School of The Rock


What is a Creed?

Written by Paul D. Race for School of the Rock

A “creed” is a description of what someone believes. The word “creed” comes from “Credo,” the Latin word that means “we believe.” Originally, Christian creeds were used in part as “checklists” to determine whether someone had the right ideas about God and salvation, especially before being baptized or taking a leadership position in the church. The language of early creeds is simple and straightforward. Even when the language was sparse, the creed was meant to be taken literally, in the context of the early church’s understanding of the terms used. For example, if you agreed to “the resurrection of the saints,” you meant that you believed that all who have truly committed their lives to Christ and then died physically will one day be reunited with glorified bodies that will last forever.

Today, some people who claim that they agree with a creed that doesn’t really align with their personal beliefs find ways to rationalize their “agreement.” For example a practicing atheist who wants a job at a religious institution might “agree” to the resurrection clause in a statement of faith. But to him or her, a word such as “resurrection” means something entirely different than it would have for the early church. Such a person might reinterpret the word “resurrection” to mean that good people “live on” through a legacy of good works and fond memories after they die. To people who take their Christian beliefs seriously, this is no more honest than saying “I did not steal your money,” when you really mean “I borrowed your money without your knowledge, but I promise to pay it back if I ever win the lottery.”

Apostles’ Creed

Although very few, if any, people today believe the apostles themselves wrote this statement of belief, many people are still comfortable calling it the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps because it seems to sum up the most basic teachings of the apostles, as recorded in the New Testament and in the writings of other early Christians. We do know that during the early history of the church, this creed, or something very similar to it, was recited by people who were candidates for baptism. To students of scripture, this is no surprise. According to the New Testament:

  • Early Christians believed that people who wanted to be baptized (or saved, for that matter) should verbally express their faith in God. (Romans 10:9-10, Acts 8:37).
  • Baptism was often performed in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matt: 28:19)

It seems likely, therefore, that the early church used a formalized statement of faith before baptism, the same way most churches today use a formalized statement of vows before marriage. It also seems likely that such a statement of faith would support the teaching of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).

Note: Certain groups that reject the divinity of Jesus assign the latest possible dates to the creeds, as well as the worst possible motivations for writing them. According to those groups, nobody really believed Jesus was divine until the late third century, when cynical church leaders supposedly invented that teaching, then wrote the creeds to help them enforce radical new theologies onto their followers. But the distribution of early New Testament manuscripts, with their unequivocal message of Jesus' divinity, implies that the New Testament had already spread across Europe, North Africa, and western Asia long before the Nicene Creed was written. The creeds reflect New Testament teaching; they did not, nor could not have influenced it - the timelines are wrong.

Today, the following version of the Apostles’ Creed is used by both Protestants and Catholics around the world. Note that the word “catholic” in the creed refers to the “universal church,” that is, all people who are truly committed to and serving Christ, and not to a particular denomination. (Of course some people may believe that only people in their particular denomination are truly committed to and serving Christ, but that’s another issue.)

    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.

Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed is probably centuries newer than the Apostles’ Creed, but it has the historical advantage of having firm dates attached. This creed was written by church councils that met in A.D. 325 and 381. In part, these councils were responding to people who weren’t sure, exactly, about whether Jesus is really God in the same way that God the Father is God. Some people were also questioning the importance of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, if you compare the creeds, you’ll notice that the Nicene Creed places more emphasis on the divinity of Jesus and the importance of the Holy Spirit. However it doesn’t seem to add new doctrines, as much as it better explains those doctrines that were already described in the New Testament and in the Apostles’ Creed.

    We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker 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 worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

    And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.


The Nicene Creed is used in Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches alike, with one qualification. Protestants and Catholics have a different idea of the meaning of the word “apostolic” in the last part. To most Protestants, “apostolic” means that the apostles founded the original church and that all truly Christian denominations today are outgrowths of the early church. To Catholics, “apostolic” refers to “apostolic succession.” Apostolic succession means that, to be a true spiritual leader, you must be able to claim an unbroken line of spiritual authority that traces all the way back to St. Peter in Rome. So some Roman Catholics who read the Nicene Creed interpret “one holy, catholic and apostolic church” to mean their church alone. (Strangely enough, so do several fringe Protestant groups, who preach that they alone are the true successors of the original apostles.  Whatever. . . . ).

Except for the differences noted above, you’ll see that the Nicene Creed generally amplifies the core beliefs of the Apostles’ Creed. To me it seems likely that the Apostles’ Creed is earlier, perhaps much earlier, and that the Nicene Creed was built on its foundation. (Some lines of the Apostles’ Creed seem to have been traced back to about A.D. 200, but that’s not “proof” that the entire creed is that old.)

Note about Popular Fiction and the Nicene Creed: It has become popular in recent centuries for authors like Dan Brown to claim that the Nicene Creed was created to establish the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus, but such claims have no more historical merit than, say, Dan Brown's claim that Harvard University has a "Professor of Symbology." A review of first and second-century Christian writings make it clear that the Nicene Creed was written to clarify a doctrine that no Christian called into serious doubt before the third century.

To summarize,

  • The earliest Christian creeds of which we are aware are in remarkable agreement, and they are essentially the same as those that Christians have celebrated throughout the history of the church.
  • The New Testament, which outlined the teaching of the apostles, came before the "Apostles Creed."
  • Both the "Apostles'" and Nicene creeds are attempts to organize the core teachings of the apostles (as reflected in the New Testament) into unified, coherent summaries.
  • Creeds are not scripture, but they are reverent attempts to encapsulate key spiritual principles that every believer should adhere to.

I like the way Rich Mullins puts it.

Rich Mullins says:

    I believe what I believe.
    It makes me what I am.
    I did not make it; no, it is making me.
    It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.

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