Our sacred creeds

5 mins read
Catholics partake in the Communion of Saints when they profess the creed. CNS photo by Bob Roller

Every Sunday through the Nicene Creed, we Catholics profess our faith in Jesus Christ and express our complete conviction to the Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. We stand up in community, in the presence of our Creator and with the Communion of Saints, and say what we hold in our hearts: that we believe in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the holy Catholic Church. In a few words, we express our commitment to something eternal, something mysterious, something often scoffed at by the secular world.

Professions of faith

The word “creed’ is from the Latin “credo,” meaning “I believe”; it’s a commitment to a specific belief, a profession of faith. It is also called a symbol. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies creeds as “symbols of faith” (No. 187). It explains: “The symbol of faith, then, is a sign of recognition and communion between believers. … A symbol of faith is a summary of the principal truths of the faith and therefore serves as the first and fundamental point of reference for catechesis” (No. 188).

Creeds’ evolution

One creed often cited as the most ancient is the Jewish shema (meaning “hear” or “listen”), and it is found in both the Old and New Testaments: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Dt 6:4-5; see Mt 22:37). St. Paul in his letters to the different churches used language that influenced our creeds. His words to the Colossians resound in the creed said each Sunday: “He is the image of the invisible God, first-born of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible. … He is before all things” (Col 1:15-17). Paul exhorts us to confess our beliefs; “For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

Today, the Church acknowledges three creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene-Constantinople and the Athanasian. The first two are familiar to every Catholic and found in the pew missal. The Athanasian Creed is not as well known and is rarely used in the Church. Over the centuries other creeds have been prescribed by popes and Church councils; the Catechism states: “None of the creeds from different stages in the Church’s life can be considered superseded or irrelevant. They help us to attain and deepen the faith . … Among all the creeds, two [Nicene and Apostles’] occupy a special place in the Church’s life” (No. 193).

Apostles’ Creed

The Catechism states that “the Apostles’ Creed is so called because it is rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the apostles’ faith” (No. 194). A long-held Church tradition was that at Pentecost, as the apostles prepared to spread the Good News of Jesus, they wanted a common method of doing so. Legend is that they prepared a creed to which they all committed, and each apostle wrote an article of faith into the creed.

The Twelve Apostles receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit while composing the Apostles’ Creed. From Somme le Roy, a moral compendium. Public domain

This story was believed as late as the Council of Trent (1545-63). The Catechism from that great conference says: “Now the chief truths which Christians ought to hold are those which the holy apostles, the leaders and teachers of the Faith, inspired by the Holy Ghost, have divided into the 12 articles of the Creed. For having received a command from the Lord to go forth into the whole world, as his ambassadors, and preach the Gospel to every creature, they thought it advisable to draw up a formula of Christian faith, that all might think and speak the same thing.” Many scholars since Trent have debated if the apostles actually wrote the creed, but it certainly contains their beliefs as received from Our Lord Jesus Christ and would influence future professions of faith.

Some scholars debate that the Apostles’ Creed originated with the baptisms of the first Christians. St. Hippolytus (d. 235) in his catechism “Apostolic Tradition” (c. 215) tells how a bishop questioned those who presented themselves for baptism. The bishop asked three questions: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? … Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead? … Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” After each affirmative answer, the bishop lowered the candidate into the water.

Added to these questions were the teachings of the apostles, and by the eighth century the creed included the words we have today. The Apostles’ Creed remains part of every baptism ceremony and begins every Rosary. It may also be used in place of the Nicene Creed, especially during the Lent and Easter seasons.

Nicene Creed

The creed we say on Sundays, although part of Catholic history since the Ecumenical Council of Nicea, was not included in the Roman liturgy until the 11th century. At Nicea, in 325, the bishops condemned the Arian heresy that claimed Jesus was not God. The council issued a creed confirming Jesus as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.”

This language struck right at the heart of the heretic Arius and is at the center of what Catholics believe. At Nicea, the creed addressed the Father and the Son.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Mass Creed
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) explains how the Nicene Creed fits into the Mass: “The purpose of the Creed or Profession of Faith is that the whole gathered people may respond to the word of God proclaimed in the readings taken from sacred Scripture and explained in the homily and that they may also honor and confess the great mysteries of the Faith by pronouncing the rule of faith in a formula approved for liturgical use and before the celebration of these mysteries in the Eucharist begins” (No. 67). The GIRM continues in No. 137, “At the words et incarnatus est, etc. (and by the Holy Spirit … and became man) all make a profound bow; but on the solemnities of the Annunciation and of the Nativity of the Lord, all genuflect.” The pew missal designates this action by the congregation.

It was 25 years later at the first council at Constantinople (381) that the Holy Spirit was included in the creed and, in so doing, rejected those who opposed the divinity of the Spirit. Added to the original Nicene Creed: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father … ” (later changed in the West, “from the Father and the Son”). The bishops at Constantinople amended and clarified the statements of Nicea; thus the creed used today is a combination of language from both councils.

The Athanasian Creed is the longest of the three creeds, and, while not written by St. Athanasius, it uses his arguments to buttress against the heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries, including those that refuted Church teachings that the three persons of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal.
But no matter the creed, words alone, like faith alone, are not enough. Christ tells us to go out and witness to these truths, these ancient yet ever-new beliefs, fulfilling our profession of faith through our words and deeds.

D. D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.