Christian creeds, developed during the early days of the church, are summary statements of Christian belief.
One of the earliest, the Apostles’ Creed, had developed by the fourth century from predecessors that may date as far back as the first or second century. In its current form it reads: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”
A number of creeds have developed over the course of church history. The Nicene Creed resulted from the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, has a creed named after him, the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.), which clearly distinguishes the doctrine of the Trinity.
Visiting local churches, I find creeds commonly used in liturgically oriented churches such as Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Orthodox. Most evangelical churches that don’t use creeds tend to have statements of belief, sometimes quite lengthy ones. The Seventh-day Adventist church, one of the fastest growing evangelical denominations in the U.S., uses “28 Fundamental Beliefs” as its core statement and test of fellowship.
A local evangelical exception is ChangePoint.
“We do believe in and express the Apostles’ Creed in its original form without the statement ‘He descended into hell,’” says teaching pastor Dan Jarrell. “We do it because we agree with its theology and believe it has been a unifying creed in the church for almost 2,000 years. It is a ‘focal statement’ of orthodox theology, and singing it and reciting it are ‘focal practices.’”
Southern Baptists comprise the largest evangelical Protestant denomination in the U.S.
“Southern Baptists do not subscribe to a creed and firmly believe in the Priesthood of the Believer,” says Dr. David George, director of missions for the Chugach Baptist Association. “This means that we do not rely on any hierarchy to decree how we are to interpret scripture, but it is left up to the individual, his church, and the Holy Spirit.”
Evangelical pastor Mike Merriner of Clear Water Church says his congregation occasionally recites the Apostles’ Creed as they sometimes borrow material from the Book of Common Prayer.
“I like the idea of creeds, because a community of faith should share core beliefs,” he said. “In fact, it would concern me if a member of our church was not in agreement with the Apostles’ Creed.”
Episcopal churches generally use the Nicene Creed before the Eucharist and the Apostles’ Creed before baptisms.
“The Apostles’ Creed is probably the least controversial creed of the Christian faith since it does not contain the Filioque clause that the Nicene Creed in the West has — a point of continued difference between the Church of the East (Orthodox) and the Latin Church(es),” says All Saints Episcopal Church’s pastor David Terwilliger. “Filioque” is a Latin phrase added to the Nicene Creed essentially indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father “and Son.”
“At various seasons of the church year, we also use the ‘Jesus Creed’ in worship, a devotional prayer first shared by Brian McLaren at a conference in Nashville in 2004,” says Rector Michael Burke of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “It has evoked strong feelings and some deep thought among participants in worship, as evidenced by many follow-up conversations with people and in small groups. Because of this experience, I believe that people are also interacting with the traditional Nicene Creed in a new way, and not just reciting it in an unreflective or rote way.”
“The ancient creeds are still relevant today in a world where new and old Christian denominations invent and rearrange their understanding of the faith,” says pastor Rick Cavens of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla.”They fought for a common understanding of the faith around 300 A.D.; we still do, and need to.” He notes they use the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday, and, “once a year we may use the Athanasian Creed; which means you get a long service. It’s all about the Trinity and the historical tie to the early church.”
Rev. Anthony Patalano, pastor of Holy Family Cathedral, says the Nicene Creed is basically the only one used at that congregation, where it is said by the priest and congregation after the homily.
“When I got to Anchorage in 2011, the translation of the Nicene Creed was changed to be more faithful to the Latin text,” he added.
For an Eastern Orthodox view of creedal use I turned to Rev Marc Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River.
“We say the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every Sunday as part of our Liturgy,” Dunaway said. “It is sometimes called just the Nicene Creed or commonly in Orthodox Churches simply the Symbol of Faith. We recite the Creed in the original form it was written by the first and second Ecumenical Councils, that is, without the phrase which was later added in the western Church, known in Latin as the ‘filioque.’ Orthodox hold it was wrong to unilaterally change a Creed written by Ecumenical Councils, and also this change diminishes the understanding of the role of Holy Spirit in the Church.”
“More importantly, we use this Creed first of all as a profession of faith when one prepares for Baptism. Within the Divine Liturgy, it is also an ongoing affirmation of what we believe about certain essential doctrines.”
I like creeds and choke up sometimes when I repeat them. They are meaningful expressions of what one believes. Too many churches and denominations use hundreds or even thousands of words to be explicit about their beliefs. I enjoy hearing and saying core Christian beliefs expressed in minimal words.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.
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