, one-clause Christologies that appeared in Scripture as well as baptismal rites. There were also Binitarian (Jesus and God the Father) and Trinitarian (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) summaries of the Christian faith. Binitarian summaries like 2 Timothy 4:1—“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom”— were more common. But there were Trinitarian summaries as well, like 2 Corinthians 13:14 or the baptismal command of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Paul gave what has all the appearance of being a summary of his gospel, drawn up for catechetical instruction or preaching in 1 Corinthian 15:3ff. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …” Or there is 2 Timothy 2:8, where he said: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.” There are creed-like passages in: Romans 8:34, 1 Peter 3:18ff, Philippians 2:6-11, and others.

It was, after all, natural and inevitable that the initial proclamation of the gospel should emphasize the distinctively Christian, entirely novel and revolutionary element in the divine revelation. But the framework was there. It was always presupposed; and the firmness with which it was apprehended is evidenced by the extraordinary way in which the Binitarian and Trinitarian patterns wove themselves into the texture of early Christian thinking. In due course, with the development of catechetical teaching and of more systematic, comprehensive instruction in generally, as well as with the evolution of liturgical forms giving fuller expression to the faith, these vital aspects of it came to receive more regular and formal acknowledgement in creeds and semi-creedal summaries. . . . The impulse towards their formulation came from within, not from without; and at the New Testament stage we can observe the process in full swing, with confessions of all three types coexisting and interacting.

Above we noted how creeds emerged from a variety of sources, including preaching, liturgy, hymns prayers, devotionals and above all, baptismal initiation into the Church. In their traditional form, creeds are declaratory; they are short statements, in the first person, asserting belief in a selected group of facts and doctrines. Some declaratory professions of faith must have been part of the baptismal service of the early church. “In fact, it was precisely the need for a formal affirmation of belief to be rehearsed by the catechumen at baptism which instigated the Church to invent creeds in the first place.” Whatever their other uses may have been, “their primary raison d’être, was to serve as solemn affirmations of faith in the context of baptismal initiation.”

The Didache was most likely edited into its present form towards the end of the first century from materials written around 70 AD. The first known copy was not discovered until 1873, although there had been references to it by many ancient writers. It is composed of two parts: the “Two Ways” (1.1–6.2) and a manual of church order and practice (6.3–16.8). The Two Ways is a summary of basic instruction about the Christian life to be taught to those who were preparing for baptism and church membership. “In addition to providing the earliest evidence of a mode of baptism other than immersion, it records the oldest known Christian Eucharistic prayers and a form of the Lord’s Prayer quite similar to that found in the gospel of Matthew.”

The baptismal process of the early church was a series of questions asked of the individual, to which they would say: “I believe” before being submerged a series of three times, in a Trinitarian framework. The fourth century treatise by Ambrose, De Sacramentis, consists of six short addresses delivered to the newly baptized, which claimed it followed the Roman models as far as possible. The candidate entered the baptismal font and renounced the devil and his works, the world and its pleasures, and then:

You were questioned, “Dost thou believe in God the Father almighty?” You said, “I believe”, and were immersed, that is were buried. Again you were asked, “Dost thou believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and his cross?” You said: “I believe”, and were immersed. Thus you were buried along with Christ; for he who is buried along with Christ rises again with Him. A third time you were asked, “Dost thou believe also in the Holy Spirit?” You said, “I believe”, and a third time were immersed, so that your threefold confession wiped out the manifold failings of your earlier life.

During the first few centuries of the Church, the only “creeds,” loosely conceived, were ones directly connected with baptism. Yet their roots lay not so much in the rite of baptism, as in the catechetical training, which preceded it. Declaratory creeds were summaries of Christian doctrine “compiled for the benefit of converts undergoing instruction.” They can then be seen as a by-product of “the Church’s fully developed catechetical system.”

Additionally, by the 2nd century there was a “rule of faith” or a “canon of truth” believed and taught by the Church, and inherited from the Apostles. It just wasn’t an official, textually set confession of faith or creed. The content of that rule, in all it essentials, was foreshadowed by the “pattern of teaching” accepted in the apostolic Church. As was noted in “Legend of the Apostles’ Creed,” the early Church was a “believing, confessing, preaching Church,” with a collection of documents (the New Testament) telling “a unique story of redemption.”

As with the time of the New Testament itself, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers did not allude to any formal, official creed. But there was an abundance of “quasi-creedal scraps” which show that the creedal making impulses of the Christian communities were alive and active.” The author of 1 Clement (95/96 AD) echoed the Trinitarian pattern when he inquired of his readers, “Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us?” In the Shepherd of Hermas (95-100 BC?), is this comment on the first commandment: “First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing. He alone is able to contain the whole, but Himself cannot be contained.” The letters of Ignatius have several quasi-creedal scraps, including this Binitarian pattern from To the Magnesians (110 AD): “There is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence.”

With Justin Martyr, we come across for the first time “what can plausibly be taken to be quotations of semi-formal creeds.” Justin converted to Christianity around 130. He was born in Nablus, in Palestinian Syria, and taught Christian philosophy after his conversion in Ephesus and later in Rome, where he opened a Christian school. In 165 he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians and when they refused to sacrifice to pagan gods, they were scourged and beheaded.

The first thing to note is how deeply the Trinitarian pattern seems to have been reflected in his writings. Here in his first Apology (written In Rome around 150-155 AD), within a discussion on baptism, he said: “To the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” And again when discussing weekly worship: “We bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.” There is then another passage, again from his first Apology, that seems to be a loose paraphrase of a set, creed-like formula.

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove.

Kelly said it was difficult to resist the conclusion that Justin knew of “a developed Christological kerygma [an irreducible essence of Christian apostolic preaching], which already enjoyed a measure of fixity.” However, there is no evidence it was “an official declaratory creed used at Rome or in any other church.” Nevertheless, as early as the time of Justin “there was apparently something approaching a settled form for the baptismal questions.” Irenaeus and Tertullian knew of formularies, which seemed to have an official character and a distinctive outline, even if their wording wasn’t always given verbatim.

By the middle of the third century the process of crystallization had gone a very long way: there were (and had been, we may conjecture, for some time) “customary and established words”. The endorsement of the local ecclesiastical authority, it would seem, had been added. The framework of the questions was always and everywhere the Lord’s baptismal command, the candidate being asked three times whether he believed in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Gradually these bare interrogations were expanded.

For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”


Legend of the Apostles’ Creed

© jorisvo | 123rf.com – fresco (1450) depicting the articles of the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed has been a central part of worship and declaring what individuals and congregations believe about the members of the Trinity since the early centuries of the Christian church. For centuries it was believed that after Pentecost and before the apostles dispersed in the Great Commission, they “mutually agreed upon a standard of their future preaching.” They were said to have developed this standard so that when they were separated, they would not unintentionally vary “in the statements which they should make to those whom they should invite to believe in Christ.” Yet it seems this origins tale for the Apostles’ Creed is just a legend.

The fourth century monk and historian, Rufinus Tryannius wrote a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, probably around 307-309 AD. In his commentary Rufinus related the above origins story for the Creed which was widely believed in the Western Christian church until the 15th century. Each of the apostles, “filled with the Holy Ghost,” were said to have contributed several sentences to the one common summary, which later became known as the Apostles’ Creed. Rufinus said:

Our forefathers have handed down to us the tradition, that, after the Lord’s ascension, when, through the coming of the Holy Ghost, tongues of flame had settled upon each of the Apostles, that they might speak diverse languages, so that no race however foreign, no tongue however barbarous, might be inaccessible to them and beyond their reach, they were commanded by the Lord to go severally to the several nations to preach the word of God. Being on the eve therefore of departing from one another, they first mutually agreed upon a standard of their future preaching, lest haply, when separated, they might in any instance vary in the statements which they should make to those whom they should invite to believe in Christ. Being all therefore met together, and being filled with the Holy Ghost, they composed, as we have said, this brief formulary of their future preaching, each contributing his several sentence to one common summary: and they ordained that the rule thus framed should be given to those who believe.

The Apostles’ Creed itself was present and increasingly became an important summary of confession and belief in the life of the church from at least the time of Rufinus in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. In his 5th century treatise on Christian piety, the Enchiridion, Augustine explained how the Apostles’ Creed was useful in teaching Christian doctrine and in refuting heresies. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, he thought the Creed was a succinct summary of the Christian doctrine and faith.

For you have the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. What can be briefer to hear or to read? What easier to commit to memory?When, as the result of sin, the human race was groaning under a heavy load of misery, and was in urgent need of the divine compassion, one of the prophets, anticipating the time of God’s grace, declared: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered [Joel 2:32].” Hence the Lord’s Prayer. But the apostle, when, for the purpose of commending this very grace, he had quoted this prophetic testimony, immediately added: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed [Romans 10:14]?” Hence the Creed. In these two you have those three graces exemplified: faith believes, hope and love pray.

The above legend was an accepted part of the history of the church until the Council of Florence (1438-1445), which attempted a reunification of the Western and Eastern churches. At the beginning of the negotiations, the Western, Latin representatives invoked the Apostles’ Creed. In response, the Eastern Greek representatives said they did not possess and had never seen “this creed of the Apostles.” Moreover, as J.N.D. Kelly quoted Marcus Eugenicus in Early Christian Creeds, “If it had ever existed, the Book of Acts would have spoken of it in its description of the first apostolic synod at Jerusalem, to which you appeal.”

Once the question is squarely faced, the extreme unlikelihood of the Apostles having drafted an official summary of faith scarcely merits discussion. Since the Reformation the theory that they did has been quietly set aside as legendary by practically all scholars, the conservative-minded merely reserving the right to point out that the teaching of the formula known as the Apostles’ Creed reproduces authentically apostolic doctrine.

Kelly went on to say the legend is an example of the tendency of the early Church to “attribute the whole of its doctrinal, liturgical and hierarchical apparatus” to the Twelve Apostles, and through them to Christ himself. He said this could be acknowledged without prejudice to the question of whether 2nd century Church fathers were correct to claim their rule of faith was the same as the faith of the Apostles. If the question was “Did the apostolic Church possess an official, textually determined confession of faith” the answer is no, it did not. However, “creeds of a looser sort,” that lacked the fixed and official character of the later formularies—yet clearly foreshadowing them—were is use early on.

The early Church was a “believing, confessing, preaching Church.” If the Christians of the apostolic age had not seen themselves as possessing a body of distinctive, consciously held beliefs, why would they have separated from Judaism and begun their program of missionary expansion? “Everything goes to show that the infant communities looked upon themselves as the bearers of a unique story of redemption.” The New Testament is a collection of documents written “from faith to faith.”

The Gospels carefully elaborate certain dogmatic beliefs about Jesus, “which they seek to explain and justify.” The other documents “presuppose a background of faith shared by the author and those for whom he is writing.” For all their differences of nuance, the documents of the New Testament “comprise a body of literature which could only have sprung from a community with a strongly marked outlook of its own.”

In light of these considerations it is impossible to overlook the emphasis on the transmission of authoritative doctrine which is to be found everywhere in the New Testament. In the later strata the reference to an inherited corpus of teaching are clear enough. In Jude 3, for example, we read of “the faith once delivered to the saints”; later (verse 20) the author speaks of “your most holy faith”, again using the word in the sense of an accepted body of beliefs.

Further examples given by Kelly were from the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 1:9. Hebrews advises its readers to “hold fast our confession;” without wavering (Hebrews 4:14, 10:23). In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorted his readers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either our spoken word or our letter.” In Romans 6:17 Paul referred to the “standard of teaching to which you were committed.”

What we have before us, at any rate in rough outline, is the doctrinal deposit, at the pattern of sound words, which was expounded in the apostolic church since its inauguration and which constituted its distinctive message.

The story that the Twelve met and composed an “Apostles’ Creed” is a pious fiction. But by the 2nd century there was a “rule of faith” or a “canon of truth” believed and taught by the Church, and inherited from the Apostles. It just wasn’t an official, textually set confession of faith or a creed, as with the Apostles’ Creed and others that followed. The content of that rule, in all it essentials, was foreshadowed by the “pattern of teaching” accepted in the apostolic Church. Its essentials were prototypically contained in the New Testament. From the end of the first century to the middle of the third century, there were only creeds in this elastic, nontechnical sense of the term. “That the Church in the apostolic age possessed a creed in the broad sense of a recognized body of teaching may be accepted as demonstrated fact.”

For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”