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Definition

Creeds and confessions are important as the historic documents, composed and adopted by churches to give authoritative expression to their theological beliefs.

Summary

Summary statements of the Christian faith find their origins in both the precepts and principles of the New Testament. In the early church, general consensus on the content of faith was, by the fourth century, formalized into specific forms of words adopted by the church and given a general authority, most particularly in the Nicene Creed (325/81) and its elaboration by the ecumenical councils. In the Reformation, Catholicism and Protestantism defined themselves through both the early church creedal tradition and by the production of more elaborate and comprehensive confessions and catechisms. While more recent centuries have seen less confessional production, and many contemporary Protestant churches have either abandoned strict adherence to their confessions or adopted brief statements of faith of their composition, the rich heritage of creeds and confessions still offers much of vital importance to the health and well-being of the contemporary church.

Biblical Origins

The Bible offers numerous indications that an agreed verbal confession of belief is an important part of its conception of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the Shema (Deut. 6:4) grounds the identity of God’s people in the identity of God himself in a manner that is confessional in both senses of the word: doctrinally, as a statement of truth, and liturgically, as a public declaration of faith. The New Testament witnesses to a continuation of this pattern, with Paul’s reference to sayings that are true and worthy of all acceptance by the church, and indeed his use of statements which have a creed-like quality (e.g., 1Tim. 1:15; 3:16; Phil. 2:5-11). Paul’s emphasis on faithful adherence to the form of apostolic teaching also reflects this (1Tim. 1:13).

The Rule of Faith

Second century theologians, Irenaeus and Tertullian, refer at points in their writings to the Rule, or Canon, of Faith. This is a summary of the cardinal points of Christian doctrine, from the unity and uniqueness of God to the final judgment. That it occurs in different linguistic forms suggests that it was not a formal creed, in the sense of an established and normative verbal formula but was rather an agreed set of concepts.

Early Church Creeds

The single most important creed of the early church was that initially formulated at the Council of Niceae in 325 and then revised and expanded at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. The presenting cause of the initial Nicene council was the need to deal with the teaching of a presbyter, Arius, who was arguing that the unity and impassibility of God meant that the Son needed to be understood as somehow less than God. Though Arius was condemned at Nicaea, the issue of the relationship of Father and Son (and then, from the 360s, the Holy Spirit) continued to vex the church until 381, when a finely tooled conceptual vocabulary for expressing both the unity (“one substance”) and the threeness (“three hypostases, or subsistences”) was finally agreed. In the years between 325 and 381, the concept of an ecumenical council – a gathering of church leaders to make decisions binding upon the whole church – had also emerged, highlighting that the question of creeds and the question of ecclesiology are intimately related, both theologically and historically.

The Nicene settlement of the Trinitarian question then provided the basis for subsequent Christological debate. Once normative concepts for discussing the being and subsistences of God in himself had been established, the issue of how God related to the Christ became pressing. A series of further councils then took place, the most important of which were considered to have ecumenical, catholic status.

  • Ephesus I (431) which rejected Nestorianism
  • Chalcedon (451) which rejected Eutychianism and established one person/two natures language as normative for Christology
  • Constantinople II (553) which broadened the condemnation of Nestorianism and adopted the Theopaschite formula
  • Constantinople III (680-81) which repudiated Monoenergism and Monothelitism
  • Nicaea II (787) which restored the veneration of icons after their earlier prohibition.

Each of last six councils was careful to proclaim its declarations as being consistent with the original Council of Nicaea.

In addition to the formal Nicen Creed and its subsequent applications to Christology in the later councils, two other creeds are also of patristic provenance: the Apostles’ and the Athanasian. While neither have formal ecumenical status, both have been liturgically and theologically influential.

The Apostles’ Creed, despite its name, was not written by the Apostles but emerged towards the end of the fourth century. The Athanasian Creed cannot have been written by Athanasius as it is a Latin, not Greek creed, and, more decisively, addresses fifth century Christological issues which only arose after the first Council of Constantinople in 381. A more likely author is the theologian, Vincent of Lerins. Nevertheless, despite the murky provenance of these two creeds, they have both (particularly the Apostles’) enjoyed widespread acceptance and liturgical use within the various branches of Christianity.

Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent the great era of confessions – documents which offered much more comprehensive statements of the Christian faith than the more narrowly focused early church creeds and which also covered some matters which did not pertain to the substance of the faith (such as, for example, the role of the civil magistrate in church affairs). As Christianity fragmented into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and the latter into Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican and then a plethora of other sects, the need for such comprehensive statements became both necessary both politically, as emerging states defined themselves over against each other in theological terms, and ecclesiastically, as different churches defined themselves in relation to each other. Protestant confessionalization was evidenced early on in the Reformation by, for example, the Augsburg Confession (1530) but accelerated dramatically in the 1560s after the Council of Trent fueled a resurgent Roman Catholicism and produced canons and decrees which locked the church into clear positions on matters such as justification and sacraments.

The Lutheran church defined itself confessionally through the documents collected in the Book of Concord (1580). The continental Reformed churches defined themselves through the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession (1561); the Heidelberg Catechism (1563); and the Canons of Dordt (1619) – all three of which were formally adopted as the subordinate standards of the Reformed churches at the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19). The Anglican Church defined itself in terms of the Thirty-Nine (originally Forty-Two) Articles (1552/1571), co-ordinated with the Book of Common Prayer and the two Books of Homilies. Presbyterian churches defined themselves in terms of the documents produced by the Westminster Assembly: the Westminster Confession (and also the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, though the latter two documents were not originally intended to be formal confessional documents. Generalizations about Independent churches (Congregationalists, Baptists, etc.) are inevitably more difficult to make, but important confessional documents include the Savoy Declaration (1658, congregationalist) and the Second London Confession (1677/1689, Baptist). In addition, other Protestant groups also produced confessional documents, such as the Schleitheim Confession (1527, Swiss Anabaptist) and the Racovian Catechism (1605, Socinian).

While Protestant confessions presented authoritative statements of the various churches’ beliefs, the documents were considered to be subordinate to, and therefore corrigible by scripture. The technical expression for this was that Scripture was the “norming norm” and confessions were the “normed norms.”

The Modern Era

The study of creeds and confessions in modern era is complicated. While Eastern Orthodoxy remains committed to regarding only the first Seven Ecumenical Councils as authoritative, Catholicism has continued to develop, defining numerous dogmas as having authoritative status, most significantly the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (1854) and Papal Infallibility (1870). The documents approved by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) are the most important confessional documents of recent history.

Protestantism, because of it highly variegated and fragmented nature, cannot be easily described relative to creeds and confessions. The original Reformation era documents are still the standard for many denominations, but the terms of subscription to them vary greatly, from very strict to very loose. Further, the large number of independent churches means that many Protestant congregations have composed their own particular confessions or (more often) brief statements of faith that have no necessary formal connection to historic creeds and confessions. This makes generalizations about the content of such to be impossible and little in the way of confessional documents of more than local interest has been produced in the last couple of centuries, although political exigencies did mean that the Barmen Declaration (1934) and the Belhar Confession (1986) both enjoyed some importance, though more for the political situations to which they were responding (Nazism and Apartheid respectively) than the intrinsic importance of their theological contribution.

The Contemporary Usefulness of Creeds and Confessions

While there is often an instinctive suspicion of creeds and confessions among Protestants, particularly evangelicals, on the grounds that they seem to subvert a commitment to the sole authority of Scripture, it should be clear from the history, and, more importantly, from the biblical testimony cited above, that creeds and confessions should play a vital role in any church. The following five points are only the most significant of the riches which creeds and confessions bring to today’s churches:

First, creeds and confessions witness to the fact that no Christian simply believes the Bible; all believe the Bible actually means something, and the basic elements of what it means can be synthesized in statements of faith. To claim, therefore, that one has no creed or confession but the Bible is misleading at best.

Second, creeds and confessions offer concise summaries of what churches believe, both to their members and to those outside. They can therefore function both as pedagogical tools in discipleship and as apologetic tools in evangelism.

Third, creeds and confessions focus Christians on matters of non-negotiable importance to the faith (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) and on matters of importance to the well-being and good practice of the visible church (such as the mode and subjects of baptism). In turn, they respect Christian freedom in matters where they do not speak. Consequently, they also provide clear guidance as to the limit of church power and the sphere of legitimate church discipline.

Fourth, creeds and confessions witness to the historical, ecumenical nature of Christianity, connecting the contemporary church both confessionally and liturgically with the church of the past and, indeed, the church today in other lands.

Fifth, creeds and confessions fulfill liturgical and doxological purposes by providing content and even words for praise and prayer.

Further Reading

  • Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions (Baker)
  • J. N. D. Kelly, Early Church Creeds (Longman)
  • Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo (Yale)
  • Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Crossway)
  • Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom. Available here.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.