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A study of the Apostles Creed


Links to sections on this page:

- Why were the creeds written?
- The Apostles Creed
- The Nicene Creed
- Are the creeds still helpful?
- Bible Study
Links to other chapters:
1: Why creeds?
3: Studying the Apostles' Creed
4: The Place of Doubt
5: I Believe ...
6: God the Father Almighty...
7: ...And in Jesus Christ His only Son ....
8: ...dead and buried ...
9: ...I believe in the Holy Spirit

Chapter 2

Why Were The Creeds Written ?

To address doctrinal issues, the Apostles and the later church needed use language that precisely addressed the error of the times. Your study of the passage from 1 Timothy might have alerted you to some of the issues of the time. There would undoubtedly have been creeds even if there had been no doctrinal controversy, however it is true that most of the historic Christian creeds and confessions were hammered out on the anvil of controversy. 

In a certain sense they are to be seen as mile-stones in the history of Christian doctrine. By looking at them we can tell what disputes were going on at the time they were written. The creeds were forged in the crucible of debates, sometimes about nothing less than the nature God's very being. Great minds wrestled with how to confess the Triune God of Sacred Scripture faithfully and fully. It is therefore reasonable to say that any creed generally emphasizes the beliefs opposing those errors that the compilers of the creed thought most dangerous at the time. This can be illustrated by a brief look at the creeds and the occasions which caused them to be written the way they were.

The Apostles' Creed 

Parts of this creed were first drawn up in the first or second century when a religious movement called Gnosticism was influential. The Gnostics argued that they had received a special secret tradition, directly from the apostles. They had special knowledge (the word Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis knowledge). 

A man named Marcion could be used as an example of the kind of position which the Apostles Creed would oppose. Marcion was excommunicated in AD144. He was a wealthy ship-owner from Pontus. He suggested that there were two gods, one good and the other bad. The bad one created the world and was the god of the Old Testament and the Jews. The good one created Jesus who mysteriously appeared in the temple at the age 29. Of course this disagreed with the stories of the Gospels and denied the full humanity of Jesus. Necessarily Marcion had to reject much of the Gospels as well as parts of the Epistles, this led Tertullian (c150 - c215) to name him 'The Pontic Mouse who nibbled away the Gospels.' 

Another of the important Christians leaders who faced this problem was Irenaeus (c130 -c 200), a bishop in the southern Gallic city of Lyon. He drew up a number of short statements of faith which summarised basic Christian teaching. 

He said Christians believe 'in one God, the maker of heaven and earth, and of all the things that are in them, through Jesus Christ the Son of God, who, on account of his overwhelming love for his creation, endured the birth from the Virgin, uniting man to God in himself, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rose again, and was taken up in majesty, and will come again in glory, the saviour of those who are saved and the judge of those who are judged.' This statement is basically a prototype of the Apostles Creed and is seen to emphasise the true humanity, including the material body, of Jesus, which is something the Gnostics denied.

The Nicene Creed. 

This creed makes a point of stressing that Jesus was fully God and of the same substance as God. It uses words like 'God from God' and 'being of one substance ('homoousios) with the father.' No prizes for guessing that these were really important issues at the time when it was written! It was written specifically as a polemic against a group of Christians called Arians. 

The Council of Nicea (June 325) was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine to settle the matter of the nature of Christ. At Nicea, now Iznik in Turkey, the church affirmed the full divinity of Christ. The church had experienced difficulty opposing the views of Arius (c250 -c336). Arius stated that Jesus was a special created being, but not God. The phrase 'there was when he was not' characterises his position. 

Athanasius was the man who opposed Arius and stated that if Jesus was not divine then he could not redeem fallen humanity. The church found it almost impossible to correct the teaching of Arius and they therefore expressed, in their own language, what they supposed to be the doctrine of Scripture concerning the Divinity of Jesus. They drew up the Nicene Creed and called upon Arius and his disciples to subscribe. This Arius and his followers refused to affirm and Arius was expelled. 

For Athanasius the faith of Arius was not Christianity, it could be Judaism with its solitary God. However if the divinity of Christ was challenged then Jesus could not be trusted to deliver his promises. Only If Christ was God then we could have confidence. Needless to say once the divinity of Christ had been agreed by the church, the fact that he was of 'one substance with the father,' -then eventually the doctrine of the Trinity had to follow.

How are the creeds still helpful today ? 

Not everybody likes creeds "Deeds not creeds!" has periodically become the cry of some in the Christian community. 

It is fitting and appropriate that we should consider whether the creeds are helpful to us in our Christian life and in our collective worship. Should we even have such a creed? Clearly not everybody would value reciting creeds in worship and some churches never do. 

There are several factors which are often mentioned, you may be able to think of some of your own! 

  • In our democratic society there has been a tendency toward individualism and anti-authoritarianism. 
  • In our age there is less and less respect for history. 
  • There is a great downplaying of doctrine. Methods, social change, experience and gifts are all considered more important in a pragmatic society. 
  • Some would claim that the creeds are human documents which undermine the supremacy of Scripture. 
  • Some groups such as the Quakers, object to creeds because they fear that they will obstruct free interpretation of the Bible and interfere with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment. They would also consider them to produce division.

 Let us consider some reasons why creeds can be useful

1. To stop us repeating our mistakes 
We have seen that the creeds were brought into being as the church dealt with controversial ideas and struggled to determine what it truthfully believed about God and what was plain wrong. In one sense there is nothing new under the sun and by studying the way in which Christian truth asserted itself we are better prepared to deal false belief in our own time. For example, the beliefs of Gnosticism which were around when the Apostles Creed was formulated, were not unlike many modern New Age movements. Creeds are therefore useful because they alert us to the historical problems which have arisen in our faith. If we do not learn from mistakes which have been made then we are doomed to repeat them.

2. To define our faith and help us avoid wrong belief 
We might be reluctant today to call people heretics or oppose teaching which we consider to be incompatible with orthodox belief. However if the church had not dealt with people like Arius and Marcion, then nothing less than a true understanding of the nature of Jesus would be lost.

 It is only as the church maintains is opposition to false ideas that the Christian faith is preserved. The creed for example clearly challenges those who hold beliefs such as Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses who today, like Arius, do not accept the divinity of Christ.

The church today is often more concerned with feeling than thinking. Let me illustrate that by the many choruses used by soft-core Christian churches, especially in the charismatic evangelical churches, which display dubious theology, but which are extremely popular because of the tune. Christians raise their hands in worship during songs but only those with great tunes.

Our thinking has often been subordinated to our worshipful emotions. This is not to say emotion is always bad, but the church must not let it overrule, we desperately need to think more clearly. Great theology must not be subordinated to a selfish sentimental spirituality. Emotional highs must not be sought in preference to any development of serious belief. The church of our time needs a theology which challenges those tunes which are substitutes for the hard thinking the Christian faith requires. 

The word heresy has a bad history in the church and has been as much to do with intolerance as truth. However there are ideas which we should term 'orthodox' and others which are blatantly wrong. There is a difference between unbelief, which rejects Christianity and heresy which is a distortion of it. 

A Moslem does not believe, but they are not a heretic. Heresy is reserved for when somebody accepts the Christian faith, but then distorts it. As an example Christianity teaches that Jesus is God and that through him human beings are reconciled to God. If a Christian teaches that really everybody is a Christian, because they are made by God, then that is obviously wrong and the church needs to challenge it as heresy. 

For this reason one of the main purpose of the creeds is perhaps to define the Christian faith. We read them and they tell us what a Christian believes. As we read them we can see how our own belief fits in with the traditional teaching of the church which the Christians have gathered from Scripture. 

For example, once we have learned the Apostles' Creed, we will always have an answer to questions such as "What do you Christians believe? You will know what makes you different from say Moslems or Buddhists. 

You will know that the Apostles' Creed represents what Christians have believed since the time of the Apostles. Since that time the church has considered that it lies within the boundaries of Scripture and the historic teachings of the church. The belief of some people can change like the fashion industry. However when we affirm the Apostles' Creed we connect ourselves to what all Christians everywhere have always believed. In so doing we remind ourselves that despite ever-changing social circumstances, the Christian faith is founded on important historical and truth. 

Studying this historic creed also moves us forward in our faith. For as we develop a deeper understanding of its teachings, we thereby grow in our knowledge of Scripture and ultimately our knowledge of God. Such knowledge helps us keep in step with the Holy Spirit. It allows our lives to be good soil from which God can bring forth much fruit (Matt 13:23; Gal. 5:22-25). 

Knowing Scripture and knowing God also enable us to obey Peter's instruction to 'be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have' (I Peter 3:15).

3. To declare our faith 
Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told the disciples that they were to be his witnesses to all the world. The third purpose of creeds fulfils this need to declare our faith. We use the creeds for a corporate witnessing before God and the world. It is a positive, fearless declaration of our Christian faith. The Apostles Creed is a useful way for every Christian to declare his or her faith throughout everyday life. Luther said that a Christian should confess the Apostles Creed eight times daily." 

Consider this passage from Romans 10:12 

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" 

So, when Christians gather for worship and together recite the Apostles Creed, we declare that these are the essential articles of our faith. 

Bible Study

Write your own creed!

(You will have to supply the Bible passages yourself for this study)
When Marcion formulated his belief that Jesus appeared in the Temple at the age of 29, he recognised that it disagreed with the evidence of the infancy stories from the New Testaments. As a result he had to take lots of pieces out of the Bible. Of course this is the wrong way round, our creeds should be drawn from the evidence of our scripture, our scripture should not be changed to coincide with our pet theology. 

In the sixteenth century the German Lutheran writer Philip Melancthon introduced a new word into the vocabulary of theology. He coined the word adiaphora 'matters of indifference'. For Melanchthon the Gospel consisted of a central core, centering on the person of Jesus. The central core was surrounded by a concentric ring, containing doctrines of secondary importance. Doctrines in the central core were not negotiable, but there could be tolerance within the church on the matters outside. To affirm the doctrines in the central core was to be a Christian, to affirm doctrines in the outer circle made you a particular type of Christian. 

In our society we are surrounded by different faiths, many of which are militant in the zeal to convert others. As Christians we need to know what unites us and is authentic and of importance in our doctrine. So what are fundamentals and what are matters of indifference?

  • Think what you would like to write in your creed to pass on to future generations. What truths are important for you to affirm as a Christian? 

  • Write them down and then, if you are in a group, find passages yourself from scripture which support your beliefs.

1: Why Creeds?

3: Studying the Apostles' Creed