Since its earliest days, the Church has expressed and handed on its faith in concise statements. These first took the form of brief assertions about the identity of Jesus, much like the response of Peter when Jesus asked who he is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Probably the earliest form of the Christian creed is found in Paul’s letters: “Jesus is Lord!” This is the essence of Christian belief, distinguishing it from all other religions.
|When we recite the creed with understanding, we enter more deeply into communion with the whole Church. W.P. Wittman, Ltd.
As these statements of faith developed, they became affirmations of faith in the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Gospel, which tells of the Son of God coming to earth, dying to redeem us, sending the Spirit to his Church, and finally coming in judgment, all to fulfill the saving will of the Father, cannot be expressed without speaking in a Trinitarian way about the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even though Paul blessed the Church in Corinth with these words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 13:13), the understanding of the Trinity is a mystery of faith that can only gradually be understood. Although the one God is manifested as three persons throughout Scripture, it took a while for the Church to fully articulate this belief.
These expressions of the faith of the Church are called creeds because they usually begin with the Latin word credo (“I believe”). The earliest form of these creeds was interrogative: “Do you believe in God the Father … Do you believe in Jesus the Son … Do you believe in the Holy Spirit … ?” These questions were asked of new believers during the celebration of baptism before each of the three immersions or pourings of water over the head. Through this baptismal creed, new Christians made their first public declaration of faith.
|The Apostles' Creed
The Apostles’ Creed, from the second century, is considered a summary of the apostles’ faith and is the baptismal creed of the Church of Rome.
I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come 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.
As the creeds developed in the early centuries, they expanded beyond an affirmation of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and God’s saving work. Points of doctrine were added to the Trinitarian outline in order to clarify the Church’s beliefs in contrast to ideas that seemed the greatest threats to Christian faith. For example, Church councils added the phrase “all things visible and invisible” to clarify the scope of God’s creation in contrast to the heretical view that God is opposed to the material world. Many phrases were also added to the saving acts of God the Son in order to clarify his relationship to the Father. In contrast to those who were teaching that Jesus was human and later adopted by God as his Son, either at his baptism or resurrection, the creeds affirmed that he is “consubstantial with the Father.” In this way, the creed develops implications of the experiences and convictions present in Christianity from its beginnings.
As Christianity became an increasingly worldwide Church, it experienced the need to establish more coherence among its many local communities. Because it faced deep internal divisions concerning the nature of Christ and salvation, many of the early Fathers of the Church desired to establish a norm for “orthodoxy” (right teaching). Through their writings, the creed expanded to meet challenges to the Church’s unity as they occurred in the first three centuries. While the creed is historically conditioned in this sense, expressing points of doctrine that seemed to be most threatened at the time, it nevertheless succinctly states the permanent beliefs of the Church and is an instrument of its unity.
Beliefs of body of Christ
The creed is not the collected thoughts of isolated individuals. It is, rather, the beliefs of the corporate body of Christ. It was written collectively, in ecumenical councils. And those who professed the creed in the Church’s early centuries rightly believed that it expresses the truths of the inspired Scriptures as given to the Church. For this reason, the creed is not something an individual can believe in isolation from the Church. The creed has a unifying and communal character. It is not individual opinion; it is the time-proven faith of the Church.
The way the creed developed in history demonstrates that Christianity is most definitely not an individualistic religion. It is personal, yes, and experienced in the heart of individuals, but it is not individualistic. For, individualism creates splintering and division, but the Church is characterized by its stable foundation on the apostles and its unity in the Holy Spirit. The creed is simply what Christians believe. All who wish to follow Christ must join with others who also believe what has been handed down through the centuries in the Church.
|Did You Know?
The name Nicene Creed is given to two creeds, the first issued by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 and the second by the First Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381. The second creed, also called the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, is the one used today as the profession of faith in the liturgy.
Source: Encyclopedia of Catholic History
When catechumens were prepared for baptism in the early centuries, they were taught the creed toward the end of their preparation. The creed was “handed over” to them as a symbol of faith, an expression of the communal faith shared by the community into which they were being initiated. After several sessions of explanation, they then would hand it back by reciting the creed in the presence of the bishop and the congregation, affirming the faith into which they would be baptized. This ritual is still practiced today in many parishes and is a powerful way of affirming the communal faith of the whole Church handed on through the ages.
When we profess the creed, we are declaring ourselves as part of that countless multitude throughout the centuries who have found their identity in the same Gospel and the same community of faith. This multitude includes brave martyrs, great theologians, noble saints and selfless missionaries — all of whom share the tradition given to us by the apostles and handed on in the Church.
To believe is to belong. Baptized into Jesus Christ, we have entered a community of faith whose existence stretches back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem. We have become a member of his body, the Church, which uses this creed to express its faith. By studying it, we realize that we are united with all those countless men and women down through the centuries who recited these words at their baptism and have professed this faith at the Sunday Eucharist. We share that same personal faith in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we share the same words to express it.