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To Creed or Not to Creed: Why You Need Creeds in the Christian Life

A person praying representing someone studying and praying through the ancient creeds

I’ve recently been teaching a course titled “The History of Heresy,” which my students have seen as an incredibly fun and informative way to learn about the formation and defense of Christian orthodoxy. We covered the good, the bad, and the ugly of church history. We learned about how the church came to discern the difference between the true gospel and false ones, between the biblical Jesus and the Jesus of inventive fantasy, between the church’s rule of faith and the foreign philosophies that Christianity was sometimes expressed in. This fascinating study also led us to look at the various creeds of the early church.

Mike Bird sat down with Word by Word Senior Editor Mark Ward to discuss creeds in this Logos Live interview.

The births of the creeds

Sometimes the creeds were specifically written to combat heresies. For example, the Creed of Nicaea (325) and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) dealt with debates over the divinity of Jesus and concluded that Jesus is divine in the same way as God the Father. The formula of the Council of Chalcedon (451) addressed erroneous views about how Jesus’s divinity and humanity co-existed together and declared that Jesus’s two natures were united in the one incarnate person “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”

Some creeds, however, were not tied to any specific heresy or debate. Some creeds emerged simply as discipleship tools, as a summary of basic Christian doctrine for converts to learn, and as a way of condensing Christian faith into its main elements of profession. For example, the Apostles’ Creed, probably written in Rome in the late-second century, is precisely that: a précis of basic Christian beliefs. Indeed, to this day, the Apostles’ Creed is a statement of faith affirmed by many Christian traditions across the world. It is a creed that unites Christians, despite their many differences over other matters of doctrine and practice.

The creeds are useful, then, not only for setting out the faith of the Christian churches in contrast to error, but also for explaining the basics of the faith to new and old believers.

Anti-creedalism

It is sad, then, that many churches do not use the creeds in their worship and teaching. In some cases, Christian people view them with indifference or even suspicion. Some people are skeptical of anything that comes to us from church history, because it derives from those weird “Catholic” church fathers from long ago with their strange views on all sorts of things. Some people complain that they prefer their simple Bible over the theological jargon and philosophically freighted word-salads of the ancient creeds. Who needs the Apostles’ Creed when I can just read the apostles myself in the New Testament? Or else, in our age of constant innovation, people can have a penchant to prefer the latest and greatest, the newest ideas and theories, with a bias against anything that is old, antiquarian, and (it is assumed) therefore outdated. Today we are wrestling with AI, transhumanism, cyber-currencies, and digital church. What can Irenaeus or Athanasius possibly tell me about all that?

I have observed this anti-creedalism in many places. Many years ago I would regularly preach for a congregation that was big on sola scriptura: the doctrine that Scripture alone was their authority, not a guy in the Vatican in a pointy white hat, and not any church council or creed. I confess that I used to quietly grin whenever I read their church bulletin, because it always had on it the motto, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” The irony is that those words are not actually found in the Bible. This Bible-believing church’s sincere desire not to court controversy over creeds led to the construction of their own anti-creedal creed.

I can genuinely understand why people might have a disinterest or disinclination towards creeds. If someone once attended a church where the creeds were known only through mindless repetition with no exposition, then I understand such a person’s aversion to creeds. Or else, if someone has only heard the creeds discussed in relation to technical debates over theological jargon—think homoiousios versus homoousios or Christotokos versus Theotokos—with no one explaining what that is about and what is at stake, then I can understand why a person would think the whole thing is not just over their heads but irrelevant to contemporary issues.

The need for creeds

That said, we cannot be satisfied with saying, “We don’t believe in the words of man found in the creeds, rather, we believe the words of God found in the Holy Bible!” Devout as that might sound, it runs into several problems. First, many groups claim to believe the Bible, including Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and many more. Yet you cannot help but notice that these groups frequently disagree over what the Bible teaches. Some of these differences are inconsequential or secondary; but some of them are positively gargantuan. For instance, whether Jesus was a man who was adopted as God’s Son at his resurrection as a reward for his righteousness, or whether Jesus is the pre-existing Son of God who shares the same divine nature as the Father and was enfleshed as a human being—that is a huge difference. The very structure of the gospel is at stake. We need to declare what the Bible teaches on things like “Who is Jesus?” and rule out what beliefs are false or unwholesome.

So here’s the thing. If you believe the Bible, then sooner or later you have to explain what you think the Bible teaches. What does the Bible say about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, church, and the life to come? When you set out the biblical teaching in some formal sense, such as in a church doctrinal statement, you are creating a creed. You are saying: this is what we believe the Bible teaches about X, Y, and Z. You are declaring: this is the stuff that really matters. You are announcing: this is where the boundaries of the faith need to be drawn. You are staking a claim: this is the hill we will die on and this is what brings us together in one faith.

Creeds in Scripture

The creed skeptics out there may be surprised to discover that creeds are in fact found in the Bible! There are several passages in the Old and New Testaments that have a creedal function.

OT creeds

In Deuteronomy, we find the Shema, Israel’s most concise confession of its faith in one God:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deut 6:4–5, NIV)

These are the words that faithful Jews across the centuries have confessed daily. It was this belief in one God and in God’s oneness that distinguished the Jews from pagans, and that even to this day marks out Judaism as a monotheistic religion. The Shema announces that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the God of creation and covenant, the God of the patriarchs, who rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The citation of the Shema by faithful Jews has been their way of affirming this story.

NT creeds

No surprise, then, that the Shema was affirmed by Jesus, James, and Paul (see Mark 12:29; 1 Cor 8:6; Jas 2:19). What that means is that Jesus and the first Christians were creedal believers simply by virtue of the fact that they were Jewish and lived within the orbit of Jewish beliefs about God, the covenant, and the future.

Given the Jewish context of early Christianity, it is understandable that the early church developed its own creeds to summarize what it believed about God, Jesus, the gospel, and salvation. Within five to twenty years of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the churches composed short summaries of their basic beliefs that were taught and transmitted to believers all over the Greco-Roman world. What was arguably the most pervasive of early Christian beliefs was that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead:

  • “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thess 4:14).
  • “[Jesus] died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor 5:15).
  • “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).
  • “Christ died and returned to life” (Rom 14:9).
  • “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (Rev 2:8).

Note how this belief that Jesus was crucified and was raised to life was affirmed in diverse types of material in the New Testament. It is found in liturgical material, in exhortations to congregations, in theological argumentation; it is laid out in hymn-like poetry, and it even appears in New Testament prophecy. This statement that Jesus died and rose was the fulcrum of the church’s confession about who Jesus was and what God did through him.

We find more detailed creedal statements appearing in Paul’s letters. During Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, he wrote a letter to Timothy in Ephesus, where he seems to have quoted what was very probably an early creed:

He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory. (1 Tim 3:16)

This Pauline proto-creed gives a basic summary of Jesus’s career from incarnation to exaltation. Each line refers to some key event in Jesus’s earthly mission. It is a concise summary of the story of Jesus and functions as the benchmark of faith. It doesn’t say everything there is to say about Jesus, but it gives the basic outlines into which other beliefs can be seamlessly added to fill out the story.

Another important passage is the famous “Christ hymn” found in Philippians 2:6–11. There are big debates about the origins, genre, and function of this passage. The text might not be an actual hymn; it could simply be poetic prose or a fragment of an early statement of faith that Paul had received from others. It might be pre-Pauline, or it might be Paul’s own composition. In any case, Philippians 2:6–11 is a majestic description of how Jesus went from divine glory to the death of a slave to exaltation at the right hand of God the Father.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5–11)

Whether sung, read, or recited, the “Christ hymn” sets forth the story of Jesus’s incarnation, his redemptive death, and his accession to divine glory. Materials like this certainly lend themselves to a creedal function, perhaps even during worship, for this sets out what Christians believe about where Jesus came from, why he died, and why he should be worshipped.

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Creeds carry biblical traditions

The New Testament contains a large body of instruction that was orally transmitted to the primitive churches by the apostles and their co-workers. In the Pauline churches, this included the story of the gospel (1 Cor 15:3–5), Jesus’s final meal with his followers (1 Cor 11:23–26), and a general body of Christian instructions (Rom 6:17). Indeed, Paul tells the Thessalonians that they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Similarly, the risen Jesus tells the church in Sardis to remember “what you have received and heard” (Rev 3:3). What Jude calls the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” probably refers to the faith taught in the Old Testament Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus, the story of Jesus, and the apostolic instruction in the way of Jesus (Jude 3). The spiritually gifted teachers of the church passed on these teachings which provided the basic contents for the later creeds of the church (see Acts 13:1; Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28–29; Eph 4:11).

I would go so far as to say that Christian teaching was the exposition of a “tradition” (whether in oral or written form), a collection of sayings of Jesus, a group of stories about Jesus, a pattern of messianic interpretation of the Old Testament, and a set of summaries of apostolic instruction. This tradition was not stale dogma but was instead instruction that was interpreted and augmented in light of their experience of God in life and worship. This “tradition” is what largely generated the New Testament.

The Gospels are the traditions of Jesus that were passed on by eyewitnesses, received by early leaders, and written down by the evangelists (see Luke 1:1–4). The New Testament letters use a lot of traditional materials—hymns, creeds, sayings, stories, vice lists, virtue lists, etc.—to instruct various assemblies in light of the controversies and conflicts they were facing. When leaders in the post-apostolic church, the immediate generations after the apostles, endeavored to transmit their faith to other churches through correspondence, they were trying to summarize what they had learned from the Jewish Scriptures and the disciples of the apostles. They were attempting to lay out the common consensus of the faith as they understood it. We find this in texts like 1 Clement and the Didache, which are part of the body of writings that we call the Apostolic Fathers.

In addition, the creeds that were subsequently written over the coming centuries were largely the attempt to provide concise statements about the faith that had been received in the church. In other words, early traditions shaped the New Testament, and then the New Testament subsequently shaped the developing traditions of the church, traditions that crystallized into the later creeds. Thus, the creeds are really a summary of the New Testament tradition: the text and its history of interpretation in the churches.

I know that as soon as I mention “tradition,” some people will get a little skeptical or perhaps roll their eyes. But tradition is good as it is necessary!

First, you cannot read the New Testament apart from some tradition. Even the pulpit-pounding fundamentalist who claims that the Bible alone guides him still appeals to an established consensus within his own church to validate his exposition of the Bible as a true and accurate account. This tradition, even if not openly acknowledged, is regarded as an authoritative declaration about what the Bible says in that group. Even the most animated and energetic Pentecostal churches have a normal way of doing Sunday morning worship that does not jump directly from the pages of the New Testament. This normal way of doing worship, how they organize everything from songs to sermons, is a type of tradition too.

Second, tradition, like that found in the creeds, is a tool for reading Scripture. We should read Scripture in light of tradition because tradition is what the ancient church learned from reading Scripture. That doesn’t mean we accept any tradition uncritically. Scripture is still the bar by which we test and assess all traditions. However, tradition is the wisdom of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, and it is to our own detriment if we ignore them. To ignore the creeds, to ignore the ancient faith of the martyrs, saints, and theologians of the church, is to be like a toddler who spurts out, “Okay, boomer,” to their grandmother when their grandmother warns against eating the yellow snow they found on the ground at a dog park.

The creeds of the church are part of a living tradition that attempt to guide our reading of Scripture by setting out in advance the contents and concerns of Scripture itself. The creeds provide a kind of “Idiot’s Guide to Christianity” by briefly laying out the story, unity, coherence, and major themes of the Christian Scriptures. In that sense, a creedal faith is crucial for a biblical faith and vice versa.

Using the creeds today

You and your church need the creeds. And there are some very easy things you can do to get more creedal theology into your church.

1. Learn the creeds

Learn about the major creeds of the faith:

Simply knowing that these creeds exist, where they came from, why they were written, and what they say—that will open up some amazing horizons and vistas for you. You’ll get in contact with the ancient church and learn about the texts and traditions that shaped Christianity at the very beginning.

2. Use the creeds in worship

Use the creeds in your worship. In many denominations, the creed is recited after the sermon. That is deliberate and a good idea. The creeds, as scriptural summaries, provide the standard by which we assess all sermons. So after the sermon, we recite the creed, to make sure the sermon has agreed with the creed. If not, maybe don’t invite the preacher back!

3. Use the creeds in preaching and discipleship

Use the creeds as a sermon series or discipleship tool. If you want to do a sermon series or Bible study series on “Basics for Believers,” then spend several weeks going through the Apostles’ Creed. It was designed especially for that purpose! If you want to explore the Trinity in a way that doesn’t involve cheesy and semi-heretical analogies about eggs and the three states of water, then consider a couple of weeks on the Athanasian Creed. If you want to do a deep dive into “Who is Jesus?” then the Nicene Creed is a great thing to work through line-by-line.

I’m sure you can find the latest fad for churches to follow: “12 Biblical Tax Shelters”; “The John the Baptist Diet”; and “How to Be a Christian Influencer in 6 Easy Steps.” But if you want something that is as solid as granite, that nourishes as manna from heaven, that is tested by time, and that meets with universal consensus, then use the creeds in your worship, preaching, and teaching. What is more, you can do that at all ages. Getting the kids to memorize the Apostles’ Creed is a great idea. Or have an adult Sunday school do a few weeks on “heresy”—it’s a fun topic, and it will necessitate mentioning the various historic creeds along the way. Once you’ve done that, you can always move on to Protestant Confessions, or even contemporary statements of faith—though that’s another topic.

In terms of recommended resources on the creeds, I’d suggest the following. You can find most creeds on the internet, but for a good collection of them together with an introduction, I recommend, Chad Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms: A Reader’s Edition. Justin S. Holcomb has a similar volume called Know the Creeds and Councils that is also easy to read and accessible. On the Apostles’ Creed, which is a great starting point, I’d recommend my own book What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed. Ben Myers also has a good poetic and poignant exposition in The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism. In addition, if you want something for children, then Ben Myers teamed up with illustrator Natasha Kennedy to produce a truly beautiful and picturesque book The Apostles’ Creed: For All God’s Children.

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Written by
Michael F. Bird

Michael F. Bird (PhD University of Queensland) is Deputy Principal at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is an Anglican priest and the author of over 30 books about the New Testament and Theology.

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Written by Michael F. Bird