You may be asking this same question after attending a bible study or a worship service with us, or for some other reason…
To help answer this very important question, below is a very helpful answer from Rev. Danny Hyde of the United Reformed Church in North America.
The Short Answer: The English word ‘creed’ comes from the Greek credo, which simply means ‘I believe.’ Everyone has beliefs about what the Bible teaches. Though people sometimes claim to have ‘no creed but Christ,’ we find on closer questioning they often have very different ideas about who Jesus was and what he did for us. We believe having written statements of essential beliefs—creeds as well as their longer cousins, confessions—help us clarify our convictions and distinguish ourselves from others who profess Christ but perhaps believe wrongly. From ancient times Christians have expressed themselves in writing as a way to prevent confusion, pass on truth and hold the Church accountable to the historic landmarks of our catholic (one true Church) and Protestant heritage. Our doctrinal standards are not above the Bible but simply relate how we have interpreted the Bible on key issues.
For many of us, first trusting in Jesus Christ was very simple: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Although we had a basic knowledge of who Jesus was and who we were, now as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ we are called to pursue the Lord with all that we are, loving him with our hearts, our souls, and our minds (Matt 22:37).
Not only is this true of each of us individually, but this is also true corporately of the Church, not only here and now, but throughout the ages of history. One of the ways the Christian Church has expressed its knowledge and faith through the centuries is in the great creeds and confessions. The creeds and confessions are the expression of the Church’s faith, and by studying them, we grow in our knowledge and love of the Lord.
“But our church has no creed but Christ!” No doubt, you too have heard this from many Christians or have said it yourself. This bumper–sticker type slogan has virtually become a part of what it means to be Christian in contemporary churches. Have you ever stopped to think about what this statement means, though? This slogan is actually one of the most ironic statements anyone can make. You see, when a person or even a church states that they have “no creed but Christ,” they are ironically, in fact, making a “creed.” To say, “I have no creed,” is itself a creed! What we as Christians need to understand is that this is not a biblical way of thinking or acting, but in fact, shows that Christians have been influenced by modern philosophy. When someone makes the statement, “I have no creed but Christ,” he is actually falling into the trap of popular modern philosophy, when it says, “There is no absolute truth;” for, the statement, “There is no absolute truth” is itself a statement of absolute truth!
Let us all agree that everyone, including Christians and churches, have some system of belief behind what they say. Whether they speak of believing a particular creed or confession of faith or none at all, they all have a theology and way of thinking. Anytime you explain simply to a friend what you believe, whether he is a believer or an unbeliever, you are confessing your creed; you are confessing your faith in a way that explains how you understand the Bible.
What are Creeds and Confessions?
Since we all have a personal creed and a way of confessing our faith to the world, this shows us that creeds and confessions of faith are not bad things. We should not let the word “creed” frighten us. Therefore, when you hear us say, “We believe the Apostles’ Creed,” or, “We believe what the Heidelberg Catechism teaches,” do not think this means that we are somehow part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Instead, to be a “confessional church” is to be a church that believes and confesses the Word of God as summarized in the great creeds and confessions of the historic Church; it is to be a church firmly rooted in the Scriptures. From the very beginning of Israel’s life as a community through its maturation in the New Testament church, the people of God have confessed what they believe with brief summaries of the Faith. We call these summaries “creeds and confessions.”
Before the label “Roman Catholic” came to be what it is in our understanding, believers in the LORD and in Jesus Christ had creeds and confessions. Our English word “creed” is a literal translation of the Latin word credo, which means, “I believe.” A “confession” is a more detailed explanation of the Christian Faith, and this word also comes from a Latin root, meaning, “I publicly declare.” Notice how saying “I believe” involves knowing something, speaking something, and trusting something despite the world’s discouragement.
Where Are Creeds & Confessions in the Bible?
The practice of writing out summary statements of the Faith, which lives in the hearts and is confessed by the mouths of God’s people, is as old as the Church itself. We find in both the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Scriptures basic summary statements of the Faith of God’s people.
In the Old Testament, the people of God were like a little child confessing their faith in a very simple way. The primary confession of faith of Israel is what is called the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for “hear.” We find the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, which says, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God: the LORD is one!” These words were recited every morning and evening by God’s people (Deut 6:7).
Understand also the context in which the LORD gave this confession of faith to Israel: their exodus out of Egypt. After leaving the “house of slavery” (Exod 20:2), the LORD saved Israel from the armies of Egypt by leading them through the Red Sea on dry ground (Exod 14:22). After this climactic display of the LORD’s power in salvation and judgment, the LORD spoke his words to Moses, who then wrote them down for the people of God. In Deuteronomy 6, we have Moses’ command to the people of God to express their faith and commitment in the LORD by reciting this brief, radical creed. It was radical because they had just come out of Egypt, which had many “gods,” and they were about to enter the land of the Canaanites, who had many “gods” themselves. So it was in the midst of false religion and idolatry that the Israelites confessed to the nations around them, that the LORD alone was “God of gods” and “Lord of lords” (Ps 136:2–3), while the “gods” of the nations were merely “silver and gold, the work of men’s hands” (Ps 115:4).
With the coming of the Son of God in human flesh in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), the people of God reached an age of maturity. Therefore, the creeds and confessions that we read throughout the New Testament are many in number, and a fuller expression of the belief of God’s people.
The primary New Testament confession of faith is Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16). Peter’s confession of Jesus consists of two points. First, Jesus is “the Christ,” that is, he is the Messiah, the anointed One. In the Old Testament, there were three anointed “offices”—prophet, priest, and king. These anointed ones were the leaders of Israel. Therefore, when Peter calls Jesus “the Christ,” he is confessing that he is the final anointed prophet, priest, and king of God’s people and the One promised and hoped for in the Old Testament. In addition, as the Messiah, he is the Savior of his people. Second, Jesus is confessed to be “the Son of the Living God.” To be “the Son” of God means that Jesus Christ is eternal with God, that is, he is God!
Later on in the life of the Church, as the good news of Jesus Christ began spreading into the Gentile world, the Apostles gave the Church fuller creeds and confessions. Because they would soon die, the Apostles gave these more detailed creeds and confessions to the Church to record their teaching for generations to come.
Thus in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 Paul passes down the truths he received, “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Notice that Paul says this creed was not his own, but it had been passed down to him. One generation passes down the Christian Faith to another as a witness of what God has done. This is one of the reasons the historic Christian Church has included a confession of faith in public worship from the earliest of days of the Church. Paul also says he passed down the simple gospel: Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Moreover, these events of history were “according to the Scriptures,” that is, the Old Testament. Creeds, therefore, are not our own opinions, but a testimony of what God has done in sending his Son Jesus Christ.
The Epistle to the Ephesians is the epistle of the Church since its main theme is ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. In Ephesians 4:4-6, Paul records what scholars understand as a creed that a new convert to Christianity recited at baptism. Notice that this creedal statement speaks in very broad terms, saying, “There is one body . . . one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord . . . one faith . . . one baptism . . . one God and Father.” The most striking thing about this creed is that there are seven articles, or points of faith. Seven, of course, is the biblical number that oftentimes signifies completion. What we have in this creed, then, is the Christian Faith in summary. As well, this creed confesses that this truth unites us. Unlike the popular slogan which says, “Doctrine divides,” creeds are not meant to divide the Body of Christ, but they are in fact unifying statements. Notice that the creed in Ephesians 4:4–6 confesses that there is one body, one Spirit, etc.
A final example of a New Testament creed are the words of 1 Timothy 3:16. Paul’s words as recorded in first and second Timothy were among his last. He wrote to Timothy, the young pastor of the church in Ephesus. Paul desired to visit him (3:14), but until he came, he wanted Timothy to understand how to live within the household of God (3:15). First Timothy, then, is a kind of church order, that is, a rule book on how to pray, worship, teach, lead, choose elders and deacons, minister to widows, the rich, the poor, etc. In 1 Timothy 3:16 Paul says, “And confessedly great is the mystery of piety: Who was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.” Paul actually begins this creed with a preface, using the Greek work for “confession,” which I have translated as “confessedly.” Notice also that this confession of faith is not merely for the mind, but for our lives. “Piety” is the believers’ reverent response to God in all areas of his life as he/she seeks to show his/her gratitude. Creeds are utterly practical and devotional for us as Christians as they guide us in our thoughts about God and our prayers to God. This creed is a devotional aid for our piety because it focuses our hearts and minds upon the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
These texts of Scripture, both from the Old and New Testament, show us that creeds and confessions are not only what stuffy, “dead orthodox” churches have, or only what “Catholics” believe. Instead, Christians throughout the generations have written and recited creeds to express the faith that lives in their hearts.
To read the rest of this article that deals with Are creeds and confessions necessary? and How are they practically used? click here.