A creed (in the Eastern churches called the "symbol" of faith) was originally a short confession of belief that was taught in antiquity to Christian baptismal candidates and repeated by them as their profession of faith. At first a brief statement, varying among local churches, the creed became standardized more and more in the fourth century, when the liturgical forms of early Christianity were becoming internationalized under episcopal and synodical direction.
The creeds at first were threefold in structure, shadowing the seminal text of Matthew 28:19, which itself is one of the earliest baptismal confessions. Originally the recitation of the creed repeated the great cycle of salvation events that make up the Christian faith (analogous to the use of Psalms 105–106 in the liturgy of the Jerusalem Temple), and to that extent the use of the creed in liturgy was a natural development, even though the regular (eucharistic) confession of a creed is not attested until after the fifth century in Syria and Constantinople. The practice appeared in Spain in the sixth century but was adopted by Rome only as late as the eleventh century.
In the second-century Gnostic crisis, the credal articles on belief in the Fatherhood of God were expanded greatly to oppose Gnostic conceptions of a God who was not primarily involved in the creation of the material world. In all the classical early creeds the opening section of the text still bears this primary anti-Gnostic character. In the later fourth century, again in times of theological controversy, the credal articles on Jesus were expanded from their original focus on the biblical accounts of his life, death, and resurrection to function as doctrinal synopses of correct belief (orthodoxy). The symbol of Nicea is a prime example of the creed now serving as a dogmatic digest. The confessional elements relating to Jesus were amplified by parallel statements inserted into the text (in the case of the Nicene Creed, teaching the consubstantiality of the divine Logos in terms drawn from contemporary Greek philosophy). The articles on the Holy Spirit were the least developed. Up to the late fourth century the creeds simply stated a belief "in the Holy Spirit," but the work of the Cappadocian Fathers expanded this to include four doctrinal statements: that the Spirit was Lord and Life-Giver, proceeding from the Father, worshiped with the same veneration as the Father and the Son, and the divine source of the inspiration of the prophets. The so-called creed of Chalcedon in 451, a precisely shaped Christological definition, is the apex of this kind of credal development, but it never achieved a liturgical usage, and it explicitly claims to recognize no other "creed" than that of Nicea.
This was the last great theological development to occur in antiquity through the medium of the creed; henceforward theological development was to be based mainly on rhetorical and apologetical discourse, something that applied more or less up to the time of the Reformation, which reopened an active period of creedmaking and confessionalism.
In Catholicism and the Orthodox family of churches the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed still serves as a liturgical confession. It is a congregational prayer that serves to introduce the Anaphora or central element of the Eucharistic prayer. Catholicism gives preeminence to three historical creeds: the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, the Athanasian Creed, and the Apostles' Creed. The last is commonly recited as part of the rosary. Orthodoxy uses only the Nicene-Constantinopolitan in its original form. Both communions, however, have continued to issue confessional statements, often from a synodical basis, into modern times. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are one large example of this. But these documents and texts do not carry the status of the historical creeds in any comparable way, nor have they entered the liturgy.
The Reformed churches often took the Apostles' Creed as the basis of their confessional statement. Sometimes a more directedly focused statement was originated, based on the catechisms operative in various groups, as for example the Heidelberg Catechism, or Luther's Small Catechism. Historical confessions in the early Reformation period also served as a new basis for what the creeds did in ancient times, as can be seen, for example, in the Augsburg Confession.
In the longer term, in the Reformed family of churches, the creeds often did not retain their importance in a liturgical role and thus were not reinforced through recitation at weekly worship so as to become the central articulators of the belief system of the various churches. They took on more of the role of historic formulations of belief, and they were supplemented by a range of contemporary theological "confessions" regularly renewed in light of the perceived needs and controversies of the times. The central Protestant belief in the sole regulatory force of the scriptures afforded to ecclesial creeds merely an auxiliary and directional role that stood subject to constant review and amendment. Modern American church movements, such as the Universalist Unitarians, who hold more lightly than most to any formal credal system, nevertheless continued to express their fundamental orientations of belief in confessional statements of varying binding force. The National Conference of Unitarian Churches meeting in 1865 made it clear that the creeds of this communion had simply the authority of a statement reflecting the mind-set of the majority of the time "and are dependent wholly for their effect upon the consent they command on their own merits from the churches here represented." (Schaff 1877, vol. 3, p. 935). All in all, in the wider topography of American Christianity, the old ambivalence over creeds as fixed foundational constitutions of ecclesial identity, or as temporary guidelines for the contemporary redefinition and reconstruction of ecclesial or sectarian identities, remains an enduring aspect of indigenous forms of Christianity.
Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Creeds, 3rd ed. 1972.
Leith, J. H. Creeds of the Churches. 1982.
Schaff, P. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. 1877.
John Anthony McGuckin