As we continue to consider the role of tradition in the church, one of the first places to start is with the ecumenical creeds. As we have seen, “No creed but the Bible” is itself a creed, and a poor one at that. Nobody is actually capable of living according to that… creed. You can pretend that Scripture is all you use for doctrine and right living, but if you take a step back, you’ll discover that you (and your church) absolutely have a creed. It may be unwritten, but it comes out in the sermons, in the liturgy, in the Sunday School lessons, and in the home. The alternative to this is to acknowledge that God has created us in such a way that we must interpret Scripture—and thus confess what we believe in creeds, embrace tradition, and joyfully study and proclaim what the church throughout the ages has established.
What is a Creed?
So what is a creed? A creed is a confession of faith, designed for public use and proclamation, that is meant to declare with authority certain statements of belief necessary for salvation or at least necessary for the health of the church. As we will see, some creeds are brief and rather simple, such as the Apostles Creed. Others are more elaborate and extremely specific in theological language, such as the Definition of Chalcedon. Often creeds are the result of a theological controversy in the church which God is pleased to use to explore, define, and establish doctrine for His people.
Authority of Creeds
An important question to answer is, “What authority do creeds have?” The Westminster Confession of Faith (a type of creed itself called a confession, which we will consider shortly) says that it is the role of synods and councils to authoritatively determine controversies in the faith. Insofar as they agree with the Word of God, the determinations of these councils are to be received and submitted to. However, the Confession continues, “All synod or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (WCF 31.2–3). This means that though councils and their creeds are authoritative, they are not infallible. That adjective belongs to Scripture alone. As Schaff wrote, the Scriptures are of God, the creeds and confessions are man’s response.
Usefulness of Creeds
As we have noted, when the church experienced new heresies and theological challenges, creeds were the outcome of these debates within the catholic church. Therefore, the first obvious use of creeds is that they define, publish, and preserve the theological advances of the church during times of intense crisis and debate. By stating clearly what Scripture teaches on certain doctrines, all Christians are able to compare the teachings of others against the established historic creeds.
A second use of creeds is that they are useful for instructing and catechizing believers in the essentials of the faith. Whether this is done in classes or simply during the recitation of a creed in the liturgy, the layman is able to interact with, study, and confess with his own mouth that which Christians have confessed for centuries concerning the faith.
Lastly, a third important use of creeds is the unity they bring to the church. In the creeds we find fundamental and basic doctrine that all Christians confess, creating a common bond across diverse churches that may differ in other areas of doctrine.
The earliest and most concise creed that we confess is the Apostles Creed. Its name does not refer to authorship, but instead refers to the content of the creed as being a summary of apostolic teaching. Being first and foundational, this creed could be considered the “Creed of creeds” in the way that the Lord’s Prayer is the “Prayer of prayers” or the Ten Commandments the “Law of laws.” According to A.A. Hodge, this creed was gradually formed by common consent in the early church, and was received universally by the church at the end of the second century. However, the earliest document we have of the full creed is from Rufinus, a learned monk who worked as a historian and theologian, at the end of the fourth century.
The Apostles Creed has a clear flow and logic, beginning with God the Father and creation, going onto Christ’s conception, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and ending with Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead unto judgment and the life everlasting. It is also a Trinitarian document, referring to all three Persons of the Godhead. The creed served as a “baptismal confession” that catechumens would learn as they prepared for to receive baptism and confessed at the time of their baptism.”
The creeds simplicity makes it “intelligible and edifying to a child” and at the same time “fresh and rich to the profoundest Christian scholar, who, as he advances in age, delights to go back to the primitive foundations and first principles. And while its simplicity has its advantages, it leaves room to be built on, as we now turn to the Nicene Creed.
The work that contributed to the Nicene Creed first began at the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in A.D. 325, and was completed at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in A.D. 381 (except for the “filioque” clause which was added in A.D. 569). Like the Apostles Creed, this document is received by the whole universal church (with the Eastern Orthodox taking exception to the last added clause). The Nicene Creed is important as it more explicitly establishes the doctrine of the Trinity by making clear the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
As stated earlier, creeds often come about during times of great disagreement and disruption in the church. This was the case regarding the Nicene Creed. Against the orthodox faith, a teacher named Arius declared that the Father alone was God and that the Son was the first and greatest of God’s creation, divine in some sense but not eternally co-equal with the Father. Refuting this belief we find the creed stating that Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…” The controversy continued until the Second Ecumenical Council, where more Trinitarian terms were developed such as “persons” (hypostasis) and the divinity of the Spirit was made explicit with the phrases, “who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]” and “with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified.”
Definition of Chalcedon
In A.D. 451 at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, the Definition of Chalcedon was formulated in order to explain the relationship between Christ’s divinity and humanity. While the Nicene Creed explicated Christ’s eternal divinity, the need was to now understand how this related to the Son becoming incarnate. Two errors had arisen concerning this: Eutychianism and Nestorianism.
Eutychianism taught that Christ had one nature, a mixture of human and divine. Refuting this error the creed states Christ has “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved…” Nestorianism taught that there were two separate persons, human and divine, in Christ. In response to this error, the creed states that the two natures of Christ come “together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son…” This understanding of Christ: fully God, fully human, one person, with two natures united but not confused is called the hypostatic union.
The Athanasian Creed is concerned with the theological controversies of the fifth century regarding the Christ’s person, and first appears in its current form around the end of the eighth century. It most certainly was not composed by Athanasius himself, but instead, like the Apostles Creed, is titled such since it confesses his doctrine. Martin Luther believed this document to be “the most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles.”
In the Athanasian Creed we find two parts. First, it aptly summarizes the work of the first four ecumenical councils and advances on the Nicene Creed as it very explicitly states the doctrine of the Trinity (by name) and equality of the Persons in the Godhead. Examples of this include, “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence… the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” The second part of the creed contains doctrine regarding the incarnation of Christ and His two natures in line with the Definition of Chalcedon. It states, “…although He is God and Man; yet He is not two, but one Christ… One altogether; not by confusion of Substance; but by unity of Person.”
Find other posts in this series here.
 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom Vol. I, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 22.
 Ibid. 26
 Ibid, 35.
 A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust), 5.
 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom Vol. I, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 37.
 Ibid. 35.
 Ibid. 58.
 Ibid. 62.