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  • Behnaz Moludy

Creed

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

By: Behnaz Moludy


In the early days of Christianity, there were no official expressions to articulate faith, but the belief that Jesus Christ is God Himself or the Son of God was essential for every Christian. The concept of a creed, in the exact sense of the word, was not well-known.


The years between 313 and 451 are crucial in the history of the Christian Church. During this period, important and comprehensive councils were convened to resolve theological disputes. (Earle E. Cairns, 1996) The aim of these councils was to settle interecclesiastical debates and formulate significant creeds. It was during this time that the fundamental principles of the Church's beliefs were systematically expressed.


The English word "Creed" is derived from the Latin word "Credo," meaning "I believe." (Harry R. Boer,1990) The Apostles' Creed, perhaps the most well-known creed, begins with the words, "I believe in God..." The creed belongs to the entire Christian Church and encompasses the beliefs that every Christian must adhere to and remain loyal to.


During the Patristic era, two creeds were considered valid and respected throughout the Church. The main reason for the emergence of these creeds seems to have been the strong need for a readily accessible summary of Christian doctrine that could be used in public occasions. The most important occasion may have been the sacrament of baptism. The early Church sought to baptise new converts on the day of Easter, (Alister E. McGrath, 2016). and one of the essential requirements at that time was for each candidate to openly declare their beliefs. Therefore, there had to be a unity of beliefs that the candidates could rely on.


The Apostles' Creed is perhaps the most famous form of creed known in the Western Church. This creed consists of three main sections concerning God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It also includes content about the Church, the Day of Judgment, and the Resurrection.


The Nicene Creed is a longer version of the Apostles’ Creed, known as the Niceno Constantinopolitan Creed. It includes additional content regarding the person of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. The initial form of the Nicene Creed was formulated in 325 AD as a response to the teachings and views of a prominent priest from Alexandria named Arius. (Andrew J. Schatkin, 2010)


The Arian controversies in the fourth century are widely regarded as one of the most influential disputes in the history of the Christian Church. (Alister E. McGrath, 2012), Arius believed that the titles given to Christ in the Holy Scriptures, which imply an equal rank with God, were honorary titles. He considered Christ to be a creature, though higher than other creatures. This perspective provoked a strong reaction from Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria. He believed that the divinity of Christ was of fundamental importance in the Christian understanding of salvation, specifically in soteriological theology. (Alister E. McGrath, 2016) Athanasius argued that Arian Christology is insufficient for salvation because the Arian Christ cannot save fallen humanity.


Consequently, the Council of Nicaea was convened at the invitation of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, with the aim of resolving the controversies surrounding Christology.


This council, recognized as the first ecumenical council, consisted of bishops from all over the Christian world, and its decisions carried weight for all. The gathering took place in Nicaea (modern-day Turkey) and settled the Arian dispute by affirming that Jesus is of the same essence as the Father. The council rejected the views of Arius and embraced a strict understanding of the deity of Christ.


"The Son, the Eternal Begotten of the Father..."

Christ, the Word of God, has existed eternally, before time itself, being begotten of the Father. The emphasis here is that Christ is not a creature but a divine being begotten from God the Father. He is consubstantial with the Father.


When we create something, it is not of our essence but rather made from materials such as wood, stone, metals, or other natural elements. However, when we bring forth a child, we bring forth a being of our own essence. This child is as fully human as we are. They are not a creation but rather begotten. They are consubstantial with us. Similarly, Jesus Christ is begotten from the Father and is consubstantial with Him. But when we say that Jesus Christ is begotten from God the Father, what do we mean? Does it imply that Christ did not always exist alongside God the Father?


In response, we must clarify that the "Word of God," Jesus Christ, has always existed, and there was never a time when He did not exist. The primary reason for referring to Him as "begotten" in the Nicene Creed is to combat the heresy introduced by Arius, who claimed that the "Word of God" is a created being.


Arius regarded Him as the first creation of God. (Riemer Roukema, 2010) According to Arian teaching, the "Word of God" did not exist eternally and was brought into being by God the Father at a certain point in time. (Stuart G. Hall, 2005) In opposition to this deviant belief, the Church Fathers stated that He is not a "creature" but rather "begotten" and has existed eternally alongside God the Father. Does this mean that the "Word of God" did not exist and was later begotten by God the Father? No! We do not hold such a belief. As the Apostle John proclaims in John 1:1.


According to this verse, there was never a time when the "Word" did not exist. However, the answer to our question comes from verse 18 of the same chapter in John.


This verse indicates that the "Word" or the "one and only Son" had a close relationship with the Father. But at a certain point in eternity, God the Father decided to send the "Son" or the "Word" into the world to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth with Himself (Colossians 1:20).


In this context, we can understand that the "Son" is "begotten" from the Father, meaning He is appointed and consecrated to leave the glory of the Father and become human. Psalm 2:6 provides further insight, It is evident that the one to be installed as king already existed, but at a certain point in time, God appoints Him to kingship. This "installation" is what is referred to as "begotten" in the creed. Essentially, the "begottenness" occurred in eternity when God the Father commissioned the "Son" to become the Savior of the world, separating Him from His "bosom" and appointing Him to be the Savior of the created world. However, this eternal decision took place two thousand years ago in the realm of time. Yet, from God's perspective, this event happened from eternity. That is why John states in Revelation 13:8 that the Lamb of God "before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain."


The emergence of creeds played an important role in achieving consensus in the early Church. However, since the Nicene Creed was quickly formulated under the pressure of the emperor with the intention of ending conflicts and establishing peace and harmony in the Church, it failed to gain the consensus of all Christian communities. Therefore, in a council held in Constantinople in 381 AD, amendments and modifications were made, and both the Nicene Creed and the Constantinopolitan Creed were recognized.


In Constantinople, three heresies were condemned:


Macedonianism:

Thirty-six bishops who attended the council were followers of Macedonianism. They believed in the divinity of the Son but considered the Holy Spirit to be a created being. The council made efforts to persuade them to accept its view and treated them with tolerance. The creed implicitly emphasized the divinity of the Holy Spirit, relying on biblical expressions, except for the part that explicitly stated that the Holy Spirit should be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son. As a result, the term "God" was not explicitly applied to the Holy Spirit in the creed. Despite the council's cautious and accommodating approach, the bishops adhering to Macedonianism left the council in protest against the creed.


Arianism:

As discussed earlier, Arianism and its beliefs were condemned in the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Constantinople also reaffirmed this condemnation. The Constantinopolitan Creed incorporated three statements from the four statements of faith issued by the Council of Nicaea. One year after the Council of Constantinople, another assembly of bishops in Constantinople sent a document to Rome summarizing the principles of faith from the Council of Constantinople, which emphasized the unity of essence, power, and substance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons were affirmed to be of equal rank, possessing equal majesty, and together forming a perfect Trinity.


Apollinarianism:

Apollinaris, who denied that Jesus had a human rational soul, had already been condemned in Rome in 377. In the Council of Constantinople, Apollinarianism was further condemned for its erroneous views on the nature of Christ.


The Council of Constantinople is widely recognised as the second ecumenical council in the history of Christianity. Although the creed issued by the council was not initially accepted by the followers of Macedonianism, (M. Webster, 2000) it has become the most widely accepted and popular creed among Christians worldwide.


This creed has been extensively used both in the Western and Eastern churches. However, a minor difference of opinion emerged between the two regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. In the Eastern Church, the belief developed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and is sent through the Son, while in the Western Church, it evolved to affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Eventually, the Western Church decided to add the phrase "and from the Son" (Filioque in Latin) to the creed. The Roman Church approached this matter with caution and conservatism but ultimately included the term Filioque in the creed in the 11th century.


In conclusion, the formulation and acceptance of creeds played a significant role in the early Church's pursuit of consensus and the establishment of essential theological beliefs. The Council of Nicaea and the subsequent Council of Constantinople were pivotal in addressing and condemning heresies such as Arianism, Macedonianism, and Apollinarianism. The Nicene Creed and the Constantinopolitan Creed, which emerged from these councils, have become widely accepted and have stood the test of time.

Jaroslav Pelikan, a renowned theologian and historian, emphasises the importance of creeds in expressing and preserving the faith of the Church. In his work "Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition," Pelikan highlights that creeds serve as concise summaries of essential Christian beliefs. They provide a common language and framework for the Church, shaping the development of Christian theology and fostering unity among believers across time and space.

Alister McGrath, a contemporary theologian and historian, offers a nuanced perspective on creeds. In his book "I Believe: Exploring the Apostles' Creed," McGrath acknowledges the historical importance and theological significance of creeds. He recognises that creeds have played a crucial role in defining orthodox Christian beliefs and combating heresies. However, McGrath also emphasises the need for ongoing theological reflection and personal appropriation of faith beyond mere recitation of creeds. He encourages believers to engage with the rich content of the creeds, exploring their implications for Christian living and discipleship.

By affirming the divinity of Christ, the procession of the Holy Spirit, and other fundamental tenets, creeds, including the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, help combat heresies and maintain the coherence and unity of the Church. They serve as beacons of truth, guiding believers in their faith and providing a foundation for sound doctrine.

In a world where various heretical groups and alternative movements may arise, the views of Pelikan and McGrath remind us of the continued relevance and essentiality of the Church's creeds. The creeds help prevent debates, doctrinal disputes, and the proliferation of misleading teachings. By relying on the creed, Christians can remain rooted in the historic faith, safeguarding the integrity and unity of the Church.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed stands as a testament to the Church's commitment to preserving the essential teachings of Christianity and ensuring the clarity of its beliefs. It remains a cherished and widely accepted confession of faith, fostering unity among believers and providing a firm foundation for the Christian faith throughout the ages. Incorporating the insights of theologians such as Pelikan and McGrath enriches our understanding of the creeds' historical significance and their ongoing role in shaping and guiding the Christian tradition.

Bibliography

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- Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian. 3rd Rev and Expanded ed. edition. Zondervan Academic, 1996, pp. 114, 125.

- Boer, Harry R. A Short History of the Early Church. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1990, p. 73.

- McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction. 6th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2016, p. 14.

- Schatkin, Andrew J. Essays on the Christian Worldview and Others Political, Literary, and Philosophical. Hamilton Books, 2010, p. 61.

- McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. 2nd edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 42.

- McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 6th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2016, p. 17.

- Roukema, Riemer. Jesus, Gnosis and Dogma. T & T Clark International, 2010, p. 184.

- Hall, Stuart G. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church: (Spck Church History). 2nd edition. SPCK Publishing, 2005, p. 124.

- Webster, M. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions. Merriam Webster, 2000, p. 675.




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