Why Do We Say the Creed?
Oftentimes people will react against submitting to or saying any type of creed. Some of the common expressions used for such opposition to creeds are, “no creeds, just deeds” or “no creed but Christ.” The definition of a creed is simply a formal summary of belief. When one says such things as “no creed but the Bible” that is, in and of itself, a creed to which one subscribes!
We believe that a creed is not only healthy but necessary because it affirms “…the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Early Christians did not have their own Bibles. The Christian faith was passed on by hearing the Word of God in the context of the liturgy (Romans 10:17). Prior to the printing press, few people could afford a Bible, and even if they had the means to buy a Bible, it was nearly impossible to obtain. This was due to the fact that it wasn’t until the late fourth century that all the New Testament books were compiled and placed into a canon (meaning, the formalizing process of the books and letters that were deemed authoritative by Christ and his apostles). Even after this period of formalizing what books should be in the Bible, copies of Scripture were hand written and unavailable to the common person.
Another need for having a creed had to do with the threat of false teaching. The creed summarizes those doctrines that we call dogmas. There are some beliefs that may be important to study but doesn’t pertain to salvation. Only those doctrines that relate to our Triune God and His actions constitute dogma. An example of this is the question regarding the age of the universe. Whether one believes the world is six thousand or six million years old is not a matter of eternal significance. If, however, one denied that God was the first cause of all creation, believing that the world came about by random chance, that would pose a serious problem. We confess in the creed that the Lord is, “the Maker of heaven and earth.” Salvation begins with believing that God is the absolute sovereign and Lord over all, and that we owe our very existence to Him.
False teaching is not something new to our current culture. The apostles had to write letters warning Christians of those who contradicted the Word of God. St. Paul warned against the Judaizers (i.e. the book of Galatians) and the Gnostics (i.e. the book of Colossians). The former said that one had to keep all the ceremonial and dietary laws contained in the first five books of Moses in order to be accepted by God. The latter emphasized the spiritual and immaterial to such an extreme that the material world was deemed as unimportant, or at least secondary to all physical matter. This led to strange doctrines concerning the humanity of Jesus, and oftentimes to extreme asceticism, or to excessive hedonism (i.e. living simply for personal pleasure). St. John warned against such an extreme form of Gnosticism called Docetism. Docetism taught that Jesus only appeared to be a human, but this was merely an illusion, which is a denial of our Lord’s true humanity. A creed enabled Christians to not only know the succinct summary of what they believed, it helped them to test the claims of false teachers according to this standard provided by the Church.
When we say the creed, we are merely confessing what the Church has said, and how She has interpreted the core of biblical teaching throughout the ages. There are false prophets that contradict the Church’s dogma, as it has been formalized in the creed. Like the early church, we are to learn, memorize, and say the creed together as an allegiance to the faith of the whole church, not relying on our own private interpretation of Scripture (II Peter 1:20-21).
The Church regularly uses two creeds: The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The Apostles’ Creed dates to the late first or early second century. This creed was used for candidates of holy baptism. The Nicene Creed goes back to the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). This creed combatted those who denied the divinity of Jesus. A bishop and heretic named Arius spread this lie that Jesus was a created being and did not exist prior to his birth at Bethlehem. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses and most Unitarians are nothing more than proponents of the old Arian teaching.[i] The Nicene Constantinople Creed of A.D. 381 emphasized the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and this is the one we use for our weekly Mass. Another creed that is sometimes used is the Athanasian Creed, which is a fuller explanation of the Nicene Creed.
The real issue is simply do we rely on the church and her understanding of Holy Scripture, as it is summarized in her creeds, or do we make ourselves the final arbiter of truth? Those who are opposed to the creeds often do this out of ignorance, but some do this out of arrogance. The creed is what C.S. Lewis calls, Mere Christianity, which is simply the faith believed and confessed by Christians throughout the ages.
[i] Please Note: this is not to be confused with the white supremacy movement called Aryans.