Faith in Search of
4. The Creeds
by Anthony Freeman
Our subject here is the Creed
- or more strictly the creeds. There have been many of these formulations and at least two are
still in regular use by many churches - the Apostles’ Creed and the
A third, the so-called "Athanasian Creed", is little
heard today although I believe it is still very important.
New Testament origins
Creeds are unique to Christianity among the world religions, because
Christians uniquely are defined by what they believe, rather than by
what they do.
A person becomes a member of the Church by baptism only
after making a profession of faith. The earliest account we have of a
Christian baptism is that of the Ethiopian court official by Philip,
recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The man said to Philip,
Look here is water! What is to prevent me being baptised? He
commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the
eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized them. (Acts
clue to the words used in the baptism of New Testament Christians comes
at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says,
Go ye therefore,
and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’ (Matthew 28.19).
This points towards
belief not just in Jesus as the Son of God but in the Trinity. While it
is unlikely that Jesus himself ever spoke those words, they are firm
evidence for the practice of Matthew’s local church in the last
quarter of the first century.
We need to appreciate that the first Christians had a great and
exciting new message: You don’t have to earn God’s favour by
performing all the right prayers and sacrifices. Just put your faith in
Jesus and all will be well.
That was alright while the apostles were
preaching in Jerusalem and Galilee, where Jesus had been personally
known, but as soon as they went further afield, people began to ask: Who
is this Jesus? Why should we believe in him? What are we supposed to
believe about him?
That - or something very like it - is the
background to the formulaic statements that became our creeds. Once we
start to look for them, we can find scattered through the New Testament
various short summaries of what the early Church believed and taught
about Jesus. These quite likely survive because they were used both
for teaching and as confessions of faith made by those about to be
baptized and so become Christians.
We have already seen one very short formula of this kind: "I
believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (Acts 8.37). A much
fuller statement is found in St Paul’s first letter to the
Corinthians, probably written about 20 or 25 years after the death of
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn
received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one
time, most of whom are still alive . . . (1 Corinthians 15.3–6)
Note Paul’s claim to have received and passed on what is
recognizably an early and simple form of what later became the Apostles’
Another noteworthy feature of the New Testament is the grouping
together of references to God (or the Father), Jesus Christ (or the Son)
and the Holy Spirit.
We have already referred to Matthew 28. Other
examples are 2 Corinthians 13.14 ("The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit") and 1
Peter 1.2 ("Chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by
the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ"). Nothing in the Bible
compels the development of what became the full-blown doctrine of the
Trinity, but these formulas may be seen as early indicators of
the Trinitarian shape of the later creeds.
Apostles’ Creed: Baptismal
Our Apostles’ Creed dates in its final form from about the 6th
century, although legend told how it had been composed on the day of
Pentecost, with each of the apostles contributing one of its clauses.
Its history can in fact be traced fairly steadily from the embryonic
forms in the New Testament, via references in the second-century
writings of Justin and Tertullian, and the first actual liturgical
version that is found in the writings of the third-century Roman bishop,
Hippolytus. This is his description of how an adult baptism should be
conducted at that time:
When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who
baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: "Do you believe
in God, the Father Almighty?" And the person being baptized shall
say: "I believe." Then holding his hand on his head, he shall
baptize him once.
And then he shall say: "Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of
God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under
Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third
day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the
right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the
dead?" And when he says: "I believe, he is baptized again.
And again he shall say: "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the
holy church, and the resurrection of the body?" The person being
baptized shall say: "I believe," and then he is baptized a third
This interrogative form of the Creed is still found in the Church of
England's Book of
Common Prayer baptism service. The origins of this formulation as a
personal confession of faith is reflected in the use of the first-person
singular ("I believe in God") even when it is used in corporate
worship, as in the Church of England’s Morning and Evening Prayer.
As well as being used in the baptism service, the creeds also served
as a doctrinal syllabus for the instruction of catechumens (candidates
for Church membership).
The level of teaching was probably quite basic
in most cases, but could also develop into advanced theological
exposition, as is shown by the "Catecheses" of Cyril of Jerusalem in
the fourth century. All candidates, however, had to acquire and display
some understanding of the profession they would make.
The origin of Conciliar Creeds
The gradual addition of extra clauses to the baptismal creeds was not
just educational. The rise of alternative teachings about the nature of
God and Jesus required the Church to make clear which were acceptable
and which were heresies. Expanding the first rudimentary statements into
the more developed formulae of later centuries was one way of declaring
what was the acceptable and orthodox version of the faith.
example, the phrase "maker of heaven and earth" was probably
inserted to counteract the Gnostic teaching that the world was evil, and
its creator an inferior god, and not the true God and Father of Jesus.
We should note in passing that the official view of things was (and
remains) that the whole truth of Christianity was there from the
beginning, and that the heresies were from the first attacks upon that
But that was not the case.
What happened was that early
and rather vague and general statements concerning God and Jesus began to be explored and clarified in
different ways by different and equally sincere Christian thinkers. Only
with hindsight can we say that certain of these attempts proved
acceptable (orthodox) while others were found wanting (heretical).
Already in the second century, Tertullian saw in the flourishing
church of north Africa a development in the functions of the creed that
included its being a pointer to the proper interpretation of scripture,
and a test of orthodoxy for the clergy. Tertullian, an austere man with
a legalistic mind, who has been dubbed the "father" of Latin
theology, approved of this development. Yet ironically he ended up
joining a charismatic sect called the Montanists who were eventually
outlawed as heretical.
At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, I want
to demonstrate that this use of the creed to set the boundaries on
interpretations of scripture, which Tertullian first noted and approved,
and then fell foul of, is still alive and well in the Church of England.
In 1986 the Anglican Bishop of Durham in the UK, David Jenkins, made certain
statements about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus from
death. After the subsequent controversy, the Church of England's House
of Bishops produced an official and unanimous statement on the Nature
of Christian Belief.
It was only two pages long and dealt
specifically with the questions of the Virgin Birth and the physical
Resurrection of Jesus on which the Bishop of Durham had cast doubt. The short
statement was accompanied by a 36-page Exposition, from which the
following extract is taken:
The authority of the Creeds derives from the fact that they are
regarded as stating and defining rightly certain central
beliefs which are found, explicitly or implicitly, in
Scripture. […] In the Creeds that we now acknowledge the Church
was led to conclusions on the true implications of Scripture which
are not self-evidently the only possible ones. […]
Commitment to the catholic Creeds implies more than commitment to
teachings ‘agreeable’ to Scripture. It means accepting as
normative on specific points only that interpretative selection of
teachings agreeable to Scripture which the Creeds authorise.
(Exposition, para.4; my italics)
That quotation explains why I claim that concerning the relative authorities of the Bible
and the Church, the Church of England sided with the Catholics, giving
priority to the Church and its official teaching, over against the
Protestants, who say that the Church and all its doctrinal formulations
must answer at the bar of scripture.
But to return to the subject in hand: The evolution of the creed as a
test of doctrinal orthodoxy led to the creation of a new kind of credal
Alongside the personal confession of faith used at baptism ("I
believe") there grew up corporate statements promulgated by
councils of bishops ("We believe"). The first such statement was
produced at the Council of Nicaea in 325, from which the name of our
"Nicene" Creed comes, although our familiar version is longer than
the original and underwent several modifications to reach its present
Although it had an undoubted religious dimension, the origin and
growing importance of the conciliar movement and its associated creeds
was also deeply political. A dozen years before Nicaea the emperor
Constantine had rescinded the existing anti-Christian laws, and
Christianity became the major religion of the Empire - though it is
doubtful whether it was ever officially established as such.
Be that as
it may, Constantine saw the Church, with its doctrine of One God, and
its strong emphasis on morality and obedience, as a potentially
important unifying influence in his wide-flung and still growing Empire.
The last thing he wanted was serious internal bickering among the
bishops, but that was exactly what he had on his plate in the early
The Nicene Creed
In the face of the rather vague and sometimes contradictory biblical
language about God and Jesus, there had grown up very divergent
interpretations of the title "Son of God" for Jesus.
that he was basically an inspired, spirit-filled man, like one of the
great prophets or kings of old - and like them was called "Son of God"
as a kind of courtesy title - had early been cast aside as inadequate.
By the first quarter of the fourth century it was accepted on all sides
within the Church that "Son of God" meant what it said, and that
Jesus was in some sense divine.
But in what sense? That was the issue.
The place where things came to a head was Alexandria in Egypt, the
intellectual powerhouse of the time and a leading centre of
Christianity. In the blue corner was Arius, a local clergyman who was in
some ways a forerunner of Charles Wesley and General Booth. He put the
essence of the gospel into popular songs that the people could enjoy
singing and imbibe the faith painlessly along the way.
And in the red
corner was Athanasius, the archdeacon and later the bishop of
Alexandria. I imagine him as a person who would never do anything the
painless way if a harder path offered itself. An academic, a politician,
a great fan of the hermit Saint Anthony (whose biographer he was), and
yet not past whipping up the mob when it suited him, Athanasius was a
kind of fourth-century political right-winger. And he hated Arius. Why?
Arius did not deny that Jesus was Son of God and should be worshipped
as God, but he did claim that Jesus could not be 100 percent top-of-the-range
God in the same way as God the Father, because that would mean teaching
that there were ultimately two equal Gods. And that was against the most
fundamental biblical teaching that God is One. So in some way, at some
level, God the Son must be just a tiny bit inferior to God the Father.
And the Bible supported this. Jesus himself had said, "My Father is
greater than I" (John 14.28).
But Athanasius would have none of it. As far as he was concerned, God
the Son could only have rescued mankind from the captivity of sin and
death if he was indeed "God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God". After all, Jesus had also said, ‘The Father
and I are one’ (John 10.30).
It infuriated him that Arius was willing
to accept all these phrases and still go on at the end to add, "But …
there is a difference". If the Son is not fully equal with the father,
asked Athanasius, was there ever a time when "the Son was not"? No,
said Arius, because the Son is the Word of God and as the psalmist
says, "By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made" (Psalm
33.6) - and that includes the creation of time. If the Son created time,
then there was never a time when he was not.
But - and with Arius there
was always a "but" - although there was never a time when
the Son was not, nonetheless in some mysterious way, before the
creation, "there was when the Son was not". Only so could the
essential unity of the Godhead in the Father be maintained.
Today we are used to negotiations where the two sides struggle to
find a form of words that both can agree on. They might interpret the
agreement differently, but they can all sign it. Athanasius bargained
with a quite different aim. He knew that Arius was wrong, and therefore
any form of words which Arius was willing to sign must be flawed - even if Athanasius could not see why.
What he needed was a description
of Jesus that Arius could not accept, and at last he found it.
Arius had once explained his views by saying that the Son was God,
but he was not of exactly the same substance (or divine essence)
as the Father. So Athanasius pounced. If that is what Arius does not
believe, then it must be the truth. So he insisted on inserting into the
description of Jesus in the creed of the council of Nicaea the words
one substance with the Father" (homo-ousios in Greek).
When Arius would not sign it, Athanasius denounced him. That is how the
totally unbiblical term "substance" comes to be at the heart of the
Creed to this day.
That was not the end of the matter. Athanasius had won a significant
battle, but before the theological war was finally over, he had to
endure exile from his diocese, and - in the words of Jerome - "the whole world groaned to awake and find itself
eventually the views of Athanasius did triumph, and the Nicene formula
"of one substance with the Father" became the definition of orthodox
belief in the nature of the Son’s divinity.
The "Athanasian" Creed
Establishing the Nicene formula settled one argument but immediately
resurrected another. If the Son’s divinity was absolute, then how
could Jesus simultaneously be both the divine Son of God and the human
son of David, without either his divinity being tainted, or his humanity
The Alexandrians, including Athanasius and his successor Cyril,
presented a picture of Jesus in which the human soul of Jesus remained
passive. The divine Word took its place as the effective
decision-making agent that directed the words and actions of the
human body. According to this view, when Jesus suffered from hunger, or
thirst, or tiredness, he was displaying his humanity. And when he
performed miracles, or taught with personal authority, he was displaying
But there were problems with this division of labour. In
the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, the sweated blood
was human enough, but unless the true agony of spirit that caused these
physical symptoms was experienced by the decision-making,
life-directing, incarnate Word of God, then the whole thing was a sham.
But the ultimate Godhead - by definition was incapable of
suffering, and Nicaea had proclaimed that God the Son, the Word of God,
was nothing short of that ultimate Godhead "of one substance with the
So a more sophisticated claim was made, called "the sharing of
that certain things Jesus did as man, and certain other things he did as
God, nonetheless - it was argued - because his humanity and divinity
were so closely entwined in the one person, it was permissible to think
of these characteristics as being shared. It was therefore allowable to
speak of the man walking on the water (although it is characteristic of
man to sink) and of the divine being thirsty (although it is not in the
nature of the divine to suffer thirst).
To less subtle minds than the
intellectual Alexandrians, this already looked like calling black white.
But what really put the fat in the fire was when some bright fellow
pointed out that whereas Mary had always been thought of as the mother
of the human Jesus, by the sharing of characteristics it was
equally true that she was the mother of the divine Jesus.
long every church in Alexandria was singing hymns to the Mother of God.
There’s nothing like a bit of Mariolatry to set Christians at each
other’s throats. Waiting to take up the challenge was Nestorius,
the firebrand Bishop of the other great centre of Christianity in the
eastern Empire, Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople in honour of the first
The rivalry between the two cities for political and
ecclesiastical dominance fuelled the theological debate, and the
Byzantines accused the Alexandrians of effectively denying the full
humanity of Jesus by confusing his human and divine substance or
essence. The Alexandrians in return said that the Byzantines worshipped
"not one Lord, but two; not one Christ, but two", a human one and a
separate divine one.
The matter was finally thrashed out at the council of Chalcedon in
451, although Christian communities holding
the extreme Alexandrian position (the Monophysites) and the extreme
Byzantine position (Nestorians) still exist today.
There was no
Chalcedonian creed, but the council did produce a "definition of
that set out the acceptable boundaries of interpretations of the person
of Christ. These are reflected, together with similarly detailed
statements about the nature of the Trinity, in our third creed, the
so-called Athanasian Creed. This dates from two centuries after
the famous bishop himself.
It is really more of a poetic canticle than a
normal creed, and on the few occasions it is still heard, it is
generally sung in procession. It does not so much resolve the problem as
set down the required affirmations side by side, including some possibly
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man;
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds:
and man, of the substance of his Mother, born into the world . . .
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the
Father, as touching his manhood.
Who although he be God and man: yet he is not two but one Christ
[that was to satisfy the Alexandrians];
One; not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by
taking of the manhood into God;
One altogether; not by confusion of substance but by unity of
person [that was to satisfy the Byzantines].
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and man
is one Christ.
There are two particular things here that appeal to me, and encourage
me to look to this neglected creed, rather than the better known ones,
for a contemporary understanding of the nature of Christ, and of the
The first is the phrase: "One; not by the conversion of the
Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God". This
strikes me as something of a return to that earlier model of Jesus’
career, reflected in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. There the
humanity, rather than the divinity, comes first. I think this is an
easier starting point for modern people, and is the basis of what I call
The second point to note is the phrase: "For as the reasonable soul
and flesh is one man: so God and man is one Christ". In the days when
this was written, the soul and body were thought of as two quite
distinct things, one non-physical and immortal, the other physical and
perishable. But today there is good reason to treat the human soul - or mind, or conscious self
- as much more integrally related to the
body, and as somehow emerging from it.
So if Christ’s divinity is
related to his humanity in a parallel way to the relation of the human
body to the human soul/mind/conscious-self, then his divinity somehow
emerges from his humanity. And this ties in with the first affirmation
"not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the
manhood into God".
Finally, a brief word about the Trinity in the creeds.
The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are Trinitarian in shape, with
successive sections dealing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But
only the Nicene gives any detail of how the Spirit relates to the Father
and the Son. Our familiar version reads: "The Holy Ghost ... Who
proceedeth from the Father and the Son".
The original creed
produced at Nicaea in 325 had a one-sentence final section: "And we
believe in the Holy Ghost". This was expanded at the Council of
Constantinople in 381 to include the phrase "Who proceedeth from the
The phrase "and the Son" was
added still later, at the first Synod of Toledo in 447, and confirmed at
later meetings. But these synods were only attended by the western Latin
bishops, not the eastern Greek ones, and the eastern Orthodox Church has
never accepted the addition.
This same distinction between the three persons is spelled out even
more clearly in the Athanasian Creed:
The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor
created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father not three Fathers; one Son not three Sons:
one Holy Ghost not three Holy Ghosts.
In an earlier age, the three persons had been distinguished by their
roles in relation to us: the Father as creator; the Son as redeemer; the
Holy Ghost as sanctifier. But this so-called "economic Trinitarianism"
implied that the three persons were not part of God’s inner reality
but only a consequence of his activity, and so was abandoned.
distinctions of the begotten Son and processing Spirit were based on
biblical texts and were necessary to retain some distinction between
these two persons, but very few people these days - even among the
theologically literate - are able to get very excited about them. The old economic
Trinitarianism has been resurrected in recent
Anglican baptism services, and as far as I know, I am the only person to
So the wheel has come full circle.