Creeds: An Overview

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A creed is a confession of faith; put into concise form, endowed with authority, and intended for general use in religious rites, a creed summarizes the essential beliefs of a particular religion. The notion of creed comes from the Christian thought world, and it is not possible to identify in other religions the exact parallel, in form and function, of what Christians call a creed. However, approximate parallels may be noted.

According to the definition given above, there are three Christian creeds: the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian. Here is the text of the shortest and, as far as its sources are concerned, the oldest of the three, the Apostles' Creed, as found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1945):

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; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost: The Holy Catholic Church: The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: And the Life everlasting. Amen.

The three Christian creeds are authoritative in large segments of the church, although Eastern Orthodoxy considers only the Nicene Creed as completely authoritative. Certain branches of Protestantism (those that emphasize freedom from traditional rites, a rational approach to religion, or the autonomy of individual religious experience) ignore creeds altogether.

In Judaism, a formula taken from Deuteronomy 6:4 and called the Shemaʿ (from the first word, meaning "Hear!") is the expression of monotheistic faith:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one God.

Recited liturgically, the Shemaʿ includes, in addition, Deuteronomy 6:59, 11:1321, and Numbers 15:3741.

In the Yasna, the chief liturgical work of the Avesta (the sacred writings of the Zoroastrian religion), are found several short confessions of faith, summarizing in various wordings the principal beliefs of that religion. One of these (Yasna 12:1) is:

I drive the daēva s hence; I confess as a Mazdā-worshiper of the order of Zarathushtra, estranged from the daēva s, devoted to the love of the Lord, a praiser of the Bountiful Immortals; and to Ahura Mazdā, the good and endowed with good possessions, I attribute all things good, to the holy One, the resplendent, to the glorious, whose are all things whatsoever which are good.

In Hinduism, the widely used Gāyatrī Mantra, based on gveda 3.62.10, corresponds in some ways to the definition of creed:

O [the supreme power]! O earth! O air! O heavens! Let us meditate on the resplendent glory of Savit [the sun god] that it may awaken our thoughts.

This formula is more precisely an invocation of the gods, but implicit in it is a confession of faith. The recitation of a creed functions as prayer in other religions as well.

Buddhism's Triple Refuge is a profession of faith in the wisdom of the Buddha, in the truth of his teaching, and in the significance of the community:

I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma [doctrine]; I take refuge in the Sagha [community of believers].

In Islam, the creed is recited as a twofold witness:

I witness that there is no god but God and that Muammad is the Messenger of God.

In Sikhism, the opening words of Japji, the guru Nānak's prayer, are expressive of basic Sikh doctrine and are universally recited by that religious community:

There is but one God whose name is true, the Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent; by the favor of the Guru. The True One was in the beginning; The True One was in the primal age. The True One is now also, O Nānak; The True One also shall be.

Functions of Creeds

Creeds function in different ways: (1) as the basis for membership in a religious community, whether accompanying a rite of initiation (Christian baptism) or constituting one of the elements of religious distinctiveness (Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism); (2) as a test of orthodoxy, in formal opposition to heresy (Christianity); (3) as a type of prayer used in private or public worship (Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity; in Alsace, Lutherans are invited in their liturgy to "pray the creed"); (4) as a basis for religious instruction; (5) as a corporate or individual response in faith to divine revelation leading to conduct of commitment (Jews call their creed "the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven"); (6) as an expression of self-understanding by the religious community; (7) as an assertion and confirmation of the unity of the community (Islam, Christianity, Judaism); or (8) as a witness to the world, expressing the core of belief (Judaism, Islam, Christianity).

Sources of Authority

Only in Christianity has the authority of creeds been legislated formally by conciliar action. The creed of Islam draws its authority from the fact that its elements are found in the Qurʾān, and from its express wording in the adīth, or from reports of the prophet Muammad where he affirms that the creed is one of the five pillars upon which Islam is built. The Shemaʽ of Judaism is an exact quotation from the Bible. In other religions, the formulas functioning as creeds base their authority on communal unanimity.

Terms Designating Creeds

Besides the word creed not strictly a name in its origin, since it is derived from the Latin verb credo ("I believe"), with which the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed openChristians use the phrase "symbol of the faith" to designate a creed.

In Islam, the creed is called the Shahādah, meaning "witness." Sikhs refer to their creed as the Mul Mantra or "root formula." In the Avesta, the term fravarāne is used for "confession of faith."

Extension of the Definition

Sometimes the definition of creed is broadened to include longer, more detailed statements of doctrine. These are more precisely called "articles of faith" or "confessions of faith" in Christianity and ʿaqīdah s in Islam. Examples of such doctrinal treatises are likewise seen in Judaism, attributed to such great scholars as Philo Judaeus, Josephus Flavius, and Moses Maimonides. Contrary to the strict definition of creed given above, articles of faith are not recited orally in liturgical settings, and their authority has been limited to certain segments of a religious community.

The advent of Protestantism in sixteenth-century Christendom prompted the preparation and use of several important confessions of faith that distinguish one denomination from another. Examples are the Augsburg Confession of Lutheranism (1530) and the Westminster Confession of the Reformed tradition (1646).

Islamic ʿaqīdah s have often served to emphasize controverted points of doctrine and practice or to attack heretical tendencies, so they do not necessarily deal with the full range of doctrine. Such statements of faith emerged from the five schools of Sunnī jurisprudence that predominate in the Muslim world today, as well as from schools of thought that have disappeared, and from theologians, legal scholars, mystics, and philosophers, both ancient and modern.


The article "Creeds and Articles" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 4, edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1911), is not so much an overview of the subject as a series of unconnected descriptions of beliefs in the various religions, with quotations from original sources. The overall nature of creeds is much more clearly set forth in the article "Bekenntnis" by Gustav Mensching et al., in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 1, edited by Kurt Galling (Tübingen, 1957). Most of the article is devoted to Christian creeds, and this rightfully, since the notion of creed is most specifically a Christian phenomenon.

The exhaustive and still irreplaceable source of information about Christian creeds is Philip Schaff's The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, 3 vols., 6th ed. (1919; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983). A more accessible work, containing a good introduction on the nature and function of creeds, is Creeds of the Church: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3d ed., edited by John H. Leith (Atlanta, 1982). J. N. D. Kelly, in Early Christian Creeds, 3d ed. (New York, 1972), gives a fine study of the origins and development of creed making in Christendom. The entry by Louis Jacobs, "Shema, Reading of," in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 14 (Jerusalem, 1972), describes the historical background, liturgical function, and theological meaning of the Jewish creedal formula.

A. J. Wensinck's The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development (New York, 1965) deals with the subject in a broad way, analyzing the content of several ancient ʽaqīdah s. Some attention is given to the significance and function of the Shahadah.

Perceptive remarks on the general nature of creeds, strictly defined as a special type of holy word, can be found in Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation, vol. 2 (1938; reprint, Gloucester, Mass., 1967), pp. 441443.

R. Marston Speight (1987)