When historians explore the rise of Christianity, they often point out that Christianity is unique among world religions in its prioritization of a creed or creedal belief. Take, for example, the words of Frances Young:
“Christianity is the only major religion to set such store by creeds and doctrines” (Making of the Creeds, p. 1).
It is important to point out that creedal belief is not a later development but a feature present from the very beginning. As the late Oxford historian J. N. D. Kelly noted:
“the early Church was from the start a believing, confessing, preaching Church” (Early Christian Creeds, p. 7).
Citing St. Paul in Romans 10:9-10 (“if you believe in your heart and confess with your lips … ”), the renowned Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed in the introduction to his four volume series Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition:
“Creeds and confessions of faith have their origin in a twofold Christian imperative, to believe and to confess what one believes.”Pelikan, Credo, p. 35
Why are creeds so unique and important to the Church? And why have they fallen on hard times in our day? In a future article we will look at the difference between the two major creeds of Christianity—the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed—but we should first think a bit more about this defining characteristic of Christianity.
Is Doctrine a Distortion of Christianity?
Dislike of doctrine is a late modern phenomenon. Even though the Protestant reformers emphasized personal faith and Scripture against ecclesiastical tradition, they still formulated confessional statements like the Augsburg Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Second Helvetic Confession. But in the 1700-1900s, creeds and doctrines began to be viewed with greater suspicion, due to a variety of movements that favored personal experience over propositional truth. German Pietism, for example, prioritized devotional experience over confessional adherence. Modernist movements tried to re-conceive Christianity as a religion of morals, not of metaphysics, in order to avoid the challenges of modern science and historiography.
More about Control Than Conviction?
In our own day, there has been an agenda attempting to revise the historiography about why the early Church produced creeds. The argument is that Christianity originally was attractive not as a theoretical system of belief, but as a form of personal belonging that defied the class structure of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the Church began to use its newfound political power to force conformity and suppress Christianity’s original egalitarianism. Creeds, then, were not the natural attempt of the Church to define her faith in the face of falsehoods but tools of coercion wielded by a later, hierarchical faction of Christianity that seized upon Constantine’s political interest in Christianity.
Discipleship over Doctrine?
Although this view has been largely abandoned by serious historians and is easily disproven by the fact that creeds and councils predate Emperor Constantine by at least two centuries, this secular suspicion of doctrines and creeds is sadly gaining a second lease on life among contemporary Christians. A spoken word poem “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” by Jefferson Bethke, for example, has over thirty-four million views on YouTube. In it, he articulates a preference for a personalized faith over a more official, historical religion. He begins with the declaration:
“Jesus came to abolish religion.”
Religion in its formalism of rules and rites cultivates hypocrisy, while Jesus offers freedom from any formality. As he says in the rap, “religion says do, but Jesus says done.” The message is clear: a true Christian pursues a personal relationship with Jesus, not membership in a church.
Similarly, many church leaders often say that Christianity is not “a system of doctrine” but a “way of discipleship.” Doctrine is rigid, black and white while discipleship is flexible and gray. Doctrine demarcates boundaries and puts up walls barring outsiders, while discipleship means following Jesus into dialogue with the world and welcoming those whose views and values differ from ours.
Because of these biases, we need to gain a better sense of how creeds are not some tool of control or pastorally insensitive. Let’s take a broad look at why the Church put as much effort into defining doctrine as it did into evangelizing, caring for the sick, and helping the poor.
Creeds Are the Form of Teaching in an Illiterate Society
Against the modern prejudice that creeds are a form of shutting down dialogue or evangelism, we might point out that creeds emerged in an illiterate society. Historians estimate that at the beginning of Christianity, ninety percent of the population was illiterate. When the primary form of learning and communication is the spoken word, not the written text, a message or teaching must be memorable. In modern education, we typically ask students to write papers to demonstrate their understanding. That just couldn’t happen in the ancient world. But what ancient teachers could do to check for understanding is ask students to memorize and recite teachings.
Creeds of course are quite obviously suitable for memorization and recitation. They are rhythmic and lyrical. There is a cadence to them, making them easy to memorize, recite, and pass along. Creeds are the products of this early teaching culture in an illiterate society. Crudely casting creeds as instruments of exclusion and control is unnecessarily cynical, for originally creeds were the normal way people were educated, included.
Creeds Arise out of Baptismal Preparation
In fact, creeds developed out of the Rite of Initiation or Baptism. The common approach seems to have been a few years of lectures to catechumens that expounded a creed-like formula. This creed-like formula was memorized and recited during the ceremony in response to an interrogation by the minister before the congregation. The purpose of the interrogation of the candidate and his/her recitation of the baptismal creed was twofold: First, for the candidate to properly confess the faith. Second, for the congregation to verify that the candidate shared their faith.
Against the notion that doctrine is unpastoral, we might remember that conversion to Christianity in the early centuries entailed a radical change of life and made one liable to persecution. Often converts had to leave their career behind or radically alter their lifestyle. Moreover, Christians were seen as politically seditious for worshipping a person crucified by the Roman Empire and for not worshipping the gods of Rome, including the Caesar. While we often think of baptism as symbolic of spiritual life and death, in the early days of Christianity when Rome persecuted Christians, it was literally a matter of life and death.
Baptism, in short, was risky and life-changing, thus Christians wanted to ensure that candidates were fully aware of the significance of their choice. We might view this rigorous process of preparing candidates as rigid or inhospitable. But in context, it appears responsible and pastorally sensitive, protecting people from a decision that could seriously disrupt and threaten their lives.
Creeds Curtail Confusion and Court Communion
Perhaps the most obvious function of a creed is to unify Christians and reduce confusion. A major emphasis of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ ministry is the oneness of the Church. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one (John 17.21). St. Luke observes that the post-Pentecost Church “had everything in common” (Acts 2:44). St. Paul speaks of the Church as the “body of Christ” and variously enjoins his readers to be united (1 Corinthians 12:12-28; Ephesians 4:3-6).
A major obstacle to this unity was the presence of false teachers and flawed gospels. Jesus himself warned about this threat (Matthew 24:24), and St. Paul is regularly concerned with false teachers (Acts 20:29-31) and false gospels (see Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Timothy 4:3-4). In one famous passage, St. Paul describes the factionalism of the Church in Corinth:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?1 Corinthians 1:11-13
The rise of new leaders and teachers only increased after the apostles died. The growing pluralism of the Church was exacerbated by the proliferation of writings that circulated throughout the churches. How were early Christians to know which literature and which teachers were authentic and which ones were false?
In this context, we see early Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200 AD) appeal to the “Rule of Faith”—a creed-like outline of the Church’s faith. He invoked it as the standard for right interpretation and identification of Scripture. These creedal summaries became very important for refuting false teachings and for determining the canon of Scripture. This is why we recite the Creed after the readings and homily at Mass—to unite us in our understanding of Scripture and to prevent us from following false teachings.
It is no surprise, then, that we find St. Irenaeus prefacing his rehearsal of the Rule of Faith by highlighting its unifying function:
“The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith … ”Against Heresies Book I, Chapter 10
So, creeds and defined doctrines are actually very helpful in the Church’s attempt to fulfill the desire of Jesus and the exhortation of St Paul that the Church be united. As the Catechism asserts: “Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith” (CCC 185).
Confession Is Crucial for Christianity
We have seen that some of the reasons why Christians formulated creeds had little to do with exclusion or control, but evangelization, education, and empowerment. Now we need to return to the point at the beginning and ask why Christianity sees the formulaic confession of belief itself as the paradigmatic act.
For starters, Christianity is a religion of the Word. As explored in a previous article, it is the Word of God that creates the world, constitutes Israel, conceives Jesus Christ, and calls forth the Church. The reason why doctrinal confession is so central to Christianity is because God’s presence among us is as Word (John 1:1). God comes to us announcing good news, teaching and preaching in the synagogue, sending us out as heralds and apostles. To be faithful to the Word, we must place a premium on our words, ensuring that they echo the Word that sounded in the beginning and dwelt among us.
Not only did Jesus come to the world as the Word, but he promised to give his followers the words to speak on his behalf when the world rejects their message (Luke 21:15). When we look at the very beginnings of the Church in the Book of Acts we observe a number of instances when Christians were called upon to a public profession of their faith. Perhaps the most notable was the one that led to the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Before the council of Jewish leaders, St. Stephen gave a statement of his beliefs, thus establishing the precedent of martyrs giving public professions before their death. This same act of public profession of faith would occur in the context of baptism, as we noted above.
Those who become Christian show their commitment and their honor for Christ, his apostles, and the martyrs by preserving the words they spoke, by making their own the apostolic profession of faith. Indeed, it is through words that the faith is faithfully passed down. Romans 6:17, for example, speaks of believing the “pattern of doctrine” for salvation. St. Paul twice exhorts St. Timothy to hold fast to the “pattern of sound words” he was taught (2 Timothy 1:13; 2 Timothy 4:3).
Creeds, then, also remind us that our faith is a gift. They teach us that our faith is to be received, not revised. We cannot improve upon what God has said; we can only profess his Word to others. Creeds also situate us among the choir of confessors, prompting us to honor the martyrs and our spiritual ancestors by making the same profession. Finally, creeds remind us that the integrity of our faith is measured not on the strength of inner feeling or its contemporary usefulness, but on its correspondence to what has been revealed. We confess our faith using formula in order to discipline our speech so that it is faithful to the Word.
Do you think there is a need for a creed? Let us know why or why not in the comments.
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is a lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.
Featured painting, First Council of Nicea (1876-77), by Vasily Surikov sourced from Wikimedia Commons