In the 150 episodes of Season 1, and now 9 episodes into Season 2 of CS, our review of the History of the Christian Church has only touched on the Creeds incidentally. We’ve mentioned the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and so on. But we’ve not gone into depth on any of them. There are some students and scholars of Church History who’d consider that a kind of academic crime. To neglect the creeds as we have would be like studying flight without considering the rules of aerodynamics. It’s unthinkable!
John Leith begins his book Creeds of the Churches, “Christianity has always been a ‘creedal’ religion in that it has always been theological.” The Christian Faith was birthed from a thoroughly theological Judaism with clearly defined doctrinal positions. Christianity isn’t, as some have tried to recast it in recent times, an amorphous spiritualism that shuns an agreed on body of theological content in favor of a purely personal experience of the supernatural. Christianity is a religion whose content derives from the revelation of God in time and space. Christianity, like the Judaism that birthed it, embraces a profound connection to historical events. There really was a man named Jesus Who proved to be the Son of God by rising from the dead.
While there is a definite emotional component in following Jesus, it’s subordinate to the rational object that frames the core of the Gospel. Jesus died & rose again. The Christian firmly maintains that these are historical events. Her/His relationship with God isn’t ad hoc; it isn’t a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants improvisation. It’s a careful obedience to a path and pattern clearly articulated by God as revealed in Sacred Scripture. The Christian doesn’t make up their deity then follow that by whim. They take the Bible as the definitive revelation of God & bend their will to that.
Orthodoxy is the way the Church has understood the Faith and its individual doctrines since its inception. Orthodoxy is what we might call the Church’s standard way of interpreting Scripture to derive those beliefs and practices that have come to frame the Faith.
And the passage of years has seen constant challenges to that orthodoxy. The challenges come mainly from two sources. First are those who mis-interpret Scripture, and second are those who begin with a pre-supposition contrary to the truth, then go in search of support by bending Scripture, or contradicting it.
Most of the early heresies and challenges to the Faith were from this second source. Outsiders came up with their own religious positions and thought to take advantage of the burgeoning energy among the Christians by tweaking their terms and ideas in ways that sounded similar to the Gospel. They hoped to make Jesus the pitchman for their religious brand.
But Church leaders and mature believers realized these guys were religious con-artists and opposed them by going back to the source, the Scripture and parsing the pertinent texts to derive at a correct interpretation that pulled the rug out from under the false teachers & heretics. That’s what the Church did with guys & movements like Marcion & the Gnostics.
But the ideas spawned by Gnosticism managed to hang on for a long time. They eventually influenced not a few Church leaders, the very guys who ought to have been the standard bearers of orthodoxy. When it became clear things had reached a crisis, the Emperor Constantine hearkened to the counsel of several church leaders and called a large gathering of church leaders, bishops; that is pastors of some of the larger & more influential churches across the Empire. They met in Nicaea in 325 to set out in clear terms what the Bible said about the nature of Jesus, as well as to deal with some lesser issues the Church had grappled with over the previous decades.
But before we get to that First Council and the Creed it produced, let’s back up . . .
There have been attempts to produce a creedless Christianity. Indeed, some have disparaged creedal formulas as a way to shove God into a man-made box; to make God manageable, and so malleable & marketable. Those who argue for a faith divorced from creeds vaunt God’s infinity, His transcendence, His other-ness. They claim any attempt to reduce God to something the rational mind can access demeans and denigrates Him. An Orthodox take on Christianity maintains that God certainly is infinite, transcendent and other, but He is not the WHOLLY OTHER deity of Islam’s Allah. He also possesses traits accessible to the rational mind and seeking soul. The whole message of the Bible is that God pursues a real & intimate relationship with human beings. He wants us to know Him. That’s what The Gospel is all about; restoring the relationship between God and man broken by man’s failure and sin, but renewed through the work of the God-Man, Christ.
Both the Old Testament and New agree, the greatest commandment is that people love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Christian Faith isn’t just something for an esoteric corner of a person’s spiritual life. It embraces all she/he has and is, including the intellect. The God of the Bible is the True God, a God of Truth. That truth enters & impacts the soul via the rational mind.
Creeds are an attempt to give articulate expression to what Christians believe. They cull what Scripture says on various issues and succinctly states that in other terms. That there are multiple creeds comes from the fact that over time, various issues were challenged, different doctrines needed to be more carefully articulated. And to be frank, some creeds opened a door to misinterpretation that only later challenge revealed.
But this is not to say every creed accurately expressed what has come too be regarded as orthodoxy by each branch and stream of Christianity. Some creeds were partisan endeavors that ensconced that group’s position on an issue, in contrast to the creed adopted by another group.
Some creeds were long and formal; others short & informal. Some were simply widely accepted slogans used by early believers as formulas capturing the essence of their faith on an issue. Others were many pages in length and were the official findings of a council that met for months, and in some cases, years!
Examples of the simple & short creeds lie in Deut 6 & Judaism’s Shema: “Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Paul hints at an early credo when in 1 Cor 12:3 he speaks of those who say, “Jesus is Lord.”
Another is Rom 10:9 where Paul refers to confessing with the lips that Jesus is Lord and that issuing into salvation.
1 Tim 3:16 is regarded by most Bible scholars as an early Creed, as is Phil 2:6-11.
In the very early 2nd C, Ignatius pens in his letter to the Trallians what we might call a standard catechism of what Christians at that time believed.
In the mid 2nd C we have the Epistula Apostolrum which said Christians believed, “In the Father, the Ruler of the Universe; And in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; In the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete; In the Holy Church; and in the forgiveness of sins.”
About 165 Justin Martyr produced a creed, as did the elders of Smyrna about 180.
Then about 190, Irenaeus and a decade later Tertullian both prepared what they clearly intended to be definitive statements on what Christians believed. All these early creedal expressions contain the same things; a belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, as well as a conviction forgiveness form sin and salvation come through faith in the atoning work of Jesus. Furthermore, all those who’ve put their faith in Jesus have become a new community of a new humanity called the Church.
But in terms of the history of the Creeds, the one regarded to be the first is called the Apostle’s Creed. Legend says it was composed by the Apostles under the inspiration of the HS, on the 10th day after Christ’s Ascension. It most certainly wasn’t. If it had been, it would have been included in the text of Scripture. The Apostle’s Creed says,
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit.
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
While the title Apostle’s Creed suggests it’s the earliest of the Creeds, the truth is, it’s earliest evidence lies in the late 6th C! almost 300 yrs after the Nicaean Creed. What we can say about the Apostle’s Creed, however, is that nearly all it’s individual tenets are found in previous summaries of the faith by AD 100. The Apostle’s Creed as it finally came to form lies in a creed developed at Rome at the end of the 2nd C, which grew over time and was most completely expressed in the Creed of Marcellus in 340.
As beloved and highly regarded as the Apostles Creed is in Western Christianity, in the mid 15th C, at the Council of Florence, the Eastern Church confessed they knew nothing of an Apostle’s Creed.
Indeed, in the East, the history of the creeds is shadowed in obscurity. Scholars have simply come up short in their attempt to find a cohesive and universal Eastern Creed prior to the 4th C. It seems there was great unanimity among the Churches of the East but that each developed its own credos. In 325, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, produce this Creed,
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, the only-begotten Son, the first-born of every creature, begotten of God the Father before all ages, by whom also all things were made; who for our salvation was made flesh and made his home among men; and suffered; and rose on the third day; and ascended to the Father; and will come again in glory, to judge the quick and the dead.
We believe also in one Holy Ghost.
We’ll pick it up at this point in our next episode as we look at the background for the First Council of Nicaea and the important but controversial creed it produced.