Creeds: Christian Creeds

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Christian usage tends to apply the word creed preeminently to the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds (the so-called ecumenical symbols), to use dogma for specific ecclesiastical pronouncements, and to use confession of faith for the comprehensive manifestos of the Protestant Reformation. But the terminology remains fluid, and creed may be taken in a broad, generic sense to include any official codification of a belief, or the beliefs, of a religious community. Distinctions must then be made among the Christian creeds with respect to their functions, their degree of comprehensiveness, their authority, and their several authorizing bodies.

The various churches differ markedly on the status claimed for their respective pronouncements. Creeds may be invested with the authority of divine revelation. But at the opposite end of the scale, the entire notion of a normative, as distinct from a purely descriptive, statement of belief has often been rejected outright as a threat to the unique authority of scripture, the freedom of faith, or new communications from the Holy Spirit. Since the late nineteenth century, there has also been a tendency to disparage creeds on the ground that they occasion discord in the church and misrepresent the nature of Christian belief.

The greatest number of Christian creeds date from the Reformation era: they were by-products of the division of the Western church, serving to legitimate the several groups that claimed to be, or to belong to, the true or catholic church. For precisely this reason, the sixteenth-century confessions asserted their continuity with the past; many of them expressly reaffirmed the three ecumenical symbols, and some endorsed as well the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils. But there was, and is, no unanimity on which creeds and which councils may legitimately be classed as ecumenical.

The themes to be considered are, accordingly, the nature and authority of Christian creeds in general, the ecumenical creeds and councils, the Lutheran and Reformed confessions, other creeds of the Reformation era, and Christian creeds in the modern world.

Nature and Authority of Christian Creeds

It is often assumed that a creed is a catalog of authorized beliefs designed as a test of orthodoxy. But the history of the origin and use of Christian creeds proves that such an interpretation is too narrow. A useful clue to this complex history may perhaps be taken from one possible meaning of the word "symbol," by which the Apostles' Creed was known from the earliest times. Tyrannius Rufinus (c. 345410) thought the creed was so termed because it was intended as a kind of password or means of identification (Lat., symbolum ). The basic creedal function that underlies all the others is to establish the identity of a community or to identify oneself with it.

Types of creed

The several types of Christian creeds are generated by the diverse situations that demand the affirmation, or the reaffirmation, of identity. The roots of Christian creeds, so understood, must be sought in biblical faithin the self-understanding of the people of God. A clear prototype of the earliest Christian creeds is to be found in such Old Testament declarations as Deuteronomy 26:111, which may be described as a historical credo or confession of faith for liturgical use. In content, it is a grateful recital of the redemptive deeds of Godthe deliverance from bondage and the gift of the Promised Landby which the people of Israel were, and still are, constituted. And it is expressly designed as a liturgical formula for the sanctuaryto accompany the presentation of an offering to the Lord. Similarly, the core of the early Christian creeds was recital of the so-called Christ-kerygma, the deeds of God in Jesus Christ understood as continuous with the Old Testament story. (Compare the second article of the Apostles' Creed with, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:37 and Acts 13:1641.) And the Christian creeds too had their original place in a liturgical rather than a legal setting: they celebrated the identity of the church as the community called into being by the crucified and risen Lord. From the earliest times there was a close connection between creed and baptism, and in most of the historic liturgies of the churches, in both East and West, a creed has been recited or sung as part of the eucharistic service.

It would be a mistake, however, to link Christian creeds exclusively with liturgy (the forms prescribed for corporate worship) or with any particular element in it, such as baptism or the Eucharist. Creeds also served the church's educational needs. Here, too, the Old Testament appears to offer a prototype: in Deuteronomy 6:2025 there is a historical credo without a liturgical context, and the recital of God's marvelous deeds is simply for the instruction of the young, lest future generations forget the events that brought the people into existence. Early Christian creeds likewise found their place not only in the worship but also in the instruction of the church, including catechetical instruction before baptism.

Besides the constant requirements of worship and education, periodic divisions within a church and threats from outside have provided special occasions for the development and use of creedal formulas. Indeed, it is sometimes said that creeds and confessions are most properly born in times of crisis. Although this too is an oversimplification (like the notion that creeds are tests of orthodoxy), it is certainly true that defense against the peril of false beliefin the form of heresy, persecution by another church, or paganismhas been one stimulus to creed-making throughout Christian history. And it must be added that not only the desire to exclude competing beliefs but also the desire to overcome divisions has produced creeds, in which previous recriminations are laid aside in a new sense of unity.

The diverse uses of Christian creeds are reflected in the traditional nomenclature. An affirmation of communal identity having symbolic authority might be called "creed," "confession," "articles of faith," "canons," "decree," "catechism," "declaration," "covenant," "consensus," "platform," "apology," and so on. But in practice, function and title do not invariably coincide, and many creeds have been put to more than one use.

Authority of creeds

The status of creeds in the Roman church is closely bound up with the Roman Catholic understanding of the church, its magisterium and its infallibility. Though degrees of authoritative statement are differentiated, the highest ecclesiastical pronouncements have a juridical character and are binding on the church's members: to deviate openly and obstinately from any truth of the catholic faith is heresy. The tendency of Rome to accumulate dogmas is not approved by the Eastern Orthodox churches, but they invest the Nicene Creed and the pronouncements of their seven ecumenical councils with much the same authority that Rome accords its more abundant dogmatic norms. By contrast, the status of creeds in Protestantism is not uniform, and in view of the Protestant appeal to the sole authority of scripture, it is often seen as a problem.

The followers of Martin Luther (14831546) wanted a common form of doctrine to which all the evangelical churches could be expected to subscribe. Their Formula of Concord (1577) drew an explicit parallel between the authoritative ancient symbols and their own Augsburg Confession (1530), "the symbol of our time." This raised questions about the relationship of the Augsburg Confession and other Lutheran symbols to the authority of scripture. The Formula drew a line between the word of God and postapostolic witness to it, but allegiance to the symbols presupposed that they were no more than summaries of scriptural truth required by the threat of false teaching. An identity of content was claimed between scripture as the norma normans and the Lutheran confessions as the norma normata, so that an actual critique of the Lutheran church's doctrine would appear to be, in principle, as hard to undertake from within as Luther found it to launch a critique of the Roman church's doctrine. Irreformability of the Lutheran church's dogmatic standpoint was implied in the assertion "We do not intend, either in this [the Formula of Concord] or in subsequent doctrinal statements, to depart from the aforementioned [Augsburg] Confession or to set up a different and new confession." Some of the Lutheran churches regard their Book of Concord (1580) as a now-closed collection of symbolic books: no subsequent statement, after 1580, could attain symbolic status. Others, however, never endorsed the Formula of Concord or, with it, the Book of Concord.

It is sometimes asserted that the authority of confessions is weaker in the Reformed church than in the Lutheran. But the historical evidence is ambivalent. On the one hand, the absence of a single preeminent confession and a closed symbolic collection among the Reformed does appear to invite continuous revision of their confessional stand. To this extent, an admission of reformability is tacitly built into Reformed confessionalism; and the authors of Reformed confessions have sometimes expressly disowned any exclusive claim for their particular terminology, or have invited correction if in any respect they should be found to have departed from the word of God. On the other hand, subscription to the prevailing local creed or creeds has commonly been demanded of pastors and sometimes of schoolteachersor even of entire populations (as happened in Geneva in 1537). The history of the Westminster Confession (1647), the principal creed of the English-speaking Reformed (the "Presbyterians"), is particularly instructive. The Westminster Divines seem not to have wanted it to become the rule of faith and practice rather than a "help," but that is exactly how the Scots used it north of the border, and Scottish influence became paramount. The Presbyterian appetite for heresy trials presupposed that the Westminster Confession had a legal status not unlike that accorded by the Roman church to Roman Catholic dogmas.

An unmistakable shift can be observed within Protestantism when one moves from the Lutheran and Reformed churches to what may be broadly, if loosely, called the "free church" tradition. For instance, in their Savoy Declaration (1658) the Congregationalists adapted the Westminster Confession to their own use but they expressly disavowed any intention to bind consciences, since that would belie the very name and nature of confessions of faith and turn them into exactions and impositions of faith. Since 1970, Congregationalists have belonged to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. But Congregationalism has generally, if not always, affirmed a descriptive rather than a normative view of creeds. They "declare, for general information, what is commonly believed among" Congregationalists (English Declaration, 1833). In this manner the agony of heresy hunts is avoided, but the more strictly confessional churches are likely to argue that the basic creedal function of preserving the community's identity is here in peril of being surrendered.

Churches that renounce the use of creeds altogether may differ from the confessional churches in little more than the refusal to commit their beliefs to formal, written definitions; they may in practice be just as intolerant of any deviations from the approved language of the community. If unwritten creeds are set aside, however, it may perhaps be concluded that there are three types of Protestant attitude to formulas of belief: a closed confessionalism that requires allegiance to a past symbol or a completed collection of symbols, an open confessionalism that calls for the drafting of present symbols of belief, and a purely descriptive confessionalism that denies to "human formularies" any binding or symbolic authority at all. While these three types appeared among the Lutherans, the Reformed, and the Congregationalists, respectively, they cannot be simply identified as denominational positions. All three communions have had a complex history of subscription controversies. And the three types do not exhaust the options. The Anglican communion, for example, understands itself largely as a worshiping community, and its leaders often point to The Book of Common Prayer (1662) and the historic episcopate rather than the Thirty-nine Articles (15631571) as the pledge of corporate identity.

Ecumenical Creeds and Ecumenical Councils

In the New Testament, faith, confession, and salvation are inseparable (Mt. 10:32, Rom. 10:10). The simplest formula of Christian confession is the assertion that Jesus is Christ (Mk. 8:29) or Lord (Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:3), and the Western text of Acts 8:37 evidently reflects early use of a similar formula ("Jesus Christ is the Son of God"; cf. Mt. 16:16) in connection with baptism. But it was the conviction of the early Christians that Jesus himself enjoined baptism in the triadic name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19), and summaries of Christian belief emerged, known as "rules of faith" but fluid in their wording, as the Christ-kerygma came to be incorporated into a triadic framework. Similar to them in basic structure, only more fixed in wording, two major families of creed developed, culminating in the Apostles' Creed in the West and the Nicene Creed in the East.

The Apostles' Creed

The legend that the twelve apostles themselves jointly composed the creed named after them, each in turn contributing one clause, was not seriously doubted before the critical labors of Lorenzo Valla (c. 14051457) and Reginald Pecock (c. 1393c. 1461). In its present wording, the Apostles' Creed makes its first verifiable appearance in the West no earlier than the eighth century, in a treatise by the monk Pirminius (or Priminius, d. 753), and it has remained strictly a Western creed. But a long history certainly brought it to its final form. It is generally agreed that the historical roots of the Apostles' Creed are in the ancient baptismal confession of the Roman church, the "Old Roman Creed" (R), which Archbishop James Ussher (15811656) first attempted to reconstruct from Marcellus (d. around 374) and Rufinus.

More recent scholarship suggests that the earliest version of R was a Greek creed in interrogative form ("Do you believe ?") and that it dates back to about ce 200, when Greek was still in use in the Roman church. Behind it there probably lies a still earlier trinitarian confession, also of the interrogative type but without the Christ-kerygma. It may simply have asked the candidate for baptism: "Do you believe in God, the Father, Almighty? And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord? And in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, the resurrection of the body?" (Another explanation of the term symbol is that the triple interrogation was understood to be symbolic of the Trinity.) The insertion of the Christ-kerygma into this presumed early-Roman baptismal confession may have been encouraged by the need to refute docetism, the denial of Jesus' humanity. The received text of the Apostles' Creed makes the point cumulatively: Jesus was conceived, was born, suffered, "was crucified, dead, and buried." Finally, the shift to the declarative form ("I believe "), which required recital from memory, perhaps was made initially in catechetical preparation for baptism, then carried over into the baptismal rite itself.

The Nicene Creed

Until modern times, it was traditionally assumed that the so-called Nicene Creed was the creed promulgated by the Council of Nicaea (325), as revised and endorsed by the Council of Constantinople (381). Especially since the researches of Eduard Schwartz (18581940), the tradition has been generally abandoned, but much scholarly disagreement remains. Perhaps tradition was right in linking the Nicene Creed with the Council of Constantinople; hence modern scholarship designates it "the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed" (C). But it does not seem to have been a mere revision of the creed promulgated at Nicaea (N); rather, the two creeds must be said to belong to a common Eastern type, as does the creed of Caesarea, which was once supposed to have been adopted at Nicaea as the first draft of N.

The Eastern creeds are distinguished from R by their greater interest in the preexistence of Christ before the incarnation: they place the Christ-kerygma in a cosmic setting. Hans Lietzmann (18751942) thought it was possible to reconstruct an Eastern or "Oriental" prototype (O) analogous to R, but it remains uncertain whether O, or something like it, actually existed as the model for other Eastern creeds. In any case, N advances beyond O in the attempt to exclude Arianism: it affirms that the Son of God was "God from God of the same substance [homoousion] as the Father" and concludes with anathemas against the Arian watchwords (that there was a time when the Son was not, etc.). C, in turn, advances beyond N in affirming, against the Macedonian heresy, the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, although the technical term homoousios is not used of the Spirit as well. Some time in the sixth or seventh century, the word filioque was inserted into the Latin text of C, so that the Holy Spirit was said to proceed from the Father and the Son. The insertion became a bone of contention between Rome and the Eastern churches, which firmly rejected it.

The Nicene Creed (C) came to be used liturgically in the Eastern church in both baptism and the Eucharist; in the West it was adopted as the eucharistic confession. The creed of Nicaea (N), by contrast, was designed not for instruction or worship but as a test of orthodoxy, which could be invoked even against a bishop of the church. In this respect, the Council of Nicaea marked a new stage in creedal history: its creed was the first to be promulgated by an ecumenical council with a claim to universal authority throughout the entire church.

The Athanasian Creed

The so-called Creed of Saint Athanasius (also known as the Quicunque Vult, from its opening words in Latin) was probably composed in southern France during or after the post-Nicene debates on the incarnation. After the Council of Nicaea, theological interest shifted from the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit within the divine Trinity to the relationship between the divine and human natures of the incarnate Son. Arianism, now officially condemned, was succeeded by the Apollinarian, Nestorian, and Eutychian heresies. While the provenance of the Athanasian Creed can be inferred from the evidence of its earliest use and influence, the date assigned to it depends chiefly on the answer to the question which of the three christological heresies it was intended to oppose. It was indeed argued by Daniel Waterland (16831740) that even its statements on the doctrine of the Trinity require a date no earlier than 420, because they reflect the language of Augustine's (354430) trinitarian speculations. In any case, the Christological statements almost certainly allude not only to Apollinarianism but also to Nestorianism, possibly to Eutychianism; and the three heresies were condemned respectively at the councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). The attribution of the creed to Athanasius, who died in 373, is clearly impossible and was already discredited in the seventeenth century by Gerrit Jansz Voss (15771649). Alternative suggestions have been made; perhaps the most persuasive case points to Lérins, the island abbey opposite Cannes, as "the cradle of the creed" (J. N. D. Kelly), and someone close to Vincent of Lérins (d. around 450) and Caesarius of Arles (d. 542) as its author.

The first part of the Athanasian Creed presents the doctrine of the Trinity, and the second part places the Christ-kerygma in the protective setting of propositions against the christological heresies. Although the creed came to be sung regularly in the West, it most likely originated not as a hymn but as a form of instruction for clergy; and its technical, metaphysical, and threatening style has gradually reduced its liturgical use. In the East it was unknown until the twelfth century and never won very high regard. The Chalcedonian definition, though never added to the number of the ecumenical symbols, actually enjoys wider authority as a defense against christological heresy because of its association with an ecumenical council.

Recognition of the creeds and councils

Most of the major churches recognize the ecumenical creeds and councils insofar as they present fundamental Christian beliefs about God and Christ. But only the Nicene Creed can fully claim the rank of ecumenical symbol, and it is unfortunate that its significance is tarnished by debate over the filioque insertion. Ecumenical status is assigned by the Eastern Orthodox church to seven councils: two of Nicaea (325, 787), three of Constantinople (381, 553, 680), Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The Roman church claims ecumenical rank also for its own synods, the last of which, Vatican II (19621965), was counted the twenty-first ecumenical council; and Rome considers the decrees of an ecumenical council to be "an infallible witness to the Catholic rule of faith." Protestants tend to single out the first four "general councils" as especially worthy of reverence, but deny that their decrees are in principle infallible; rather, they are to be tested by the word of God.

Lutheran and Reformed Confessions

The Protestant confessions of the Reformation era were intended to restore to the church its true image and identity, which, it was widely agreed, had been obscured by the errors and abuses of the later Middle Ages. The heart of the Reformation creeds is the rediscovery of the gospel as, in Luther's memorable phrase, "the real treasure of the church." The church, Luther held, is the creation of the gospel; it is the word of God in Jesus Christ that makes the church the church. And he believed that the church's confession of the divinity of Christ was fatally impaired wherever this gospel was displaced or misconstrued.

Lutheran confessions

Of the ten symbols included in the Lutheran Book of Concord, the first three are the ecumenical creeds; the rest, in chronological order of publication, are Luther's Large and Small Catechisms (1529), the Augsburg Confession, Philipp Melanchthon's (14971560) Apology for the Augsburg Confession (1531), Luther's Smalcald Articles (1537), Melanchthon's Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537), and the Formula of Concord. Among the distinctively Lutheran symbols, all German in origin, the Augsburg Confession holds a special place. Lutheranism was granted legal recognition by the Peace of Augsburg (1555) as "the religion of the Augsburg Confession." The spread of Lutheranism beyond Germany always meant adoption of this confession, and the Formula of Concord itself claimed to be simply the correct and final explanation of it in response to certain inner-Lutheran controversies.

The confession was presented to Emperor Charles V on June 25, 1530, at the Diet of Augsburg (whence the name by which it is familiarly known). Although earlier documents by other hands lay behind it, in its final form its principal author was Melanchthon, whose ecclesiastical strategy it reflects. According to the Formula of Concord, the Augsburg Confession "distinguishes our reformed churches from the papacy and from other condemned sects and heresies." But that by no means conveys the author's intention. He was certainly eager to disown the Zwinglians and the Anabaptists, but precisely in order to confirm the essential Lutheran agreement with Rome. The confession (or "apology," as it was initially called) set out to accomplish two goals: to defend the catholicity of Lutheran doctrine and to justify the innovations in Lutheran practice. Part one (arts. 121), the confession of faith proper, contains a summary of the doctrines taught in the Lutheran churches. It claims to present the faith of the catholic church, not of a particular Lutheran church, and it insists that there can be no disagreement with Rome if Rome's teaching, too, conforms to antiquity. The contention is not over articles of faith but over a few usages, and these are taken up in part two (arts. 2228), which lies outside the confession of faith in the strict sense.

Melanchthon's design required the suppression of several controversial issues, including the authority of scripture, papal primacy, and the priesthood of all believers. How well he succeeded is open to question, but it is significant that in 1980, when the 450th anniversary of his confession was celebrated, there were widespread discussions between Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians on the possibility that Rome might recognize the Augsburg Confession as a catholic confession. Still, it is undeniable that the confession bears a distinctively Lutheran stamp precisely in the regulative place it assigns to the gospel, understood as the message of justification through faith without any merits of our own. It is this "chief article" that provides one implicit definition of an "abuse" for part two of the confession: any usage implying that grace can be earned is an abuse (art. 15). The same chief article constitutes the actual core of part one, shaping the doctrines of church, ministry, and sacraments as well as the Lutheran understanding of the Christian life, neighborly love, and the earthly callings.

It is not surprising that the Roman Catholic critics of the confession, while they welcomed the affirmation of the real presence in the Eucharist (art. 10), found uncatholic the pivotal notion that the sacraments in general are testimonies of God's good will for the purpose of arousing faith, that is, the faith through which we are justified (art. 13). Sacraments are thereby interpreted (or reinterpreted) as functions of the word of God, forms of the gospel proclamation; and the entire medieval conception of the church and its ministry is transformed accordingly. This was one strictly doctrinal issue that lay behind the Lutheran charge, in part two of the confession (art. 24), that it is an abuse to celebrate the Mass as a sacrifice for sin. It would be unfair to conclude (as has sometimes been done) that Melanchthon was devious or naive. The point, rather, is that his concern was to reaffirm the gospel of grace without letting the Lutheran reform rend the unity of the catholic church.

The Reformed confessions

Unlike the Lutherans, the Reformed churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not held together by a single confession of faith. Though they often acknowledged one another's confessionssometimes even the Lutheran Augsburg Confessionin general each national or regional church drew up its own standard or standards of belief. The most comprehensive collection of Reformed creeds (E. F. K. Müller, 1903) contains fifty-eight items, and the editor remarks that the number could be doubled without achieving completeness. Other individual collections have appeared from time to time, but none has ever acquired, or could have acquired, ecclesiastical endorsement as the Reformed "Book of Concord." It was a new departureand the act of only one branch of the Reformed familywhen the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1967 authorized its Book of Confessions, a selection of Reformed creeds of international origin. In the 1983 edition, the Book of Confessions of what had become the Presbyterian Church (USA) included six documents from the Reformation era (along with the Nicene and Apostles' creeds and two twentieth-century confessions): the Scots Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Westminster Confession (rev. ed., 1958), and the two Westminster Catechisms (1647). None of these six creeds stands very close to John Calvin (15091564), an omission that could be remedied with the French (Gallican) Confession of 1559, perhaps the outstanding Reformed creed of the declarative type. Originally conceived as an apology of the persecuted French Protestants to the king of France, the confession was not a creed for theologians only but a confession of the church, and it came to be printed inside the Bibles and Psalters of the French Reformed congregations.

Dogmatic uniformity is hardly to be expected throughout the total Reformed corpus confessionum, and no one confession can be taken as regulative for them all. But they were first and foremost, like other Protestant confessions, "evangelical"that is, reaffirmations of the gospel of Christ, or (what for them was the same thing) of the lordship of Christ, as alone constitutive of the church's identity. This is particularly clear in the documents from the early years. The very first Reformed confession, the Sixty-seven Articles (1523) of Huldrych Zwingli (14841531), sounds the characteristic note in its opening assertions (cf. Ten Theses of Bern, 1528; Lausanne Articles, 1536). In subsequent confessions the primacy of the gospel comes to be set in a more systematic framework, but it is still affirmed, either within the confessions (e.g., First Helvetic Confession, 1536, art. 12; cf. art. 5) or in preambles to them (e.g., the French and Scots confessions), and serves as the constant norm for sifting out truth from error in the prevailing beliefs and practices of the church.

The dogma of double predestination, sometimes imagined to be the center of Reformed or Calvinistic theology, is not emphasized in the sixteenth-century confessions; in some (e.g., the First Helvetic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) it is not even mentioned. If one looks for a distinctively Reformed emphasis, it might more plausibly be located in the concern for the order, discipline, and worship of the church. The "parity of presbyters" (i.e., the equality of all ordained clergy in rank) and the need for elders to assist the pastors in maintaining discipline are expressly included in some of the confessionsapparently as matters of faith. But here too the fundamental principle is the sole lordship of Christ, the only universal bishop of the church, the ever-present and life-giving head of the body, who needs no "vicar" (French Confession, arts. 2930; Scots Confession, chap. 16; Belgic Confession [1561], art. 31; Second Helvetic Confession, chap. 17; etc.). And the same line of thinking prevents Zwingli's memorialist conception of the Lord's Supper, which occasioned the breach with Lutheranism, from intruding into the major Reformed confessions. In the Lord's Supper the living and present Lord feeds and strengthens his people "with the substance of his body and of his blood" (French Confession, art. 36; cf. Scots Confession, chap. 21, Second Helvetic Confession, chap. 21, and so on).

Other Creeds of the Reformation Era

Besides the Lutherans and the Reformed, other non-Roman churches in the West produced statements of belief during the Reformation era. The Church of England had its Thirty-nine Articles, the Unitarians their Racovian Catechism (1605), the Mennonites their Dordrecht Confession (1632); the Congregationalists, the Baptists, and even the Quakers continued to add to the confessional literature of the earlier Reformation. But none of these groups has invested its statements with the doctrinal authority the Lutherans and the Reformed accord to theirs; most of them would say that their confessions are for instruction, not for subscription. Sometimes the new statements borrowed freely from the old. Already in the sixteenth century the Thirty-nine Articles were largely derived from continental Protestantism, and in the following century the Congregationalists and the Baptists (both "Particular" and "General" Baptists) made their own recensions of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession, as John Wesley (17031791) was later to make a Methodist recension of the Anglican articles (the Twenty-five Articles of 1784).

Eastern Orthodox churches

The Eastern churches remained aloof, as far as possible, from the Reformation crisis, judging it to be an internal problem of the Western church. Some exchange did take place, however, and it generated more or less official Orthodox responses to Protestantism. Most important among them was the Confession of Dosítheos, issued by the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) to combat the Calvinizing opinions advanced by, or attributed to, Cyril I (Kyrillos Loukaris, 15721638), former patriarch of Constantinople. It is generally assumed that the patriarch of Jerusalem, Dosítheos (16411707), was the principal author of the confession, which constitutes chapter 6 of the synod's decrees. He avoided Roman Catholic doctrines and practices that Orthodoxy does not accept (papal supremacy, the celibacy of all clergy, withholding the cup from the laity) and took essentially the same stand as Rome against the Protestant views of authority and justification. The Calvinist doctrine of the Eucharist is opposed (decree 17) not only by affirming a propitiatory sacrifice but also by borrowing the Latin idea of transubstantiation.

In addition to promulgating its own confession, the Synod of Jerusalem endorsed the earlier replies of Jeremias II (c. 15301595), patriarch of Constantinople, to overtures from the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen. The replies (published in 1584) rejected the distinctive doctrines of the Augsburg Confession on everything except the marriage of priests. The synod also gave its sanction to a catechism drafted (c. 1640) partly in opposition to the Calvinizers by Petr Moghila (15961647), metropolitan of Kiev, which was probably the most influential witness to the Orthodox faith of the Greek and Russian churches until superseded in 1839 by the Catechism of Filaret (17821867), metropolitan of Moscow. But neither Filaret's catechism nor the documents promulgated or endorsed by the Synod of Jerusalem have the same authority in Eastern Orthodoxy as the Nicene Creed, which commended itself all the more because it was safe from the conflict in the Western church. Insofar as the Eastern church faced the Reformation at all, it has usually considered its responses to be strictly contextual; use of the Latin dogma of transubstantiation, for example, in the Confession of Dosítheos did not make it an Orthodox dogma.

The Roman Catholic Church

The Roman church, by contrast, produced its most comprehensive standard of belief (until that time) precisely in response to the Protestant Reformation. In 1545, fifteen years after the Diet of Augsburg, the long-hoped-for council that was to settle the religious questions was finally convened at Trent. Its last session took place in 1563, eighteen years later. The Orthodox and the Protestants were not represented, but Trent is considered by the church of Rome to be the nineteenth ecumenical council. (The Lutherans were invited, and delegates from Saxony and Württemberg did appear briefly in the spring of 1552, but they could be received only as errant children of the church, which had condemned Luther three decades before.) The canons and decrees of the Council of Trent were published in their entirety in 1564. Not all twenty-five sessions produced decrees on doctrine. Those that did were mainly interested in three matters of faith: authority, justification, and the sacraments.

After adopting the Nicene Creed as its confession of faith and shield against heresies (sess. 3), the council proceeded to specify the two witnesses to which it would appeal in confirming dogmas and restoring morals in the church: scripture and unwritten traditions (sess. 4). The express concern of Trent, like that of the Protestants, was for "the purity of the gospel." But there could be no question of appealing to the gospel against the traditions or teaching of the church. For the truths of the gospel, according to Trent, are contained both in scripture and in the unwritten traditions handed down from the apostles; both are to be received with the same devout reverence. And the scriptures themselves are not to be interpreted by anyone's private judgment contrary to the sense that holy mother church has held and holds.

It did not follow that the Roman church wished to stand behind the practices and beliefs that the Protestant confessions had judged to be violations of the gospel. Trent did reject the Lutheran protest in principle, and it could not accept the Lutheran inventory of abuses without discrimination. But in its decrees on reform the council inaugurated a Catholic reformation, which dealt extensively with many of the alleged abuses, eradicating some and purging others. And in its decrees on doctrine it defined positions that cannot be simply identified with positions the Lutherans and the Reformed had attacked. In particular, the decree on justification (sess. 6), which took seven months to complete, seems to deny forthrightly the very opinion against which the Lutherans had most vehemently protested: that the grace of justification can be merited (chap. 8). Trent's denial of merit before justification has been the subject of divided interpretation among twentieth-century historians, and in any case other confessional differences concerning justification, or possible differences, certainly remain, but the dividing lines are not as sharp as sixteenth-century polemics made them out to be. The same holds true for sacramental theology.

Among the controverted sacramental issues, none ranks higher in importance than the debate over the sacrificial character of the Mass. Both the Lutheran confessions (e.g., Augsburg Confession, art. 24) and the Reformed confessions (e.g., Scots Confession, art. 22) presumed that in the Roman Mass the priest was credited with sacrificing Christ to appease God. The Mass, they alleged, therefore detracted from Christ's self-sacrifice on the cross and violated the heart of the gospelthat grace is not obtained through human works. The language of the Tridentine response (sess. 22) is neither uniform nor wholly transparent. But no competition between cross and altar is implied. The once-for-all offering on the cross is said to be "represented" in the Mass and its benefits applied to daily sins, "so far is the latter from derogating in any way from the former" (chaps. 12). And though the sacrifice of the Mass is carried out "by the church through the priests," the decree adds: " the same now offering by the ministry of priests who then offered himself on the cross" (chaps. 12).

Confessional legacy of the Reformation

The Tridentine decrees must be seen in relation to subsequent dogmatic pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the constitutions of the First and Second Vatican Councils (18691870; 19621965). But the confessional legacy of the Reformation era appears less totally and irrevocably divisive than might be supposed. Just as the Reformed confessions did not perpetuate the Zwinglian sacramental views that the Lutherans found so offensive, so also the Tridentine decrees did not simply immortalize the errors and abuses with which the Protestants charged the late medieval church. And a more irenic age would have to ask, in turn, how just were the Tridentine anathemas hurled against the Protestants.

Christian Creeds in the Modern World

Although the Reformation era may be singled out as the most productive period of Christian creed-making, dogmas have continued to be defined and confessions drafted down to the present time. The Roman church's dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (1854), papal infallibility (1870), and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1950) were important developments of traditional Roman Catholic beliefs about Mary and the papacy. Other creedal statements have been self-conscious attempts to rethink confessional positions in the modern world. But it is also during the last three centuries that the very idea of a creed has become most precarious.

Modern anticreedalism

The problem of what may be termed "anticreedalism" has naturally made itself felt more especially in Protestantism. From the first, even the most staunchly confessional of the Protestant churches, the Lutheran, was not entirely of one mind about its symbolic books. Distinctions were made between one confession and another, and not all the Lutheran bodies adopted the Formula of Concord. Moreover, in the non-Lutheran churches there was a tendency to contrast all human formularies much more sharply with the divinely inspired scriptures. Modern anticreedalism, however, has other roots besides biblicism. Most important is the drift toward a less dogmatic variety of Christian religion. With roots in sixteenth-century humanism and antitrinitarianism and in seventeenth-century Arminianism, aversion to distinctively Christian dogmas flourished in English Deism and was nurtured by the theologians of the German Enlightenment. In the course of the eighteenth century, Protestant orthodoxy, already weakened by Pietism, retreated before enlightened disdain for inherited superstitions and dogmatic particularism. Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) tried to deal more sympathetically with the old creeds as authentic, though reformable, deliverances of the Christian consciousness. But the resurgence of Lutheran confessionalism in the early nineteenth century was directed against Schleiermacher as well as against the rationalists, and it was carried by German immigrants to the New World.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the beleaguered antidogmatic line in Protestant theology found new resources in the work of Ritschlian church historian Adolf von Harnack (18511930), who argued with massive erudition that Christian orthodoxy arose as a corruption of the gospel by Hellenic metaphysics and intellectualism. Dogmas, as he put it, are "a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel"; by them, confidence in the Father God of Jesus is transformed into intellectual assent to metaphysical propositions about the inner life of the godhead and the two natures of the incarnate Son. From this standpoint, Harnack considered himself free to subject even the Apostles' Creed to detailed criticism and to oppose its continued use as a legal ordinance.

Strictly speaking, Harnack and the liberal Protestants who rallied around him did not want to abolish the Apostles' Creed, or creeds in general. Harnack in fact made a classic case for what we have termed "open confessionalism." While he deplored what he saw as the "catholicizing" of Lutheranism, he judged the opposite demand for a totally undogmatic Christianity to be a mistake. The church's task, he believed, was not to dispense with creeds but to add a new creed to the old. "Upon the path of the old Creeds we must remain," he wrote. "Satisfied with them we cannot be. The entanglements of history divide us from them."

The objection is sometimes made that such a program, despite the disavowals, abrogates the entire notion of a creed: a temporary dogma is no dogma at all, and adoption of a new confession is tacit denial of the old. But in the centuries that separate the Reformation from the present, another danger, more surely fatal to the life of a confessing church, has become increasingly clear: an old creed may be retained only as a sacred relic, a token of outward conformity, to be invoked on rare occasions for some shibboleth that it conveniently enshrinesand not as the living confession of a church. And there is a growing readiness among Christians of every communion, even among those who do not object either to creeds in principle or to the specific dogmas of the traditional creeds, to admit that every confession of faith is conditioned by the circumstances of its historical origin, and none is therefore likely to serve as the sufficient confession of another day. This admission has made it easier in practice for the churches to reappraise the historic creeds of other traditions, while accepting the responsibility to add to their own.

Modern creeds

Four twentieth-century documents represent the continued activity of Christian creed-making in the modern world. Two of them address specific political and social crises by reaffirming, sharpening, and applying elements already present in the confessional tradition: the lordship of Christ (the original Christian confession), and reconciliation through Christ, respectively. The Barmen Declaration (1934) was adopted by a synod of representatives from the Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches in Germany to address the crisis of National Socialism. Largely inspired by Karl Barth (18861968), it was the response of the Confessing church to the so-called German Christians. Its six terse affirmations and corresponding condemnations asserted the sole lordship of Jesus Christ, the one word of God, over every area of life against the encroachments of the Nazi state and its Führer. Broader in scope, but still a declaration rather than a comprehensive confession of faith, the Confession of 1967 was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in the USA to reaffirm the message of reconciliation and bring it to bear on four urgent social issues: racial discrimination, international conflict, enslaving poverty, and alienation between the sexes.

The opening message (1962) of the Second Vatican Council also singled out two issues as especially urgent: peace between peoples and social justice. But the council's sixteen dogmatic constitutions, decrees, and declarations are not a response to a particular crisis or to critical issues; they are a broad and detailed attempt at an "updating" (aggiornamento ) of the Roman church's entire stand in the twentieth centuryher self-understanding and her relationships with other Christian groups, the non-Christian religions, and the whole human community. They call for all Christians and men of goodwill to join the Catholic Church in "building up a more just and brotherly city in the world." In issuing this call, the council made up for an omission in the work of Trent and for what many Roman Catholics perceive as one-sidedness in the work of the First Vatican Council.

The Council of Trent did not undertake to define the nature of the church at all; differences among the fathers themselves made any such venture impolitic. The First Vatican Council, on the other hand, which Rome counts as the twentieth ecumenical council, did produce a Constitution on the Church of Christ (1870), but it was concerned exclusively with the primacy of the pope and with his infallibility when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals. Vatican II, especially in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, 1964), presents a much fuller doctrine of the church, in biblical rather than juridical language. The hierarchical structure of the church and the primacy of the pope are reaffirmed. But Vatican II places a stronger emphasis than Vatican I on the regular and collective, or "collegial," office of all the bishops in communion with the pope, and it takes "the church" to mean the whole body of the Lord, the people of God, laity as well as clergy. All the faithful in their several ways share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ. By her relationship with Christ, the church is a kind of sacramentthat is, a sign and instrumentof union with God and the unity of all humankind. Not only the Catholic faithful but all who believe in Christ are in some way united with this people of God in the Holy Spirit, who is operative among them too with his sanctifying power.

Finally, the Lima Document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982), which approaches the creedal type of a union statement, may serve as a useful indication of the consensus and dissensus between the inherited confessional positions at the present time. Ecumenical dialogue has repeatedly shown the possibility of agreement on traditionally divisive issues, including the doctrines of justification and the sacraments. The Lima Document, produced for the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches by representatives of all the major confessional traditions (including Roman Catholics, who have no official participation in the World Council itself), faces some of the most divisive issues of all. Its main text establishes a large measure of agreement, mainly by appeal to the common biblical heritage, and the additional commentaries indicate the differences that either have been overcome or are still in need of further discussion. Even on two of the most intractable differencesbetween infant and believer baptism, and between episcopal and nonepiscopal ministrythe way is pointed out toward mutual recognition as a step in the direction of greater unity of doctrine, order, and practice. It has thus become a dominant concern of modern Christian creed-making, not only to meet the political, social, and intellectual problems of the day but also to reverse the tendency of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century creeds toward inflexibility and separation.

See Also

Councils, article on Christian Councils; Theology, article on Christian Theology.


Despite its age (it was first published in 1877), the best resource for the study of Christian creeds and confessions is still Philip Schaff's monumental Bibliotheca Symbolica Ecclesiae Universalis: The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, 6th ed., 3 vols. (New York, 1931), which has been reissued (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983). The Faith of Christendom: A Source Book of Creeds and Confessions, edited by myself (Cleveland, 1963), is a modest introduction to symbolics (the study of creeds) through analysis of the ecumenical creeds and six documents from the Reformation period. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine, from the Bible to the Present, edited by John H. Leith, first published the same year (1963), includes many more documents with shorter historical introductions, and the third, revised edition (Atlanta, 1982) contains important additions from the intervening two decades. All three of these general works provide further bibliographical guidance.

The standard English work on the ecumenical symbols is J. N. D. Kelly's Early Christian Creeds, 3d ed. (New York, 1972). Kelly is also the editor and translator of Rufinus's A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed, "Ancient Christian Writers," vol. 20 (Westminster, Md., 1955), and he has published a separate study of the third of the ecumenical symbols (barely mentioned in Early Christian Creeds ), The Athanasian Creed (New York, 1964).

The best English edition of the Lutheran confessions is The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert and others (Philadelphia, 1959). A useful collection of Reformed creeds in English is Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, edited by Arthur C. Cochrane (Philadelphia, 1966). The seventeenth-century Westminster standards are included in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA.), part 1, Book of Confessions (New York, 1983). For free-church creeds, see Williston Walker's The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (1893; reprint, Boston, 1960); W. J. McGlothlin's Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia, 1911); and William L. Lumpkin's Baptist Confessions of Faith (Chicago, 1959). An able commentary on the Book of Concord is Edmund Schlink's Theology of the Lutheran Confessions (Philadelphia, 1961). Nothing comparable is available in English on Reformed creeds, but a useful symposium, occasioned by the proposal for the new Presbyterian Confession of 1967 and published as an issue of McCormick Quarterly (vol. 19, no. 2, January 1966), provides extensive guidance on the corpus, theological character, and function of the Reformed confessions.

For the reasons indicated, one cannot point to any collection of Eastern Orthodox symbols. A translation of the Confession of Dosítheos was given in The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem, translated and edited by J. N. W. B. Robertson (London, 1899), and is reproduced in both Leith's and my work. An English version of the Catechism of Filaret will be found in Schaff. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, has a semiofficial collection of authorized symbols, including the doctrinal decrees of Trent, in Heinrich Denzinger's Enchiridion symbolorum, translated from the thirtieth edition by Roy J. Deferrari as The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Saint Louis, 1957). The most important guide to Trent is Hubert Jedin's history, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, 4 vols. in 5 (Freiburg, 19591975). The translation by Ernest Graf, A History of the Council of Trent (Saint Louis, 1957), is unfortunately still incomplete.

Harnack's position on the modern use of creeds is succinctly outlined in his somewhat neglected writing, Thoughts on the Present Position of Protestantism (London, 1899). Reappraisal of creeds across the confessional divide may be illustrated from the discussions of the Augsburg Confession as a catholic document in The Role of the Augsburg Confession: Catholic and Lutheran Views, edited by Joseph A. Burgess (Philadelphia, 1980), and Augsburgisches Bekenntnis im ökumenischen Kontext, edited by Harding Meyer (Stuttgart, 1980). The Barmen Declaration will be found in Cochrane, Leith, and the Presbyterian Book of Confessions. For the complete text of the Confession of 1967, see the Book of Confessions or Reformed Witness Today: A Collection of Confessions and Statements of Faith Issued by Reformed Churches, edited by Lukas Vischer (Bern, 1982). Denzinger-Deferrari includes the Marian dogmas of 1854 and 1950 and the dogmatic constitutions of Vatican I, but does not reach Vatican II, for which see The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott (New York, 1966). Leith reproduces the Lima Document in his third edition.

New Sources

Pelikan, Jaroslav, and Valerie Hotchkiss. Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. 4 vols. New Haven, Conn., 2003.

Stevenson, James, and W. H. C. Frend, eds. Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church, a.d. 337461. Rev. ed. London, 1989.

Westra, Liuwe H. The Apostle's Creed: Origin, History, and Some Early Commentaries. Turnhout, Belgium, 2002.

Young, Frances M. The Making of the Creeds. London and Philadelphia, 1991.

B. A. Gerrish (1987)

Revised Bibliography