Creeds Part II- Primitive creeds and the Bible


Creeds, as seen in the last post, were extremely important to the formation of the early church. While it is easy to see their importance, we might ask the question, “Why did they start forming them?” It is helpful to look to the New Testament for this answer. The early creeds found in the second and third centuries were based around a baptismal formula given by Jesus. Before leaving His disciples, Jesus had some closing words to send the disciples out with:

And He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:46-49)

This power would come at Pentecost when they would receive the Holy Spirit, as elaborated in Luke’s continued narrative in he book of Acts:

And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:4-8)

Matthew also gives us a record of this account from a different angle, filling in some of the gaps missing in Luke’s depiction.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

It is clear that the apostles were given specific commands as the mission of the church. They were to: (1) preach repentance and forgiveness for sins; (2) to be witnesses to the life and resurrection of Christ; (3) to go forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth under the power of the Holy Spirit; (4) To baptize those who believed in the name of the trinity (Father, son, and Holy Spirit); (5) to teach these new believers in everything commanded by Christ. The early believers took this command seriously and the early Creeds were formed around this Trinitarian declaration.

As shown in the last post, the common use of a creed (or symbol) was in baptismal confession, where the believer proclaimed the basic truths of the Gospel that the early believers thought were necessary for salvation. Because they were very mission oriented, it is not hard to see how the early creeds were formed around this basic Trinitarian confession.

One of the main uses of this “symbol” was in baptism, where it was presented to the candidate in the form of a series of three questions:

Do you believe in God, the Father almighty?

Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

This is the core of what historians call “the old Roman symbol,” or simply R. It is obvious that this creed—like most ancient creeds—has been built around the Trinitarian formula that was used in baptism. Since one was baptized “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” these questions were posed as a test of true belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (Gonzalez, 77-78)

This early creed, in different forms yet with the same basic elements, is found throughout the early church.

I select, as a specimen, the descriptive account of Tertullian, who maintained against the heretics very strongly the unity of the traditional faith, but, on the other hand, also against the Roman Church (as a Montanist), the liberty of discipline and progress in Christian life… …In his tract against Praxeas (cap. 2) he mentions also, as an object of the rule of faith, ‘Spiritum Sanctum, paracletum, sanctificatorem fidei eorum qui credunt in Patrem et Filium et Spiritum Sanctum.’ We may even go further back to the middle and the beginning of the second century. The earliest trace of some of the leading articles of the Creed may be found in Ignatius, Epistola ad Trallianos, c. 9 (ed. Hefele, p. 192), where he says of Christ that he was truly born ‘of the Virgin Mary’ … was crucified and died… and was raised from the dead’… (Schaff, 17, footnote 3)

Iranaeus, writing in the early 2nd century, used these creeds as the rallying point for Christian theology, and a way of refuting heresy. He shows how the common practice was to recite these during Baptism.

We have already seen how Irenaeus castigated the Gnostics for tearing apart the “mosaic” of scripture and reassembling it into something foreign. What then was the proper key for biblical interpretation? For the orthodox church, the core message of Christianity was conveniently summed up by the creed used to instruct new converses before baptism. This “Rule of Faith” provided believers with a synopsis of what the Bible was all about. It certainly did not contain a bunch of myths about primal Aeons. Rather, the Rule taught one creator God who was revealed by the Spirit through the Hebrew prophets. This Father God has been supremely revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, who was incarnate by a virgin for our salvation. The future holds a final resurrection for all, with rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked from the Lord Jesus Christ. So we can see that for Iranaeus, the story of salvation was a comprehensive narrative of God’s redeeming work in human history. Irenaeus was one of the earliest patristic writers to see this big picture. The Rule of Faith became the organizing principle of his theology, since it outlined the overarching story of Christian redemption. (Litfin, 90-91)

While we can see the importance for the early church after the apostolic era, it may surprise Christians to realize that there is biblical precedent for the usage of creeds. In fact, Paul often comments on the usage of certain creedal formula’s using them as a profession in his letters.

One of the clearest usages of a creedal formula in Paul’s letters is found in 1 Corinthians, written while Paul was in Ephesus on his 3rd missionary journey around A.D. 55.

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

Gary Habermas in the book Case for Christ, explains exactly what this section in 1 Corinthians is while being interviewed by Lee Strobel:

 My challenge to Habermas was simple and direct: “Convince me it’s a creed.”

“Well, I can give you several solid reasons. First, Paul introduces it with the words received and delivered [or passed on in the NIV], which are technical rabbinic terms indicating he’s passing along holy tradition.

“Second,” Habermas said, looking down at his hands as he grabbed a finger at a time to emphasize each point he was making, “the text’s parallelism and stylized content indicate it’s a creed. Third, the original text uses Cephas for Peter, which is his Aramaic name. In fact, the Aramaic itself could indicate a very early origin. Fourth, the creed uses several other primitive phrases that Paul would not customarily use, like ‘the Twelve,’ ‘the third day,’ ‘he was raised,’ and others. Fifth, the use of certain words is similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration.” (Strobel, 229)

Continuing, Habermas elaborates on the dating of this important Gospel Creed.

            “We know that Pual wrote 1 Corinthians between A.D. 55 and 57. He indicated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 that he has passed on this creed to the church at Corinth, which would mean it must predate his visit there in A.D. 51. Therefore the creed was being used within twenty years of the Resurrection, which is quite early.

“However, I’d agree with the various scholars who trace it back even further, to within two to eight years of the Resurrection, or from about A.D. 32 to 38, when Paul received it in either Damascus or Jerusalem. SO this is incredibly early material—primitive, unadorned testimony to the fact that Jesus appeared alive to skeptics like Paul and James, as well as to Peter and the rest of the disciples.” (Strobel, 230)

But it can be dated even earlier.

            “I would concur with the scholars who believer Paul received this material three years after his conversion, when he took a trip to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. Paul describes that trip in Galatians 1:18-19, where he uses a very interesting Greek word—historeo.”

I wasn’t familiar with the meaning of the word. “Why is that significant?”

“Because this word indicates that he didn’t just casually shoot the breeze when he met with them. It shows this was an investigative inquiry. Paul was playing the role of an examiner, someone who was carefully checking this out. So the fact that Paul personally confirmed matters with two eyewitnesses who are specifically mentioned in the creed—Peter and James—gives this extra weight. One of the very few Jewish New Testament scholars, Pinchas Lapide, says the evidence in support of the creed is so strong that it ‘may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.’” (Strobel, 230-231)

Here we see one of the most ancient of creeds having an impact on the world today! Many scholars wish to discredit the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, yet here is evidence of it at the very early stages. Paul uses other common Christian expressions and creedal statements showing his approval of their veracity and effectiveness many times in his pastoral epistles.

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. (1 Timothy 1:15)

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. (1 Timothy 3:1)

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. (1 Timothy 4:6-9)

It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers. (2 Timothy 2:11-14)

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men. (Titus 3:5-8)

John MacArthur explains these statements:

This is a faithful saying (trustworthy). A phrase unique to the Pastoral Epistles (cf. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8), which announces a statement summarizing key doctrines. The phrase “worthy of all acceptance” gives the statement added emphasis. Apparently, these sayings were well known in the churches, as concise expressions of cardinal gospel truth. (MacArthur, 1779)

Lastly are two early Christian Hymns:

And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

James white explains the construction behind this:

Colossians 1:15-17 is considered by some to be an early Christian hymn. Its structure most definitely resembles the poetic style of a song, and one can find it easy to see how Paul would utilize song to teach doctrine in the churches. The principal verses relevant to our discussion of pre-existence form the first half of this passage – the second discusses the pre-eminence of Christ in redemption and in the Church. (White, web)

And the second:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)

James White again explains:

It, too, is hymnic in structure, and is set off as such by the New International Version. The major section comprises what is actually a sermon illustration of Paul’s in reference to his admonition to the Philippians to act in humility of mind toward one another. To support this point, Paul points to the person of Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of this attitude. Indeed, it is vital to understand the immediately preceding context when some phrases within the passage are encountered, as we shall see. (White, web)

As can be clearly seen, creeds were of great importance in the early church and would only grow in importance once great heresies began to spread. Even now, we cannot escape their importance, and why would we want to? I hope you will find these creeds, and those that follow, of great value and worth because it helps to remind us of the great tradition we stand in as Christians. I will close with the words of Paul who commands us to:

 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:18-19)

And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; (Acts 16:23-25)

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.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2005. Print.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom: Volume I The History of Creeds. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1993. Print.

White, James. “Alpha and Omega Ministries.” Alpha and Omega Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.


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