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Ecumenical Christian Creeds

Dennis Bratcher, ed.

The first creeds of the Christian Church are called ecumenical creeds because they were decided upon in church councils that represented the entire church at the time before the church permanently spilt into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) factions in AD 1054.  Later creeds reflect the diversity of the Christian tradition and tend to become more specialized expressions of particular doctrines for various groups.

The Apostles' Creed

The Apostles' Creed is one of the oldest creeds of Christianity, dating in an early form to at least the middle second century with roots in the biblical traditions of the Gospels. Some phrases were added for clarity as late as the fourth century, but the basic creed remained intact. The clearly Trinitarian structure was likely intended to counter the teachings of Marcion who denied that the God of the Old Testament was the same God revealed in Jesus the Christ. This Trinitarian formulation would remain the basic structure of all the early creeds.  The Apostles' Creed has often been divided into 12 sections for catechesis, instruction for new converts or children.

There has been some misunderstanding surrounding the phrase "he descended into hell."  In fact, some church traditions omit this phrase from public recital of the Creed because some see this phrase as confirming an early belief that Jesus preached to the dead during the time between his crucifixion and resurrection (cf. 1 Peter 3:19, 4:6). However, many biblical scholars do not agree that the biblical traditions actually describe Jesus preaching to the dead, and therefore understand the phrase to be a metaphor for burial:  "he descended into the realm of the dead," that is, that he spent the time among the dead (see "He Descended into Hell": Sheol, Hell, and the Dead).  Some Protestants have also objected to the phrase "holy catholic church," assuming that this is a reference to Roman Catholicism when in fact the term simply means "universal," "inclusive," or "unified" (see Catholic Spirit). -Dennis Bratcher, ed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Apostles' Creed has often been divided into 12 sections for catechesis, instruction for new converts or children.

1. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell.
5. The third day he rose again from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
7. From there he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
10. The forgiveness of sins,
11. The resurrection of the body,
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed was developed by the early Church largely in response to the teachings of Arius. Arianism taught that Jesus was not truly divine and of a different "substance" than God, which challenged the developing doctrine of the Trinity in the early church. The emperor Constantine, newly converted to Christianity, called a Church Council at Nica in AD 325 to bring some unity to the church amid developing controversies and false teachings. The Council at Nica adopted an early form of the creed, although the basic present form emerged from the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. It was officially adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.

A major controversy in the church has swirled around one phrase of the creed, the so-called filioque clause. In the phrase, "We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son" the debate concerned whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from only the Father, or from the Father and the Son [filioque in Latin]. The phrase "and the Son" was not in the original Greek version of the Creed accepted at Nica and Constantinople. It was added in the Latin versions used in the Western (Roman) church in AD 589 as an attempt to clarify the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. The concern was that the original wording made Jesus the Christ subordinate to the Father, a view that the Western church felt endangered the doctrine of the Trinity.

However, the Eastern tradition was committed to the earlier Greek version of the Creed and resisted any change. This highlighted the growing rift between the Eastern and Western traditions that would eventually lead to a permanent break in AD 1054. As a result, the Eastern Church has never used the version with the filioque clause (see Eastern Orthodox Catechism), while most churches that derive from the Western tradition use the creed with the filioque clause. However, the Episcopal Church has recently approved omission of the filioque clause in new editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Church has widely used the Nicene Creed since the fifth century. In some liturgical churches, for example the Episcopal/Anglican Churches, it is recited every Sunday. In others, the Nicene Creed is alternated with the Apostles’ Creed for Sunday worship, although the Apostles’ Creed is more often used at Baptismal services. The Eastern Orthodox tradition uses only the Nicene Creed. While most non-liturgical Protestant churches prefer the shorter Apostles’ Creed, none would object to the doctrines the Nicene Creed summarizes. It is the only creed accepted by all three major branches of Christendom: Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox. -Dennis Bratcher, ed.

We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all that 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, of one being [substance] with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with 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 Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped 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. Amen

The Nicene Creed is also sometimes divided into 12 sections for catechesis (see Eastern Orthodox Catechism):

1. We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.

2. 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, of one being [substance] with the Father. Through him all things were made.

3. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made truly human.

4. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

5. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;

6. he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

7. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end..

8. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

9. We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

10. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

11. We look for the resurrection of the dead,

12. and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Adapted from a translation by the International Consultation on English Texts, 1975

The Definition of Chalcedon (451)

The Council at Nica in AD 325 had addressed the discussions and controversies over how to understand the relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, it did not put an end to them. Nica had rejected the view of Arianism, which held that Jesus was so human that he was of a different substance and nature than God. However, soon afterward the opposite idea emerged, that Jesus was not really a human being, that his human nature was so overpowered by the divine nature that his humanity was either obliterated altogether or was submersed in the divine (a position known as monophysitism, "one nature").

The fourth ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in Asia Minor (what is now Turkey) met in 451 to address the idea that Jesus lacked a human nature (along with other ecclesiastical issues). Chalcedon attempted to define a middle way that balanced Jesus’ divine and human aspects by emphasizing that Jesus had two natures unified in one person, so that he was genuinely human and yet truly divine. Chalcedon was also careful to avoid saying that Jesus was two persons, a position called Nestorianism that had already been rejected at the third ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431.

As might be expected, Chalcedon had no better success in ending the Christological controversies than had Nica. Several groups in the Eastern Church, especially in the Middle East, rejected Chalcedon and adopted the "one nature" position of monophysitism, which many still hold today. However, in most of the church the Definition of Chalcedon became the accepted doctrinal definition of the person of Jesus the Christ. -Dennis Bratcher, ed.

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these "last days," for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten - in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one "person" and in one reality. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Creed of the Fathers* has handed down to us.

*a reference to the Nicene Creed

Another version of the Definition of Chalcedon (in more traditional language)

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood;

One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed* of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

*a reference to the Nicene Creed

The Athanasian Creed

While the Athanasian Creed is one of the three most important Creeds of the early Church, its author and origin remains a mystery.  It is named after the well known fourth-century apologist and theologian Anathasius who played an important role in defining and defending the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, which are central features of this creed. However, Anathasius died in AD 373 and the Athanasian Creed closely reflects wording of the Nicene Creed adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, suggesting that it was written sometime after that. It is not mentioned in historical documents until the later seventh century, and was likely written in the Western Church sometime in the sixth or early seventh century.  However, since the first work on the Nicene Creed began at the Council of Nica in AD 325, it is likely that Anathasius helped shape much of the Trinitarian language that the fourth and fifth century church used in both creeds. -Dennis Bratcher, ed.

Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold to the true Christian Faith. Whoever does not keep this faith pure in all points will certainly perish forever.

Now this is the true Christian faith: We worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, without mixing the persons or dividing the divine being. For each person -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit -- is distinct, but the deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty. What the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit.

The Father is uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated; The Father is eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three who are eternal, but there is one who is eternal, just as they are not three who are uncreated, nor three who are infinite, but there is one who is uncreated and one who is infinite.

In the same way the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, and the Holy Spirit is almighty. And yet they are not three who are almighty, but there is one who is almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord; yet they are not three Lords, but one Lord.

For just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually to be God and Lord, so the true Christian faith forbids us to speak of three Gods or three Lords. The Father is neither made not created, nor begotten of anyone. The Son is neither made nor created, but is begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeds from the Father and the Son. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

And within this Trinity none comes before or after; none is greater or inferior, but all three persons are coequal and coeternal, so that in every way, as stated before, all three persons are to be worshiped as one God and one God worshiped as three persons. Whoever wishes to be saved must have this conviction of the Trinity.

It is furthermore necessary for eternal salvation truly to believe that our Lord Jesus Christ also took on human flesh. Now this is the true Christian faith: We believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, God's Son, is both God and Man. He is God, eternally begotten from the nature of the Father, and he is man, born in time from the nature of his mother, fully God, fully man, with rational soul and human flesh, equal to the Father, as to his deity, less than the Father, as to his humanity; and though he is both God and Man, Christ is not two persons but one, one, not by changing the deity into flesh, but by taking the humanity into God; one, indeed, not by mixture of the natures, but by unity in one person.

For just as the reasonable soul and flesh are one human being, so God and man are one Christ, who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty, and from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will rise again with their own bodies to answer for their personal deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, but those who have done evil will go into everlasting fire.

This is the true Christian Faith. Whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this cannot be saved.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
(No copyright claims are made for the text of the original document.)
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