Posted in: Theology

I Believe: Creedal Christianity

© 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Did you ever find yourself in the dark about what someone believed when they told you, “I just believe the Bible”? For some this means denying the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith. For others This means rejecting “organized religion,” including all denominations and churches with any name but “the church of Christ.” For still others believing the Bible means avoiding any use of technology and following the dietary restrictions of ancient Israel. As a matter of fact, all biblical Christians (and many people who think they are biblical but are in fact heretical) “believe the Bible.” A more meaningful problem is determining what it is that the Bible teaches. There are many factors to consider in understanding exactly what the Bible teaches, including language, history, literary aspects, interpretation, logic, etc. (There is a wealth of information on these subjects. See, for example, the Bible and Biblical Literature Articles – – on the Answers In Action web site – .) Once we have used a rational, integrated system of understanding what the Bible teaches, we need a way to communicate that body of truth to others.

This article focuses particularly on the way the Christian church has historically codified what it means by “believing the Bible.”

In ancient Israel the enormous, glaring distinction between their religion and the religions around them was that Israel believed in only one eternal, infinite, personal, almighty God over all – the maker of heaven and earth, God of gods and Lord of lords. Other religions were polytheistic, believing in many finite gods and goddesses. The Israelites codified this distinction in the words of Moses: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This declaration or statement of faith became the defining statement of Old and New Testament Judaism, known as the shema (from the Hebrew word for Hear!), the supreme affirmation of God’s oneness and uniqueness. Faithful Jews wrote this passage down and wore it as part of their daily dressage and on the doorposts of their homes in a small tephilla or phylactery[1] They did this because they wanted continual reminders of who it was they were worshiping, loving, and obeying in distinction to the false gods of the pagans. In fact God commanded them to remember, recite, and re-enact the most important features of their faith and how God had called and preserved them so that their children would always understand the true faith:

Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children” (Deut. 4:9-10).

In New Testament times, the glaring distinction between the faith of the unbelieving Jews and the Christians was that the Christians worshiped Jesus Christ as the long-promised Anointed One of God (Messiah from Hebrew, Christ from Greek), God’s Son, God manifest in the flesh. Matthew records this chasm of difference in Matthew 16. Jesus asks the disciples who others think he, Jesus, is. They respond with various answers and then Jesus pointedly asks, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). This is the defining difference between the belief of the disciples and the unbelief of other Jews. Peter is blessed for recognizing and claiming what God the Father has revealed to him. Throughout the ministry of Christ and his disciples depicted in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, this is the defining statement of true faith. As the apostle John recorded at the end of his gospel, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). These two statements, and several others in the New Testament, [2] form the core of the earliest Christian statements of faith, or the uniquely Christian shema, or, as the Latin calls it, the credo (I believe), creed, or statement of faith.

Analysis of the literary features of the New Testament help us to recognize the creeds of the early church that the Holy Spirit guided the apostle Paul to include in his scriptures. These were statements of faith that actually predated Paul’s ministry and were known commonly among the first century Christians. Some examples include Ephesians 4:4-6; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-18; and 1 Timothy 3:16. Look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Paul specifically states this is the summary of the Christian faith, what he had been taught and what he had taught the Corinthians when he first brought the gospel to them:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

By the end of the first century, the essentials of the biblical Christian faith had been organized into an easily memorized statement of faith, or creed, known as the Apostles’ Creed or the Baptismal Creed. It is called the Apostles’ Creed, not because it was necessarily written by the original apostles themselves, but because it represented the unique features of the faith given by Jesus Christ to his apostles, preached by them in their public ministries, and received from them by new converts to Christ. It was recited at every baptism and most weekly services.

The Apostles’ Creed does not supplant or replace the Bible. It does not presume to be God’s Word itself. As historian Philip Schaff said, “It is not a word of God to men, but a word of men to God, in response to his revelation.” [3] It is a succinct explanation of what Jesus and his apostles meant when they said they “believed the Bible” – specifically, that what God had promised in the Prophets and the Law He had fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-3). Every statement in the Apostles’ Creed can be supported by the clear teachings of the Bible.

The Apostles’ Creed [4]

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of Heaven and Earth,
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, [5]
Was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell. [6]
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of
God the Father Almighty,
From whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The Holy Catholic [7] Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And life everlasting.
Amen. [8]

Creeds are not merely statements of faith, but particularly statements of what makes one’s faith unique or distinct from others. For this reason, as heresies arose in Christianity, creeds were modified to explain more fully the differences between biblical faith and heretical faith. The first general creed adopted by the church as a whole in response to heresy is called the Nicene Creed. It developed from the Council of Nicea, convened in A.D. 325 to establish the biblical doctrine regarding the deity of Christ in opposition to a popular heresy called Arianism. Arianism taught that Jesus was not God, but of a “similar substance” to the Father; not eternal, but there was a time when he was not.

For Jewish Christians fully informed about Jewish monotheism, to say “Jesus is Lord” had been sufficient. But for Gentile Christians who came from a polytheistic culture where gods and goddesses begat more gods and goddesses, saying “Jesus is Lord” was ambiguous. For second century heretics called gnostics “Jesus is Lord” could mean that he was God’s representative, a spirit taking on the mere appearance of a man. For third century heretics called modalists, the Son was the Father – just with a different name or “mode” of expression. For the fourth century heretics called Arians, Jesus was a lesser Lord than the Father.

The more heresy abounded, the more important it was for Christians to have a clear, well-thought out, biblically based statement of what it meant to be a Christian, a creed affirming biblical truth and excluding unbiblical heresy. Here is the Nicean Creed. Notice how its explanation is more explicitly trinitarian [9] because it is responding to the heresies in the early church.

The Nicean Creed

I 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 his 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 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 sits at the right hand of the Father.
And he will come again with glory to judge
both the living and the dead,
whose kingdom will have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church,
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins,
and I look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Over the centuries other creeds were developed to summarize the essentials of the faith in distinction to other heresies, controversies, and confusions in the church. These first two creeds have represented the basic faith of the Christian church through the centuries, including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants.

Those who reject these creeds or creeds in general misunderstand what creeds are and for what purpose creeds are adopted. They fail to clearly articulate the faith they proclaim and they fail to effectively protect their followers from the subtleties of heresy. When it gets right down to it, the Christian who says he has no creed is self-refuting. If a creed is a statement of what one believes, and one states that he believes he does not believe statements of belief, he is refuting himself. The question is not “Should we have creeds?” – we all have creeds if we believe anything at all. The question should be “Does my creed coherently, clearly, and concisely state the essentials of biblical faith?” Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicean Creed do so. That is why millions of Christians have recited them for nearly two thousand years, and millions more continue to do so regularly.

Does your church have a creed? Does your church recognize the Apostles’ or Nicean creeds? The next time you have the opportunity, you can proudly recite the words of one of these creeds, knowing that you are joining many generations of Christians in proclaiming your biblical faith in no uncertain terms.

[1] See Numbers 15:37-41 and Deut. 11:13-21.

[2] Such as Matthew 28:19-20.

[3] Creeds of Christendom Volume 1, 16.

[4] This is the classic form of the Apostles’ Creed. Although we can trace most of its statements to the baptismal creeds used in the early church (as early as the first half of the second century A.D.), it was not recited exactly the same in each church everywhere. The classic form was used universally from the early middle ages.

[5] Notice that this creed makes a claim that this is not merely a subjective religious feeling, or a mere ecstatic mystical experience, but an historical fact that validates its truth claims – it was an event that actually happened under the hostile Roman Empire.

[6] Some Christians are uncomfortable with this statement or give it an heretical interpretation. The simplest, historically acceptable way of understanding it is as a synonymously parallel statement to his death and burial. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it in brief as, “Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil ‘who has the power of death’ (Heb. 2:14)” (636).

[7] The term catholic means united, common, or universal – the unity of all Christians of all times and all places in the common faith.

[8] This is the customary conclusion to a statement or prayer in which the speaker means that what he has just said is in accord with God’s will and therefore can be depended upon. The word Amen, when ascribed to God (Is. 65:16) or specifically Jesus as God (Rev. 3:14), means that he is the one whose word is always trustworthy. He is the “God of truth” as Isaiah says, or the “faithful and true Witness” as John says.

[9] See Bob Passantino’s Is the Creedal Doctrine of the Trinity Biblical? at

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