Faith in Search of
4. The Creeds
by Anthony Freeman
Our subject here is the
Creed - or more strictly the creeds. There have been many of these
formulations and at least two are still in regular use by many churches
- the Apostles� Creed and the Nicene Creed.
A third, the so-called "Athanasian Creed", is little
heard today although I believe it is still very important.
New Testament origins
Creeds are unique to Christianity among the world religions, because
Christians uniquely are defined by what they believe, rather than by
what they do.
A person becomes a member of the Church by baptism only after making
a profession of faith. The earliest account we have of a Christian
baptism is that of the Ethiopian court official by Philip, recorded in
the Acts of the Apostles. The man said to Philip,
Look here is water! What is to prevent me being baptised? He
commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the
eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized them. (Acts
Another clue to the words used in the baptism of New Testament
Christians comes at the end of Matthew�s Gospel, where Jesus says,
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name
of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost� (Matthew
This points towards belief not just in Jesus as the Son of God but
in the Trinity. While it is unlikely that Jesus himself ever spoke those
words, they are firm evidence for the practice of Matthew�s local church
in the last quarter of the first century.
We need to appreciate that the first Christians had a great and
exciting new message: You don�t have to earn God�s favour by performing
all the right prayers and sacrifices. Just put your faith in Jesus and
all will be well.
That was alright while the apostles were preaching in Jerusalem and
Galilee, where Jesus had been personally known, but as soon as they went
further afield, people began to ask: Who is this Jesus? Why should we
believe in him? What are we supposed to believe about him?
That - or something very like it - is the background to the
formulaic statements that became our creeds. Once we start to look for
them, we can find scattered through the New Testament various short
summaries of what the early Church believed and taught about Jesus.
These quite likely survive because they were used both for teaching and
as confessions of faith made by those about to be baptized and so become
We have already seen one very short formula of this kind: "I believe
that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (Acts 8.37). A much fuller
statement is found in St Paul�s first letter to the Corinthians,
probably written about 20 or 25 years after the death of Jesus:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn
received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one
time, most of whom are still alive . . . (1 Corinthians 15.3�6)
Note Paul�s claim to have received and passed on what is recognizably
an early and simple form of what later became the Apostles� Creed.
Another noteworthy feature of the New Testament is the grouping
together of references to God (or the Father), Jesus Christ (or the Son)
and the Holy Spirit.
We have already referred to Matthew 28. Other examples are 2
Corinthians 13.14 ("The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of
God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit") and 1 Peter 1.2 ("Chosen
and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for
obedience to Jesus Christ"). Nothing in the Bible compels the
development of what became the full-blown doctrine of the Trinity, but
these formulas may be seen as early indicators of the Trinitarian shape
of the later creeds.
Apostles� Creed: Baptismal
Our Apostles� Creed dates in its final form from about the 6th
century, although legend told how it had been composed on the day of
Pentecost, with each of the apostles contributing one of its clauses.
Its history can in fact be traced fairly steadily from the embryonic
forms in the New Testament, via references in the second-century
writings of Justin and Tertullian, and the first actual liturgical
version that is found in the writings of the third-century Roman bishop,
Hippolytus. This is his description of how an adult baptism should be
conducted at that time:
When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who
baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: "Do you believe in
God, the Father Almighty?" And the person being baptized shall say:
"I believe." Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him
And then he shall say: "Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of
God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under
Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third
day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the
right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the
dead?" And when he says: "I believe, he is baptized again.
And again he shall say: "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the
holy church, and the resurrection of the body?" The person being
baptized shall say: "I believe," and then he is baptized a third
This interrogative form of the Creed is still found in the Church of
England's Book of Common Prayer baptism service. The origins of this
formulation as a personal confession of faith is reflected in the use of
the first-person singular ("I believe in God") even when it is used in
corporate worship, as in the Church of England�s Morning and Evening
As well as being used in the baptism service, the creeds also served
as a doctrinal syllabus for the instruction of catechumens (candidates
for Church membership).
The level of teaching was probably quite basic in most cases, but
could also develop into advanced theological exposition, as is shown by
the "Catecheses" of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century. All
candidates, however, had to acquire and display some understanding of
the profession they would make.
The origin of Conciliar Creeds
The gradual addition of extra clauses to the baptismal creeds was
not just educational. The rise of alternative teachings about the nature
of God and Jesus required the Church to make clear which were acceptable
and which were heresies. Expanding the first rudimentary statements into
the more developed formulae of later centuries was one way of declaring
what was the acceptable and orthodox version of the faith.
So, for example, the phrase "maker of heaven and earth" was probably
inserted to counteract the Gnostic teaching that the world was evil, and
its creator an inferior god, and not the true God and Father of Jesus.
We should note in passing that the official view of things was (and
remains) that the whole truth of Christianity was there from the
beginning, and that the heresies were from the first attacks upon that
But that was not the case.
What happened was that early and rather vague and general statements
concerning God and Jesus began to be explored and clarified in different
ways by different and equally sincere Christian thinkers. Only with
hindsight can we say that certain of these attempts proved acceptable
(orthodox) while others were found wanting (heretical).
Already in the second century, Tertullian saw in the flourishing
church of north Africa a development in the functions of the creed that
included its being a pointer to the proper interpretation of scripture,
and a test of orthodoxy for the clergy. Tertullian, an austere man with
a legalistic mind, who has been dubbed the "father" of Latin theology,
approved of this development. Yet ironically he ended up joining a
charismatic sect called the Montanists who were eventually outlawed as
At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, I want to demonstrate
that this use of the creed to set the boundaries on interpretations of
scripture, which Tertullian first noted and approved, and then fell foul
of, is still alive and well in the Church of England.
In 1986 the Anglican Bishop of Durham in the UK, David Jenkins, made
certain statements about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus
from death. After the subsequent controversy, the Church of England's
House of Bishops produced an official and unanimous statement on the
Nature of Christian Belief.
It was only two pages long and dealt specifically with the questions
of the Virgin Birth and the physical Resurrection of Jesus on which the
Bishop of Durham had cast doubt. The short statement was accompanied by
a 36-page Exposition, from which the following extract is taken:
The authority of the Creeds derives from the fact that they are
regarded as stating and defining rightly certain central
beliefs which are found, explicitly or implicitly, in
Scripture. [�] In the Creeds that we now acknowledge the Church was
led to conclusions on the true implications of Scripture which are
not self-evidently the only possible ones. [�] Commitment to the
catholic Creeds implies more than commitment to teachings
�agreeable� to Scripture. It means accepting as normative on
specific points only that interpretative selection of
teachings agreeable to Scripture which the Creeds authorise.
(Exposition, para.4; my italics)
That quotation explains why I claim that concerning the relative
authorities of the Bible and the Church, the Church of England sided
with the Catholics, giving priority to the Church and its official
teaching, over against the Protestants, who say that the Church and all
its doctrinal formulations must answer at the bar of scripture.
But to return to the subject in hand: The evolution of the creed as a
test of doctrinal orthodoxy led to the creation of a new kind of credal
Alongside the personal confession of faith used at baptism ("I
believe") there grew up corporate statements promulgated by councils of
bishops ("We believe"). The first such statement was produced at the
Council of Nicaea in 325, from which the name of our "Nicene" Creed
comes, although our familiar version is longer than the original and
underwent several modifications to reach its present form.
Although it had an undoubted religious dimension, the origin and
growing importance of the conciliar movement and its associated creeds
was also deeply political. A dozen years before Nicaea the emperor
Constantine had rescinded the existing anti-Christian laws, and
Christianity became the major religion of the Empire - though it is
doubtful whether it was ever officially established as such.
Be that as it may, Constantine saw the Church, with its doctrine of
One God, and its strong emphasis on morality and obedience, as a
potentially important unifying influence in his wide-flung and still
growing Empire. The last thing he wanted was serious internal bickering
among the bishops, but that was exactly what he had on his plate in the
The Nicene Creed
In the face of the rather vague and sometimes contradictory biblical
language about God and Jesus, there had grown up very divergent
interpretations of the title "Son of God" for Jesus.
The suggestion that he was basically an inspired, spirit-filled man,
like one of the great prophets or kings of old - and like them was
called "Son of God" as a kind of courtesy title - had early been cast
aside as inadequate. By the first quarter of the fourth century it was
accepted on all sides within the Church that "Son of God" meant what it
said, and that Jesus was in some sense divine.
But in what sense? That was the issue.
The place where things came to a head was Alexandria in Egypt, the
intellectual powerhouse of the time and a leading centre of
Christianity. In the blue corner was Arius, a local clergyman who was in
some ways a forerunner of Charles Wesley and General Booth. He put the
essence of the gospel into popular songs that the people could enjoy
singing and imbibe the faith painlessly along the way.
And in the red corner was Athanasius, the archdeacon and later the
bishop of Alexandria. I imagine him as a person who would never do
anything the painless way if a harder path offered itself. An academic,
a politician, a great fan of the hermit Saint Anthony (whose biographer
he was), and yet not past whipping up the mob when it suited him,
Athanasius was a kind of fourth-century political right-winger. And he
hated Arius. Why?
Arius did not deny that Jesus was Son of God and should be worshipped
as God, but he did claim that Jesus could not be 100 percent
top-of-the-range God in the same way as God the Father, because that
would mean teaching that there were ultimately two equal Gods. And that
was against the most fundamental biblical teaching that God is One. So
in some way, at some level, God the Son must be just a tiny bit inferior
to God the Father. And the Bible supported this. Jesus himself had said,
"My Father is greater than I" (John 14.28).
But Athanasius would have none of it. As far as he was concerned, God
the Son could only have rescued mankind from the captivity of sin and
death if he was indeed "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very
God". After all, Jesus had also said, �The Father and I are one� (John
It infuriated him that Arius was willing to accept all these phrases
and still go on at the end to add, "But � there is a difference". If the
Son is not fully equal with the father, asked Athanasius, was there ever
a time when "the Son was not"? No, said Arius, because the Son is the
Word of God and as the psalmist says, "By the Word of the Lord
were the heavens made" (Psalm 33.6) - and that includes the creation of
time. If the Son created time, then there was never a time when he was
But - and with Arius there was always a "but" - although there was
never a time when the Son was not, nonetheless in some mysterious
way, before the creation, "there was when the Son was not". Only
so could the essential unity of the Godhead in the Father be maintained.
Today we are used to negotiations where the two sides struggle to
find a form of words that both can agree on. They might interpret the
agreement differently, but they can all sign it. Athanasius bargained
with a quite different aim. He knew that Arius was wrong, and
therefore any form of words which Arius was willing to sign must be
flawed - even if Athanasius could not see why.
What he needed was a description of Jesus that Arius could not
accept, and at last he found it.
Arius had once explained his views by saying that the Son was God,
but he was not of exactly the same substance (or divine essence)
as the Father. So Athanasius pounced. If that is what Arius does not
believe, then it must be the truth. So he insisted on inserting into the
description of Jesus in the creed of the council of Nicaea the words "of
one substance with the Father" (homo-ousios in Greek).
When Arius would not sign it, Athanasius denounced him. That is how
the totally unbiblical term "substance" comes to be at the heart of the
Creed to this day.
That was not the end of the matter. Athanasius had won a significant
battle, but before the theological war was finally over, he had to
endure exile from his diocese, and - in the words of Jerome - "the whole
world groaned to awake and find itself Arian". But eventually the views
of Athanasius did triumph, and the Nicene formula "of one substance with
the Father" became the definition of orthodox belief in the nature of
the Son�s divinity.
The "Athanasian" Creed
Establishing the Nicene formula settled one argument but immediately
resurrected another. If the Son�s divinity was absolute, then how could
Jesus simultaneously be both the divine Son of God and the human son of
David, without either his divinity being tainted, or his humanity
The Alexandrians, including Athanasius and his successor Cyril,
presented a picture of Jesus in which the human soul of Jesus remained
passive. The divine Word took its place as the effective decision-making
agent that directed the words and actions of the human body. According
to this view, when Jesus suffered from hunger, or thirst, or tiredness,
he was displaying his humanity. And when he performed miracles, or
taught with personal authority, he was displaying his divinity.
But there were problems with this division of labour. In the agony
in the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, the sweated blood was human
enough, but unless the true agony of spirit that caused these physical
symptoms was experienced by the decision-making, life-directing,
incarnate Word of God, then the whole thing was a sham. But the ultimate
Godhead - by definition was incapable of suffering, and Nicaea had
proclaimed that God the Son, the Word of God, was nothing short of that
ultimate Godhead "of one substance with the Father".
So a more sophisticated claim was made, called "the sharing of
characteristics". Accepting that certain things Jesus did as man, and
certain other things he did as God, nonetheless - it was argued -
because his humanity and divinity were so closely entwined in the one
person, it was permissible to think of these characteristics as being
shared. It was therefore allowable to speak of the man walking on the
water (although it is characteristic of man to sink) and of the divine
being thirsty (although it is not in the nature of the divine to suffer
To less subtle minds than the intellectual Alexandrians, this
already looked like calling black white. But what really put the fat in
the fire was when some bright fellow pointed out that whereas Mary had
always been thought of as the mother of the human Jesus, by the
sharing of characteristics it was equally true that she was the mother
of the divine Jesus.
Before long every church in Alexandria was singing hymns to the
Mother of God.
There�s nothing like a bit of Mariolatry to set Christians at each
other�s throats. Waiting to take up the challenge was Nestorius, the
firebrand Bishop of the other great centre of Christianity in the
eastern Empire, Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople in honour of the
first Christian Emperor.
The rivalry between the two cities for political and ecclesiastical
dominance fuelled the theological debate, and the Byzantines accused the
Alexandrians of effectively denying the full humanity of Jesus by
confusing his human and divine substance or essence. The Alexandrians in
return said that the Byzantines worshipped "not one Lord, but two; not
one Christ, but two", a human one and a separate divine one.
The matter was finally thrashed out at the council of Chalcedon in
451, although Christian communities holding the extreme Alexandrian
position (the Monophysites) and the extreme Byzantine position
(Nestorians) still exist today.
There was no Chalcedonian creed, but the council did produce a
"definition of faith" that set out the acceptable boundaries of
interpretations of the person of Christ. These are reflected, together
with similarly detailed statements about the nature of the Trinity, in
our third creed, the so-called Athanasian Creed. This dates from two
centuries after the famous bishop himself.
It is really more of a poetic canticle than a normal creed, and on
the few occasions it is still heard, it is generally sung in procession.
It does not so much resolve the problem as set down the required
affirmations side by side, including some possibly contradictory
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man;
God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds:
and man, of the substance of his Mother, born into the world . . .
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the
Father, as touching his manhood.
Who although he be God and man: yet he is not two but one Christ
[that was to satisfy the Alexandrians];
One; not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by
taking of the manhood into God;
One altogether; not by confusion of substance but by unity of
person [that was to satisfy the Byzantines].
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and man
is one Christ.
There are two particular things here that appeal to me, and encourage
me to look to this neglected creed, rather than the better known ones,
for a contemporary understanding of the nature of Christ, and of the
The first is the phrase: "One; not by the conversion of the Godhead
into flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God". This strikes me as
something of a return to that earlier model of Jesus� career, reflected
in Peter�s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. There the humanity, rather than
the divinity, comes first. I think this is an easier starting point for
modern people, and is the basis of what I call "Christian humanism".
The second point to note is the phrase: "For as the reasonable soul
and flesh is one man: so God and man is one Christ". In the days when
this was written, the soul and body were thought of as two quite
distinct things, one non-physical and immortal, the other physical and
perishable. But today there is good reason to treat the human soul - or
mind, or conscious self - as much more integrally related to the body,
and as somehow emerging from it.
So if Christ�s divinity is related to his humanity in a parallel way
to the relation of the human body to the human soul/mind/conscious-self,
then his divinity somehow emerges from his humanity. And this ties in
with the first affirmation "not by the conversion of the Godhead into
flesh: but by taking of the manhood into God".
Finally, a brief word about the Trinity in the creeds.
The Apostles� and Nicene Creeds are Trinitarian in shape, with
successive sections dealing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But
only the Nicene gives any detail of how the Spirit relates to the Father
and the Son. Our familiar version reads: "The Holy Ghost ... Who
proceedeth from the Father and the Son".
The original creed produced at Nicaea in 325 had a one-sentence
final section: "And we believe in the Holy Ghost". This was expanded at
the Council of Constantinople in 381 to include the phrase "Who
proceedeth from the Father".
The phrase "and the Son" was added still later, at the first Synod
of Toledo in 447, and confirmed at later meetings. But these synods were
only attended by the western Latin bishops, not the eastern Greek ones,
and the eastern Orthodox Church has never accepted the addition.
This same distinction between the three persons is spelled out even
more clearly in the Athanasian Creed:
The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor
created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father not three Fathers; one Son not three Sons:
one Holy Ghost not three Holy Ghosts.
In an earlier age, the three persons had been distinguished by their
roles in relation to us: the Father as creator; the Son as redeemer; the
Holy Ghost as sanctifier. But this so-called "economic Trinitarianism"
implied that the three persons were not part of God�s inner reality but
only a consequence of his activity, and so was abandoned.
The distinctions of the begotten Son and processing Spirit were
based on biblical texts and were necessary to retain some distinction
between these two persons, but very few people these days - even among
the theologically literate - are able to get very excited about them.
The old economic Trinitarianism has been resurrected in recent Anglican
baptism services, and as far as I know, I am the only person to have
So the wheel has come full circle.