Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: A Community Project


(Anthony Costello ) #1

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about the importance of early Christian, ecumenical creeds. In light of the multifarious challenges facing Christians today, everything ranging from: post-modernism, progressive Christianity, liberation and process theologies, the ever-increasing number and type of cults, heresies, or otherwise non-orthodox portrayals of Jesus, or even the seemingly endless battle of biblical interpretation; it seems relevant to regain a clear understanding of what the early church held to be the most basic, most fundamental, and most central beliefs of the Christian Church; the church founded by the Apostles and eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thus, regaining a knowledge of these core beliefs, handed down by the first witnesses, and later consolidated by Christ-followers into formal, and definitional statements, can provide a second mooring for understanding what we believe, why we believe it, and why we need to defend it. This task, therefore, can help us to better discern, as the theologian Thomas Oden put it, what is “Classical Christianity” versus other, non-classical versions. Further, knowing the creeds can also help us to better appreciate the rich, intellectual history of our faith; something we all want to do as faithful defenders of Christ’s church, but are often times unaware of. So, to know the deposit of faith left for us by our spiritual forefathers, can be not only apologetically useful for defending certain claims, but also spiritually formative in putting us in touch with our past.

Before we continue with this project, let me state up front: I am not claiming that creeds are on the same authoritative level as the revealed Scriptures themselves. The content of revelation is in the Bible. We don’t need to worry about such controversy here, since RZIM’s stance on the authority of the Bible, i.e. the Bible as the final authority, is clear. Creeds, if anything, are nothing more than an extraction and summarization of those parts of the inspired Scriptures that are most clear to and most weighty for the life of the follower of Jesus. The earliest creeds were baptismal formulas developed in house churches, designed to help Neophytes express their newfound faith in Christ and enter into His community of faith.

In this series of posts, therefore, I would like to invite everyone into a conversation that, hopefully, will be an ongoing exploration of one of the earliest, and possible the first truly universal, creed of the apostolic Church, namely the Nicene Creed. We will take each line of the Nicene Creed, one line per thread, and discuss it in detail. I think in doing so, this will raise all kinds of good questions about what are, in our contemporary contexts, the kinds of claims we need to defend. Moreover, we might also see where we do have some disagreements, perhaps not about the creedal claim itself, but about how more precisely to understand the claim. This could lead to fruitful theological discussion (something the early church Fathers never shied away from). Finally, as we go through this I will be studying and completing our discussion using J.N.D Kelly’s classic work on the topic, shown here:

In going forward, then, what I hope we will accomplish here is to think about the kinds of apologetical issues that arise as we explore each statement of belief found in the Nicene Creed. So, for example, if the first line of the creed states: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty” what claims can we draw out of this that we as apologists would need to defend?

For example, in examining the first line, I can see I need to defend the truth claim “that there is one God” not 8 or 12, or zero. Moreover, I should probably also defend the claim that God is called “Father” and not “mother” or “brother.” When we start thinking about the kinds of things we need to defend in order for a core belief to be true, then we can think about what sources (philosophical, historical, scientific, etc.) we should access to get the data we need to defend that claim. Also, we might start thinking about what audiences we need to defend this claim against (e.g. some progressive theologians reject the notion that God should ever be called “Father”, should we agree with them, or stick with what seems clear from both Bible and creed). Obviously, atheists, and even some who call themselves “christian” believe that there is no God to speak of; that god is just a concept. And so on, and so forth.

In sum, then, let me do this. For now, I would like to hear some responses just to this topic, and then, after discussion, I will create another post giving a little history of the Nicene Creed, and then the first line of the creed, which will begin our project together.

Any thoughts?

in Christ,

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part 6 - Nicene Creed Line 3-8
Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part 4 - Nicene Creed Line 2
My Question: RZIM Statement of Faith
What defines a "Christian?"
(Kathleen) #2

I love the comprehensiveness of the Nicene Creed and think it’s a great idea to look at it in depth! But it’s also good to remember some of the earlier ‘creeds’ in the NT upon which it was founded. Namely, 1Corinthians 15:3-5…

…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
…that he was buried,
…that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and
…that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

Do you happen to know if there were there any other creeds floating around before the Council in 325?

(Anthony Costello ) #3


Oh yes, indeed there were. Kelly opens his book with a description of the very same formulae you mentioned; these early creedal statements that are embedded right in the New Testament. Moreover, the several allusions to proper doctrine or right teaching make it clear that the NT authors were serious about getting beliefs about Jesus and His teachings correct (see Jude 3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2 Tim 4:3; Tit:1:9; 1 Tim 6:20). Also, terms like “the preaching,” “the faith,” and “the gospel” are mentioned by Paul in Gal 2:2, Rom 16:25, and Col 2:7. These terms obviously refer to a basic deposit of faith that was normative on the early church.

Then, there were early baptismal creeds, formulae that Neophytes (new converts) would speak at baptism as a sign of their right belief. Of the New Testament evidence for something like proto-creeds, Kelly says this:

“The catalogue [of NT creedal formulae] could be extended almost indefinitely. The items contained in it, the reader scarcely needs to be reminded, are not creeds; but they are highly significant as instances of the codification of fundamental theological ideas in the apostolic age, and they help to explain the lines along which creeds proper developed.” (22)

In between these theological deposits or formulae found in the New Testament, you have other earlier creedal formulas as well. Also known as “the rule of faith” many church fathers (post-apostolic writers) used formulas in their sermons or essays to capture the universal beliefs of the church (universal, but not always uncontested). Thus, for example in Tertullian’s De praescriptione written in 200 AD you have a creedal formulation that foreshadows the Nicene Creed. What is perhaps still left unclear in these earlier creeds, however, is what exactly Jesus is (not the “who” Jesus is, but the “what” he is). It is clear to all early church Fathers that Jesus is “The Son of God” incarnate through the virgin birth, suffered, died and buried. But, it still took some time, for the Church to fully grasp passages like Phil 2:5-11, and to find the language to describe how Jesus and the Father (and later the Spirit) could literally be “one God.” Thus, there was Christological development, but Christological development does not mean Christological invention. The early Fathers were working with the NT text and the testimony of the apostles. So, by the time you get to the Athanasian Creed and Nicea, you have a much fuller statement about what Jesus is; Jesus is fully God.

I chose the Nicene Creed, because, as Kelly points out, it was the first real ecumenical creedal statement. Most earlier creeds, although similar in form and content, were local to particular regions. So Nicea, which was a response to the Arian heresy, marks a transition in Church history from local church statement on the faith, to a more institutional statement by a much more representative body of the entire church. And, I think we need not fear the word “institutional” here; in a sense it is similar to saying “representational.” There were more churches and church leaders represented at Nicea than ever before in church history.

in Christ,

(SeanO) #4

@anthony.costello Continuing the strain of thought started by @KMac, what do you think is the interplay between creeds and Scripture in discipleship? Are the creeds an entry point for Neophytes until they come to a firmer grasp of the Scriptures themselves?

(Rob Lundberg) #5

I think there is a benefit to the creeds, for they provide a guideline that can remembered, even applied and recited by rote. I also think the apologetic value cannot be discounted where they are founded in the various periods of history when they were formulated, from the Nicene, the Athanasian, and others. Let’s also not forget the great documents of the confessions of faith that followed the creeds.

(Anthony Costello ) #6


Good question Sean, as expected :grin:.

I think the Creeds and their connection to the Biblical data can be a guide not only to new believers (maybe I should get away from the term “neophyte” since it has different connotations today than it did in the 3rd century), but also to seasoned veterans. I would say that the Creeds can be useful in two ways for both new believers and more mature ones.

First, the early Creeds can tether us to our own past. I think we in the American church (or America in general) have become unmoored from our history. Or, perhaps worse, we are taught that all history before our own time was either unscientific and intellectually naive, or immoral and cruel. So, I think it becomes incumbent upon the Church to be a bridge to the past, and a voice of reason with regard to both the good and not so good parts of the Christian heritage. I think this knowledge of past legacy is an aid to discipleship.

Second, with regard to the content of Scripture, I think the creeds remind us what are the first things of the Gospel, versus what are areas that may be important but not fundamental. All of the magisterial Reformers accepted the early Creeds (through Chalcedon) and the conclusions of the first four ecumenical councils. So, creeds can provide us with the core content of the Scriptures, the content that we should investigate first, and always be ready to defend.

This can have two positive effects: 1) It allows for room for disagreement on other issues, where Scripture is either unclear, or where a belief is not as weighty in relation to our identity as Christ-followers. This, in turn, allows for the Church to be active participants in God’s plan for the world, and not just passive recipients of a fully revealed, and systematized set of propositional truth claims. God could have given us an instruction manual for faith, but He gave us primarily stories; stories we need to think about and re-contextualize to fit contemporary circumstances. 2) Knowing the core content of our belief system (to put it that way for a moment) can help us to discern what is not part of our system. Thus, the creeds can be acts as lines of demarcation for identifying heresy or non-orthodoxy, and arguing against unhistorical positions that favor contemporary cultural context over original proclamation.

So, I think these are some areas where creeds can help us become more steadfast disciples of Christ.

Further thoughts on this?


(Kathleen) #7

I love this. So succinct and such a good point to remember when engaging with those who would argue that Jesus never claimed to be divine, but that it was the followers of Jesus the human who invented the myth of Jesus the Son of God.

And the concept of ‘Trinity’ was also being developed at this time, was it not?

(Rob Lundberg) #8

The Trinity was hotly debated due to the question of the deity of Christ, and His nature, whether His nature is fully God and fully man, as the creeds locked in (based on Scripture). With reference to the creeds and the Trinity, also helped the early church solidify the belief in the Godhead, which would be relevant to the Trinity.

Hope this helps a little.

(Jimmy Sellers) #9

I think for me this is the problem with creeds. They are great a starting place but if that is all you know or ever care to know there just isn’t much of a story there. Its like a tattoo stencil before you color it in. When you see it on someone’s arm it looks like something maybe, but after it has been colored in then it tells a story.

I am not saying that we should not have creeds or that they need to re-written I just don’t come from a church back ground that placed much emphasis on them. I will be interested in how this series develops and will be looking forward to our thoughts.

(Anthony Costello ) #10


Point taken, for sure. The creeds are minimal, but that is the whole idea. They are supposed to tell only the part of the larger story that we simply cannot get wrong. That was really the motivation behind these formulas; that they would, as you said, be “a great starting place.” If we do not know the starting place, we might not be in the same epistemic space as the earliest followers of Jesus. Mind you, this is not about salvation, there is salvific minimalism (maybe something like what the thief on the cross experienced), and then there is minimalism with regard to orthodoxy. We want to be both saved and orthodox; but our knowledge of both is very different.

Further, If we reject the content of the creeds outright (again, just the first four are in view here), one might want to stop identifying as Christian, and maybe pursue some other religious faith. I mean, if one were to reject that God is Triune, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, or crucified; then, being honest, one should probably abdicate his or her identity as a Christian. Or, at least qualify their ‘Christianity’ in some helpful way. In this day and age, especially in the West, it is very difficult to assume that if one identifies as a Christian, they mean a Christian in this historical and apostolic sense. The revisionist views of Christianity today are manifold, and I think we want to expose that as much as possible. We don’t have to be nasty towards those who are doing theology or ministry this way, but I think we do want to disassociate ourselves from them. The same way I would make it clear to a Mormon or a Muslim, that we simply don’t have the same religious beliefs.

So, regardless of whether we recite the creeds in church or not, awareness of them as a set of beliefs that demarcate apostolic Christianity from heresy or some other a-historical Christianity, I think is now critical. Trust me, as a former Catholic I never thought I would be interested in creeds again, but now I see their value. That is also why I don’t think we want to re-write them; even if we can try and come up with more fine-grained definitions of their claims.

in Christ,

(Jennifer Judson) #11

I’m a little late to this party. Love the idea of discussing the creeds line by line.

Let me share a condensed version of something I’ve shared before. In 2005, my sister died of complications from her Cancer treatment around midnight on a Saturday. My folks and I did not get home from the hospital until about 2AM. I woke around 6AM and there was nothing–NOTHING–more important to me in that moment than going to our early 8:15 service which is very traditional.

In the middle of that grief I felt it was essential to worship God in the fellowship of believers that is more like family than family. I wanted to sing the Gloria Patri and speak the Apostles Creed and partake of communion, to demonstrate to myself, others, and of course my God, that even in the midst of grief I knew he was on the throne and sovereign. Large and in charge. Also a spiritual connection to the great cloud of witnesses that have sung, spoken, and partaken of the elements for so many centuries. I was a participant in the all encompassing wholeness of the church universal, through all time.

The creed was so critical to that experience. It’s the nutshell–the affirmation and reaffirmation of truth. A nutshell that represents the sum of all the Bible Studies I’ve attended, historical studies, prayers, moments of spiritual revelation–everything can be expressed through those words. It’s the boundary line for my beliefs. It’s helped shape how I understand and wrap my brain around the more abstract challenges of knowing who God is and my identity in Him.

Grace to all.

(Anthony Costello ) #12

Wow Jennifer, what a powerful story. Thanks for sharing!

I have heard people say that in times of suffering, a more structured and historical approach to our worship of God can be very, very comforting. So, things like reciting the creeds, or participating in liturgical services (in contrast, perhaps to more dynamic forms of worship) can be a sort of anchor in the storm. It sounds like this was very much your experience. That is so encouraging to know; that not only can the creeds clarify our core beliefs and help us avoid un-apostolic preaching, but that that they can also gives us strength in times of emotional pain.

Awesome, thank you. This is turning out to be a really beneficial endeavor.

in Christ,

(Jennifer Judson) #13

I do think that creeds and any liturgical kinds of worship go much deeper into our core when we take the time to study and understand them, not just memorize them.

I have under extreme stress had panic attacks (not many, praise God). If you’ve never experienced a panic attack the first thing you think is that you are having a heart attack. It has all the same physical manifestations (or at least if feels that way). It affects your body chemistry as it is overwhelmed by adrenaline. Your limbs grow weak. Your mind does not respond properly. In those moments it’s like all things have left your mind but the panic. I couldn’t find words, I couldn’t pray, no scriptures could be pulled from my mind because they are word dependent. But once I recognized it was a panic attack–something I could do because it was not my first one, I began to grasp concepts that were deep in me–like being a beloved child of God–my identity in Christ. Once I grabbed onto these threads of thought, it was the oft repeated things like the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer that allowed me to form words again and became the bridge back to rational thought.

It was deep core bedrock things that helped me find my footing and get past the panic. To me that’s what the creeds represent, the deep core bedrock of who God is, who I am and whose I am.

This past Spring I took the RZIM Academy “Doctrine” course. It basically takes the Apostle’s Creed and uses that as the outline for teaching doctrine. I highly recommend it. Extremely edifying and elevating.