A Short History of the Creeds
Informally, the word creed can mean any statement of belief: I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. Buy and hold. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every day a box of Cracker Jacks with a prize in every package. But within Christianity, the word has come to mean something more specific, something I’ll designate with a capital C: a Creed is the concise summary of belief whose confession identifies members of a religious group. Those who confess the Creed belong to the group; those who don’t, don’t.
Later in this chapter, I’ll argue that a person can be Christian without confessing a Creed; in that sense, I’ll argue, the Creeds do not define Christianity. But it is certainly true that most of the world’s Christians do attach great importance to confessing a Creed, and in that sense Christianity is the most creedal of the world’s major religions.
Jews have the Shema, which is to be said twice each day. It is a selection of critical scriptures that begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Muslims have the Shehada, the witness, whose confession is one of the five pillars of the faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Both the Shema and the Shehada are held to be critical things to say and to believe, but neither is the kind of precise summary of doctrine that Christians would call a Creed. Hinduism is a very elastic system, emphasizing a diversity of belief, so the idea of a creed is rather foreign to it. Similarly, Buddhism is very diverse. Shin Buddhists in America use a short, general affirmation, and some Buddhists affirm their faith out loud by reciting the Three Jewels or the Five Precepts. But these have more to do with practice than with belief—a bit like a Christian reciting the Eight Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor,” and so forth, from the Sermon on the Mount) or the Ten Commandments.
Believing and Confessing
The major Creeds of Christianity developed over a number of centuries, but the creedal impulse itself seems to be as old as Christianity, and older. Even in the first few decades after Jesus’ death, some Christian leaders thought it was critically important to have certain beliefs, and to say them aloud: that is, to believe, and to confess. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote:
… because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Rom. 10:9-10)
To believe certain things about God and Jesus, and to say you believe them—I think it’s fair to say that for Paul, in the first century, that was a critical part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Although surviving texts from the second century are rare, scholars believe that baptism in those early churches generally required new members to make some kind of formulaic confession of belief. These baptismal Creeds were not standardized, but differed slightly from church to church.
The history of the Apostles’ Creed is complicated, and is the subject of many scholarly debates. There’s a legend about how it was compiled from twelve pieces, one contributed by each of the twelve apostles. The evidence, however, suggests a much longer and messier evolution. Our oldest complete examples of the Apostles’ Creed are from the eighth century. But the pieces of it are much older, and clearly derived from various shorter Creeds, including the baptismal Creeds, going back to the second century. So although the Apostles’ Creed changed and grew through a centuries-long process, the old legend has at least this much truth in it: the roots of the Apostles’ Creed may reach back into the lifetimes of at least some of the original apostles.
This is the version of the Apostles’ Creed used by the Roman Catholic Church today:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Different denominations use modest variations of this. (For instance, the United Methodist church omits the line, “He descended to the dead.”)
Another word for Creed is symbol—that’s a usage you rarely encounter outside of theological circles, but it’s from the original words for those early Christian Creeds, the Latin word symbolum and the Greek sumbolon. The Greco-Roman world before Christianity didn’t have anything much like a Creed, and consequently didn’t really have a word for such things. That Greek word sumbolon referred to a secret password or enigmatic phrase used to identify members of a religious group: to prove you belonged to the group, you said its sumbolon. Christians borrowed that word for their Creeds, but a Christian sumbolon was really something new: it was partly about claiming group identity, but only partly. It was also meant as a clear summary of belief. Some of the earliest Christian Creeds do appear to have been treated as secrets taught only to the initiated—that’s part of what makes it hard for scholars to find much evidence about them, because they were not, at first, widely written and copied. But as they became more standardized, so they also became less secret.
That Greek word sumbolon was also used for physical tokens of identification. For instance, a sumbolon might be one of the two halves of a broken piece of pottery. When a stranger arrived and presented a sumbolon, you could check it against your sumbolon. If they matched along the broken edge, it meant that the stranger was indeed sent by the same person who gave you yours. And that has a significant parallel with Christian Creeds, too: each piece of the Apostle’s Creed represents a break of some kind. Each piece of a Creed represents a split that divided the world into insiders and outsiders, orthodox and heretic.
Creeds grow up around points of conflict and breakage, so they are full of scars from early church struggles. For example, the Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”. Why bother putting in something like that?—precisely because some early Christians didn’t think so. Some groups thought Jesus was so superhuman, so supernatural, that he didn’t really suffer like an ordinary person; and some others told a story of how Pilate was an okay guy who should be admired for the way he tried to resist the murderous crowd that wanted to kill Jesus. It is common now to refer to such groups as heretical, but they were no such thing at the time: they were Christians who disagreed with other Christians, and who argued over their disagreement, and lost. A heretic is really just someone on the losing side of a religious argument.
Or for another example: the Apostles’ Creed says that God is the “creator of heaven and earth”, precisely because some early Christians didn’t think so. Some groups thought that the god who created heaven and earth in the Genesis story, the god of the Old Testament, was a vengeful and petty character who simply couldn’t be the same as the forgiving and loving God of the New Testament. They lost the argument; the winners wrote the Creed.
And—let’s be honest about this—these arguments among early Christians were not just civilized theological debates. People claiming to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth have persecuted, driven away, and killed other people claiming to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth, over doctrinal disagreements that are memorialized in the Creeds. Like old battlefields, the Creeds seem peaceful now, and the grass grows over them, but underneath the ground remembers bloodshed.
The Nicene Creed
The other major Creed of Christianity is the Nicene Creed, which dates from the fourth century. Glossing over minor differences in preferred translations from the Greek of the fourth century, this same Creed is still used in the vast majority of Christian denominations. Here’s a widely used modern translation:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified
under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living
and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord,
the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son
is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic
and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
As you can see, this is more detailed than the Apostles’ Creed in a number of ways, but where the two Creeds overlap, they agree. This demonstrates a key property of Creeds: when they change, it is almost always by addition. (In the same way, when pottery changes, it is almost always by further fragmentation; it is far easier to break apart than to put back together.)
In 381, a church council held in the city of Constantinople adopted this Creed. So then why isn’t it called the “Constantinopolitan Creed”? That would certainly be a more accurate name. But a critical predecessor of this Creed was adopted at an earlier council in 325, in the city of Nicea. That First Council of Nicea was the first “ecumenical council” in church history—that is, the first council to which all the bishops of the world were invited. So perhaps calling this the “Nicene Creed” has been a way of claiming unique priority for it. (Or perhaps it’s just that “Nicene Creed” is so much easier to say.)
That original Creed of Nicea was a good deal shorter, and was mostly concerned to resolve a critical controversy by specifying exactly what Christians should believe and confess about the relation between Jesus and God. But before we consider that controversy, I think it is important to observe how much agreement was already represented when the council began. Both sides in the controversy believed that Jesus was the divine Son of God, and that he had existed since the beginning of creation. As far as we know, none of the church leaders present would have argued that Jesus was just a man, albeit a great prophet, teacher, and healer; nor that he was only adopted as the Son of God at his baptism; nor that he came into existence only at his birth in Bethlehem; nor that his mother Mary was not literally a virgin when he was born; nor that he was really a spirit-being who only appeared to have a physical body; nor any of the many other beliefs about Jesus that some of his followers had once affirmed (and, indeed, still do). It is likely that all of the church leaders present would have used Creeds quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed in their own churches.
So at the First Council of Nicea, we are not seeing a particularly fluid moment in the history of Christian doctrine. The church already had more than two centuries of development behind it, centuries in which the lines between orthodox and heretic were ever more strongly drawn. In 325, this process had just recently become entangled with, and further energized by, state politics. Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313, and was adopted by the Emperor Constantine. It was the emperor who called the Council of Nicea, presided at it, and backed up its decisions with the power of the state.
Now, this was the central debate of the council: there was a controversial church leader named Arius who taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was not actually identical with God. According to Arius, Jesus was God’s first and greatest creation, through whom everything else was then created. (This is more or less what today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses believe about Jesus.) This conflicted with the teachings of other church leaders, particularly Athanasius, who taught that Jesus had never been created, because he had no beginning or end, because he actually was God.
The council decided against Arius, and against any compromise position, and adopted a creed affirming the belief that Jesus is God. The council adopted wording that specifically contradicted Arius’ claim, including familiar and delicately mystifying phrases like “eternally begotten” and “being of one substance with the Father”. Those who refused to confess this creed (including Arius himself) were excommunicated and exiled. According to legend, Arius was not only excommunicated and exiled, but also smacked in the heat of the debate—by, of all people, Saint Nicholas. (Apparently Arius was naughty, rather than nice.)
So the core of the Creed was born. It was considerably elaborated at Constantinople in 381, producing our “Nicene Creed”, almost exactly as it is still confessed today by most Christians around the world.
There remains one chapter of the story: one small point in which the Nicene Creed used in Eastern Christianity (as in the Eastern Orthodox churches) differs from that used in Western Christianity (such as the Roman Catholic and most Protestant churches). The Creed shown above is a Western version: it asserts that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, while the Eastern version (which is the original version from 381) asserts that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”—a tiny difference with a huge consequence. The difference amounts to exactly one word in Latin—Filioque. How that word came to be added in the West, and how it contributed to the great East-West schism of 1054, and how it remains a source of conflict between Eastern and Western churches, are stories I will pass over. Suffice it to say that they are strife-filled and yet tedious, in a way that somehow seems typical of creedal developments.