What processes lay behind the emergence of the first creeds?

Why do you think the first Christians put such a high premium on right belief?

How would you assess the importance of orthodoxy for the church today?

The first embryonic creedal passages are found in the New Testament, some twofold as in John 17:3 “eternal life is this: to know you are the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” and some threefold as in 2 Corinthians 1:21 “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” and also where there is a strong link between baptism and a threefold statement of belief in “…… make disciples of all the nations; baptise then in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28:19. The motives for these short formularies are varied: a witness to non-believers, a spontaneous and creative exclamation of belief, even as a test of orthodoxy and many other motives which later led to the production of creeds and declarations as Christians first struggled to find words for their experience of God.

By the 2nd and 3rd centuries there is some evidence of short summaries of the Christian faith, for example in the Apology of Justin the Martyr, “we revere and worship Him and the Son, who came from Him and taught us these things and the prophetic Spirit”[1]. Even more important are the questions that were asked of the candidate for baptism in Justin’s church[2]: “Do you believe in the Father and Lord God of the universe? Do you believe in Jesus Christ our Saviour who was crucified, under Pontius Pilate? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit who spoke by the prophets?” It is from these three questions, which became almost universal throughout the church in the 3rd century, that the standard form of the classic creeds is derived.   The training period before baptism and initiation into the church was therefore an important part of the process of formulation of the creeds. From the middle of the 4th Century onwards there exists a number of Lenten sermons surviving from various parts of the Christian world which appear to be a commentary on the creed and so various local creeds can be constructed from them.

Therefore, it seems that the early Creeds did not originate as a test of orthodoxy but as summaries of faith taught to new Christians handed on orally. These summaries were traditional to each local church and the detail varied from place to place[3]. The creeds were not yet fixed and should be seen more in the context of baptism, as interrogatory creeds rather than declaratory creeds. It is possible to compare some of these creeds and see the differences between the Western creed which later became the Apostles’ creed and was based on the Old Roman creed as quoted by Rufinus[4] and in the text of Hippolytus from the Apostolic Tradition[5] and the Eastern creed, based on local creeds, which was later confirmed as the Nicene creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Interestingly neither has an explicit doctrine of the Trinity spelt out systematically: the three characters in the story are described and implicitly related to one another. This shows that the fundamental nature of these early creeds was as a summary of the Gospels not a summary of doctrine. As Cyril of Jerusalem put it in his Catechetical Lectures (V.12) “Since all cannot read the scriptures, some being hindered from knowing them by lack of education, and others by want of leisure, …… we comprise the whole doctrine of the faith in a few lines.”[6] These were to be committed to memory. Thus one process in the formation of the creeds was that of summaries of the Christian faith, although not yet as fixed formularies, for example in the “Rule of Faith” or the “Canon of Truth” which were cited by writers such as Irenaeus in Gaul, Tertullian in North Africa and Origen in Egypt.

However, there was another process in the emergence of the first creeds and that is as tests of orthodoxy. Even in the New Testament there was internal controversy and attempts to establish true teaching over false teaching. This struggle about insisting on “right belief” continued with “Docetism” which suggested that Jesus was a kind of human disguise for the divine Christ and resulted in a more careful definition of Jesus as the son of God, especially in the eastern churches. The conflict with false teaching became greater in the struggle with Gnosticism in the second century and later with Arianism. Gradually the early creeds developed from being a means of passing on the faith orally and became standard summaries to which appeal could be made when there was a doctrinal dispute. The cause of some of these difficulties was in the difference between the more speculative Greek speaking East and the more matter of fact Latin speaking West. At the beginning of the 4th Century. Perhaps this is shown most clearly in the non-scriptural word “ousia” which was translated into Latin as “substantia”.

However, the pressure which changed the creeds into tests of orthodoxy was already present long before the imperial and political pressures induced the ecumenical councils to use creeds to define acceptable orthodox belief in a search for unity which would inevitably and paradoxically exacerbate division. When Constantine became the Emperor and Christianity was declared the official religion of the whole of the Roman world, the visible unity of the church mattered to the church itself and the state. In 325 at the Council of Nicea there was an attempt to get the church to settle its doctrinal differences and there was state pressure on the church to get a formula to which all parties could consent and thus preserve unity. The struggles to preserve “true belief” over “false belief” contributed to the shaping of the creeds and even before Nicea bishops had met in Council to deal with members of their own number who failed to teach what the consensus demanded but now there was the availability of imperial power to enforce the decisions of the Council and provide the bishops with greater effectiveness in exercising their authority on earth.

The early Christians put such a high premium on right belief because of several possible factors dating from before the association with the creeds as tests of orthodoxy. “True belief” became an issue because the Christian story was adapted and exploited by groups with very different views of how to account for it and because of the difficulties of transforming a very personal experience into words. Secondly Christianity inherited the exclusive loyalty of Judaism to the one true God and could not allow that any other revelations, or any other gods has any reality. At a time when neo -Platonism and other philosophies were widespread and allowed the possibilities of many different ways to the truth, Christianity inherited Jewish opposition to idolatry and religious exclusivity.[7] Thirdly the experience of rejection and persecution from both Jews and pagans forged the earliest Christian groups into close-knit, highly disciplined groups, prepared to accept their leaders as the authoritative bearers of the tradition which had laid its exclusive claim upon all the group’s members and given them a new identity. These factors stimulated cohesion and a need for authority which in itself provoked conflict.[8]

The early creeds of the church were written nearly eighteen hundred years ago and in response to certain situations. A quick search in Google shows how many creedal statements have been written since. Some in response to theological arguments, some like the German Confessing Church, in Nazi Germany, in response to political argument. New ideas of evolution in the 19th century and new scholarship have changed perceptions. There have been new discoveries such as the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library. There has been a critical process by which the ideas of one generation of scholars are challenged by the next and so new insights are the result.[9] In such circumstances, it would be extremely difficult to write a new creed which could be accepted by any one church, let alone all churches. “To try to construct any such creed would, in fact, lay bare the things which divide, far more than state the things which unite.”[10] Consequently, a new creed would not lead to orthodoxy, rather the opposite.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will teach them all truth, will bring all things to their remembrance, will take of the things of Christ and show them to them, will tell them things which at the moment they could not bear. (John 14:26, 16:12-14). The search for orthodoxy therefore will continue as a process of our understanding all statements of the Christian faith expands. The church had a creed long before it had the Apostles’, Athanasius’ and Nicene creeds. It is a very short and uncompromising statement: Jesus Christ is Lord (Romans 10.9, Philippians 2:11). Thus the importance of orthodoxy lies in the acceptance of this and all creeds should be understood in the light of what St Paul wrote.

Book List

Barclay William: The Apostles’ Creed 1998

Kelly, J.N.D Early Christian Creeds 1950

Toy, Revd Canon John: Saying what we believe York Minster lectures 1986

Young, Frances: The Making of the Creeds 1991

[1] Apology 1 6:2 quoted in “Saying what we believe” by Canon John Toy

[2] J.N.D.Kelly: Early Christian Creeds

[3] Francis Young: The Making of the Creeds

[4] J.N.D. Kelly op.cit.

[5] John Toy op.cit.

[6] Quoted in Francis Young op.cit.

[7] Frances Young op.cit

[8] Frances Young op.cit

[9] Frances Young op.cit

[10] William Barclay The Apostles’ Creed