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Volume 8, Issue 1: Historia

The Joy of Creeds

Chris Schlect

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.

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