What Are The Creeds?
As we moved through the Spring, we encountered questions in Theology Matters like “What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary?” or “What do we mean when we say that he descended to the dead?” These questions draw us to contemplate various clauses in the Creeds. Which brings us to a larger question: “what exactly are the Creeds?”
At the historical level, the Creeds are the summary of what the Church believes as the faith handed down from the apostles to their successors. Starting notably with St. Paul’s assertion in his Corinthian epistle, he states that he delivered (Gk: paradidomi) to the Corinthian church what he had received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, raised on the third day, and appeared to many witnesses (I Cor 15:3-4). These are proto-Creedal statements.
Notice two things. First, St. Paul says that these events are according to the Scriptures. Obviously, given that the New Testament had not yet been fully compiled when St. Paul wrote this epistle, “the Scriptures” refers to the Old Testament. In other words, St. Paul is saying that Christ’s life is according to what was prophesied and revealed in the Old Testament. Second is the significance of “paradidomi”. Embedded in this word is the nuance that St. Paul had no creative authority over this “data” but that it was entrusted to him, and he entrusted it to others. To put it another way, this is not something that St. Paul invented, let alone his colleague apostles or their successors. Christ’s life was foretold in the Old Testament, manifested in the apostles’ time, and recorded and handed down to their successors, the bishops of the early church.
In time, more clauses were added as summarized from the apostolic writings, i.e.: what would later be canonized as the New Testament. Many of these clauses were part of the “apostolic rule of faith”—a regulatory corpus of data of God’s person and salvific work. While the historical circumstances included bishops contending for the faith over and against various doctrinal departures in diverse times and places, the content that they used to contend for the faith was remarkably consistent and uniform. One only has to read Irenaeus writing Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching in ~180 AD in Turkey, and Tertullian writing De Praescriptione Haereticorum in ~200 AD in Tunisia to see this. And this was a hundred years before the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). This I think calls into question the various Dan Brown-esque theories about the Creeds that are decidedly historically unfounded.
While this sets the historical emergence of the Creeds, it poses another question: what is the faith that the Creeds proclaim? Perhaps we need to explore the historical circumstances surrounding the formation of the Creeds. As mentioned before, the Creeds arose in the midst of doctrinal conflict against the Arians, the Marcions, the Gnostics, etc. But what made the church fathers certain that these doctrinal departures were divergent to the point of justifying condemnation? For this, we go back to St. Paul’s assertion “according to the Scriptures”. The more we read the New Testament, we get the unshakeable impression that for the God-fearing Jewish apostles who worshipped YHWH, the life and ministry of Jesus had considerable continuity with YHWH. First, it meant that YHWH had begun fulfilling his plan to save Israel and the Nations through his Anointed One and pour out his presence on all flesh—as he had spoken through the Prophets. Second, because of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, his claims to divine kingship that earned him a death sentence, his bodily resurrection and ascension, and Pentecost, it meant that Jesus was fully divine in substance and authority. Yet, Judaism was strictly monotheist. So either Jesus was another god co-equal with YHWH which undermines monotheism; or Jesus was somewhat less than YHWH. But if Jesus was less than YHWH, can humanity and the cosmos be saved and brought into full communion with God, by something less than God? Alternatively, if Jesus was co-equal with YHWH but not a second god, how does one still maintain Jewish monotheism? At the heart of these questions were two equally important thoughts that the apostles assumed. First, God alone is God. Second, humanity must be fully saved to full communion with God. The various contentions against the faith departed at precisely these two points. Some claimed that Jesus Christ was a lesser god yet deserving of worship. Others claimed that only our souls were saved, but not our bodies. Still others claimed that there was sharp discontinuity with God’s revealed plan of salvation in the Old Testament compared with the New. Of course, this went against the very heart of the apostles’ Jewish heritage, not to mention Jesus’ Jewish-ness. It wasn’t surprising therefore that the apostles and their successors wanted to preserve the integrity of what was entrusted to them about God’s saving work towards them in Christ. In other words, while the Creeds were written in times of conflict, the heart of the Creeds is to proclaim the God who has given us himself in Jesus Christ and saved humanity and creation to enjoy his presence. This is the faith that the Creeds proclaim: God the Father saving the World to himself in Jesus Christ through his Spirit.
While being a summary of who God is and how he has saved us, the Creeds finally also shape us as the people of God. This is why two things make sense: that the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds begin with “I/We believe”, and their liturgical presence. The Creeds do not begin with “God is”, although this is theologically true. The Creeds begin with “I/We believe”. What we translate “believe”, in Greek goes beyond cerebral assent to a whole way of reordered living. “I/We believe” is the same as saying “I/We affirm and live in light of” the Triune God who has saved us in Baptism for Communion with himself. When we recite the Creeds, we really are simultaneously reminding ourselves and each other audibly what God has done for us and how this affects our lives. Which is why the Creeds are present in the Eucharistic liturgy after the proclamation of the Word—the revelation of God’s saving work, and before the Sacrament of Communion—our earthly participation in the banquet of God, before being dismissed as his hands and feet into his World. The Creeds then are more than just proclaimed summaries. Rather, they inform and reorder our very lives as those caught up in relationship with God. They invite us to consider how great a love for us has been enacted by our God, and to live in light of that love in his world.