Creeds originated as a confession of faith for believers to express their core convictions, especially in the context of instruction for, and the practice of, baptism. They took the essential elements of the Christian faith, as taught and held by the church consistently across the world, and framed that around a trinitarian structure that expressed belief in the God of the Scriptures, and a narrative frame that retold the Gospel story in its salvific significance.
And yet, Creeds were not static eternal mysteries which proclaimed a timeless, unalterable truth. They arose in specific historical contexts, shaped by local forces. No single person or council ever sat down and made the Apostles’ Creed what it is, but a process of some 650 years. The Nicene creed was shaped by a council, and that was something new and unique. And yet it too was specific – a test of orthodoxy to exclude and destroy Arius and his theology. They never imagined themselves to be promulgating a creed for the ages. Nor is the Nicene creed as they wrote it what it became. Similarly, and even more so, the Creed of Constantinople was not the Nicene creed revised, was once more a product of its occasion, and never intended to even displace the Nicene creed. Indeed, for more than 70 years it remained dormant, until produced to great effect at Chalcedon. Nonetheless, it gained wide acceptance and became the creed that simultaneously united, and divided, the great church East and West. For it too was not immune to alteration, with the filioque clause driving a small, but significant, wedge between the two great traditions.
The significance of the creeds thus lies not in what their framers thought they were doing – as if the bishops in each situation sat down to write a creed of eternal and lasting significance and authority – but in what their inheritors thought them to have done. For it is how creeds are received, that turns them from the occasional to the timeless. Christians throughout the ages treasured these creeds as expressing inalterable truths of the Christian faith.
And here lies the great value of creeds, if we are willing to hear it. That their value lies not in some carved in stone form, but in their carefully guarded content. For creeds mark out what has been, and remains, worth guarding well – the deposit of faith. Creeds from the 4th century onwards were born in controversy and set forth the convictions of their authors – this is true, and that is not. To depart from the historic creeds of the church is not justifiable as “well, they are only temporary documents made for specific occasions”, but is to abandon the very core of Christianity as we have received it. To paraphrase one memorable lecturer of mine, you can decide that the Nicene creed isn’t Biblical, but you won’t end up with Christianity! The Christian faith is a credal faith.