Many denominations hold to creeds, or statements of faith, written in ages past. Many feel that these creeds represent a summation of the faith outlined in the Scriptures, or a concise statement of their belief system. While many denominations have their own creeds, we will now examine three creeds more widely used among denominations, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
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The Apostles’ Creed
Even though many may believe legends that the Apostles’ Creed was developed by the Apostles themselves on the Day of Pentecost or some such time, this is not so. The earliest complete text of the creed is from the eighth century; many believe that it has its origins in certain litanies performed in the second century. Regardless of its historicity, many denominations accept it as a concise summation of the Gospels; Luther went so far as to declare it the statement of faith. The following is the text of the Apostles’ Creed, with notes describing the variants in the text:
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, and was buried.
He descended into Hell1.
On the third day He rose again2.
He ascended to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church3, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
1: Anglicanism (original is also used, but this variant is accepted): “…was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.”
Calvinism: “…was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell.”
2: Calvinism adds “from the dead.”
3: Lutheranism: “the holy Christian church.”
As we have seen, many consider the Apostles’ Creed to sum up the message of the Gospel. There is one aspect of this creed that does not entirely fit the message of the Gospel, however: the idea that “He descended into Hell.” Those who adhere to the creed say that this is in conformity with the teaching in 1 Peter 3:18-19:
Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.
Does Peter say that Christ descended into Hell? By no means! Peter is saying that Christ preached to those now in prison; Peter makes no comment as to where they were when Jesus preached to them.
We can be sure that Christ did not descend to Hell during His time between the crucifixion and the resurrection because David prophesied the following of Him in Psalm 16:10:
For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.
How could Jesus descend to Hell if He is prophesied to not be abandoned to Sheol, or Hell? The Apostles’ Creed would not have Jesus fulfill prophecy! Therefore, we can see that the Apostles’ Creed does not entirely sum up the Gospel.
The Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed is a specific statement of faith that had a specific purpose. In 325, the Roman emperor Constantine called together a council of all the bishops in the “catholic” church to come together in the city of Nicaea in modern day Turkey to resolve the conflict that had begun concerning the relationship of the Father to the Son. The Arians had determined that the Son was always subservient to the Father, yet the majority of the “catholic” church held to their equality, in nature and in position. This is the creed determined by this council:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all there 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, one in Being with the Father.
Through Him all things were made.
For us men and our salvation He came down from Heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day He rose again according to 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 Father1.
With the Father and the Son He is worshiped 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.
1: The Roman Catholic church and the denominations of western Europe add: “…and the Son.”
Such is the Nicene Creed, a summation of faith, but as we will see in the conclusion, is it necessary?
The Athanasian Creed
The name of the Athanasian Creed is derived from Athanasius, “bishop” of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century CE, yet the creed itself was most likely written sometime during the seventh or eighth century CE, likely in Spain. This creed is also written against Arianism.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.
Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal.
As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords, but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord,
So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say,
There be three Gods, or three Lords.
The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten.
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.
And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.
He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that 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 in the world;
Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
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:
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God;
One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;
Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works.
And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.
The Athanasian Creed would seem to negate the many statements of Jesus showing that there is some aspect of hierarchy in the Godhead, the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28). How meaningful such a “hierarchy” is when God is One in essence and purpose is of course worthy of discussion, but it is present within the Scripture. The Athanasian Creed also affirms Jesus having gone into hell, discussed above. These issues, therefore, lead us to question the legitimacy of such a creed.
There are many other creeds, conciliar decisions, and confessions made that denominations hold to, but these three are the most common. What do we learn from them?
We can see that they are not the inspired Word of God, for not one of them comes with any authority from God at all. This is clear in how the wording is changed in them: Luther changes the Apostles’ Creed to sound less Roman Catholic, and the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches are still divided over the former’s addition of “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed. No one believes that any of these creeds actually go back to the Apostles; they are all additions of men.
We must ask the question: why creeds? We see a great emphasis placed on such statements of faith within denominations, and yet the Scriptures never provide us with any explicit examples of them. Granted, many members of denominations who believe in creeds find creedal statements all over the place in the New Testament, but such represent interpretations of the data; we must wonder if they would “see” these creeds in the text if they themselves did not hold to creeds. Why are creeds even necessary? If they represent in substance the message of the Gospel, are God’s words in the Scriptures not sufficient enough to speak and to which to adhere? If they are not substantively within the Scriptures, but represent our interpretations of various doctrines based upon what the Scriptures say, on what basis can we formulate them into statements and require universal adherence to them? How can we be sure that such statements are approved by God? Creeds, in the end, are entirely unnecessary; adherence to the Word of God as revealed in the Scriptures should be sufficient (2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). We must remember the words of Paul in Galatians 1:6-9, and always make sure that we hold to the Gospel which he delivered along with the other Apostles:
I marvel that ye are so quickly removing from him that called you in the grace of Christ unto a different gospel; which is not another gospel, only there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preacheth unto you any gospel other than that which ye received, let him be anathema.
Let us hold to the true Gospel, delivered to us in the Word of God, and not to the creeds and confessions of men.