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  • Brian Chilcote

The Need for Creeds

Updated: Apr 18

One of the earliest theological debates in the Christian movement is found in Galatians 2, with Peter in one corner and Paul in the other. The issue was one of boundaries. The question: Is this an essentially Jewish sect? If not, how can a gentile participate without becoming Jewish first?

 

Peter's position, along with the Jerusalem church's, was that one should undergo the necessary transitions like circumcision and adherence to dietary laws in order to conform to the ancient prophecies of "all nations under Judaism." Luke's Acts 10 story about Peter's change of heart toward non-Jews adds more chaos to the tale- was Peter in favor of gentile Christians? What was he doing in a tanner's house, risking ritual impurity? Did Peter flip-flop on his views or is Luke creating a fictional agreement between him and Paul?

 

There are other examples of the struggle to manage the transition from a Jewish to gentile majority in the early church. After that controversy settled down, apologists for the church took on other issues, such as how an executed criminal could become a worshiped deity. The gravitational pull toward a single orthodoxy began to emerge as dozens or even hundreds of interpretations of the story sprouted up all over the Mediterranean.

 

"Heresies" and divisions necessitated the creeds. A central summation of a single set of answers to the important questions was the only way to guarantee the growth, prestige and authority of a structure that eventually joined forces with the Roman Empire to rule the known world. As it organized, the church began to nurture goals that could benefit from alliances with other power structures.

 

The Apostles' creed was thought to be older than the Nicene. One legend describes it as a compilation of individual statements from each of the twelve disciples at Pentecost. Whatever their origin story, the presence of creeds shows a commitment to a bounded set mentality by which the church can determine who is in and out. As Christianity moved beyond its Jewish roots, membership by birthright no longer worked, especially as salvation focused on believing the right things rather than being born into God's chosen ethnic group.

 

When Paul addressed the divisions in Corinth, he used what many believe to be an ancient creed. In chapter 15, he writes,

 

"Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

and that he was buried,

and 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 and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

 

This creedal form may date to as early as 35-40 CE, if the dates of Paul's authentic letters are correct.

 

Why did Paul insert this creed? In response to divisions over Paul's authority and arguments about the nature of the resurrection, Paul felt the need to draw a line separating truth from falsehood; a line in the sand that could provide the impetus to agree on one version of reality.

 

The Didache (did-a-key or did-a-kay) or The Teaching is another example of early attempts to standardize the faith and practice of the Christian movement and features a table of ways of life, sins to avoid, and instructions on how to organize. It was produced in the early second century, sometime around 100-120 CE. While its concerns are mostly practical and prescriptive of behaviors, it asserts some basic truths about why these behaviors are preferred, such as "Accept whatever happens to you as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass." Read the Didache in English here.*

 

The first established creed that had the potential to be accepted unanimously by the expanding church was the Nicene Creed, ratified by the Ecumenical church in 325 CE. The Apostles' creed was established shortly after. The Council of Nicaea was convened in order to forge a common set of theological assertions that would unify a critical fraction of the church. It's remarkable that in three hundred years, a small, radical Jewish sect had grown into an influential system of basilicas and bishoprics, dominated by gentiles and powerful enough to lend itself to Emperor Constantine as a political power broker.

 

At issue in the Council of Nicaea, and the controversy that birthed the Nicene Creed was the battle between two Alexandrian church officials- Patriarch Athanasius and one Arius, a local priest and presbyter. At stake was the correct belief about the deity of Jesus, and by extension the salvation of all Christian believers. Get this wrong, the gathered bishops surmised, and the salvation of all Christians is nullified.

 

Arius contended, along with many theologians in Africa at the time,** along with Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea, for a view of Christ that ran into conflict with other opinions. Origen's Logos theory also overlapped substantially with Arius' affirmations. In brief, Arianism states that Jesus was subordinate to the one true God of Israel, and was not pre-existent. This served to emphasize the supremacy and utter uniqueness of God the Father (YHWH), preserving his infinitude, eternality and omnipotence. Jesus possessed the qualities of a god, although they were not entirely contiguous with those of the Father. Was Jesus divine? As defined in terms of fourth century assumptions, yes, but not quite as much as the Father is divine.

 

Athanasius, a towering figure in the Alexandrian church, vigorously defended a trinitarian idea, that Jesus the Christ was a kind of "emanation" begotten by the eternal God, thus having the same essential qualities of existence and power. Another way to express this is that Jesus the Son is of the same exact substance as the Father, both uncreated.

 

There were actually more than two sides at the Council, which sought to bring the nascent church into a single opinion. A summary of most of the positions:

 

  • Homoousian: Athanasius and his crew believed in the "exact same substance" doctrine that underlays modern trinitarianism

  • Homoiousian: Christ is of a similar substance, but not quite the same

  • Homoian: Christ is in some way divine, but logically subordinate. Avoided debate on "substance."

  • Heteroousian: Arius and his followers- Christ is of a completely different substance as a created being

  • Marcellianism: Christ is only as human and any other man, but exalted by God

  • Sabellianism: A brand of modalism in which God can sequentially appear in different modes as he wishes

 

One question that arises here has to do with the relevance of all this detailed Christology. To these fourth century church leaders who had popular, spiritual and political pressures on their shoulders, this was a massive problem, and even though many dissenting clusters of churches continued on in their disagreement with the Council, it set the whole movement on a trajectory toward standardization. Excommunication because of heresy was just one weapon to keep rogue leaders in line.

 

While we no longer sense the need to hammer out our Christology, there are other issues that face the worldwide church on both Catholic and Protestant sides. Suffice it to say that the purpose of the creeds is to provide a distilled position that church leaders can affirm (or not), placing them either inside or outside an agreed-upon standard called Orthodoxy. It may not be the divine-human nature of Christ, but the church is still serious about correct doctrine. Examples of this are the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy

 

 

Now let's look at the two creeds we affirm...

 

To review, creeds are summaries of core doctrines defining correct belief (orthodoxy). These short statements serve to  designate the doctrinal boundaries between truth and falsehood. Discontent with divisions stemming from the creative doctrinal variations among Christ-followers of the third and fourth centuries, church bishops and other authorities prioritized a binary approach toward faith: only one set of beliefs is correct and authoritative and everything else must be false. Authoritative statements were needed that displayed a balance of brevity and precision in defining orthodoxy. One hoped-for outcome of the Council of Nicaea was a trend toward the unification of Emperor Constantine's territories under a common church-state rule.

 

The Apostles' creed appears in manuscripts from the fourth century, possibly emerging from the Old Roman Creed first attested in writing in a letter from Marcellus of Ancyra to Julius, bishop of Rome in 341. It's final form was established in the 700's CE. By then it had taken on the role of fending off heresies such as Marcionism's gnostic tendencies.

 

Various "heresies" like Marcionism and Arianism were extant throughout the early years of Christian expansion, most of which are lost to history. Examples of ones we do know about from their own writings or those of their critics are:

 

Docetism- Jesus' humanity was an illusion- his supernatural abilities derived from his purely spiritual nature. One branch of Docetism posited that a spiritual  entity possessed Jesus the human at his baptism by John.

 

Marcionism - Apparently influenced by some Gnostic assumptions, Marcion gained sizable groups of adherents to his idea that there were actually two gods mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible described a despicable tyrant-god / demiurge named Yahweh and with the arrival of a second superior god in the form of Jesus, salvation was made possible. It was meant to promote a clean break between Judaism and Christianity.

 

Montanism- An energetic, prophecy-based sect that promoted martyrdom, leadership by women, imminent apocalypse, and the spontaneous activity of the Holy Spirit.

 

Ebionites- With a name meaning poor ones, this Jewish-Christian sect understood Jesus to be a regular human being who by virtue of his righteousness in keeping the law of Moses was exalted to Messiahship, i.e., the "Prophet like Moses" mentioned in Deuteronomy 18. They rejected Jesus' divine nature and virgin birth. They emphasized that salvation is found in Jewish-style ritual purity, following the Torah. They revered James and detested Paul.

 

Turning to both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, Here's a chart that compares the two, including the supposedly unorthodox ideas they address. The Nicene creed was edited and updated in 381 at the Council of Constantinople and there are several versions used today. This table uses the version published on the CCF website


 

Apostles' Creed Subject

Phrases used

"Heretical" positions addressed

Nicene Creed Subject

Phrases used

God

Father

Almighty

Creator of Heaven and Earth

Hellenism / Gnosticism The physical world is evil and must be escaped. Earth is created by an evil demiurge (god). Secret knowledge gives access to righteousness

 

Greco-Roman pantheism, Platonic idealism, Logos as a divine spiritual elemental principle

 

Arianism- God is not trinitarian, but unitarian, eternal, perfect. God became a Father when he mediated creation through the Logos / Christ

 

Marcionism- Two gods, the Old Testament describes an evil, defective creator who made a damaged world. The New Testament records a second god of love and mercy. The cosmos is a battleground between the two.

 

 

God

One

Father

Almighty

Maker of heaven and earth + all things seen and unseen

Jesus Christ

God's only son

Our Lord

Conceived by power of the Holy Spirit

Born of Virgin Mary

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

Crucified

Died & Buried

Raised on third day

Ascended into heaven

Seated at God's right hand (exalted)

Will return to judge all living and dead

 

Arianism- Jesus was created, non-eternal and subordinate

 

Docetism: Christ did not have a human body, was a divine being / spiritual only.  Jesus may have been a channeler of "Christ,"  through the possession by the HS at his baptism. See Greek mythology. Jesus appeared to die, but it was mere illusion. Derives from other "dying and rising" deities often referencing local seasonal changes.

 

Marcionism- Jesus was a spiritual entity sent by the "Monad" to reveal truth- semi-gnostic doctrines

 

Sabellianism- Modalism. One God operating in three ways at different times.

 

Adoptionism- Jesus "became" God's son at a certain point: baptism, resurrection or ascension.

 

Logos as a "life force," cosmic wisdom,  = Christ's divine nature. Sourced in God the father. See article here.

 

Ebionitism- Jesus was a human being like Moses or other Jewish heroes.

 

Jesus Christ

One Lord

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

 

All things created through

Came down from heaven for us and for our Salvation 

By the Power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate from Virgin Mary

Was made man

 

For us he was crucified under Pontius Pilate

Suffered death, Buried

Raised on third day according to scriptures

Ascended to heaven and seated at God's right hand

Will return in glory to judge all living and dead

His kingdom will have no end

 

 

Holy Spirit

Mentioned

Gnosticism- no consensus on a spiritual "life force." Conceptions like "Sophia" (wisdom personified) were popular, but not trinitarian.

Holy Spirit

Lord

Giver of Life

Proceeds from the Father and Son

Worshipped / glorified with Father and Son

Spoke through the prophets

 

Church

 

Holy, catholic (universal), Communion of saints

Greco-Roman Mystery Cults-  Participation is limited to those with special knowledge. Targeted the Greek and Roman tendency toward polytheism.

Church

 holy catholic (universal) and apostolic

Forgiveness of sins

 

-Nothing about baptism-

Variations on themes of keeping the law and right belief. Gnostics: Don't need forgiveness but enlightenment of the soul. Extreme dualism leading to moral license.

One baptism

For the forgiveness of sins (a bit more specific than Apostle's Creed)

Resurrection of the body

Specifically, humans will be resurrected bodily

Gnostics: Body is corrupt and doesn't matter. No need for this. It could be asked if Paul's gospel required bodily resurrection; a good case can be made that he promoted a more platonic view than most Jews.

 

Resurrection of the dead

 

-Does not mention bodily resurrection-

Life everlasting

 

 

Life in the world to come

 

 

 

Looking at each proposition of the creeds, we find this short list of decision points that needed clarification in the face of a diversity of beliefs about each one:

 

God: One, Father, Almighty, Creator of the universe


The creeds don't spend a lot of time on God the Father. These brief descriptions capture what was generally agreed on, but say nothing of his history with Israel, present working or future status. In fact, the creeds don't say anything about the ancient Jewish traditions that produced Christianity. Anti-Semitism was not unknown in this time period.

 

Jesus: One Lord, 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, All things created through him, Came down from heaven for us and for our Salvation, By the Power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate from Virgin Mary, Was made man, For us he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, Suffered death, Buried, Raised on third day according to scriptures, Ascended to heaven and seated at God's right hand, Will return in glory to judge all living and dead, His kingdom will have no end

 

Judging by the sheer number of descriptors, the creed composers paid the most attention to Jesus Christ and what they determined could be said with absolute certainty about him. Each descriptor confronts some perceived out-of-line conclusions and draws a firm boundary around what's acceptable to say about Jesus. The pileup of phrases like:  "God, from God / Light, from Light / True God from true God"  pounds away at the Arian position, leaving no room for any subordinationist view.

 

The Holy Spirit: Not much of an issue for the attendees at Nicaea. This was early on in trinitarian thought, so perhaps this wasn't a burning controversy for them. They also had to hammer out the proper way to calculate the annual date of Easter.

 

The Church and Membership in it: another topic left to be addressed by other councils at a later time. It seemed enough to say that baptism plays a role in the forgiveness of sins, and in the Apostle's creed that it was "a thing."

 

Resurrection of the dead / body: Again, an afterthought, along with a short phrase about life everlasting. There's no mention of the mechanisms or requirements for this, only that the creeds begin with an "we believe" statement, which seems to imply that belief is what determines our eligibility. 

 

 

The long history of the Christian church has created a durable set of assumptions about its own beliefs. One question begging to be asked is this: "Would Jesus recognize himself in these creeds?"

 

Isn't the Bible clear about these ideas?

 

Though many modern apologists would argue to the contrary, neither the gospels nor Paul are all that clear about the deity of Christ. The fact that there is a robust debate in biblical scholarship*** on this point tells us that the matter is indeed far from settled, and that the Bible isn't clear enough on its own to determine an answer. As churches oscillate between "The Christ of Faith" and "The Historical Christ," a follower of Jesus could well ask, "Do I still have to agree with all the creedal material in order to call myself a Christian?"

 

What if a Christian decides that biblical scholarship makes a good case that Matthew and Luke's nativity accounts don't actually reflect historical events? What if literary and grammatical principles show that John 10:33 indicates that Jesus is accused of equating god-like powers to himself, not of being YHWH? The gospels are later portrayals of an exceptional human being, but it takes a preconceived idea to read "fully man, fully God" into the texts. Believing that Christ is a deity of the same essence as YHWH, the supreme cosmic creator God of the Jews… is that a non-negotiable? It certainly was for the fourth century church, but is that question still important to answer? If so, why?

 

Various theories of atonement developed much later than the earliest information we have about Jesus, and many of them require Jesus to be divine in order to transact forgiveness on behalf of humankind. One of the most popular among today's evangelicals, penal substitution theory, necessarily obligates any savior to possess a divine level of holiness. Jesus can offer himself as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf to assuage the justice of God only if he has no imperfection of his own to account for. Ergo, Jesus must in some way share the attributes of YHWH, or our salvation by way of his death and resurrection is null and void.

 

Our modern trinitarian formula wasn't fully developed until the late 300'sCE, with a number of experimental versions proposed as early as the turn of the second century. Until Constantine and the marriage of church and state, Christians functioned quite well without a well-developed doctrine of the trinity. The earliest church fathers- Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Origen and others argued against what they saw as heresies like Sabellianism, Adoptionism, and Arianism with early versions of a trinity that didn't exactly line up with the later edition reflected in the Nicene creed. What's the fate of the thousands of early Christian believers whose different renditions of the idea of a trinity was later branded as heresy?

 

And what about us modern people? Our conceptions of the world are vastly different from those to whom a correct Christology was a life-and-death issue. What influence does our awareness of quantum mechanics, general and special relativity, and a democratized church have on our aging statements of faith? How does a proper view of the trinity address our dilemmas?

 

 

 

Notes

 

*The undeveloped Christian thought, as well as the indications of undeveloped heresy, confirms this position. Christianity was at first a life, for which the Apostles furnished a basis of revealed thought. But the Christians of the sub-apostolic age had not consciously assimilated the thought to any large extent, while their ethical striving was stimulated by the gross sins surrounding them.

--M.B. Riddle in Early Christian Writings https://earlychristianwritings.com/info/didache.html>

 

**Hanson, Richard Patrick Crosland (1988). The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. T. & T. Clark. 

 

 


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2 Comments


mark.cole
Apr 15

Brian, In the final section of your blog post "Isn't the Bible clear about these ideas?" you say: "Though many modern apologists would argue to the contrary, neither the gospels nor Paul are all that clear about the deity of Christ." I disagree that the New Testament is not clear about the Deity of Christ. The Gospel of John leads with it:

(I am using the NRSVUE translation, emphasis are mine) "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and THE WORD WAS GOD." John 1:1 John makes sure that we know that this Word IS Jesus: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and…


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Brian Chilcote
Brian Chilcote
Apr 18
Replying to

Thanks for writing, Mark! I appreciated your comment on the blog entry. I'm glad you took the time to process the issue of how Jesus can be God- and that you made it through the article!  We're in good company with a lot of impressive scholars who have debated this question for a long time.

I appreciate your reading of John and Romans. There was a time when I was right along there with you; any suggestion that questioned the idea that Jesus is God triggered a binary response of right and wrong. Now I'm not as sure as I once was, but that's my journey. Yours is different and I have the utmost respect for your firm belief plus a…


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