I am starting a new blog series today on Christian Creeds. Through my own study, and my Christian History class at Moody, I have become very convicted about the importance and necessity of Creeds in the life of a Christian. Sadly, their importance has been diminished as the church moves away from a denominational structure and into a more non-denominational one. Creeds tend to be associated with high church models and dead religion, endlessly repeating the same lines without meaning them at all. However, historically this is not how we should view the creeds. It is ironic that they have taken on this “dead church/ dead religion” visage, because they have in times past been a sign of a vibrant faith. I hope to show that to you through this brief education on the creeds. If you wish to know more about the creeds and the early church just get some of the books I am referencing because they are great sources.
First, it is necessary to have a proper definition of the words used through history for statements we now know as “creeds.”
A Creed, or Rule of Faith, or Symbol, is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church. (Schaff, 3-4)
In a day of the church when Creeds are generally looked down upon, if not out right rejected, the question might be asked, “why are these necessary?” That is a great question to ask, and one that is very important to understanding the formation of the church and scripture.
Recall that in the introduction we talked about the word “catholic” as meaning “universal.” It is a word that defines something desirable: unified, worldwide belief in the truth, instead of sectarian aberration and heretical lies. But this universal orthodoxy within the church was not achieved right out of the gate. Instead, the historical evidence shows that Jesus was almost immediately subjected to competing attempts to interpret him in various ways. Among the many attempts, the Gnostic sects were the most vocal. They advanced their own Jesuses, and thus their own Christianities. Irenaeus was locked in a battle with them for the definition of authentic Christianity. But how could such a thing be determined definitively?
From our vantage point today, we might be tempted to define the “orthodox” as the group that was “biblical.” But such an approach wouldn’t have worked in the second century, since there was not yet an agree-upon Bible containing two testaments, much less to offer a precise definition of which books should be included in it. Although most of the biblical writings were already circulating among the churches, the process of delineating a proper canon still awaited finalization. As we will see, Irenaeus was one of the leading figures in establishing the canon of scripture. Until this standard was put solidly in place, the heretical actions tried vigorously to make the scriptures heir own. It was not that some groups used sacred writings and others avoided them. Rather, the questions were: Which texts are authoritative? How should they be interpreted? By what authority do they speak? Whose interpretations of them are correct? These are the questions Irenaeus was attempting to answer once and for all.
The way to determine orthodoxy, according to Irenaeus, was to go back to what the apostles had proclaimed as Christ’s own word. To achieve this, Irenaeus argued for three main things: (1) a catholic church whose leaders drew their authority from teaching the same doctrines as the apostles; (2) a catholic church whose Bible is comprised of two testaments, written by prophets and apostles; and (3) a catholic church whose Bible is interpreted in light of the apostolic preaching summarized in the early creeds, instead of by fanciful narratives and cosmic mythology. (Litfin, 78-79)
How important were the early Creeds? So important they helped to ground the church in apostolic doctrine before all the scriptures that would form the New Testament had been completely collected.
Next to the Gospels, the book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles enjoyed early recognition. Thus, by the end of the second century the core of the canon was established: the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles. On the shorter books that appear toward the end of the present canon, there was no consensus until a much later date; but there also was little debate. The book of Revelation, widely accepted by the third century, was questioned after the conversion of Constantine, for its words about the prevailing culture and the empire seemed too harsh. It was in the second half of the fourth century that a complete consensus was achieved regarding exactly which books ought to be included in the New Testament, and which ought not to be included. Even then, this was not decided by an official council nor by any other decision-making body, but was rather a matter of consensus—which in itself shows that very few considered this a burning issue. Furthermore, in this entire process the guiding concern was not theology in the abstract sense, but the life of worship, for the main question was, is this book to be read when the church gathers for worship?
Another element in the church’s response to heresies was the use of various creeds, particularly in baptism. Quite often the church in a particular city had its own creedal formula, although similar to others in neighboring cities. Apparently what happened was that a “daughter” church used the formula it had learned from the “mother church,” although with some variations. On this basis, scholars have classified ancient creeds into “families,” and such families can then be used to trace the relationship among various churches.
One of these creeds was an earlier and shorter formulation of what we now call the Apostles’ Creed. The notion that the apostles gathered before beginning their mission and composed this creed, each suggesting a clause, is pure fiction. The truth is that its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year 150. Due to its use in Rome, the ancient form of the Apostles’ Creed is called “R” by scholars. At the time, however, it was called “the symbol of the faith.” The word symbol in this context did not mean what it does to us today; rather, it meant “a means of recognition,” such as a token that a general gave to a messenger, so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger. Likewise, the “symbol” put together in Rome was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies circulating at the time, particularly Gnosticism and Marcionism. Any who could affirm this creed were neither Gnostics nor Marcionites. (Gonzalez, 76-77)
This word “symbol” used had some interesting usage that will help us to understand exactly how the early Christians were using it; and, even more fundamentally, how Christians viewed themselves.
It (symbol) was first used in a theological sense by Cyprian, A.D. 250 (Ep. 76, al. 69, ad Magnum, where it is said of the schismatic Novatianus, ‘eodem SYMBOLO, quo et nos, baptizare’), and then very generally since the fourth century. It was chiefly applied to the Apostles’ Creed as the baptismal confession by which Christians could be known and distinguished from Jews, heathen, and heretics, in the sense of a military signal or watchword (tessera militaris); the Christians being regarded as soldiers of Christ fighting under the banner of the cross. Ambrose (d. 397) calls it ‘cordis signaculum et nostrae militiae sacramentum.’ Rufinus, in his Expositio in Symb. Apost., uses the word likewise in the military sense, but gives it also the meaning collatio, contributio (confounding symbolon with symbolee), with reference to the legend of the origin of the creed from contributions of the twelve apostles (‘quod plures in unum conferunt; id enim fecerunt apostolic,’ etc.). (Schaff, 3)
Without a doubt Creeds were very instrumental in forming the early church and the Christians that recited them. They represented the standard theological understanding of the day, the common faith all Christians possess. Though we may react against any kind of creed in this post-modern era, it is impossible to overemphasize their importance in the historic Christian faith. I will close with this great summary of their importance.
There is a development in the history of symbols. They assume a more definite shape with the progress of biblical and theological knowledge. They are mile-stones and finger-boards in the history of Christian doctrine. They embody the faith of generations, and the most valuable results of religious controversies. They still shape and regulate the theological thinking and public teaching of the churches of Christendom. They keep alive sectarian strifes and antagonisms, but they reveal also the underlying agreement, and foreshadow the possibility of future harmony. (Schaff, 4)
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume I The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins. 2010. Print.
Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos. 2007. Print.
Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom: Volume I The History of Creeds. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1993. Print.