General Information

A creed is a brief, authorized summary of the Christian doctrine that is sometimes recited in church services as an affirmation of faith. Formulations of the Christian faith, presumably taken as the basis of teaching and evangelization, are to be found in the New Testament, although in a rudimentary form as in 1 Cor. 12:3. St. Paul wrote of believers who submitted without reservation to the creed that they were taught (Rom. 6:17).

Of the two classical creeds, the Apostles' Creed belongs in its essential content to the apostolic age, although it is not the work of the Apostles. It had its origin in the form of a confession of faith used in the instruction of catechumens and in the liturgy of Baptism. The creed may have been learned by heart and at first transmitted orally (to protect it from profanation). It is based on a formula current at Rome c. 200, although the present form of the text did not appear before the 6th century. It is used by Roman Catholics and many Protestant churches but has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The other classical creed, the Nicene, was an expression of the faith of the church as defined at the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), and later reaffirmed at the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). Based probably on the baptismal creed of Jerusalem, the Niceno - Constantinopolitan Creed contained a fuller statement concerning Christ and the Holy Spirit than the earlier formula. Its use in eucharistic worship is not much earlier than the 5th century. The so - called Filioque ("and the Son") clause, expressing the double procession of the Spirit, was added at the Third Council of Toledo (589). The Nicene Creed is used by Roman Catholics, many Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox; the last, however, reject the Filioque clause.

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The Athanasian Creed (sometimes known as the Quicunque, from the opening Latin word) was first clearly referred to in the 6th century, and the attribution to Athanasius is untenable. It is Latin in origin, and in the Middle Ages it was regularly used in church services. Since the Reformation the liturgical use of the Athanasian Creed has been confined mainly to the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion, although it is now infrequently recited.

Ross MacKenzie

J N D Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (1972); J H Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (1982); P Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (1977).

Creed, Creeds

Advanced Information

"Creed" derives from the Latin credo, "I believe." The form is active, denoting not just a body of beliefs but confession of faith. This faith is trust: not "I believe that" (though this is included) but "I believe in." It is also individual; creeds may take the plural form of "we believe," but the term itself comes from the first person singular of the Latin: "I believe."

Biblical Basis

Creeds in the developed sense plainly do not occur in Scripture. Yet this does not put them in antithesis to Scripture, for creeds have always been meant to express essential biblical truths. Furthermore, Scripture itself offers some rudimentary creedal forms that provide models for later statements. The Shema of the OT (Deut. 6:4 - 9) falls in this category, and many scholars regard Deut. 26:5 - 9 as a little credo. In the NT many references to "traditions" (2 Thess. 2:15), the "word of the Lord" (Gal. 6:6), and the "preaching" (Rom. 16:25) suggest that a common message already formed a focus for faith, while confession of Jesus as Christ (John 1:41), Son of God (Acts 8:37), Lord (Rom. 10:9), and God (John 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13) constitutes an obvious starting point for the development of creeds in public confession.

Indeed, if Acts 8:37 is authentic, it offers at the very first a simple creedal confession in baptism. This is, of course, exclusively Christological (cf. baptism in Christ's name in Acts 8:16; 10:48), leading to the theory that creeds consisted originally only of the second article. Nevertheless, the NT also contains many passages, culminating in Matt. 28:19, which include either the Father or the Father and the Holy Spirit in a more comprehensive Trinitarian formulation of a doctrinal, confessional, or liturgical type.

Creedal Functions


When more fixed creedal forms began to emerge out of the biblical materials, they probably did so first in the context of baptism. A creed offered the candidates the opportunity to make the confession of the lips demanded in Rom. 10:9 - 10. At first the form of words would vary, but familiar patterns soon began to develop. Fragmentary creeds from the second century, e.g., the DerBalyzeh Papyrus, support the thesis that creeds quickly became Trinitarian, or were so from the outset. This is implied also in Didache VII.1 and substantiated by the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. The common view is that the mode of confession was responsive rather than declaratory.


With a view to the baptismal confession, creeds soon came to serve as a syllabus for catechetical instruction in Christian doctrine. The level of teaching might vary from simple exposition to the advanced theological presentation of the Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century. All candidates, however, were to acquire and display some understanding of the profession they would make. A sincere commitment was demanded as well as intellectual apprehension.


The rise of heresies helped to expand the first rudimentary statements into the more developed formulas of later centuries. A phrase like "maker of heaven and earth" was probably inserted to counteract the Gnostic separation of the true God from the creator, while the reference to the virgin birth and the stress on Christ's death safeguarded the reality of Jesus' human life and ministry. The Arian heresy produced another crop of additions (notably "of one substance with the Father") designed predominantly to express Christ's essential deity. These modifications gave the creeds a new function as a key to the proper understanding of Scripture (Tertullian) and as tests of orthodoxy for the clergy.


Being used in baptism, creeds had from the very first a liturgical function. It was seen, however, that confession of faith is a constituent of all true worship. This led to the incorporation of the Nicene Creed into the regular eucharistic sequence, first in the East, then in Spain, and finally in Rome. Placing the creed after the reading of Scripture made it possible for believers to respond to the gospel with an individual or congregational affirmation of faith.

The Three Creeds


In Christian history three creeds from the early church have achieved particular prominence. The first was supposedly written by the apostles under special inspiration and thus came to be called the Apostles' Symbol or Creed (Synod of Milan, 390). Lorenzo Valla finally refuted the story of its origin, which the East never accepted, and scholars now recognize that while the old Roman Creed (expounded by Rufinus, 404) no doubt underlies it, it derives from various sources. In its present form it is known only from the eighth century and seems to have come from Gaul or Spain. Nevertheless it came into regular use in the West, and the Reformers gave it their sanction in catechisms, confessions, and liturgies.


Despite its name, the Nicene Creed must be distinguished from the creed of Nicaea (325). Yet it embodies in altered form, and without the anathemas, the Christological teaching which Nicaea adopted in answer to Arianism. It probably rests on creeds from Jerusalem and Antioch. Whether it was subscribed at Constantinople I in 381 has been much debated, but Chalcedon recognized it (451) and Constantinople II (553) accepted it as a revision of Nicaea. The West on its own added the filioque clause ("and from the Son") to the statement on the Holy Spirit, but the East never conceded its orthodoxy or the validity of its mode of insertion. In both East and West this creed became the primary eucharistic confession.


The creed popularly attributed to Athanasius is commonly thought to be a fourth or fifth century canticle of unknown authorship. As a more direct statement on the Trinity it became a test of the orthodoxy and competence of the clergy in the West at least from the seventh century. It differs from the other two main creeds in structure, in its more complex doctrinal character, and in its inclusion of opening and closing monitions. The Reformers valued it highly, the Anglicans even making some liturgical use of it, but the East did not recognize it, and in general its catechetical and liturgical usefulness has been limited.


The dangers of creed - making are obvious. Creeds can become formal, complex, and abstract. They can be almost illimitably expanded. They can be superimposed on Scripture. Properly handled, however, they facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church's fellowship in faith.

G W Bromiley
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

F J Badcock, History of the Creeds; W A Curtis, History of the Creeds and Confessions of Faith; O Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions; J N D Kelly, Early Christian Creeds and Athanasian Creed; A C McGiffert, Apostles' Creed; P Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom; H B Swete, Apostles' Creed.


Catholic Information

(Latin credo, I believe).

In general, a form of belief. The work, however, as applied to religious belief has received a variety of meanings, two of which are specially important. (1) It signifies the entire body of beliefs held by the adherents of a given religion; and in this sense it is equivalent doctrine or to faith where the latter is used in its objective meaning. Such is its signification in expressions like "the conflict of creeds", "charitable works irrespective of creed", "the ethics of conformity of creed", etc. (2) In a somewhat narrower sense, a creed is a summary of the principal articles of faith professed by church or community of believers. Thus by the "creeds of Christendom" are understood those formulations of the Christian faith which at various times have been drawn up and accepted by one or the other of the Christian churches. The Latins designate the creed in this sense by the name symbolum which means either a sign (symbolon) or a collection (symbole). A creed, then, would be the distinctive mark of those who hold a given belief, or a formula made up of the principal articles of that belief. A "profession of faith" is enjoined by the Church on special occasions, as at the consecration of a bishop; while the phrase "confession of faith" is commonly applied to Protestant formularies, such as the "Augsburg Confession", the "Confession of Basle", etc. It should be noted, however, that the role of Faith is not identical with creed, but, in its formal signification, means the norm or standard by which one ascertains what doctrines are to be believed. The principal creeds of the Catholic Church, The Apostles', Athanasian, and the Nicene, are treated in special articles which enter into the historical details and the content of each. The liturgical use of the Creed is also explained in a separate article. For the present purpose it is chiefly important to indicate the function of the creed in the life of religion and especially in the work of the Catholic Church. That the teachings of Christianity were to be cast in some definite form is evidently implied in the commission given the Apostles (Matthew 28:19-20). Since they were to teach all nations to observe whatsoever Christ had commanded, and since this teaching was to carry the weight of authority, not merely of opinion, it was necessary to formulate at last the essential doctrines. Such formulation was all the more needful because Christianity was destined for all men and for all ages. To preserve unity of belief itself was quite clearly stated. The creed, therefore, is fundamentally an authoritative declaration of the truths that are to be believed.

The Church, moreover, was organized as a visible society (see CHURCH). Its members were called on not only to hold fast the teaching they had received, but also to express their beliefs. As St. Paul says: "With her heart we believe unto justice; but, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation" (Romans x, 10). Nor is the Apostle content with vague or indefinite statements; he insists that his followers shall "hold the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me in faith" (II Tim. i, 13), "embracing that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he (the bishop) may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers (Titus i, 9). Hence we can understand that a profession of faith was required of those who were to be baptized, as in the case of the eunuch (Acts 8:37); in fact the baptismal formula prescribed by Christ himself is an expression of faith in the Blessed Trinity. Apart then from the question regarding the composition of the Apostles' Creed, it is clear that from the beginning, and even before the New Testament had been written, some doctrinal formula, however concise, would have been employed both to secure uniformity in teaching and to place beyond doubt the belief of those who were admitted into the Church.

Along with the diffusion of Christianity there sprang up in the course of time various heretical views regarding the doctrines of faith. It thus became necessary to define the truth of revelation more clearly. The creed, in consequence, underwent modification, not by the introduction of new doctrines, but by the expression of the traditional belief in terms that left no room for error or misunderstanding. In this way the "Filioque" was added to the Nicene and the Tridentine Profession forth in full and definite statements the Catholic Faith on those points especially which the Reformers of the sixteenth century had assailed. At other times the circumstances required that special formulas should be drawn up in order to have the teaching of the Church explicitly stated and accepted; such was the profession of faith prescribed For the Greeks by Gregory XIII and that which Urban VIII and Benedict XIV prescribed for the Orientals(cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion). The creed therefore, is to be regarded not as a lifeless formula, but rather as a manifestation of the Church's vitality. As these formulas preserve intact the faith once delivered to the saints, they are also an effectual means of warding off the incessant attacks of error.

On the other hand it should be remarked that the authoritative promulgation of a creed and its acceptance imply no infringement of the rights of reason. The mind tents naturally to express itself and especially to utter its thought in the form of language. Such expression, again, results in greater clearness and a firmer possession of the mental content. Whoever, then, really believes in the truths of Christianity cannot consistently object to such manifestation of his belief as the use of the creed implies It is also obviously illogical to condemn this use on the ground that is makes religion simply an affair of repeating or subscribing empty formulas. The Church insists that the internal belief is the essential element, but this must find its outward expression. While the duty of believing rests on each individual, there are further obligations resulting from the social organization of the Church. Not only is each member obliged to refrain from what would weaken the faith of his fellow-believers, he is also bound, so far as he is able, to uphold and quicken their belief, The profession of his faith as set forth in the creed is at once an object-lesson in loyalty and a means of strengthening the bonds which unite the followers of Christ in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism".

Such motives are plainly of no avail where the selection of his beliefs is left to the individual. He may, of course, adopt a series of articles or propositions and call it a creed; but it remains his private possession, and any attempt on this part to demonstrate its correctness can only result in disagreement. But the attempt itself would be inconsistent, since he must concede to every one else the same right in the matter of framing a creed. The final consequence must be, therefore, that faith is reduced to the level of views, opinions, or theories such as are entertained on purely scientific matters. Hence it is not easy to explain, on the basis of consistence, the action of the Protestant Reformers. Had the principle of private judgment been fully and strictly carried out, the formulation of creeds would have been unnecessary and, logically, impossible. The subsequent course of events has shown how little was to be accomplished by confession of faith, once the essential element of authority was rejected, From the inevitable multiplication of creeds has developed, in large measure, that demand for a "creedless Gospel" which contrasts so strongly with the claim that the Bible is the sole rule and the only source of faith. (See DOGMA, FAITH, PROTESTANTISM.)

Publication information Written by George J. Lucas. Transcribed by Suzanne Plaisted. In Memory of Reese Jackson The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York


DENZINGER, Enchiridion (Freiburg, 1908); MOHLER, Symbolism (NEW YORK, 1984); DUNLOP, Account of All the Ends and Uses of Creeds and Confessions of Faith, etc. (London, 1724); BUTLER, An Historical and Literary Account of the Formularies, etc., (London, 1816); SCHAFF, The History of the Creeds of Christendom (London, 1878); GRANDMAISON, L'Estasticite des formules de Foi in Etudes 1898; CALKINS, Creeds and Tests of Church Membership in Andover Review (1890), 13; STERRETT, the Ethics of Creed Conformity (1890), ibid.

Also, see:
Apostles' Creed

Nicene Creed

Athanasian Creed

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