On Creedal Christianity

In praise of the early church creeds:

If one wanted to summarise the basics of the Christian faith, and present some of the main and vital teachings of the faith, how would one go about it? There are various ways that we could proceed, but the good news is, it has already been done.

Not only are there a number of famous early creeds that the church fathers helped to put together, but there are also various summaries of the basic declarations of faith penned by some of the New Testament authors. The former pronouncements of course are not inspired, while the latter are.

Before presenting a few of each, let me make six prefatory remarks. One, I have written before about so-called creedless Christianity. That has to do with those who claim they have ‘no creed but Christ.’ That might sound nice and spiritual, but it really is not. See my piece on that here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/31/creedless-christianity/

Two, while the early church did much in this regard, obviously plenty of other creeds and confessions have been penned over the centuries. Just a few well-known ones would include the Augsburg Confession (1530) for Lutherans; the Thirty-nine Articles (1562) for Anglicans, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) for Reformed Christians.

Three, some are hesitant to fully and firmly embrace any of these particular statements and confessions. C. S. Lewis for example famously wrote Mere Christianity in which he sought to help the Christian layman get a grasp on some biblical basics. He deliberately sought to avoid dogged sectarianism. As he said in part in the Preface:

The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian “denominations.” You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic. This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical). There is no mystery about my own position. I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England, not especially “high,” nor especially “low,” nor especially anything else. But in this book I am not trying to convert anyone to my own position.

Four, I have said previously that I am content to call myself a Nicene Christians. As I just mentioned, none of these creeds and confessions are inspired and inerrant, as is Scripture. But they can be quite useful in helping us set some basic boundaries as to what the biblical Christian should seek to affirm and promote. See that article here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/07/im-a-nicene-christian/

Five, when Christians – and even the biblical authors – highlight some of these priority beliefs (if I can put it that way), that is NOT to say other parts of the Bible are unimportant. Everything found in the Bible is important. However, not everything in it has to be perfectly understood and affirmed in order to be saved. I do not fully understand what is meant by “baptism for the dead” (1 Cor. 15;29), although I know enough to reject what one popular cult does with such a passage.

Six, a main point for me here is two-fold. One, I am very grateful that my salvation does not rest on having a perfect theology or a perfect understanding of all biblical teachings; and two, I am certain that when I get to heaven I will learn how much I did in fact wrongly believe.

As to the various biblical creedal statements, let me confine myself to the New Testament. As to the Old, one could readily highlight Israel’s Shema as found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”

Most scholars agree that these three NT passages at least can be considered to be such creedal formulations. They present, in quite concise form, what the inspired writers considered to be some of the core beliefs of biblical Christianity. The three of them are these:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)


Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)


Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
    vindicated by the Spirit,
        seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
    believed on in the world,
        taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)

As to the early church creeds, let me just feature two. These are likely the most famous and well-known of them all:

The Apostles Creed (developed from the second century onwards)


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 (from the Council of Nicea, 325)


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.

As I keep noting, these creeds are the formulations of men, as is everything since the closure of the New Testament canon. Thus all my articles are in this sense the writings of a mere man – but so too is everything else that has ever been written. So while not perfect and free of error, these creeds do seek to come close to capturing the biblical view of the Christian faith.

As godly men and women carefully and prayerfully sought to summarise or put in outline form the main teachings of the Christian belief system, creeds such as these are the sorts of things that have arisen. That are great tools indeed, but that does not mean they are set in stone and never can be improved upon.

Let me offer two examples. One four-word phrase in the Apostles Creed has been much debated. I refer to “he descended into hell.” Scholars today still are discussing this, and asking whether it is or is not fully biblical. But I have discussed the controversy elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/27/he-descended-into-hell/

And consider one important creed that I did not feature here: the Chalcedonian Creed of 451. While many theologians and scholars still have the highest praise for this creed as it especially sought to carefully and precisely deal with the doctrine of the person of Christ, it too is not the last word on the subject. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of Christ as one person but with two natures can still be thought about, discussed and assessed even further.

While these creeds are all the products of men, we can rightly think that the Spirit of God assisted these early believers in their endeavours. And that is what all of us should seek to do as Christians, whether we are writing articles, preparing sermons, sharing the gospel with others, of preparing a speech for a conference.

We must not forget that we will ever be perspired, but never inspired. Therefore we all need humility, along with much care and effort in Bible reading and study, as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us produce at least adequate and useful resources that we can share with others for the glory of God.

I for one am most grateful for all these works, be it the early creeds, the writings of learned Christians throughout the centuries, or the sermons, teachings and writings of contemporary theologians, pastors and church leaders.

Image of The Creedal Imperative
The Creedal Imperative by Trueman, Carl R. (Author) Amazon logo

For further reading:

There are plenty of volumes available to help us with the church creeds and councils, both past and present. Here are just a few that are worth consulting:

Bray, Gerald, Creeds, Councils and Churches. Mentor, 1984, 1997.
Holcomb, Justin, Know the Creeds and Councils. Zondervan, 2014.
Fesko, J. V., The Need for Creeds Today. Baker, 2020.
Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Creeds. Longmans, 1950.
Leith, John, ed., Creeds of the Churches. John Knox Press, 1963, 1982.
Stevenson, J., Creeds, Councils and Controversies, revised by W.H.C. Frend. SPCK, 1966, 1989.
Trueman, Carl, The Creedal Imperative. Crossway, 2017.
Van Dixhoorn, Chad, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms. Crossway, 2022.

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3 Replies to “On Creedal Christianity”

  1. Thanks Bill as I sometimes wonder whether some supposedly Christian religions are really Christian at all with all their symbolism and rituals but if they follow a creed I guess they are on the right path. It seems some people go to church/mass thinking that will get them into heaven. They can be very sincere loving people but don’t seem to know what the Bible is all about as they don’t read it but rely on the priest, bishop, minister to tell them about it, yet it is God’s Word or His Will for each one of us. I imagine this is because centuries ago people didn’t have the Bible and so relied on the clergy to convey its message and so the creeds were a good way to get people believing correctly with the basics.

  2. Don’t forget the Quincunque Vult (“Whosoever will”) or Creed of St. Athanasius. About twenty years ago, there was book called Crimes Against Logic, whose sophomoric author took issue with its line “We worship trinity in unity, and unity in trinity”, claiming this to be one such crime. But this self-appointed expert deliberately omitted the rest of the sentence, “neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance”. Incidentally, I’m an out-and-proud Homo, because I believe in the Homoousian…!

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