Introduction to Creeds

Creeds: What Are They and Why Do We Have Them?

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (a splendidly belligerent title) by Christopher Hitchens are three of a raft of recently published books attacking the notion of faith in God and a religious response to life. Books like these bring into focus some vital questions for all of us:

  • Is belief in God reasonable?
  • If we don’t believe in God, what do we believe in?
  • What is life all about?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • Have humans any purpose? If so what is it?
  • Why do we suffer?
  • Why is the world in such mess?
  • How can we achieve happiness?

These books and the articles, reviews, interviews and discussions of them in the media also have the useful effect of stimulating a new interest in what we Catholics actually do believe. We might be motivated to do some reading and talking and thinking that will help us appreciate the unique approach to life we share. We might realise anew (or for the first time) that the stance of faith is a perfectly intellectually valid and life-giving one which opens us up to a deeper understanding of the truth about the world and what it is to be human, and a way of life which leads to generosity, to forgiveness, to self-transcendence and so to happiness.

Working out what we believe – the role of Creeds

One way in which we can work out what we believe is to look again at our creeds, those short statements of faith, developed in the first centuries of the church and assented to by all the major Christian traditions, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. Online conversations with Luke Timothy Johnson and Jaroslav Pelikan, two popular scholars and writers, reveal their enthusiasm for the Christian creed and the radical challenge it poses to a society awash in materialism and self-absorption. Another article by Ron Rolheiser OMI proposes the language of the Creed, as well as the language of the Scriptures, as icons to be contemplated.

Click on the appropriate ‘Section’ button on the right to read about how Creeds developed in the Church.

The Development Of The Creeds

The Creeds and the Jewish Shema

Some see a conflict between scripture and the creeds of the Church but the affirmations of the creeds grow out of scripture and crystallise their message. The two best known, the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed (recited at Mass each Sunday) have part of their origin in the Jewish tradition, particularly in the Shema the great statement of faith in one God recited twice daily by devout Jews. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut 6:4). One of the key religious insights of Judaism is the conviction that God is one. This is called monotheism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three monotheistic faiths.

Further Reading

An article on the Jewishness of the Nicene Creed makes some interesting points about the origins of the creed that emerged from the Council of Nicaea (325) and has often been seen rather as reflecting a strong Greek influence in Christian faith.

Gospel foreshadowing of the creeds

The New Testament also contains affirmations about Jesus Christ which though they are not creeds are statements of belief which foreshadow the simplicity and straight-forwardness of the articles of the creed. Examples of these statements of faith are in the box below.

  • ‘I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God’ (John 1:34)
  • ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ (John 1:49)
  • ‘You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’ (John 6:68)
  • ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matt. 16:16)
  • ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.’ (John 11:27)
  • ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28)
  • The value of open declaration of faith is affirmed in the gospel:
    ‘Whoever shall confess me before others, him I will confess before my Father in Heaven’ (Matt 10:32). Further, Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 sending the disciples out to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19) foreshadow the trinitarian shape of the creed whose focus is on what God, Father, Son and Spirit, has done, and continues to do for us.

Statements of faith in the Letters

In the letters of the New Testament written prior, even to the gospels, affirmations of faith are equally prominent and it is easy to see in them language which will later be incorporated into the creed:

‘For us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist’ (1 Cor. 8:6)

Paul comments on the importance of key statements of belief as a sacred tradition, received by him from the witnesses of Jesus’ life death and resurrection and in turn passed on by him to others.

‘I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3, 4)

He emphasises the dual need to believe and to confess the faith:

‘If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord, and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. By believing from the heart you are made righteous; by confessing with the lips you are saved’ (Rom. 10:9, 10)

And so does the author of the letters of John:

‘Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him, and he in God’ (1 John 4:15)

The creeds emerge in the Early Church

From the beginning then, Christianity was a believing, confessing community. There was no artificial divide between faith in the person of Jesus Christ and consent to declarations of faith in him. Christians didn’t choose between faith in Christ and faith in a formula. The evolving creeds simply drew out what was unique and redemptive in the life of Jesus and his relationship to God and the Spirit in order to put these before believers.

The contribution of baptismal catechesis to the formation of the creeds

The catechesis and preparation of new Christians made an important contribution to the form of the evolving creed. Statements of faith were taught to catechumens and had to be recited back to the community before they were accepted for baptism. The articles of the Apostles’ Creed still form the basis of the questions posed to those seeking baptism today.

The contribution of theological debate

Another contributing factor to the shape of the creed was the effort of the church to clarify and summarise the faith, often in response to misinterpretation, error or heresy. The Apostles’ Creed was largely formulated in response to the various Gnostic heresies which denied the bodily humanity of Jesus. The text of the Nicene Creed combated the Arian heresy which claimed that Jesus was created by God and so not equal to the Father.

What is the difference between the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed?

The Apostles Creed is simpler and shorter, though in the form we have it, it is later than the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed embellishes several of the statements about Jesus Christ to clarify beliefs which were being challenged at the time of the Council of Nicaea (325).

There are a number of helpful introductions and commentaries on the Creeds online. Click the appropriate ‘Section’ button to refer to these.

Online Introductions And Overviews Of The Creeds

The articles of the Nicene Creed underpin the whole section of the Catechism headed The Profession of Faith which is an invaluable reference and basis for teaching. A handy overview and introduction to the creed can be found on the St John in the Wilderness site. This Canadian Adult Education site has also produced a series of power point presentations based on Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Creed which is a study of the Nicene Creed. There is enough material here to provide a year’s worth of Religious Education with senior students. You would need to tailor the content to the needs and ability of your classes but you yourselves should find the material helpful and challenging. A further introduction and overview of the Creed is provided on a UK parish site under the title Credo. It has a particularly helpful short section on doubt which is part of the experience of every believer.

There are some Quests and Questions to help you and your students process the information in this introduction to the Creed. Click on the  ‘Section’ button titled Quests and Questions.

Quests And Questions

Do we really need ‘creeds’?
What are the plusses of groups, clubs and organisations having a formal statement of their beliefs, mission or vision? Are there any minuses?
How do you respond to some of the ‘big questions’ dot-pointed in the Introduction i.e.
  • Is belief in God reasonable?
  • If we don’t believe in God, what do we believe in?
  • What is life all about?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • Have humans any purpose? If so what is it?
  • Why do we suffer?
  • Why is the world in such mess?
  • How can we achieve happiness?
Together formulate a creed that reflects the shared beliefs of your family or class group.
Why do you think that both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed leave out the story of Jesus’ life and teaching?
The Masai Creed is an African statement which expresses the Christian Creed in a uniquely African way. Write an Australian Creed using what you know of Australian culture and values to express the truths of our faith.
Listen to some different musical settings of the Creed (Credo in Latin). Try a range of styles, for example:
  • Gregorian chant,
  • the Credo from Bach’s B minor Mass,
  • a modern setting by Arvo Part (Berliner Mass),
  • modern liturgical settings by composers like Bernadette Farrell, David Haas, Christopher Walker,
  • the Credo from African Sanctus or Missa Luba.
What is the impact of each piece? What emotions do each evoke in the hearer? How does each reflect a particular response to the Creed? Which settings do you prefer? Which help you to pray? Draw or paint or model to some of the music.