EARLY ORTHODOX CREEDS
BY V. REV. MICHEL NAJIM
THE NICENO-CONSTANTINOPOLITAN CREED
I BELIEVE in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Creator 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 ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things were made; Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; Who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and buried; Who rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; and His kingdom will have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.
In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the age to come. Amen.
Situated in their historical background, the Creeds were the construction of the fundamentals of faith, which were an integral part of the liturgical rites. The conjunction by the Church of these fundamentals of faith shows on the one hand that the body of Christ receives the mysteries of Trinity, Christology, Sotereology, ecclesiology etc. with one and the same faith, and on the other hand manifests an already living and empirical knowledge of the faith as instituted by Jesus Christ. Such a conjunction of different biblical elements determines what our faith is all about and in what the mystery of our deification consists. If we know how to build up the diverse mysteries of the divine message into one whole, we can affirm that there is, par excellence, one integral mystery, on which all the other mysteries are founded. The life of the Father which is communicated eternally by the Son in the Holy Spirit overflows by love persistently to the whole mystical body.
It is precisely through the sacraments that the loving life of the Trinity flows abundantly into the Church. Accordingly, the mystery of the Father occupies the commencement of our creed, and the mystery of the Trinity occupies its center. Every Trinitarian formula, however, must be Christological and vice versa, every Christological formula must be Trinitarian, sotereological, ecclesiological, sacramental, escatological. All the professions of faith are incomprehensible outside the Fatherhood of God and the Trinitarian framework.
In the creeds we always find the order and connection of the divine revelation, because the revelation has its own pattern, design, internal structure, and harmony. The symbols of faith show the body of truth, the right context, the true image of Christianity; they are the rule of faith to which believers are committed by their professional baptism. The ultimate purpose of the creeds was to elicit the meaning and the intent of revelation. The teaching of the Church is summed up in the symbol of faith of which we reproduce the divine design of salvation.
The revelation being ever one and the same, neither does any person to treat it, can make any addition to its context and aim. The Church teaches the Creed and hands it down with perfect harmony, because its articles are authoritative and unshaken. Carrying the doctrinal content of the Christian faith, the Creed makes the Churches, wherever they exit, share one system of faith derived from the Lord and handed down by the Apostles.
Since the aim of this presentation is to address the atmosphere around the role of the Creeds in early Church history, it is noteworthy to mention that they served many functions in the Church.
1-Creeds and the mystery of initiation:
Creeds are rooted in the theological tradition of ancient Israel with its confession in history :
"The priest then will take the basket from your hand and lay it before the altar of Yahweh your God: In the presence of Yahweh your God, you will then pronounce these words: My father was a wandering Aramean... " (Deuteronomy 26:4-10).
The confession gives an outline of the history of salvation centered on the deliverance from captivity in Egypt. The same elements are found in similar confessions (Deut 6:20-23) and in further developments (Jos.24:1-13, Ne. 9:7-25 ).
In the New testament Christian's profession of faith surely formed part of the earliest Kerygma and has been included in the creed. "Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things and of Jesus Christ who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession" (1 Tim 6:13).
There are many verses in the New testament which are implications to the confession in the initiation (2 Tim 2 :2,8 and 4:1-2). In the book of Acts we see that Philip said to the Ethiopian: "If you believe with all your heart, you may be baptized, and he replied: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" ( Acts 8:37 ). This verse which is omitted in the modern critical texts is a very ancient gloss preserved in some manuscripts and suggested by the baptismal liturgy.
In the miraculous deliverance of Paul and Silas the jailer asked them: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?". they told him, "Become a believer in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household". Then they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all his household... and was baptized then with all his household (Acts 16:30-32).
These biblical incidents are an evidence to show that it is impossible to isolate the professions of faith from the sacramental life of the Church and especially from the catechetical procedure. The apostolic origin of these miniature creeds proceeded the canonicity of the developed creeds. Creeds in the technical meaning of the word were yet to come, but the movement towards formulation and fixity was under way. It is significant to say that the creeds derived their structure from the Kerygma, the pattern of the message that came from the apostolic proclamation, the model of the confessions of faith which arose from the sacramental life of the early Church.
The beginnings of crystallization of the creeds did not take place haphazardly. They were provoked by particular situations in the Church's life i.e. in the preparation for baptism. Some kind of assurance of faith and thus some sort of confession of faith was required of candidates seeking admission to the body of Jesus Christ. There was an extremely close connection between their formulation and the admission of the Neophytes to the Church. In fact, it is precisely the need for a formal affirmation of belief to be recited by the catechumen before baptism which motivated the early Church to promote creeds. The raison d'etre of creeds was to serve a solemn affirmation of faith in the context of baptismal initiation. Professions of faith were a by-product of the initiation to the sacramental life of the congregation as the summary of the instructions given daily to the "baptizands" during the seven weeks before the paschal celebration of baptism. At a certain stage the bishop delivered the creed to the more advanced catechumens. It was their task to learn and assimilate it, so as to be able to recite it on the eve of their baptism.
In the early Church the creeds were not really part of baptism itself at all. By right they belonged rather to the catechetical preparation proceeding the sacrament. There were two occasions in which the candidate was supposed to make his confession of faith. In each occasion a different way used to be employed by the early Church. In the ceremonies preparatory to the baptism itself the candidate was expected to affirm his faith by reciting a declaratory creed. It is this rite which was technically known as the rendering of the creed. This rendering of the creed marked the culmination of the catechetical training leading up to the sacrament. The second occasion is in the very act of baptism. As he stood in the water of the font, the catechumen was invited to assent to the three successive questions whether he believed in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. As he replied "I believe" to each of them, he was plunged in the water, three times in all. As used in the third century the term symbol of faith denoted the baptismal questions and answers. Later it became the regular title of the declaratory creed.
The fact of teaching and initiation illustrates in a concrete manner how the norm of worship and the norm of belief are closely connected. Creeds played a significant role in instructing the catechumens towards initiation. They were built upon the Kerygma for the teaching ministry of the Church, and they intended to transmit the faith of the apostles. The confession of faith is an essential moment in worship as an evidence of illumination. It is under the guidance of the spiritual father who has a profound spiritual experience that the teaching of the elements of faith was transmitted as a revelatory experience. The creeds are not revelation, but about revelation; revelation transcends words or concepts, although it inspires those participating in the divine glory to express in different ways what is inexpressible in words and concepts.
In spite of this fact, the creeds could not be disclosed to the non-initiated; it was reserved strictly for the candidates for baptism. It was communicated to them orally and they had to recite it by memory. The catechumens were urged not divulge it to the outsiders and not to commit it to writing. It had to be inscribed in their hearts. The treatment of the creeds as a part of the discipline of secrecy i.e. to be disclosed to proven candidates because they were the expression of the revelatory experience. The Lord's prayer and the creed were reckoned among the hallowed prayers which could be imparted to none of the uninitiated. St Cyril of Jerusalem, teaching the catechumens he warned them that the creeds should not be written down, but should be engraved in their memories. At first the rule of secrecy covered the sacraments and the creed, only in the later development the creed was not regarded as quite such an esoteric mystery as the sacraments.
Before the council of Constantinople there was a diversity of arrangement of texts, it is only after the councils of Nicea and Constantinople that the symbols set forth in their composition the same order. In process of time it became the sole baptismal creed for all the Churches.
In the sixth book of his treatise against Nestorius John Cassian argued that Nestorius could be refuted out of his own mouth since his teaching disagreed with the "Antiochene creed" which he had professed at his baptism. He then quoted the Antiochene creed, which we thus have in his Latin translation.
I believe in one only true God, the Father, almighty, Creator of all creatures visible and invisible; And in our Lord Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son and first-begotten of all creation, born from Him before all ages and not created, true God from true God, of one essence with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things were made, Who for us came and was born from the Virgin, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and rose on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge the living and the dead....
There are two passages in a sermon by St John Chrysostom, who himself had been baptized at Antioch and was a great preacher in that Apostolic Church, which make specific reference to this creed. His words clearly indicate that it contained, at any rate, the clauses- AND IN THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS, AND IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD, and IN EVERLASTING LIFE. Furthermore, the accuracy of Cassian's version of the central section is confirmed by a quotation written by Eusebius of Dorylaeum, about 429-30, against Nestorius and preserved among the acts of the council of Ephesus. This refers explicitly to "the creed of the church of Antioch and gives the following brief excerpt:
.... true God from true God, of one essence with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things came into being, Who for us came and was born from Mary the Holy Virgin and was crucified under Pontius Pilate . .
Another Syrian creed, also used at baptism but much longer and more detailed, is found in the Apostolical Constitutions. The treatise itself was probably compiled in Syria or Palestine towards the end of the fourth century.
The Nicene creed was introduced in the Eucharist to be recited after the reading of the Gospel at Antioch by Patriarch Peter the fuller (died 488) and gradually spread throughout the East and the West. Thus the inclusion of the confession of faith as a specific act of worship was necessary, particularly in Lord's supper.
2- Creeds and the canon of Truth :
It is impossible to isolate creeds from the experience of the Saints, from scripture, from the Canon of Truth and from the life of the Church. Who the author of these creeds was did not matter, for in any case they were the work of the Church, and they were recited in the sacraments as the canon of Truth. The apostolic authority of the creeds proceeded their authority. The creeds derived their structure from the rule of faith, the pattern of the message that came from Lord and through the apostles. The creeds are a spiritual vision of the Trinity, incarnation, and the economy of salvation. In this single ministry the Trinity occupies the center. The Christological professions of faith are incomprehensible outside the Trinitarian framework. It is quite obvious that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is never an isolated theme within the context of theology. It is precisely the Trinitarian dimension or rather the dimension of the Fatherhood of the creator with repercussions and consequences all over the field of the creeds. It is certain that the rule of faith was clearly Trinitarian from the beginning. There is a necessity of faith in the Trinity, and the relation of this faith with the equally necessary faith in Christ; in this the whole equilibrium of Christian dogma is essential.
In the New testament the Church's faith was expressed in different ways; many of the confessions were Trinitarian in their ground- plain, others were binitarian, still others were one-clause statement.
a- In many passages of the epistles where the several functions of the three persons are referred to as to the various contexts suggest:
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God (the Father) and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all "(2 Cor. 13:13). This verse reflects the aspects of divine redemption and Christian experience of the Trinity which led the Church to formulate its teaching as the best expression it could give to the Christian vision of God.
"It is God who gives us, with you, a sure place in Christ, and has both anointed us and marked us with his seal, giving us as pledge the Spirit in our hearts" (2 Cor. 1:21).
Only the life that the Trinity confirms and establishes is stable and reliable. God the Father gives the sure place and marks and anoints us with Holy Spirit. Our sure place is in Jesus Christ who also anoints and marks us with the Holy Spirit. The anointing and the seal mean the gift of the Holy Spirit.
b- The binitarian confessions are clear in Saint Paul's epistles in which he makes his position clear that he regards God as the creator and sustainer of all that has existence and he regards Christ as the only true Lord through whom all things took place:
"Yet for us there is one God, the Father from whom all things come and for whom we exist.
And one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist" (1 Cor, 8:6).
In (1 Tim 6:13) "Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things and of Christ Jesus who in His testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession" Paul refers to the good confession in Timothy's life which is possibly the baptism or the consecration for the ministry. The confession is the pledge given by Timothy at which he affirmed that God is the giver of life and that Jesus Christ is the Lord who in His testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession. It is tempting to regard Timothy's good confession as identical with that of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and to think of it as a death with Jesus Christ.
In (2 Tim 4 :1-2) Paul said "Before God and before Christ Jesus who is to be judge of the living and the dead, I charge you, in the name of his appearing and of his kingdom: proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome,insist on it". The phrase "who is to be judge of the living and the dead "which is present in the historic creed may already have been part of some formula of faith.
c-The one-clause confession was mainly a Christological profession of faith which surely formed part of the earliest Kerygma.
"That Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures. And that he was buried, and that on the third day he was raised to life, in accordance with the Scriptures "(1 Corinth 15:3-4). These three clauses, which will have a place in the Creeds of the future, seem already to have a fixed formulation.
"Pass on to reliable people, Saint Paul said to Timothy, what you have heard from me through many witnesses so that they in turn will be able to teach others... Remember the Gospel that I carry: Jesus Christ risen from the dead, sprung from the race of David" (2 Tim 2:2 and 8). Timothy's chief function as minister in the Church is to transmit intact and unchanged what he has learned from Paul to other faithful men who in turn will be able to teach others also. Timothy is fully responsible for receiving the truth and holding fast to it and for communicating to them in turn the pattern of the sound words which implies that Jesus had risen from the dead. It is difficult to determine whether the implication is to his baptism or to his ordination. However the whole phrase seems to refer to a confession of faith which is Christological in its content.
It is obvious that the creed was intended to convey the theology of the Holy Spirit as well. In this context we notice the scriptural language employed in the creed. Saint Paul spoke of the Spirit as "the Spirit of life" ( Rom 8:2 ) and as a life-giver (2 Cor 3:6). The description proceeding from the Father are the Lord's own words recorded in (Jn 15: 26). The words who spoke by the prophets recalled the verse (2 Pet 1:21) " but humans spoke from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit".
Side by side with them there are many examples of confessions in the verses of the New testament which were drawn up for Catechetical purposes or for teaching. Since it is very hard to exhaust the list; a more profound study on this subject is needed to show that the Canon of Truth is one in the creed and the new Testament. The belief of Saint Justin was that the Church's faith was everywhere one and the same and the substance of the tradition was identical in all places. The creeds embody the corpus of truth, the right context the original design, the true image of the Christian message. Every Christian has to have a rule of faith. The creed is simply the way the Church reads scripture. Creeds has from the beginning a hermeneutical function in the work of the Church.
3- The creeds and the heresies:
The rise of heresy was another occasion which required creeds; creeds are signposts to heresies. The task of the creed was to defend the Church against heresies. It is necessary to assert that creeds owed their growth from brief to fully developed affirmations to the insertion of matter designed to rebut heresy. At the same time we should not single out the anti-heretical motive in the creeds, because there is, as we have seen, a positive element in them. However, the desire for concise official formulae which shut the gate against the heretical innovations was instrumental in bringing about the measure of uniformity of the faith. Writers like Saint Ireneaus and Tertullian gave a polemical underlining to portions of the rule of faith when they were recapitulating it in the course of their anti-heretical arguments.
Although not all the clauses of the rule of faith were put together with the desire to exclude heresy, the desire to combat some major heresies inspired the insertion of already existing clauses into the rule of faith. The recapitulation of the details of the Savior's career supplied a powerful weapon against the Docetists. The adjective Holy applied to the Church and the notion of the resurrection of the dead expressed an anti-heretical motive. The main pattern of the creeds was dedicated by the Lord's threefold baptismal command about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The later extension was brought forward sometimes in attestation of the true faith. This attestation became a Church procedure in accepting the heretics. The 9th canon of Arles (314) laid it down that heretics desiring to attach themselves to the Church should be "asked the creed".
Creeds were used as means of demonstrating that the person who professed them was above reproach theologically. At the Arian controversy, Arius wrote a creed-like summary of his belief and sent it to Alexander Bishop of Alexandria. Alexander included a creed in the letter which he wrote to Alexander of Byzantium refuting the Arian misinterpretation. The synod of Nicea excommunicated in the name of the Church those who dissented from its definitions. In the council held at Antioch in 268 to deal with the case of Paul of Samosata the bishops included a "statement of faith" in their united letter to him. The council held at Antioch in 325 furnished an instructive example of synodal creed-making prior to Nicea. In Nicea Arius and his friends were given the choice of signing the rule of faith or being sent into exile. These documents represented the faith were handed down from the beginning and preserved in the Church from the apostles' times.
If we compare the creed of Nicea and the creed of Caesarea we see that the clauses "First-begotten of all creation" and "before all ages" which appear in Caesarea, but not in Nicea were possibly dropped because of the danger that they might play into the hands of the heretics who interpreted them that Christ was a creature.
The fathers of Nicea insisted that the Son was generated out of the Father's very essence. They could have preferred a more biblical expression such as "from God" ( John 8:42 ), if they did not realize that Arians interpreted it with what Saint Paul had said that all things were from God. The phrase from the essence of the father was not a novelty; it was a way of expression to rebut the teaching of Arius who said the Father is alien to the Son in essence. A similar phrase was used by Saint John (5:23) but in different terminology. A more similar sentence was used by Saint Athanasius "He is sprung from the Father's essence".
The next Anti-Arian clause is "true God from true God". It was used because Arius had remarked "nor is the Word true God". For Arius and his followers, if the Son is called God, He none the less not true God, but is God by grace.
Since the Arians used the term begotten in the meaning of created, the fathers were to insist on teaching that the word is begotten in its right meaning by adding not made.
Being armed with Anti-Arian clauses and at the end with polemical anathemas it was a definition of Orthodox faith and a conciliar creed. The fathers did not intend to replace the local baptismal confessions of faith. The creed of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, for example, which belongs to 348 and the creed of the apostolical constitution (late fourth century) were independent of Nicea.
In the period between the council of Nicea and Constantinople many synods were held to deal with the heresies of that time; many of these synods drafted and published creeds. This period is called the period of synodical creeds for which there is no space in this short paper. The most important product of the fourth century was the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed. Of all the existing creeds of that period it is only authoritative one in the east and the west alike from 451 onwards, i.e. from the council of Chalcedon when it was read and publicly. The council of Constantinople (381) sealed the Nicean creed and elucidated its meaning. The clauses which should be regarded as the distinctive contribution of the second ecumenical council are those concerned with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The heretics against whom these clauses were directed were the Macedonians or the Pneumatomachians. This council excommunicated the Macedonians in its first canon and proceeded to assert the deity and consubstantiality of the Spirit and His existence as hypostasis. In spite of the fact that the contribution of Constantinople was a biblical one the language was anti-Macedonian in content.
The Greek word Lord was the septuagint equivalent of the Hebrew Yahweh. The central idea of "Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and glorified" was the demonstration of the identity of honor which had the meaning of the identity of substance or essence.
The reasonable inference of the consubstantiality of the Son and the conglorification of the Spirit are intended to underline that the Son was fully God as well as the Holy Spirit, in the sense of sharing the divine nature with the Father. It was needed to stress the substantial unity of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father against the heretics who denied their consubstantiality.
In general we can say that Creeds played a significant role in the teaching of the Church. They served as bases for the Catechetical teaching and to transmit the faith of the Apostles. They had a hermeneutical function in the work of the Church, because they represent the rule of faith. The rise of heresy was another occasion which required creeds. Their task was to defend the Church against heresies. In addition to these tasks, the Church found them helpful in times of persecution, and as a guide for preaching. The Symbol of faith is essentially a liturgical formula, an act of worship and a profession of the revelation.