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Christian beliefs

Overview of the historical Christian creeds:
The Nicene, Apostles', and Athanasian creeds.

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See also our essay on an overview of historical Christian beliefs

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The Nicene Creed: Written 325 and modified 381 CE:

Most Christian faith groups recognize this creed. It was originally written and adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. It was then modified at the second Council at Constantinople in 381 CE. where a description of the Holy Spirit was added. It is more properly called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan or Constantinopolitan Creed. 4

It contains beliefs that were later incorporated into the Apostles' Creed (shown below). It also describes:

  • Christ as having existed since before the creation of the world, who will return to earth at some time in the future, to judge everyone, including the dead.

  • Christ is "one substance" with God.

  • Baptism is needed for the remission of sins; this implies that only baptized persons will be saved; the rest will automatically spend eternity in Hell after death. 5

  • The Holy Spirit as the giver of life who has spoken through the Prophets and is to be worshiped and glorified.

The Nicene Creed does not mention the belief that Christ visited Hell after his death; that was an addition in the later Apostles' Creed. As with the later creed, this this text completely ignores the earthly ministry of Jesus. Various translations from the original Greek read something like: "...he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate..."

In 569 CE, the Toledo Council added the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. This phrase states that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and from the Son. The Eastern Orthodox churches have historically rejected the filioque, citing John 15:26 as proof that the Holy Spirit proceeded only from the Father. Friction over the filioque contributed to the split between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1054 CE.

One translation of the Nicene Creed is:

"I 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 ages, God
of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father,
through Whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was
incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man: Who for us, too, was crucified under
Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried: the third day He rose according to the Scriptures, ascended into
heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father: He shall come again with glory to judge the living
and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son: Who
together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified: Who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and life of
the age to come.

Amen."
7

According to Richard Baldwin Cook, 6 one word in the Roman Catholic version of the Nicene Creed appears to have been changed three times since it was originally written. This is the very first word, which has been variously translated as either "We" or "I:"

  • The creed was originally written in Greek by Greek-speaking councils of bishops in the 4th century CE. It began "We believe."

  • When the creed was translated into Latin, it became "I believe" due to an error or intentional mistranslation by the translators.

  • During the 20th century, when the Mass began to be spoken in the local language, it began "We believe."

  • When the Committee on Divine Worship of the US Conference of Bishops updated the Mass it reverted to what it regarded as the original Latin version, and the creed began "I believe." This became the standard wording at the beginning of Advent in 2011.

The original text, in Greek, still reads "We believe." The Committee's rationale is that if the creed starts with "I" then "... each individual in the liturgical assembly professes his or her own faith." However, the historical creed, starting with "We" includes both the agreement of the individual and the rest of the assembly.

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The Apostles' Creed: Written 4th to 6th century CE?

It is called the Symbolum Apostolorum in Latin

Opinions differ about the origin of this creed:

  • The traditional belief is that after Jesus' execution, many of the apostles prepared to follow the Great Commission by leaving Jerusalem and teaching the gospel throughout the world. In order to make certain that each apostle taught the same message, they jointly composed the Apostles' Creed before their departure. The creed thus believed to have been created in the early 1st century CE. Tradition has its creation occurring at Pentecost, ten days after Jesus' ascension to heaven. According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ascended on Monday, one day after women found the tomb empty. According to the same author, writing in Acts, 40 days passed between his resurrection and ascension.

  • However, according to most religious liberals and religious historians, there was little uniformity of belief in the early Christian church. Author Gregory J. Riley wrote:
  • "Even in the same geographical area and sometimes in the same cities, different Christian teachers taught quite different gospels and had quite different views of who Jesus was and what he did." 1

It was only in the late 4th century CE that the Christian church became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This created a need for doctrinal consistency. The authors and the date of composition of this creed are unknown. It is believed by most theologians and religious historians that the Creed was written later than the second century CE.

  • The earliest record of the wording of the creed was found in the writings of Caesarius of Arles, who died in 542 CE. 2

The Apostles' Creed is much shorter than the Nicene Creed. It describes belief in:

  • God, as originally described as Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the creator of the universe.

  • Jesus Christ, God's only begotten son, who was born of a virgin, executed, descended into Hell. He rose again and ascended into heaven.

  • The Holy Spirit, the person by which the Trinity communicates with mankind.

  • The "catholic church" which is generally interpreted:
    • By Roman Catholics as referring to the Roman Catholic Church,

    • By many conservative Protestants as referring to all born again Christians, and

    • By other Protestants as referring to all "Christians." Unfortunately, there is little consistency as to which denominations are considered Christian. For example, some denominations that consider themselves Christians regard The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and/or the Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. as being outside of historical Christianity. In return, these two denominations -- and others -- regard themselves as being the only true Christian group.

  • The communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body after death, and eternal life after death.

Different versions of the creed exist. One is:

"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." 2

Some Protestant versions replace "catholic Church" with "Christian Church" even though it is a mistranslation of the original. 7

According to Rufinus of the Church of Aquileia, writing about the year 400 CE, the original form of the Apostles' Creed did not contain the clauses "Creator of heaven and earth", "descended into hell", "the communion of saints", "life everlasting", nor the words "conceived", "suffered", "died", and "Catholic"." 3 These were apparently later additions to the original "Old Roman Creed." They seem to have been forgeries made to the original in order to make the Creed agree with the evolving Church theology at the time.

Eastern Orthodox Churches do not formally recognize the Apostles' Creed, although there is little in it with which they would disagree.

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Webmaster's personal comments on the Apostles' Creed. Bias alert:

It is a pity that the author(s) of the Apostles' Creed did not write "was crucified by the occupying Roman Army" instead of "was crucified." That way, the individuals primarily responsible for Jesus' execution would have been highlighted. Jews would not have been blamed -- or at least not blamed as much. Countless Jewish lives might have been saved during the various genocides over the many centuries since the Apostles' Creed was written if the individuals actually responsible for the execution had been emphasized. This is one of the greatest missed opportunities in history.

It is curious that no saying, teaching, or activity by Jesus between the time of his birth and trial before Pontius Pilate is mentioned. His entire ministry on Earth is ignored. It is as if it was totally without significance.

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Athanasian Creed: Late 5th century CE?

This much longer creed was originally thought to be written by Athanasius, (328-373 CE) who was bishop of Alexandria. However, it is now believed to have been written late in the 5th century CE. It deals mainly with the Trinity, and includes the beliefs of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. It further describes:

  • That only Christians can be saved; everyone else automatically goes to Hell. This makes one's salvation largely dependent upon where in the world one was born. Those born in one of the Americas are most likely Christian and are more liable to end up in Heaven; Those born in the Middle East which is largely Muslim are given little chance according to the creed. Similarly those born in countries that are mainly Hindu, Buddhist, are out of luck according to the creed.

  • The three persons of the Trinity, none of whom were created or begotten, but have been in existence for all eternity.

  • That the three persons are equal to each other and are a unity.

  • That Jesus Christ is both perfect God and perfect man, yet "is not two but one."

The criteria for salvation, according to this creed, are:

  • Only those who were baptized, hold the correct religious beliefs and have done good works during their lifetime will go into life everlasting in Heaven.

  • Persons who were not baptized or who do not believe the proper teachings or who have done evil during life will go "into everlasting fire." This is apparently a reference to never-ending torment in Hell.

Unfortunately, no human, with the possible exception of Jesus has led a life completely free of sin. The Creed gives no indication of the amount of wiggle room allowed before the totality of one's evil deeds reach a magnitude that prevents one from attaining Heaven. The creed gives no indication whether many good deeds can compensate for bad deeds that one has committed.

One translation is:

"Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold the true Christian faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish for eternity.

This is the true Christian faith, that we worship one God in three Persons and three Persons in one God without confusing the Persons or dividing the divine substance.

For the Father is one Person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is still another, but there is one Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, equal in glory and coequal in majesty.

What the Father is, that is the Son and that is the Holy Spirit: the Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated; the Father is unlimited, the Son is unlimited, the Holy Spirit is unlimited; the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal; and yet They are not three
Eternals but one Eternal, just as there are not Three Who are uncreated and Who are unlimited, but there is One who is uncreated and unlimited.

Likewise the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.

So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord, and yet they are not three Lords but one
Lord.
For just as we are compelled by Christian truth to acknowledge each Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the Christian religion to say that there are three Gods or three Lords.

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten by anybody.

The Son was not made or created, but was begotten by the Father.

The Holy Spirit was not made or created or begotten, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Accordingly there is one Father and not three Fathers, one Son and not three Sons, one Holy Spirit and not three Holy Spirits."

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Gregory J. Riley, "One Jesus, many Christs," Harper SanFrancisco, (1997), Page 4 & 5. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. "The Apostles' Creed," Creeds of Christendom, at: http://www.creeds.net/
  3. "Apostles' Creed," New Advent, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  4. The text of the Nicene Creed, as modified in 381 CE can be read at: http://www.iclnet.org/
  5. Two translations of The Nicene Creed can be found at: http://www.ortech-engr.com/
  6. Richard Baldwin Cook, " 'I believe' instead of 'We believe' = Is not the language of the Nicene Creed," Rough Sects, 2011-NOV-20, at: http://rbc-in-md5.blogspot.com/
  7. "The Apostles [sic] Creed," Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, at: http://www.aflc.org/pdf%27s/Creeds.pdf This is a PDF file.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-OCT-23
Latest update: 2011-NOV-21
Author: B.A. Robinson
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