The ancient creeds: Essential truths that unite ChristiansWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
This well-known quote has been attributed to various individuals ranging from Augustine to Rupertus Meldenius, an otherwise obscure Lutheran from the 17th century. Whatever the source, it resonates with our desire for peace and unity within the Body of Christ.
But what exactly are the essentials of our faith? To what extent do we have liberty in non-essentials? How do we categorize non-essentials anyway?
The Church has struggled with these questions throughout its history, perhaps never more than at present. Followers of Jesus often follow the culture instead, dividing over issues that have little or nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ.
Healing our rifts and pursuing unity with our brothers and sisters is vital for the health of the Church and for our witness to the world. The ancient creeds are a good place to start; they encapsulate what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” and defined as “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
The Apostles’ Creed
Composed sometime during the 2nd century, the Apostles’ Creed is the oldest formal confession of faith in church history. Initially serving as a baptismal formula, it distills the core of the apostles’ teaching and summarizes the heart of Gospel truth. Virtually every church tradition that holds to historic Christianity has recognized or at least acknowledged it as a statement of essential Christian belief. Following is a modern ecumenical version from the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC):
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
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,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
There are slight variations in wording among different denominations. The phrase “he descended to the dead” is a later addition to the text that is excluded in some versions. Also, the word “catholic” means “universal” and does not refer specifically to the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, some versions read “the holy Christian church” to avoid misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the Apostles’ Creed sums up the essence of the Christian faith, only a few generations removed from New Testament times.
The Nicene Creed
By the 4th century, Christianity had grown to encompass most of the Roman Empire, and numerous heresies had sprung up with it. The most insidious of these heresies involved the deity of Christ and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Trinity. To address these issues, the Nicene Creed was hammered out at two ecumenical church councils: the first in Nicaea (present-day Iznik, Turkey) in AD 325, and the second in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in AD 381. Following is a modern ecumenical version agreed upon by the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET):
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 men 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 into 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 worshipped 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.
Essentially an expansion on the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed uses more specific language to describe the divine nature of Jesus, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. Still rooted in the core teaching of Scripture, it was the first creed to gain universal authority in the church as a summary statement of the faith once delivered to the saints.
What the creeds do and do not say
Despite their brevity, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds both offer rich, concentrated summaries of the central truths of the Christian faith. There have been other creeds throughout church history, but these two distill the core of what the apostles taught, what the early church believed, and what almost all Christians from every tradition can agree with. In fact, they encapsulate the basic truths that a person must believe to be considered a genuine Christian.
Both creeds are built around a trinitarian framework focusing on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – one God in three persons. Within that framework, all the basic truths of historic biblical Christianity are affirmed.
God the Father is the creator of all things, the physical universe as well as the spiritual realm. Jesus is the Son of God, our Lord the Messiah, equal with the Father and of one nature with him, fully God and fully human. All things were created through him. For our salvation he became a man, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died in our place and was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, from where he’ll return to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will be without end. The Holy Spirit is also the Lord, the one who gives us physical and spiritual life, equal in glory with the Father and the Son. He spoke through the prophets, draws all believers into union and fellowship in the one universal Church that Jesus is building, from which his sisters and brothers eagerly await the resurrection of our bodies and everlasting life with our God.
Beyond these foundational truths of the faith, the creeds are silent on any number of secondary issues. They have nothing to say about forms of church government, modes of baptism or communion, styles of worship, roles of women and men in the church, views about creation and eschatology, or ways to engage ethical disagreements or moral failures among believers or those outside. The creeds most certainly do not address political issues, socio-economic models, approaches to education and parenting, levels of cultural engagement, or questions about food, drink, fashion or entertainment.
Confusing primary and secondary issues
All these secondary issues (and many more beside) have their proper place in the thought and life of a Christian. They’re not irrelevant, but they’re also not primary issues that are vital to the Gospel. People of faith can have sincere disagreements about them (as they have throughout church history) and still be true followers of Jesus.
Yet for all that, believers past and present have continued to find reasons to polarize, tribalize and anathematize each other over matters that aren’t central to the Gospel. The problem begins with confusing primary issues with ones that are secondary, tertiary, or merely personal or cultural preferences. It ends with ungracious and uncharitable rejection of people who believe in the same God and follow the same Jesus as we do, but have a different opinion about politics, the days of creation, the end times, or women in ministry.
This is not a one-way problem. Just as it’s possible to make secondary issues primary, there’s an equal danger of making primary issues secondary – or irrelevant. Responding to failures and abuse within the church, there are those who’ve jettisoned the core of the faith in whole or in part. Teachings about the authority of Scripture, the reality of sin, judgment and the atoning death of Jesus are considered by some to be holdovers from a patriarchal past that must be left behind. Sadly, those who deny these core truths of the faith may still consider themselves Christians, allowing them to be led astray and lead others away from the good news of Gospel truth.
The hopeful challenge of Christian unity
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It’s a noble sentiment, but perhaps not as clear as it might be when it comes to the Christian faith. Speaking of scriptural truths as essential or non-essential can be misleading, or even dangerous. There’s no filler in God’s Word, nothing that’s non-essential. All of it is his gracious revelation of himself and his plans, to us and for us.
That said, not everything in Scripture is of equal weight or significance to Christian faith and practice. Rather than essentials and non-essentials, the church has traditionally found it wise to speak of primary issues as opposed to those which are secondary, tertiary, or matters of preference or conscience.
Primary issues are non-negotiable. As summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, these are the core truths that form the heart of the Gospel on which all believers can and should agree. Those who don’t cannot be considered genuine Christians. This is a hard truth in our cultural moment, but one to which true followers of Jesus must hold, for the sake of our Lord’s testimony, and for the sake of those with whom we share the Gospel.
When it comes to non-primary issues, we still need to exercise wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, as well as care for others and for ourselves. If something is taught in Scripture, we’re not at liberty to simply ignore or dismiss it as not applying to us. Love for God and for our neighbour requires thoughtful, prayerful consideration of how these teachings impact our lives and those of others. To what extent are we free in these matters? What about the conscience of those around us? How have our personal and cultural biases shaped what we believe about these issues?
These aren’t abstract considerations for those who study theology or church history. They form the bedrock of our unity in the body of Christ. We share a faith once delivered to the saints, which the ancient creeds have distilled from Scripture and summarized in brief. But because God’s ways are higher than ours, he has given us many other truths which we may not fully understand and about which we can charitably disagree. And because God loves unity in diversity, he’s placed us in varying cultural contexts that inform how we approach our faith and live our lives.
As followers of Jesus who hold to the truth of the Gospel, we’re free to have differing opinions about many things and still treat one another with grace, as sisters and brothers in the Lord. In our fractured culture and churches, this is more imperative than perhaps at any other time. More than that, it’s a hopeful challenge for repairing and building Christian unity for the honour of our Lord and the good of a watching world.
As Jesus said to his followers, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Sources and further reading
Michael Bird, “What is the Apostles’ Creed?” Zondervan Academic, September 21, 2018.
Joe Carter, “9 things you should know about the Apostles’ Creed,” The Gospel Coalition, December 12, 2018.
Justin Holcomb, “The Nicene Creed: Where it came from and why it still matters,” Zondervan Academic, March 9, 2018.
JoHannah Reardon, “The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds,” Christianity Today, July 30, 2008.
Jared C. Wilson, “What is the Apostles’ Creed?” Christianity.com, August 11, 2022.
“What is the Nicene Creed? Its significance in church history,” Christianity.com, June 29, 2023.
“The Apostles’ Creed: Its history and origins,” Logos, January 18, 2022.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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