In the section of Nigerian Christianity where I grew up, few people know of creeds*. And the few who know about them often speak of them with disdain as elements of the worship of ‘orthodox churches’. By ‘orthodox churches’ is meant older denominations like Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations.
What are creeds?
Creeds are established expressions of Christian belief. They are statements of what believers have come to understand of God’s word over the ages. Many creedal statements were also drawn up as biblical responses to religious or theological questions of the day. Such areas include the nature of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the church, etc Some creedal statements were also prepared in response to contemporary challenges like the authority of the Bible, the dignity of human life, and the Church’s relation to government or the state.
There have been several creeds over the centuries of the Church’s existence. Some, like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Canons of the Council of Orange, attempt to define or clarify some aspect of Christian theology like the relationship between the persons of the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ, and the fallen state of humans. Other creeds, including the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religions, and the Augsburg Confession, are produced by different groups or sections of the Church to state their scriptural convictions as a Christian body. Some relatively more recent statements such as the Barmen Declaration and the Lausanne Covenant also restate or clarify Christian teachings in response to current challenges and concerns.
What do they look like?
What exactly do these creeds look like? For many who have not been brought up in communities which value them, this is a legitimate question. Below is the text of the Apostles Creed, which is an ecumenical creed widely used across Christian denominations, as an example:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen
Among others, creeds matter for the following reasons:
They clarify and summarize Biblical truths
Like we have just seen in the Apostle’s Creed, a creed summarizes the Bible’s teaching. For instance, we know that God is not just our ‘Father’, but that He is also the Maker of heaven and earth. This is a concise summary of much of what God has revealed throughout the pages of the Bible. We also have it summarily defined that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, and that He died and rose again on the third day. These are essential truths for our faith as Christians. And we have them beautifully worded in a form that has stood the test of time. We do not simply have to start unearthing God’s truth from a point zero; we have the gift of scriptural truth collected and passed down to us from believers who lived long before us.
They connect us to earlier believers
The creeds help us remember that we share our faith in Christ with millions of believers who lived centuries before us. Thus they reinforce the biblical idea that there is one fold, one shepherd (John 10:16). Though separated by centuries and dispersed across diverse nations, we are reminded that we are one with other believers in Christ the Redeemer. This is both humbling, as well as a source of great joy!
They require us to keep studying the Bible for clearer understanding
Every creed is a product of finite human beings who have struggled to state their understanding of God’s revelation as accurately as possible. Each is the product of long, often collective, and prayerful reflection on God’s word in light of contemporary issues. However, they do not supercede the scriptures which they attempt to interpret. Also, the creeds do not explain everything revealed in scripture, nor do they even touch the depth of every truth they succeed in expressing. In view of this, every creedal statement or confession is really a call for us to dig into the scriptures ourselves. It is an invitation to study the Bible more closely for truths which are yet to be discovered and for a better, clearer understanding of those which have already been codified.
*Although there is a difference among them, I have used the word ‘creed’ to refer to creeds, confessions, and catechisms – all theological statements and documents which attempt to summarise the teachings of the Bible as believed by all Christians or a considerable section of the Church.