I grew up Methodist. Every week, after an hour of Sunday school, my parents, brother and I walked up the wide steps and into the large brick church with impressive stained glass windows that dominated the western end of our town's Main Street.
For the next hour I could pretty much count on the way things would go. We would sing a few songs, have a few announcements. We would take up the offering and sing the Doxology. We would recite the Apostle's Creed.
From early on I didn't need to see the words before me. I could recite them with the big folks. Even as a child, I meditated on them, allowed them to be a part of me. But it wasn't until a few years ago, while hearing Rich Mullin's song version, simply titled "Creed," that the words seemed to stir my soul and I felt it take flight.
A few more years passed before I heard - and repeated - the Nicene Creed, equally as powerful in presentation, form, and truth. Then, one day, I decided to dig deeper, to delve further into the implications behind the lines. What do they mean? Better still, what do they mean to me?
What is a Creed?
To me, the word "creed" is like so many in my vocabulary; I know what it means but don't ask me to define it. You may be the same way, too. It's not until some little one in our lives comes along asking, "But what does it mean?" that we find ourselves unable to give answer.
"What is a creed?"
"Well, honey...it's something you say...er...repeat...um...it's kinda like a list of beliefs, you know...what you believe...in."
Okay, so let's start with the basics. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "creed" thusly:
1: a brief authoritative formula of religious belief
2: a set of fundamental beliefs; also: a guiding principle
The root of the word comes from the Latin credo, which means, "To believe, trust, entrust."
The Oldest Creed
The Apostle's Creed is the oldest creed in our Christian faith. Though traditionally it is said that those men known as "the Apostles" penned the Apostle's Creed on the tenth day after the Lord's ascension, fact is, it was not written by them at all. But the story behind this myth is fascinating anyway. It goes something like this:
As the Twelve Apostles are together, Peter begins a discussion by saying, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty."
Either Andrew or John (there's some debate there, even amidst the fable) continued the article, "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord." James the Elder chimed in, "Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost..." and so on and so forth.
But truth is, this legend is no older than the 5th or 6th Centuries and can therefore not be factual.
The real truth is that each article and line of The Apostle's Creed has its beginnings in the Apostle's teachings and has two "forms;" the first, the Old Roman Form and the second, the Received Form. The former is the shorter form of the two and dates as far back as the middle of the 2nd Century. The Received Form is the one with which we are most familiar, goes like this:
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 Nicene Creed
Though in many churches the Apostle's Creed is repeated as a part of the weekly service, it is the Nicene Creed that is considered the most widely accepted and used of the brief statements of the Christian Faith. If the Apostle's Creed is not recited weekly, it is then recited at baptisms while in liturgical churches, the Nicene Creed is used as a part of the Liturgy.
With the Apostle's Creed already firmly in place, you may be wondering how the Nicene Creed, which is a revised form of an earlier work set in place in 325 AD, even came to be. Why reinvent the wheel, so to speak. To get the answer, you must understand a little bit about early church history.
If you've read past the first four books of the New Testament, you know the early church was not widely welcomed by the Roman government. Remember the stories of Peter's imprisonment? Paul's and the others? The emperor, Nero, is known best for setting Rome to blazes, blaming the Christians and for the persecution he handed down afterward. Foxes Book of Martyrs gives us graphic (as far as I'm concerned) details of the deaths of the original Twelve sans Judas. With the exception of John, who died a prisoner none-the-less, each of Christ's original followers was put to death for their faith.
Then, in 312 AD, the emperor Constantine became a Christian just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. (If you've never read or heard the story of his conversion, allow me to encourage you to do some research. It truly is quite fascinating!) With Constantine in power, Christians gained the freedom of worshipping without legal conviction. The "Great Emperor" formed the motto "one God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor."
Believe it or not, this "creed" didn't sit well with all those who called themselves Christian. Arius, who was a priest in Alexandria, claimed that Jesus Himself was not God, but created by God while the bishop Alexander and his associate Athanasius argued that, no, Jesus, the Son, is a part of the God-head just as is the Father.
Seeing that the church was now at odds with itself, in 325 AD Constantine called together a council in Nicaea where a creed stating such a belief was written and signed by many of the bishops of the church. Thus, we have the Nicene Creed, which was later revised in 381 AD.
It may interest you to note that Athanasius' defense of his beliefs cost him five periods of exile, one in which he wrote The Life of Anthony, a book that influenced the establishment of monastic orders in the Western church. Oh, what the Lord will do when we stand our ground for Him!
The Nicene Creed reads thusly:
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. Amen.
What Does It Say, What Does it Mean, What Does it Mean to Me?
The Nicene Creed was not the only creed of the two to meet with opposition. When the Apostles' Creed was drawn up, the chief enemy was Gnosticism, which denied that Jesus was truly Man; and the emphases of the Apostles' Creed reflect a concern with repudiating this error.
I believe, and I hope you'll believe with me, that our faith should not be built on words recited without thought, but that we should know and understand and truly believe the words we speak.
What do they say?
What do they mean?
What do they mean to me?
Over the next few weeks and months, we'll study what these two creeds state, what they mean, and - most importantly, I believe - what they mean to you and me. Join me, won't you?
Award-winning national speaker, Eva Marie Everson's work includes Intimate Moments with God and Intimate Encounters with God (Cook). She is the author of Shadow of Dreams, Summon the Shadows and Shadow of Light. (Barbour Fiction) She can be contacted for comments or for speaking engagement bookings at www.EvaMarieEverson.com.