It is no exaggeration to say that, historically speaking, next to the Bible the early Christian creeds are the most important texts of Christianity. In the Latin Church, the Roman creed, which was recited at baptism, was considered so important that in Late Antiquity people claimed that it had been composed by the apostles themselves; thus it came to be called the Apostles’ Creed. Later the individual clauses of this creed were even ascribed to individual apostles (although there was considerable confusion as to which apostle had said what and the number of the clauses didn’t quite fit either). In the East, the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, which had been adopted at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 and based on the Creed of the Council of Nicaea of 325, continues to hold pride of place in the liturgy.
Billions of Christians over the centuries have received their religious instruction on the basis of these texts, and to this day one creed or another is recited in most masses and services of the mainstream Christian churches. Hundreds, if not thousands of times, creeds have been set to music by the most distinguished composers. Church walls and manuscripts have been decorated with the apostles each holding a verse of the creed written on a scroll. Creeds have thus shaped Christian belief in a way which can hardly be overestimated.
Paradoxically, however, in many western churches today these texts are regarded with a high degree of suspicion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fierce controversies erupted in many European countries over the liturgical use of the creed. Today, they seem no longer worth arguing about; instead they are considered quaint relics of a distant ecclesiastical past, whose statements regarding the virgin birth and the final judgment are far removed from the rational mind of the modern believer. Creeds are recited but are little understood, and in the minds of many might as well be abolished altogether.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, Christian doctrine and its allegedly normative claims as summed up in the creeds clash with the individual believer’s wish not to be patronized by religious authorities regarding what he or she should believe.
This is a dilemma which the creed simply cannot escape. It has always been understood to summarize basic tenets of the Christian faith. If such summaries are per se seen as restricting religious freedom, then there is little that can be said in defence of the creeds. Yet this is not the whole story. Creeds are also an invitation to put one’s trust in God – and as such they do not impose restrictions but offer a path to religious freedom.
Let me explain. Creeds deal first and foremost with questions relating to the Trinity. They do not define Christian morality nor do they describe the Church in any detail. Even eschatology is only mentioned in the vaguest of terms (Christ’s judgement, life eternal). Instead the content of the creeds is largely made up of statements about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christian belief in God is not primarily belief in monotheism (as it is in Judaism and Islam), but in a God who reveals himself to the world in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One might even argue that the creeds are primarily about Christ and his relation to the Father. Even the famous controversy about the filioque (which in 1054 contributed to the Great Schism) is not about the Holy Spirit and its work as such, but about its origin and the question of whether it proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. Ultimately, this is a debate about the importance and significance not of the Spirit, but of the Son.
But this is not all: at the core of the creeds stands also the relation of the Son to us. This is why the creeds are not simply a set of propositions or statements which we are asked to agree to, but are always introduced with the words: ‘I/we believe.’ Christians believe in the Son as both God and man, and it is only through belief in Christ that the full significance of the Father’s creation, the preservation of his creation, and of the Church through the Holy Spirit is revealed. The creeds are the story of God’s revelation in Christ, ‘who because of us humans and because of our salvation descended from the heavens’, which has ultimately generated the clauses of the creed. And it is our trust in the salvific significance of this revelation which is expressed in the words ‘I/we believe.’ In other words, creeds are not primarily about imposing a particular formulation of the faith which, in many respects, is indeed alien to modern believers; instead, they explain in a few words that God is offering a path to salvation that is open to all who trust in him.
The precise wording in which Christians describe this path is not set in stone. But would it make sense to alter the creeds? Probably not, as they are the common heritage of most Christians all over the world; new alterations would cause fresh divisions. But such adjustments are not necessary, because creeds are ultimately nothing more (nor less) than an invitation to place one’s trust in the God whose mercy – as shown in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – is beyond words.
Featured image credit: Council of Nicaea 325 by Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican 1590. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.