Volume 8, Issue 1: Historia
The Joy of Creeds
The church has produced creeds and confessions since its earliest days, for the
earliest Christians loved doctrine. New converts "gladly" received the apostles' word,
and "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:41-42). As the church
matured, this steadfast continuance would require doctrinal refinement, clearly
setting forth the truth against error. Such refinement is not easy, as Paul
had warned the church at Corinth, "there must be factions among you, that those
who are approved may be recognized among you" (1 Cor. 11:19). So long as tares
dwell with wheat, the people of God must proclaim the truth with a distinctive
voice. Hence the church, being the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15),
has produced creeds and confessions throughout her history.
The Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, is the model for confessing truth. Paul
reminds Timothy that Christ had "witnessed the good confession before Pontius
Pilate" (1 Tim. 6:13). Likewise, with Christ looking on, His people must "fight
the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which [we] were also called
and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (v.
12). Christ had publicly confessed before Pilate that he was King of the Jews,
taking the needed stand in that situation.This teaches that the church is called
to fight the good fight as Christ did, and the propositional content of that
faith is announced in a confession.
A jubilant faith must be clarified and proclaimed.The earliest creeds and confessions
flowed from these motives. Most of them were simple baptismal formulas. Extant
creeds date as far back as the second century; doubtless many existed prior to
these. Early forms of the well-known "Apostles' Creed" date from the third century,
marking the first widely accepted creedal statement.
By the fourth century, most creeds and confessions then in use were supplanted
by an improvement, the Nicene Creed, produced by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.
The Council of Nicea was called by Emperor Constantine primarily to address a
controversy over the doctrine taught by an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius.
Because he taught that Christ was created, denying His deity, Arius had been
excommunicated by a regional synod in 321. Yet he continued teaching, his influence
spread, and the church was troubled by controversy. The Council convened in 325
and declared Arianism to be heretical. Many Arians continued propagating their
heresy, which afterward flourished a short while. "The Arian controversy took
its own natural course," Schaff explains. "The truth regained free play, and the
Nicene spirit was permitted to assert its intrinsic power." In 381, the Council
of Constantinople reaffirmed Nicea's judgment. Arianism was dead.
Still embraced by most Christian churches, the creed produced by these two councils
stands as a monument to both the unity of the Church and to the Church's separation
from error. The deity of Christ will forever be recognized as sound doctrine:
"I believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten
of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very
God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father . . . ."
As Paul taught Timothy, confessions of some sort are necessary to the government
and mission of the Church. But ironically, creedal declarations were themselves
the subject of one of the most important and spirited doctrinal controversies
since the fourth century. What authority do creedal pronouncements have? This
question came to focus in the Reformation. According to the Roman church, creeds
and papal pronouncements were the irreformable voice of an infallible church.
Protestants, on the other hand, held that creeds are an authoritative voice of
an authoritative church, and yet the church's authority is subordinate to Scripture.
Therefore creeds, like the church that produces them, are fallible and reformable.
Amidst this controversy, how did the early Protestants define their position
over against the Roman error? In creeds and confessional statements, of course!
The Reformation period was more prolific than any other in the church's history
for producing such statements.
Few, if any, of the Protestant creedal statements about creeds are as well-developed
as that contained in the "Scots Confession," adopted in 1560 by the Church of Scotland.
"So far then as the council confirms its decrees by the plain Word of God, so
far do we reverence and embrace them. But if men, under the name of a council,
pretend to forge for us new articles of faith, or to make decisions contrary
to the Word of God, then we must utterly deny them as the doctrine of devils,
drawing our souls from the voice of the one God to follow the doctrines of men.
The reason why the general councils met was not to make any permanent law which
God had not made before, nor yet to form new articles for our belief, nor to
give the Word of God authority; . . . but the reason for councils, at least of
those what deserve the name, was partly to refute heresies, and to give public
confession of their faith to the generations following, which they did by the
authority of God's written Word, and not by any opinion or prerogative that they
could not err by reason of their numbers. This, we judge, was the primary reason
for general councils. The second was that good policy and order shou ld be constituted
and observed in the Kirk [church] where, as in the house of God, it becomes all
things to be done decently and in order."
The Scots Confession explains why, from Christ before Pilate to the present
day, creeds and confessions have been important to the mission and government
of the church. They are standards fallible, not absolute, for a well-ordered
proclamation of the faith we embrace and defend.