A creed is a brief statement of faith used to enumerate important truths, to clarify doctrinal points, and to distinguish truth from error. Creeds are usually worded to be easily memorized. The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, meaning, “I believe.” The Bible contains a number of creed-like passages. For example, Jews used the Shema, based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, as a creed. Paul wrote simple creed-like statements in 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3 and 15:3-4. 1 Timothy 3:16 also appears as a creed, a concise statement of belief.
As the early church spread, there was a practical need for a statement of faith to help believers focus on the most important doctrines of their Christian faith. The Apostles’ Creed is appropriately named not because the original apostles wrote it, but because it accurately reflects the teaching of the apostles. Church fathers Tertullian, Augustine, and other leaders had slightly different versions of the Apostles’ Creed, but the text of Pirminius in A.D. 750 was eventually accepted as the standard form.
As the church grew, heresies also grew, and the early Christians needed to clarify the defining boundaries of the faith. In the early 300s, before the canon of the New Testament had been finalized, controversy developed over the divinity of Jesus Christ. At the request of Emperor Constantine, Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire met at the town of Nicea in 325 to discuss the matter. They wrote their consensus in the form of a creed, called the Creed of Nicea.
In 381, another major council was held at Constantinople at which the Creed of Nicea was slightly revised to include a few more doctrines. The resulting Creed is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, or more commonly, The Nicene Creed.
In the next century, church leaders met in the city of Chalcedon to discuss, among other things, questions about the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The result was a Definition of Faith they believed to be true to the gospel, true to apostolic teaching, and true to the Scriptures. This statement is called The Definition of Chalcedon or The Faith of Chalcedon.
Regrettably, creeds can become formal, complex, abstract, and sometimes equated with Scripture. When properly used, however, they facilitate a concise basis for teaching, safeguard correct biblical doctrine, and create a focus for church fellowship. These three creeds are widely accepted among Christians as consistent with the Bible and as statements of true Christian orthodoxy, or right teaching.
The Nicene Creed (A.D. 381)
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy, all-embracing and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(Translation based on The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
The Apostles’ Creed (c. A.D. 700)
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy all-embracing Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
(Translation based on I Believe by Alister McGrath, Downer’s Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
The Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ
(Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451)
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach people to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in humanness, truly God and truly human, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance (homoousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his humanity begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos); one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only–begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.
(Translation from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)