The value of the ecumenical creeds
The so-called “ecumenical” creeds include the Apostles'(1) and Nicene creeds(2). Some would also include the so-called Athanasian Creed(3) as part of the ecumenical(4) creeds. What, if anything, is the value of these creeds? Why do we Christians need these creeds? Isn’t the Bible enough, since the Bible alone is the infallible Word of God, and since these creeds were composed by uninspired men? In this article I will suggest five reasons why Christians should both value and make use of these important creedal statements.
Reason # 1: The Ecumenical Creeds are Biblical
Every essential statement and affirmation of these creeds can be directly demonstrated and proven from the Word of God. As such these creeds are wonderful summaries of basic Bible truths. Since the Bible is the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice, and since the ecumenical creeds are thoroughly biblical, we believers would do well to highly esteem these great creedal statements.
Reason # 2: The creeds are “catholic”
I am using the term “catholic” here in its ancient sense of “universal,” not in the schismatic sense of “Roman Catholic”(5). The creeds are “catholic” in the sense that all branches of the historic Christian Church (whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant) have universally affirmed them.(6) What this means is that all historic, orthodox Christians in all times and all places have confessed the basic biblical truths contained in these creeds. In the midst of all the divisions and disunity among professing Christians today, the ecumenical creeds serve to underscore those great biblical, “catholic” truths which all orthodox Christians everywhere are united in affirming. When we confess these creeds together, we join our voices with the voices of orthodox Christians down through the ages and throughout the world in affirming a common faith which we all treasure.
Reason # 3: The creeds are didactic
“Didactic” is a word that has to do with “teaching.” The ecumenical creeds have didactic and catechetical value because they teach basic Bible truths that are foundational for understanding the biblical gospel in its fullness. Teaching the creeds to our covenant children is a great way of passing on to them the precious spiritual heritage of our biblical and catholic faith, and of providing them with the spiritual armor needed to guard them against the prevalent influences of heresy and false teaching. Learning these creeds and studying their Bible-based truths is a wonderful means of deepening our understanding of the faith and our love for the Lord.
Reason # 4: The creeds are liturgical
The creeds are designed to be recited corporately in the Divine liturgy. As the OPC’s Directory for the Public Worship of God states (in Chapter II.B.3.b.): “It is also fitting that the congregation as one body confess its common faith, using creeds that are true to the Word of God, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed.”(7) Reciting Bible-based creeds is a means of expressing praise to the Triune God whom we worship (First Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 13:15) and of reaffirming our vows of trust in and allegiance to our God and the gospel truths He has revealed in His Word. As we recite these creeds together in the liturgical setting of worship, we unitedly confess our common faith, thereby manifesting our covenanted unity in the bonds of the gospel and bearing corporate testimony to the truth of God’s Word.
Reason # 5: The creeds are directional
We are all prone to getting onto our own “hobby horses” when it comes to our Christian faith and the way we express and live out that faith. What I mean is that both individual Christians and Christian churches can very easily lose their focus on the things that matter most and onto less important or passing trends, fads and “hobby horses” that are prevalent in the contemporary Christian world. Sometimes these doctrinal hobby horses can become boundary markers of orthodoxy in the eyes of some believers, even though they are not mentioned in the ecumenical creeds.
For example, today there are some Christians and Christian churches and/or sects which would question the genuineness of your Christian faith (or at least suspect that you were in some serious doctrinal error) if you do not happen to affirm the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine or accept the dispensational premillenial scheme for interpreting biblical prophecy. Some of our fellow believers get very hung up on insisting upon their particular interpretation of end-times scenarios, so much so that it becomes a central feature of their faith that seems to drive all other considerations into the background. In the face of such “last days madness” (to borrow from the title of a Gary DeMar book) the ecumenical creeds offer sanity, wisdom and direction: “I believe in…The resurrection of the body; And the life everlasting. Amen.” (The Apostles’ Creed); “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” (The Nicene Creed). From the perspective of the ecumenical creeds (and thus historic Christian orthodoxy), as long as you affirm the doctrine of the final resurrection of the body (which implies the biblical doctrine of Christ’s second advent at the end of this age) and the life everlasting, you are within the bounds of orthodoxy when it comes to eschatology (the doctrine of the “last things”). For a Christian or a church body to require the affirmation of complex escatological schemes as a condition for church fellowship or ministerial service is to behave in a sectarian rather than a truly catholic way.
To offer another common example of a popular “hobby horse” today within conservative American Christianity, there are many Christians today (and even some Christian churches) which would insist on the literal 24 hour day view of the creation days of Genesis chapter one and its attendant young earth creationist position as a boundary marker for biblical orthodoxy.(8) In the face of this popular but divisive hobby horse, the ecumenical creeds offer the following direction and counsel: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (The Apostles’ Creed); and “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible” (The Nicene Creed).
This is not to say that the ecumenical creeds contain the only things that matter for Christian faith and practice, or that the only doctrines that matter are the doctrines summarized in those creeds. But they do wisely point us in the direction of those truths that matter most of all, and they implicitly warn us against hobby horses that might get our focus off of the central Bible truths that these creeds highlight. They outline the major orthodox truths that all historic Christian churches throughout all the ages of church history have discerned, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in their study of God’s Word.
The ecumenical creeds are of great value to the individual believer and to the church corporate, for they are biblical, catholic, didactic, liturgical and directional. Let us treasure them. Let us teach them. Let us use them.(9)
(1) The Apostles’ Creed, though not written by the apostles themselves, nevertheless summarizes major truths that were taught by Christ’s apostles. A form of this creed was used as early as the second century as a means of instructing catechumens who were preparing for baptism. This creed is organized with a Trinitarian structure and stresses the historical events of the gospel, and thus it stands against various heresies that arose in the early post-apostolic church (such as gnosticism, docetism, etc.). (See the introduction to this creed, written by Rev. Joel R. Beeke, in The Three Forms of Unity, Birmingham, Alabama, USA: Solid Ground Christian Books, First Printing of the Leather Edition September 2010, p. 4.)
(2) The Nicene Creed in its present form was embraced as a definitive statement of Christian orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., although the affirmation that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son” (the filioque clause) was not added until the year 589 A.D. at the Synod of Toledo. (See Beeke’s introduction, p. 6, ibid.) It goes into greater detail than the Apostles’ creed in terms of Trinitarian theology and Christology, thereby counteracting the heresy of Arianism (a heresy which denied the full Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ).
(3) The Athanasian Creed is named after the church father Athanasius (293-373 A.D.), the great defender of the orthodox biblical doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ against the heresy of Arianism (which denied both of those doctrines), though the actual author of this creed is unknown. It dates from the fifth century, though it did not appear in its completed form until the eighth century. (Again, see Beeke’s introduction, p. 8, ibid.)
(4) “Ecumenical” is a term that means “general” or “universal” (Beeke, p. 1, ibid.).
(5) While our Roman Catholic friends believe that we Protestants are guilty of schism, from a historic Protestant perspective it is actually the Roman communion, represented by the papacy and its teaching magisterium, which is guilty of schism from the ancient catholic faith. While the Roman Catholic Church may be regarded as “Christian” insofar as it affirms and confesses the Bible-based truths of the ecumenical creeds, and insofar as it retains a form of the ministry of word and sacraments; at the same time it is guilty of schism from the true visible catholic church insofar as it exalts its own traditions to a level of equal Divine authority with the Scriptures and insofar as it rejects the biblical gospel of justification by faith alone because of Christ alone. (The Council of Trent, the Roman council which responded to the Protestant Reformation, officially anathematized the biblical gospel of justification by faith alone and declared Protestants who confess this doctrine to be heretics. By this action the Roman communion officially severed itself from the ancient catholic church, which had affirmed the supreme authority of Scripture and emphasized salvation by Divine grace. It is those confessional Protestant communions which affirm sola scriptura and sola fide which are the true successors to the ancient catholic faith.)
(6) The one major exception to the universality of these creeds is the filioque clause found in the Nicene creed. The Eastern Orthodox Churches reject the filioque clause (which states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son”), whereas the churches of the Latin West affirm this clause. (Both Roman Catholic and historic Protestant communions follow the practice of the Latin West in affirming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.) The Eastern churches confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not from the Father and the Son. This was the major doctrinal difference which led to the “great schism” between the eastern and western churches in 1054 A.D.
(7) Page 139, 2015 Edition of The Book of Church Order of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, copyright 2015 by The Orthodox Presbyterian Church).
(8) Of course, holding to the young earth creationist view of six literal, 24 hour days is certainly within the bounds of historic orthodoxy, and is a legitimate interpretive option in terms of how to understand the creation days of Genesis chapter one. But I would argue that insisting upon this view as a boundary marker for orthodoxy is both sectarian and divisive.
(9) Recommended reading: The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, copyright 2012 by Carl R. Trueman)