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Christianity Did Not Begin When We Were Born — An Excerpt from "Know the Creeds and Councils"

Categories Theology

Obviously, Christianity did not begin when we were born...Today’s Christianity is directly affected by what earlier Christians chose to do and to believe. (9)

9780310515098This is the central claim to Justin Holcomb’s new book Know the Creeds and Councils. And it's a good one.

He is right about the faith we profess and practice: "we are the recipients of a long line of Christians’ insights, mistakes, and ways of speaking about God and the Christian faith.”

Yet, as reading today’s excerpt will show you, rather than dismissing those “insights” and “ways” as archaic pablum, Holcomb helps interested Christians transform their view of creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils into springboards of worship to a truly gracious God.

After reading this excerpt share it with your people, so that they can appreciate the historic bedrock of our faith and respond in worship.


The main difficulty is untangling the language of the church of the past, particularly for those of us who do not have time or energy to devote to historical studies. The goal of this book is to guide readers past that difficulty and to provide an overview of the main historical developments in Christian thought. It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to all creeds, councils, confessions, and catechisms; that would take nothing less than an encyclopedia. However, I hope that after reading this book you will come away with a deeper and better understanding of how the church has wrestled with what continue to be the most important questions about Christian belief. 

The chapters are brief and to the point. For each creed, confession, catechism, or council, I present historical background, a short summary of the content, and thoughts on contemporary relevance. At the end of each chapter are discussion questions and recommended reading for further study. Before we examine the history itself, it will be important to learn the four major terms that you will encounter in this book. Each one represents a tool that the church has used to speak about God clearly and faithfully, to guide its members closer to God, and sometimes to distinguish authentic Christianity from the innovations, heresies, and false teachings that the New Testament warns of. While their purposes differ, all try to communicate complex theological ideas to people who don’t have sophisticated theological backgrounds (in some cases, to people who are illiterate). The four terms are “creeds,” “confessions,” “catechisms,” and “councils.” 


…While there are no official, full-blown creeds in the New Testament, scholar Ralph Martin has suggested that the beginnings of creeds are already present in the New Testament and were developed by early Christians to defend against subtle pagan influences and to establish key beliefs.  Many scholars believe that Paul recites an early creed in his letter to the Corinthians when he summarizes the facts that he taught 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 the apostles and many others]” (1 Cor. 15:3 – 7). Furthermore, in the church’s acts of baptism, Eucharist, and worship, certain prayers and early creed-like statements of belief were developed, such as “ Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3) and the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” While there is no formal creed in the pages of Scripture, the idea of a central, basic teaching of Christianity certainly is.

After the age of the apostles, the early church possessed what is known as “the rule of faith” or “the tradition,” which theologian Bruce Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.”  Early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Hippolytus all assume this “rule of faith,” an unwritten set of beliefs that had been passed down from the apostles and taught to Christian converts. In the second century, Irenaeus described the rule of faith in this way: “One God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.”

Irenaeus’s rule of faith sounds quite similar to later formal creeds and contains the essence of the gospel. As the early Christian community dealt with new heretical movements, the rule of faith gave birth to more precise statements of the essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. 

How Were Creeds Used?

…The great writer C. S. Lewis gave the following illustration to show the value of having confessions as well as creeds: “I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the [confessions] of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall [creeds], I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms [confessions], not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”

As Lewis’s illustration suggests, the creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways. Because creeds are bare-bones structures (the outlines of the sketch), it makes sense that the earliest statements of the church are creeds, while later statements of particular denominations are confessions. Creeds distinguish orthodoxy from heresy (or Christian faith from non-Christian faith). Confessions distinguish denominational distinctives (or one type of Christian faith from another type of Christian faith).

Use of Confessions

While confessions have not been as relevant to worship services as creeds have (it’s rare to find a congregation reciting the Twenty-five Articles of Religion on a given Sunday), they still play an important role in the life of the church. First, confessional statements form the basis of catechisms, which are used to introduce new believers and children to the basic teachings of the church. Second, confessions help a denomination to maintain doctrinal unity by providing a standard to which the teaching of individual congregations should adhere. This standard helps maintain denominational integrity and preserves the ideals of the group against cultural trends or the doctrinal innovations of an individual leader.

Some may worry that church confessions are archaic, that they undermine the overarching unity of the body of Christ, or that they nitpick over relatively insignificant issues of doctrine. While there may be some legitimacy to these critiques, it is important to keep in mind that confessions are meant to be worshipful responses to a truly gracious God. It isn’t enough for believers to stop at a basic knowledge of God, as Lewis so shrewdly noted, even though the basics tie together all the variations within orthodox Christianity. God has given us a lot of information about himself that a creed does not cover; it is within confessions that churches interpret that information and show believers how it can help them know God better. Seen in this light, the confessions of the church take on a new beauty, a beauty that finds its origin in the God of the gospel and in the salvation he offers to his people. (pgs. 10-13)

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils

By Justin S. Holcomb

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