The Creed

After the sermon, and the Hymn of the Day (whose words reflect the sermon message), we recite the Creed.  It is interesting to note that not all Christian denominations use the creed in their worship, since the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840).  Those who reject the user of creeds often claim that the heavy emphasis on creeds is inconsistent with sola scriptura (Scripture alone – the Bible is the supreme authority, sufficient, and clear.)  I do agree that the Bible has the final say in all issues of Christian doctrine.  But a creed serves a different function – it is how the church expresses what it believes Scripture to teach.  Creeds (and confessions) give parameters for church bodies and congregations so it is made clear what each church teaches. 

The use of Christian creeds was an extremely early practice in the church.  Short confessions of faith appear in the New Testament itself and are apparent in some of the earliest Christian writings.  These creeds were often written when specific heresies arose in the church so that false teachings might be guarded against.

Take a look at the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 3-8:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 

that he was buried, 

that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 

and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” 

Many scholars believe that this creed originated in the mid-30s. That places it only three to eight years after Jesus’s resurrection (AD 30-33)! 

The central message of this creed, and what the Apostles taught and believed, is about Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was resurrected from the dead.  It validates Christ’s post-resurrection appearances–if it is irrefutable that Jesus did rise from the dead, he must be God. These are the essentials of the Christian faith.

As the years and decades and centuries passed, other creeds were often written when specific heresies arose in the church so that false teachings might be guarded against.  When a new issue arises in the church, the church responds to make a statement surrounding the issue so that truth may be guarded against error.  When particular theological issues affected the church, a group of bishops, pastors and other church people would gather, discuss the issues in light of Scripture, and confirm what it was the church believed.  This goes back to the New Testament again, where the Council of Jerusalem was convened to deal with issues surrounding Mosaic Law (see Acts, chapter 15).

When a church adopts a creed, this action guards against false teaching (heresy).  Pastors swear oaths to uphold the teachings of particular creeds in many traditions.  This means that in a confessional church, every church member can expect exactly what is to be fought and professed from the pulpit. 

In my church, the entire congregation recites the creed.  By proclaiming the words of the creed, we profess our belief in these teachings of Holy Scripture in a “short” form.  The creeds are a confession of both the individual reciting the words, and simultaneously, of the entire congregation.

Understanding the content of the creed and reciting it week after week “catechizes” the congregation in the basics of the Christian faith.  Indeed, the Apostle’s creed is one of the main parts in Martin Luther’s large and small catechisms.  Knowing the creed equips us congregants to recognize heretical teachings ourselves.  Repeating the creed often helps us commit to memory the basics of historic Christian theology.

There are three ecumenical (ecumenical meaning “universal” in the Western church tradition) creeds in use in the ELCA today:  Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian. 

The Apostle’s creed is the most basic Christian confession of faith.  This creed is the most ancient; there were a number of similar creeds used in the first centuries of the church, which developed into its current form late in the fourth century.  One of the points that Jordan Cooper makes in his book Liturgical Worship that I find interesting is the following:  “One of the most significant phrases in the entire creed is the words ‘under Pontius Pilate’.  With this phrase, the church confesses that the works of Christ that the creed enumerates happened at a particular point in history under the reign of this ruler.  One cannot simply take the story of Christ’s life as a nice myth or moral fable.  The church presents it as actual history.  Christ literally came to this earth, lived, died, and rose.  There is no getting around a literal and physical resurrection from the dead in the Apostles’ Creed.  In this way, as with the virgin birth, the ancient words of the creed continue to guard and protect Christ’s church from error.”

The Apostles’ Creed is divided into three articles:

  1.  God the Father’s work of creation
  2. Christ’s redemptive work on earth
  3. The Holy Spirit’s role in the application of redemption and the Christian church

Note the Trinitarian formulation of the creed – we confess our belief in the three persons of the Triune God.  Everything in the Apostles’ Creed is found in Scripture itself. 

Next week I will continue with the Nicene and the Athanasian Creed.  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.


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