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Common Creeds

By Ted Sims

In John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, he states that it is the church:
...into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.(1)

It is my guess, however, that probably eighty percent of the church has little, if any, familiarity with the common creeds. Historically, it has been the church leaders who have taught its members the creeds. However, the majority of church leaders have abandoned teaching their flocks the creeds.

From the very beginnings of Christianity until recently it has been the creeds which have bound the church together for public worship as Christians. The creeds have been that which has distinguished the beliefs of the church from those of the world. Recently, however, more and more "evangelicals" have departed from the creeds and thus from orthodox Christianity.

This departure can be attributed to the loss of reverence and awe for the holiness and majesty of God which is the logical conclusion of the Pelagianistic(2) theology which modern evangelicalism has embraced. It is this shift in the emphasis of the churches theology which has left it in disdain for traditional, historical, and orthodox Christianity. In shifting the emphasis in its theology it has lost its sense of reverence and awe for God in the face of his holiness, majesty, and transcendence.

In the following article I provide a brief introduction to the ecumenical creeds, the study of which I propose as a first step in the church's pilgrimage back to orthodoxy. I challenge the reader to reclaim the theology of the Reformers and to uphold and defend the orthodox position which they taught.

G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy has stated that:
The only intelligible sense that progress or advance can have among men, is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make the whole world like that vision.... Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision.(3)

A church without a creed, is a church without a vision--blown to and fro' by every wind of doctrine, having no faith to confess.

What are Creeds?

Some may be wondering what creeds are. So at this time I will endeavor to define what creeds are, their origin, and nature. The term creed comes from the Latin word credo which means "I believe." Thus in its simplest terms a creed is a statement or confession of faith.

J.B. Torrance, Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Aberdeen, in defining the word "confession" states that one type of a confession means:
...to declare publicly a personal relationship with and allegiance to God. It is an act of open joyful commitment made to God in the presence of the world, by which a congregation or individuals bind themselves in loyalty to God or Jesus Christ. It is an avowal of faith which can have eternal eschatological consequences.(4)

According to the Random House/ Webster's Dictionary a creed is' "an authoritative statement of the chief articles of Christian belief."(5) It is a confession of faith set forth for use by the public and is considered by its framers to be that which is necessary for salvation and/ or for the spiritual well-being of the church.(6)

A creed may cover the whole of doctrinal teaching or it may clarify certain points of dispute (we see this in the Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian creeds). Creeds contain the faith of historic Christianity, and the results of controversy. They are useful to the church in helping to regulate its theological thinking and keep the church from straying into heresy, as well as for general use in catechetical instruction and as professions of faith at baptism.(7)

Creeds are professions of faith or confessions of belief whose origins can be traced to individual or corporate belief. The very first creeds can be traced back to Scripture itself. The baptismal formula, the institution of the Lord's Supper, and Peter's confession are all creeds which antedate even the birth of the Christian church on the day of Pentecost.

One scholar, O. Cullmann, in his book The Earliest Christian Confessions gives his theory of credal formulation. This theory is summarized by R.P. Martin, Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Professor Martin states that Cullmann:
... has set forth the theory that the formulation of early creeds was controlled partly by the polemical needs of the church in the pagan world. When arraigned before the magistrates and required to attest their allegiance, the Christians' reply would be "Jesus Christ is Lord," and thus a credal form was shaped and systematized.(8)

Creeds are authoritative as long as they agree with Scripture. The Bible is the only infallible teaching concerning the things of God and therefore must be the final court of arbitration. However, this should not imply that the church should treat the ecumenical creeds with levity. Clearly, it should not, for the great majority of these creeds are either the doctrines or direct quotes from the apostles.

In short, creeds are the summary of Biblical doctrines which aid the church in a sound understanding of the teaching of Scripture and are that which binds it together and protects it from false doctrine.

The Ecumenical Creeds

The ecumenical creeds are those creeds which are held in common by the Greek, Latin, and Evangelical Protestant Churches. These creeds are the ancient doctrinal confessions of the Christian faith. There are three commonly held ecumenical creeds. They are: the Apostles' Creed; the Nicene Creed; the Athanasian Creed. The simplest of the three is the Apostles' Creed from which the other two are developed.(9)

A fourth creed may be added to this collection. It is the Chalcedonian Creed from the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The Chalcedonian Creed carries more ecclesiastical weight than the Athanasian Creed but due to its infrequent use it is usually omitted from the collections of ecumenical creeds.(10)

The ecumenical creeds contain the orthodox teaching of God the Father, Christ the Son, the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation of Christ.

The Apostles' Creed - Its History

The Apostles' Creed is not a production of the apostles as was formerly thought but is an admirable and consistent summary of apostolic teaching. It is in full harmony in letter as well as in spirit of the New Testament. Philip Schaff in his book, The Creeds of Christendom, says, "It has the fragrance of antiquity and the inestimable weight of universal consent. It is a bond of union between all ages and sections of Christendom. It can never be superseded for popular use in church and school."(11)

"The Apostles' Creed is the Creed of creeds. It contains the fundamental articles of the Christian faith necessary to salvation." The Apostles' Creed is Trinitarian in its teaching. It can be divided into three sections which express faith in: God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth; in his only Son, our Lord and Savior; the Holy Spirit.(12)

Its origins can be traced no doubt to Matthew 16:16 which established its core and to the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19 which determined its Trinitarian arrangement. It can not be traced to any one individual but is rather the construction of the Western Church within the first four centuries. It was called by the ante-Nicene fathers "the rule of faith"(13) and was primarily used as a baptismal confession.

The Apostles' Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell(14); the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from where he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church(15); the communion of saints(16); the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Nicene Creed - Its History

The Nicene Creed is the product of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) and is the Eastern form of the ancient creed, whereas, the Apostles' Creed was the Western form. The Nicene Creed is more definitive in its statements concerning the divinity of Christ and the Holy Ghost. These more assertive statements can be attributed to the Arian heresy(17) which arose during the fourth century and maintained that Christ was not equal with God but was rather a created being.(18)

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and Invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds [God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance [essence] with the Father(19); by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And [I believe] in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son](20); who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the Prophets.

And [I believe] in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Chalcedonian Creed - Its History

The Creed of Chalcedon was adopted during the fourth and fifth sessions of the fourth ecumenical Council, held at Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The Council of Nicea established the eternal existence of, and deity of the Godhead. The fourth ecumenical council defines the incarnate Logos (21).

Like the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon was the product of controversy. The Chalcedonian creed was directed against the errors of Nestorius(22) and Eutyches(23) who agreed with the Nicene Creed in rejecting Arianism but put the Godhead in jeopardy by teaching error concerning the humanity of Christ.(24)

The Creed of Chalcedon

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body(25) consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood(26); in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood(27); one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures,(28) inconfusedly, unchangeably(29), indivisibly, inseparably(30); the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

The Athanasian Creed - Its History

The origin of the Athanasian Creed, like the Apostles' Creed, is obscure. Since the ninth century most scholars believed Athanasius (d. 373 A.D.) the bishop of Alexandria, the foremost defender of the deity of Christ and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, to be its author.(31)

However, the authorship of the great "father of orthodoxy"--which nearly gained for it an unquestionable authority--has, been rejected by learned Catholics and Protestants. The ecclesiastical Synods of Constantinople (381 A.D.), Ephesus (431 A.D.), and Chalcedon (451 A.D.) make no mention of it.(32) It seems to assume the controversies of the fifth century and would thus point to a later date of authorship.

Speaking of the Anthanasian Creed, Schaff says it, "... is a remarkably clear and precise summary of the doctrinal decisions of the first four ecumenical councils (from A.D. 325 to A.D. 451), and the Augustinian speculations on the Trinity and the Incarnation"(33).

The Creed can be divided into two parts. The first part (ver. 3-28) expounds the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity where each member of the Godhead is stated to be coequal and coeternal in every sense. The second (ver. 29-44) part is a concise summary of the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ as defined by the Councils of 431 and 451 A.D.

In opposition to the Apollinarian heresy(34) which taught error in reference to the humanity of Christ, the Athanasian Creed asserts that Christ had a rational soul. It also teaches the orthodox view of the Divine-human relationship of Christ and precludes the Nestorian and the Eutychian heresies(35).

Schaff writes:
The damnatory clauses [which are not re-printed below], especially when sung or chanted in public worship, grate harshly on modern Protestant ears, and it may well be doubted whether they are consistent with true Christian charity and humility, and whether they do not transcend the legitimate authority of the Church. ...creeds like hymns, lose their true force and miss their aim in proportion as they are polemical and partake of the character of manifestoes of war rather than confessions of faith and thanks to God for his mighty works.(36)

Nevertheless, the Athanasian Creed was highly venerated by the Reformers for its systematic and theological excellence. It was formally adopted by the Lutheran and several of the Reformed Churches. The Athanasian Creed was regarded by Luther as "the most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles."(37)

The Athanasian Creed(38)

1. Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith: 2. Which Faith except every one keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. 3. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; 4. Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance [Essence]. 5. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. 6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. 7. Such as the Father is: such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. 8. The Father uncreated: the Son uncreated: and the Holy Ghost uncreated. 9. The Father incomprehensible [unlimited]: the Son incomprehensible [unlimited]: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible(39) [unlimited, or infinite]. 10. The Father eternal: the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal. 11. And yet they are not three eternals: but one eternal. 12. As also there are not three uncreated: nor three incomprehensibles [infinites], but one uncreated: and one incomprehensible [infinite]. 13. So likewise the Father is Almighty: the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty. 14. And yet there are not three Almighties: but one Almighty.

15. So the Father is God: the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God. 16. And yet they are not three Gods: but one God. 17. So likewise the Father is Lord: the Son Lord: and the Holy Ghost Lord. 18. And yet not three Lords: but one Lord. 19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord: 20. So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion: to say, There be [are] three Gods, or three Lords. 21. The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten. 22. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created: but begotten. 23. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten: but proceeding. 24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers: one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. 25. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another: none is greater, or less than another [there is nothing before, or after: nothing greater or less]. 26. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. 27. So that in all things, as aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshiped. 28. He therefore that will be saved, must [let him] thus think of the Trinity.

29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly [faithfully] the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 30. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; 31. God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. 32. Perfect God: and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul. and human flesh subsisting. 33. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. 34. Who although he be [is] God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. 35. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking [assumption] of the Manhood into God. 36. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]: but by unity of Person. 37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ; 38. Who suffered for our salvation: descended into hell [Hades, spirit-world]: rose again the third day from the dead. 39. He ascended into heaven, he sits on the right hand of the Father God [God the Father] Almighty. 40. From where he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies; 42. And shall give account for their own works. 43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. 44. this is the Catholic Faith: which except a man believe faithfully [truly and firmly], he cannot be saved.

Creeds Of Christendom is by Philip Schaff the primary source for the creeds seen above.


1) Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. edited by John T. McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles. Westminster Press, 1960 (4.1.1, vol. 2).

2) Pelagianism was condemned by the church at the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D. Pelagius taught that there was no universal fall of man but that each man was born without sin and fell according to his own sin. A modern modification of this view which is called semi-Pelagianism or Arminianism is taught by most so called "evangelicals."

3) Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994, reprinted from the 1908 edition (pgs. 112-13).

4) New Bible Dictionary, 2nd. edition. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994 (pgs. 224-5).

5) Random House Webster's Dictionary. Ballantine Books ed., 1993.

6) Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, sixth ed., 3 vols. Baker Books, 1996 (pgs. 3-4, vol.. 2).

7) Ibid., (pg. 4).

8. New Bible Dict. (pg. 249).

9) Schaff, Creeds. (pg. 12).

10) Ibid., (pgs. 12-13).

11) Ibid., (pg. 15).

12) Ibid., (pgs. 14-15)

13 Ibid., (pgs. 16,17).

14) This does not mean that Christ went into the literal hell into which those who are damned will be sent after the final judgment but rather that He went to the abode of disembodied spirits.

15) The term "catholic" here means "universal" and has no relation to Roman Catholicism.

16) This term refers to the gathering of saints in worship without which there would be no visible church.

17) "The teaching of Arius (died 336), an Alexandrian presbyter who maintained that what is begotten must be created out of nothing, and therefore "there was a time when the Son was not." Christ was thus the first of the Father's creations, created in order that He, in turn, might create the world. This teaching was rejected by the Council of Nicea in 325, chiefly through the work of Athanasius (c. 296-373) who explained that the Scriptures teach the eternal Sonship of Christ and, though human sons are born in time and thus have a temporal beginning, Christ is eternally begotten of the Father outside of time, having no beginning and thus coeternal." New Focus, vol. 1, No. 06. Go Publications, April/May 1997 (pg. 17).

18) Schaff, Creeds. (pg. 24).

19) This was directed against Anus (see note 17). The Greek term homoousios which means "same substance" is better translated as "same essence." This affirms the full deity of Christ.

20) The early Western theologians generally held to the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son and thus the famous filioque was added to the Constantinopolitan Symbol at the Synod of Toledo in 589. The Eastern church, however, rejected this addition contending that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.

21) Schaff, Creeds. (pg. 30).

22) Nestorius was condemned by the Council of Ephesus, 431, for teaching the doctrine that the two natures in Christ required that he be two separate persons and thereby denied the unity of his person. He was also condemned for refusing to call Mary "the Mother of God" (Schaff, pg.79). However, if Mary is not theotokos [better translated as "God-bearer"], the mother of one person, then there is no Incarnation, nor is there any longer a Redeemer for the relationship of Christ to humanity is changed.

23) "Eutyches developed what is called the monophysite heresy. The Greek term monophysite comes from monophysis, which means 'one nature or substance.' Eutyches argued that Christ is one person with one nature. He attacked the idea that Jesus is one person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature." Sproul, R.C. Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology. Baker Books, 1997 (pg. 83).

24) Schaff, Creeds. (pg. 30).

25) This statement is directed against Apollinarius. "Apollinarius, bishop of Laodicea (d. c.390), denied the true and proper humanity of Jesus Christ. He conceived of man as consisting of body, soul, and spirit, and sought the solution of the problem of the two natures in Christ in the theory that the Logos took the place of the human pneuma (spirit)." Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997, copy right 1937, (pg. 102).

26) see note 19.

27) This phrase was directed against Nestorius and was meant to affirm the deity of Christ and his Incarnation. This should be kept in mind when reading this phrase and it should not be assumed as the veneration of Mary.

28) see note 23.

29) see note 23.

30) see note 22.

31) Schaff, Creeds. (pg. 35).

32) Ibid.

33) Ibid., (pg. 37).

34) see note 25.

35) Schaff, Creeds. (pgs.37-39), also see notes 22 & 23.

36) Ibid., (pg. 40).

37) Ibid., (pgs. 40-41).

38) The Athanasian creed is the last of the ecumenical creeds and thus the theology of the former creeds can be seen in it. One thing unique to the Athanasian creed is its development of the deity of the Holy Spirit.

39) The Latin phrase finitum non capax infinitum best expresses the concept here. It simply means that "the finite can not grasp the infinite."

The above article was posted on this website September 18, 1997.

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