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The Creeds

I have become increasingly interested in how the beliefs of Christianity developed. Yawn yawn… Sure, history is cool, but more important to me is how our following of Jesus is to be understood and lived out in a society has changed so dramatically since the documents we use were written. There are gigantic shifts going on – scientific, technological, cultural. Some of the most basic assumptions about our nature are shifting. Our understanding of the universe we live in has mushroomed (though it is still tiny, tiny mushroom in my opinion).

In this post I consider the role of the Creeds – and ask ‘should they even have a role?’ These creeds are short(ish) statements which encapsulate what Christians believe and in some cases were written over 1500 years ago. They are widely used – and by ‘widely’ I mean ‘all around the world’ kind of widely.

nicene councilby Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican
Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican [1]

The creeds have a timeless quality. In the early days of the church there was quickly a need to develop statements which set out what was actually believed. This was because there arose many, many groups with different understandings of the momentous events centered around the controversial character of Jesus. Nothing has changed.

Apostles Creed

One or the earliest of these “creeds” is the Apostles’ Creed. It’s origin could be as early as 200AD though it under went some evolution over the following centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages it was generally believed that this creed was composed by the Apostles on the day of Pentecost and that each of them contributed one of the twelve sections. It is now thought that it was named because its content is in agreement with apostolic teaching, which is not such an exciting idea.

What’s interesting to me is that during my years in the Anglican church I would say this creed with absolutely no idea where it come from. I never knew either that many denominations around the globe use it in their worship. The Apostles’ Creed was used as a confession of faith for those being baptised, a teaching tool for new Christians and way to give continuity to orthodox christian doctrine. Mostly it is about the events of Jesus life – his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

High Stakes with Painful Consequences

As the early church continued to spread, there was the practical need to have a creed that would help believers focus on the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. To that end councils were called; meetings where bishops (ie theologians) met to thrash out the doctrine in an attempt to keep the churches teaching pure and to counter the rise of what they saw as the heresies. Much of this focused on the nature of Jesus, what we call Christology, the implications of his being fully human and fully God at the same time. These meetings are know as the Councils. To some extent they still happen today.

The image shows a peaceful picture of old men, quietly sitting around in pointy hats, discussing, some with their neighbours. But things were not always so calm. Just imagine how hard it can be to get a group or people to agree what to have for dinner (at least in my home). Now up the stakes; all these people loved the church and wanted the best for it. Wrong teaching could not be tolerated. Naturally there were disagreements and tempers did flare up, sometimes leading to violence. There are stories of beards being pulled out. And worse[2].

Nicene Creed – Who is this Jesus?

In A.D. 325 the Emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity, called a council called at Nicea, which is near Constantinople in Turkey, to discuss and formalise the understanding of the doctrines of the nature of Jesus. In 381 this Creed of Nicea was expanded at another council this time in Constantinople – the result of which is known as the Nicene Creed.

The Creed stated that Jesus was of the same essence as the Father, underlined the unity of God, and said that Jesus ‘begotten of the Father’ yet ‘not made’. This latter idea has always puzzled me – I guess it is another case of the trying to describe something both outside time, and beyond our language. As I am fond of saying, ‘these things are meant to be experienced not understood’.

Unsurprisingly I guess there is some controversy surrounding the phrase ‘who proceeds from the Father’ – which is the original text. The Western churches changes this to read ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. The Eastern churches think this additional ‘from the son’ puts the Holy Spirit as a secondary member of the trinity rather than a co-equal. This was one thing that latter contributed to the splitting of the one church.

Control Mechanism

Some people suggest that the creeds were a mechanism whereby the ruling elite could control the masses. There might be something in this. Afterall, Christianity had morphed from a being something that was frowned upon by the establishment (to put it mildly) and had now become the height of fashion in the Roman Empire. This now popular religion could be used to control people, and surely has been – and still is. But I think this misses the point. We owe a great debt to these holy fathers and mothers of the church, who thrashed out the basis of the doctrines, often at great cost to themselves. We still use their work, and are effected by it today, even if we do not recognise it. Apart from anything some of the greatest theologians who ever lived contributed to such powerful language.

What we do with these creeds now though? Should they evolve further to take into account our vastly different society? On the other hand are they so foundational that they should never be changed? Do they even matter?

Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth;
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of Father. He will come again 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 the life everlasting. Amen. [3]

Nicene Creed
We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son). With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen. [4]

References

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Maximus the Confessor, who would not stop spreading what was considered heresy. In the end his tongue was cut out and his hand lopped off in an attempt to silence him Years later though, it was realised that in fact he had been right all along. Ref
  3. Three Historic Creeds accessed September 2019
  4. Christianity In View accessed September 201

About maxelcat

Moderately into just about everything I live in North London where I am currently looking for a job.
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