Is it right to recite Christian creeds? Some Christians think it isn’t. Some will say that they have only one creed and that is the Bible. Others will say, “I have no creed but Christ.” (Ironically this statement is a creed in and of itself). The fact is, Christians have been reciting creeds since the birth of the Christian faith, and they should not shy away from continuing to do so today.
Philip Schaff, in Volume 1 of his three-volume set titled The Creeds of Christendom, writes this, “A Creed, or Rule of Faith, or Symbol, is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church.”
The early Jewish culture was an oral culture. Most of Jesus’ followers were illiterate. Short memorable and repeatable sayings served to help Christians remember aspects of the faith. In fact, you are reading creeds and confessions many times when you open up your Bible. Recall Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20a, when giving his disciples The Great Commission, said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (ESV) Not only did Jesus command that converts to Christianity were to be baptized, but those doing the baptizing were to use a specific formula to make the baptism conform to Christ’s command.
Speaking of baptism, consider John the Baptist: “They were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:6, ESV) This tells us that there was a process one followed. You confessed your sins as you entered the water and receive baptism.
At the Last Supper, Jesus institutes a new command, which Churches all over the world repeat each Lord’s Day at Communion. Jesus “took Bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you; Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, he took the Cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins; Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.” This formula is from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, but notice it is a direct quote from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25.
Here are a few more. These read more familiarly as creeds; Paul says that this is a confession or a creed: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: he was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16, ESV)
Paul, again, in 2nd Timothy speaks of “the saying.” What saying is that? The one Christians recite. “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:11-13, ESV)
Finally, here is a creed-like confession from Peter. When asked by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16ESV)
It is clear from just these few examples that in the early Church, even before the Scriptures were complete, Christians were confessing Christ or the Christian faith in creed-like formulas or confessions.
Later the Church assembled more formally out of necessity to preserve the pure faith from heretical ideas that had crept in. The Church met in Nicaea in 325 AD and later in Constantinople in 381 AD to clarify specifically certain aspects of Christ’s nature. In doing so, they searched the Scriptures and found in them certain facts about Christ. They took these facts and laid them down in creed form. This later came to be known as the Nicene Creed, and Churches worldwide confess the Nicene Creed each Lord’s Day.
Creedal formulas have served greatly as ways to convey and remember Christian truth. Though we are much more literate today, the Christian faith needs to be preserved. The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. The creeds serve as memorable summaries of what we believe about that salvation.