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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Bible Basics: An Introduction to Christian Beliefs

Don Stewart :: What Are Some of the Well-Known Creeds and Confessional Statements of the Christian Faith?

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What Are Some of the Well-Known Creeds and Confessional Statements of the Christian Faith?

Bible Basics – Question 17

There have been a number of important creeds, as well as confessional statements, that were composed after the New Testament was written. It is valuable for people to understand something of their content as well as the circumstances in which they were composed.

The Well-Known Christian Creeds

Four of the significant creeds are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicean Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. They can be described as follows:

1. The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed seems to be an elaboration of the confession of faith that believers would make at their baptism. It did not originate with the Apostles, but came later in the history of the church (around A.D. 400).

The Apostles’ Creed, however, is similar to other statements of belief that were in use in the second century. It was called the Apostles’ Creed because some of the early Christians believed that it summarized the basic teachings of the Apostles.

The Westminster Confession of Faith joins the Apostles’ Creed with the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and adds this explanatory note:

It is here annexed, not as though it were composed by the apostles, or ought to be esteemed canonical Scripture, as the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer, but because it is a brief sum of the Christian faith, agreeable to the word of God, and anciently received in the churches of Christ.

While this creed has been received by major Protestant groups, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, it is not without its problems.

Problems with the Apostles Creed

While the Apostles’ Creed is probably the most well-known of all the creeds of the church, it has serious problems. Therefore, it is important that we understand some of its shortcomings. They can be listed as follows:

The Creed Is Too Vague

For one thing, the Apostles’ Creed is too vague to have any real meaning. For example, while the creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” it does not specifically tell us what we are to believe about Him. Nothing is said of His Deity; the fact that He is the eternal God who became human.

Indeed, because of this shortcoming, this creed has been recited by the Arians; those who deny the Deity of Christ. Since they are able to recite this creed, it gives the wrong impression that they believe in the same Jesus which the New Testament reveals. This certainly is not the case.

There is something else. Because the Apostle’s Creed is so general, Roman Catholics, as well as Protestants, find this creed justifying their own belief systems. Each can find its own particular beliefs outlined in the creed. This is one of the unfortunate results of a creed which is so general in its makeup; it ends up saying nothing.

The vagueness of other expressions in the creed also causes further problems. For example, the creed says, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” Roman Catholics see this as a confirmation that true believers are to pledge their allegiance to the Roman Church. They see the creed referring to a visible group of believers who are united under one head, the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope.

Thus, reciting the creed has the believer acknowledging that he or she is under the authority of the Roman Church.

Protestants, on the other hand, can recite the phrase without acknowledging their belief in the Roman Church or the papacy. Protestants do believe that Jesus has established His church upon the earth. It is to be holy, and it is to be catholic, or universal, but it is not to be identified with the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, Protestants can rightly claim to be catholic or universal Christians without being Roman Catholic. This is an important distinction.

There is another phrase in the creed which needs to be explained further. The words, “Christ descended into hell,” needs to be properly understood. To most people, hell is the place of torment; the place of final judgment where the wicked will be sent.

To say that Christ descended into hell gives the impression that between the time of His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, He was tormented in hell. Yet, the Bible does not teach this. Jesus was in the grave, or the realm of the dead for three days, but He was not in “hell” as the word is usually understood.

In addition, another expression in the creed, “the communion of saints,” has also been a cause for controversy. It is not a biblical expression and was not placed into the creed until about A.D. 400.

These problems with the creed make it impossible to establish any certainty about what one believes by merely reciting the creed. In the end, this creed is basically meaningless.

Roman Catholicism Claims the Creed Originated with the Apostles

There is something else that we should note about the Apostles’ Creed. One of the claims of the Roman Church is that the Apostles’ Creed originated with Jesus’ twelve apostles. They believe that it was written by Jesus’ apostles under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. This would mean that the apostles of Christ left us with an additional divinely inspired writing, apart from the New Testament, which carries the authority of Christ. If this were the case, then it would demonstrate that the New Testament, while true and authoritative, is incomplete.

This is consistent with the doctrine of the Roman Church that Scripture, by itself, is not sufficient. Holy traditions, the decisions of the church councils, and the various creeds have the same divine authority as Scripture according to the Roman Church.

However, there is no historical basis for assuming that this creed was actually written by the apostles. In fact, there is no evidence that this creed was known in its present form until the beginning of the fourth century.

For example, the Council of Nicea, which met in A.D. 325, shows no knowledge whatsoever of the existence of the Apostles’ Creed. If the Apostles’ Creed had been composed by the Apostles’, or was in any sense an authoritative statement of belief, then it certainly would have been discussed at this important meeting of leaders in the church. The fact that it was not even mentioned is a clear indication that it did not exist at this time and that it was not considered as coming from the Apostles.

Furthermore, the Apostles’ Creed has never been known and never been used by the Greek or Eastern Orthodox churches. It has never been a part of their tradition or belief system. This is yet another indication of its lack of any type of authority among believers.

Therefore, the Apostles’ Creed cannot, and should not, be used as justification for other divinely authoritative writings that were made apart from the New Testament as is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church. It did not come from the hand of the Apostles’ and was never considered as an authoritative statement of belief by the early church.

Conclusion: the Apostles’ Creed Summarizes Certain Truths, but Is Not That Useful

Protestants would agree that this creed does summarize certain of the basic truths of the faith. There is nothing in the creed that we would disagree with; when it is properly understood. However, because of its general nature, it can be, and has been, so easily misinterpreted.

These facts point out the need of going beyond the creeds. Believers need to study the Scripture to discover what it teaches on the various topics it covers. Merely reciting a short creed may give the wrong impression that this is all there is to the Christian faith and to Christian doctrine. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth.

2. The Nicean Creed

While the Apostles’ Creed is a vague, general statement of certain Christian truths, the Nicean Creed is much more detailed and helpful. It was the response of the church to doctrinal challenges that arose in the fourth century.

In particular, the Nicean Creed responded to the false teachings of Arius, a bishop from Alexandria, Egypt. Arius and his followers taught that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God. According to Arius, God the Father created Jesus before He created the universe. He said there was a time when “Jesus was not,” or a time when Jesus did not exist. Jesus, therefore, was not the Creator-God, but rather the first creation of the eternal God. This would make Him of a different substance or nature than God.

A council met in the city of Nicea (modern day Turkey) in A.D. 325 to refute this false belief. The Nicean Creed developed as a result of the Arian controversy - the final form of the Creed was written at the end of the fourth century. This creed is important in that it restates in a clear manner the biblical teaching that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. It makes it clear that Jesus Christ has one and the same nature or essence as God.

The Council of Nicea also makes important statements about the Person of the Holy Spirit.

3. The Athanasian Creed

A third Creed that is important to know something about is the Athanasian Creed. It comes from the third and fourth century. It is a detailed definition of the doctrine of the Trinity. Although the theologian Athanasius strongly defended the doctrine of the Trinity, the Athanasian Creed has nothing to do with him. Like the Nicean Creed, it is detailed and specific in what it says about God and His Trinitarian nature.

4. The Chalcedonian Creed

A fourth ancient creed comes from the council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). It is known as the Chalcedonian Creed. This statement clearly set forth the biblical teaching that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human.

Important Confessional Statements

The history of the church has seen a number of important confessional statements that have been drawn up. The following are some of the more notable ones.

1. The Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster confession of faith is one of the more famous statements of belief in the history of the church. It was written in the years 1643-1646. There is both a shorter and larger catechism. The shorter catechism was finished and then reported to the English Parliament on November 5, 1647. The larger catechism was delivered on April 14, 1648.

2. The Augsburg Confession of Faith

The Augsburg confession was drawn up in the year 1530 by one of the followers of Martin Luther; Philip Melanchthon. It is a Lutheran confession of faith. It affirmed the central doctrines of Christianity with a particular stress on the grace of God. It rejected any righteousness that would be based on human works. The Augsburg Confession remains the main statement of faith among Lutherans.

In fact, to this day, they expect their ministers at the time of their ordination to acknowledge that they will interpret Scripture according to this statement.

3. The Thirty Nine-Articles of Religion

The Anglican Church, or the Church of England, as well as the Methodist Church, subscribes to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. This was published in 1571. Anglicanism is a belief system somewhere between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

This briefly sums up the main Christian creeds, as well as the important Protestant confessions of faith. Understanding these documents, and why they were composed, can help us better appreciate the various reasons as to why people hold on to certain beliefs.

Summary – Question 17
What Are Some of the Well-Known Creeds and Confessional Statements of the Christian Faith?

There have been a number of creedal statements in the history of the church that have been attested to by believers. They include the following:

The Apostles’ Creed attempts to give a short summary of the teachings of the apostles of Jesus. However, this creed, while true as far as it goes, can actually do more harm than good.

Because the Apostles’ Creed is so vague, it can be read as consistently supporting Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, or Arianism; a belief that rejects the Deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus’ Deity is nowhere specified in the creed, those who deny this central truth of the faith can recite the creed without acknowledging Him as the eternal God.

Furthermore, expressions in the Creed such as “I believe in the holy Catholic Church,” and “I believe in the communion of the saints” cause additional problems. They have been used by the Roman Church as support for their unbiblical beliefs about the nature of the church and the need for all believers to submit to it.

The phrase, “Christ descended into hell” can easily lead one to believe that Christ was somehow tortured in hell with the unbelievers during the three days He was dead. This is contrary to the specific teaching of Scripture.

Though the Roman Church claims that the Apostles’ Creed was actually written by Jesus’ apostles, there is no historical evidence for this whatsoever. To the contrary, the Creed, in its present form, was not known until the beginning of the fourth century.

While the Apostles’ Creed can be read as an orthodox Creed, simply stating basic Christian truths, it does not have to be read that way. Consequently, it is ultimately meaningless.

The Nicean Creed, in contrast to the Apostles’ Creed, is much more detailed. It responded to the false teachings of Arius and reaffirmed the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God.

The Athanasian Creed states the doctrine of the Trinity in detail. The Chalcedonian Creed clearly stated both the full humanity and full Deity of Jesus Christ.

In the same manner, there have been a number of important confessions of Faith. They include the Augsburg confession, the Westminster Confession of faith, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

These creeds and confessional statements are helpful in summarizing Christian doctrine, as well as giving detailed explanations of what certain Christians believe.

What Are Christian Creeds and Confessional Statements? ← Prior Section
What Is the Value of Creeds and Confessional Statements? Next Section →
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