Evolution of the Creeds

Recently some of us have been engaged in conversation on a message board about the Trinity. Often we face a very smug attitude that says, “the church already dealt with this question and if you don’t agree with the church then you are a heretic.” This rhetoric comes from Protestant and Catholic alike since they both agree on the same doctrine of God: the Trinity. However, when one actually takes the time to look at the creeds and line them up side by side, he sees that there was a clear evolution of thought. That is to say, the Trinity developed over time in the post-biblical age. In order to demonstrate this crucial point, let’s take a look at each of the major christological creeds in turn.

Apostle’s Creed, c. 150 a.d.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (i.e. universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Notice how this early creed is in fact unitarian. There is only one who is called God in this creed–the Father. Furthermore, we notice another trend, which may be a danger sign. Rather than talking about what Jesus said and did (like the four gospels) the creed skips from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” There is nothing wrong with omitting information about the human life of Jesus, but it should serve as an early indication that the church was already shifting the focus from the faith Jesus believed in and preached to faith in Jesus. The next creed used this one as a template:

Nicene Creed, 325 a.d.
We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth;
who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, and is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those that say ‘There was when he was not,’ and, ‘Before he was begotten he was not,’ and that, ‘He came into being from what-is-not,’ or those that allege, that the son of God is ‘Of another substance or essence’ or ‘created,’ or ‘changeable’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

This was the original Nicene Creed. It was revised and finalized at the next counsel into the more familiar version. This creed was instigated by Constantine in order to unite Christianity and thus, serve to unite the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the creation of this creed (under coercion) caused the exact opposite—disagreement, hatred of fellow Christians, excommunications, exiles, and even blood shed for the next 60 years. This creed was designed to exclude Arians from the Christian faith. The story of the formation of this creed can be read in Dr. Richard Rubenstein’s book When Jesus Became God.

    We need to notice three major things.

  1. it follows the pattern of the Apostle’s creed except it adds quite a bit about Jesus (not to mention the anathemas at the end).
  2. the attention has been drawn even further away from Jesus’ sayings and deeds and shifted entirely onto his ontological properties (ontological relates to one’s being, nature, or substance) rather than his functional properties (functional relates to what Jesus did, what he is doing, and what he will do when he comes back).
  3. this is a binitarian creed because there are only two who are called “God.” Notice that the holy spirit is mentioned (just like in the Apostle’s creed) but there is no theology ascribing personhood to it. It wasn’t for another 60 years that the holy spirit was defined.

Hans Küng’s comments are insightful
If we take the New Testament as a criterion, we cannot deny that the Council of Nicaea certainly maintained the New Testament message and did not Hellenize it totally. But it is equally beyond dispute that the council remained utterly imprisoned in Hellenistic concepts, notions and thought-models which would have been completely alien to the Jew Jesus of Nazareth and the earliest community. Here in particular the shift from the Jewish Christians apocalyptic paradigm to the early church Hellenistic paradigm had a massive effect. (Hans Kung, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future, Continuum International Publishing Group In, NY, NY, ©1994, page 182.)

Yet this shift from the “apocalyptic paradigm” (i.e. focused on the coming kingdom) did not stop in 325 a.d. at Nicaea. Gradually it became clear that the holy spirit needed to be added in. But it wasn’t clear exactly how to do that. Even as late as 380 a.d. there were a variety of opinions regarding how to understand the holy spirit.

As late as 380 a.d. Gregory of Nanzianzus reports
Some of our theologians consider the holy spirit to be a certain mode of the divine agency, others, a creature of God; others, God himself. Others say, they do not know themselves which of the two opinions they ought to adopt, out of reverence for the holy scriptures, which have not clearly explained this point. (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations, 31.12)

So, how did they resolve this? They convened another council and concluded the following:

Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 a.d.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended in heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

This creed is often referred to as the Nicene Creed or the Nicene-Constantinople Creed and it is recited in churches throughout the world in Sunday morning liturgy. The three chief architects of this creed were Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (also known as the three Cappadocians). These men were able to use high level philosophy to construct this understanding of God, which today (sadly) lies at the heart of “orthodox” Christianity.

Notice that finally, at the end of the 4th century we have a true trinitarian creed wherein the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all understood to be God. The evolution has moved from the unitarianism of the Apostle’s Creed (c. 150 a.d.) to the binitarianism of the Nicene Creed (325 a.d.) to the trinitarianism of the Constantinopolitan Creed (381 a.d.). Even so, the evolution did not stop there (as you might have suspected). The next 70 years were filled with controversies over how Jesus could be both God and Man at the same time. Several viewpoints were proposed. The more politically savvy of the theologians were able to promote their viewpoint and win out over the lesser voices. Finally in 451 a.d. the Chalcedonian Creed was codified by Pope Leo I. It did not follow the pattern of these first three creeds but rather built upon them the doctrine of the dual natures (also called hypostatic union).

Chalcedonian Creed, 451 a.d.
Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul [meaning human soul] and a body.
He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted.
Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these “last days,” for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten — in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function.
The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union.
Instead, the “properties” of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one “person” and in one reality [hypostasis, hence the term, “hypostatic union”].
They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word [Logos] of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers has handed down to us.

By 451 a.d. the philosophers and theologians had so complicated the core doctrine of Christianity that the average Christian was told to just believe without worrying about understanding what they were to believe. People were told that God is a mystery, and we should not expect to understand him. The clergy was there to interpret these high-level ideas to the common man and it is the public’s job to believe and obey the clergy. Someone has summarized it thus, “If you try to understand the Trinity, you will lose your mind. If you don’t believe it, you will lose your soul.”

Naturally, this set up the sort of medieval Christianity that we read about in our history books. In effect, Christianity was mutated from a 1st century, Jewish, messianic, monotheistic, movement centered on obedience to Jesus as Lord to the sort of philosophical, incomprehensible, hairline, creedal distinctions quoted above. Does anybody else sense the need to go back to the Bible for our source of truth? Why not simply accept Jesus’ creed (Mark 12.29), the creed of all Israel: the Shema?

Deuteronomy 6:4
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent analysis Sean. Thanks for putting the time in to investigate these creeds.

    I agree, why not base your creed on Scripture and then there is no need to develop, change and modify your statement of beliefs. Though that change may happen, because of new truth revealed from the Scriptures, to have a creed that changes and begins to look less and less like the Scriptures is odd. Sadly now, most people would base their theology on the teachings of men rather than Scripture.

    Another good “creed” for Biblical Christians (along with your suggested Deut. 6:4) could be Matthew 16:16 – “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    I look forward to other’s comments.

    Reply

  2. I pray one day you may embrace the Christian faith. Your comments attacking the doctrines of the church are disturbing, you cannot do so and be a Christian. Let us consider that knowing God is important and no attempt to communicate all that God is is a mere confusing of the laity. One needs not only confess that God is one (for the devils do that). But also, Jesus must be greeted with the confession of Thomas “My Lord and My God.” (John 20:28). Your salvation cannot be accomplished by a mere man, but only by the God-man Jesus Christ. The mere fact of the horrific neglect of teaching doctrine does not justify not teaching it or mocking it. It is the highest call of the church to proclaim the God who is, the Triune, Tri-Personal God.

    Reply

  3. Jared, thanks for logging on and commenting. Do you see a change in the creeds as has been cited above?

    Reply

  4. Jared Nelson,

    On John 20.28 (and also Heb 1.8) see this article.

    On the idea that because Jesus is not a “God-Man” he cannot accomplish salvation, do you have a single verse to that effect? The OT system consisted of killing unblemished animals to atone for the sins of the people. Everyone then and now knows that a sheep, goat, bull, or cow’s life is not 100% equal to the lives of all the people for whom the animal was atoning. What makes sacrifices work is that God accepts them. So, the OT precedent is that the sacrifice is never of equivalent value to the people. What makes Jesus’ sacrifice work is that God accepts it, not that Jesus is in some mysterious and ontological way equivalent to all humans who ever lived in value. The Bible just doesn’t talk that way (though St. Anselm did).

    In addition, according to the Trinity Jesus is God thus he is immortal (immortal = unable to die cf. 1 Tim 1.17). So, Jesus didn’t really die on the cross in the trinitarian framework. No, only impersonal human nature died. The person, Jesus, survived his own death as 100% God. Thus, the biblical unitarian understanding of Jesus’ death attributes much more significance to the cross event because we recognize that a perfect human actually and literally died (ceased to live) for those three days. For a God-man to shed the “man” for 3 days is no big deal…he still survives as God (and what we have is a stunt not an actual death). However, for a human to trust God to the point of death even death on a cross is a marvelous example to us of how we should be.

    grace & peace

    Reply

  5. On the “development of the creeds” – Indeed, there is a development of language. This does not mean that the concept of Jesus as God was a development. Our Scientific language about anatomy has developed, but we did not invent anatomy, but observed it. The concept that Jesus is God is present in the Scriptures and the language develops as various ways to communicate the original concept are explored and some ruled incongruent with Scripture. Development is not invention, it is a search for precision.

    On the sacrifice of the God-man. Infinite offense must have an infinite answer. God makes clear in Isaiah in several places, of which Isaiah 43:11 is an example that: “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior.” We would understand this in an ultimate sense. The accomplishment of ultimate salvation of the soul is the work of God. Indeed, this is the image presented in John 4:42 when they spoke of Jesus: ‘They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”‘

    God shares His glory with no man The Scriptures make clear commands that no one is to be worshiped except God. (Ps 115:1, Isa 42:8, Luke 4:8) Yet, we also see that the author of Hebrews wants to attack the idea that Jesus is just a high figure like an angel. In Heb 1:5-6, the author writes that the Father says of the Son: “Let all God’s angels worship him.”

    Language is a malleable thing that can be twisted to one’s own fancy. I’m sure that you can try to get out of the Scripture calling Jesus God (as is admitted) and that words ascribed to Yahweh are said to be words the Father speaks to Jesus (Heb 1:8). At some point, you must ask yourself: What if “Jesus is God,” means that Jesus is truly the God of Israel, Creator and worthy of worship as God? To deny Him that honor and glory is to deny God. You believe that God is one? Even the demons believe that, it is not sufficient. God is one. And the Father is God, The Son is God and the Spirit is God. I invite you to worship the God who is. May your beliefs match the sentiments of Christians since the beginning, as a Christian in 110AD wrote:

    “My spirit is a humble sacrifice for the cross, which is the stumbling block to unbelievers but salvation and eternal life to us. Where is the wise? Where is the debater? Where is the boasting of those who are thought to be intelligent? For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.”

    To deny Jesus is God, is to deny he is the Christ, for to be Christ is to be God (Jer 23:5-6). The Child to be born is to be called “mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6). To deny Christ is to be without Christ, which in itself is hell. I pray you come to know Jesus as Lord, in all that entails. Do not look to explain away the teaching and language of Scripture. Jesus is God, and worthy of your worship.

    Reply

  6. Sorry, I see I did not answer 3 errors you made:

    1) You said “What makes sacrifices work is that God accepts them.”

    Since Unitarians like to accuse all Christians of using Greek Philosophy, I shall point out that such a statement has more in common with Medieval philosophies of Nominism rather than 1st Century Christianity. If God is Just, injustice demands by God’s nature to be answered, and not just because he feels like it.

    2) You said “What makes Jesus’ sacrifice work is that God accepts it, not that Jesus is in some mysterious and ontological way equivalent to all humans who ever lived in value. The Bible just doesn’t talk that way ”

    I recommend Paul epistles for your consideration, for the Scriptures do speak that way:

    1Co 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
    Rom 5:15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.

    3) You said “In addition, according to the Trinity Jesus is God thus he is immortal (immortal = unable to die cf. 1 Tim 1.17). So, Jesus didn’t really die on the cross in the trinitarian framework. No, only impersonal human nature died. The person, Jesus, survived his own death as 100% God.”

    I would suggest understanding Trinitarian theology before attacking it. Jesus is one person, two natures. Those two natures are his person and neither is “impersonal” but make up his person. Jesus was without sin (Heb 4:15), and thus would never die. How did Christ die then? He became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21) and the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Who died? The person Jesus Christ, not a nature.

    Reply

  7. Posted by JohnO on November 5, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Jared,

    I’ve done a fair bit of work concerning the atonement. I would offer it, but it seems that you aren’t much interested in a dialogue. Sean brings up viable points and you hand-wave them away as “you just don’t understand”.

    Reply

  8. I merely pointed out he does not properly understand Trinitarianism. I guess it depends on what you mean by dialogue. I’m not interested in heretical Unitarian beliefs. Also, frankly, the Unitarian works I’ve read on the atonement are merely reactionary against Orthodox Christianity rather than positive systems, as is most of Unitarianism – it is mere modernist ego that prefers what is new to what is old merely for novelty sake. Such is most American/English modern heresies (Mormon, One-ness Pentacostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc). I am concerned that you embrace the Christian faith and give up your sect and heresy. I pray you do for the salvation of your soul.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Andrew Cottrill on November 11, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Thank you Jared for defending orthodox Christianity against this Unitarian rubbish. It’s sad to see people reject the true faith.

    Reply

  10. Posted by JohnO on November 15, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Jewish monotheism is older than Trinitarian orthodoxy

    Reply

  11. The Triune God is older than Judaism and Trinitarianism.

    Reply

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