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 The Principles of Theology - Article 8

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< The Ground of Acceptance

Part 4. The History of the Creeds [1]

The original germ would seem to have been a simple confession of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:16; Acts 8:37), but the present form of the Creed is evidently an amplification of the baptismal formula (Matt. 28:19, 20). This order of reference to the Persons of the Trinity is the framework of all later Creeds, and we may perhaps see some justification for this method in certain statements of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Tim. 3:16).

1. The Apostles’ Creed. This, though latest in its present form, is the earliest in substance. In origin it is a Western Creed, and the substance of it can be traced back to the Roman Church about the middle of the second century. In the Church of Aquileia, 400, such a Creed was in use, and it is here that the phrase, “He descended into hell,” is first found. The present form is Gallican, dating about 750. It would seem that the Creed represents a gradual expansion of the baptismal formula.

2. The Nicene Creed. The history of this Creed is, of course, associated with the Arian controversy, and at the Nicene Council, 325, the Creed which was taken as the basis of discussion was a document associated with Eusebius of Cæsarea. As the outcome of the discussions this Eusebian Creed became the basis of the Council’s statement, with the significant and crucial addition of the word Homoousios, to safeguard the Deity of our Lord against Arianism. In reality a new Creed, founded on that of Cæsarea, was issued by the Council. This ended with the words, “And in the Holy Ghost.”

But this literal Nicene Creed is not the one which we now use as Nicene, for certain important enlargements took place after the Nicene Council. Between Nicæa, 325, and Constantinople, 381, controversy became rife in regard to the Deity of the Holy Ghost, and the Creed, as we have it (apart from the Filioque clause), seems to have been based upon the local Creed of the Church of Jerusalem. It is first met with in a work of Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, 373, or 374, and is also found in some lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem. Dr. Hort has paid special attention to this interesting question, and his conclusion, as now stated, is thus described by a well-known authority, “The proof that he there offered has been accepted by practically all scholars as final, and need never be laboured through at length again.” [2] But Bishop Gibson does not accept this view without certain material qualifications. [3]

How this local Creed of Jerusalem became the Creed of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople is not clearly known, but it is thought that Cyril of Jerusalem, one of the leading Bishops there present, laid his Creed before the Council and it was received as an orthodox document. At any rate, at Chalcedon, in 451, it was received as the Creed of Constantinople, following immediately on the Creed of Nicæa. The addition of the Filioque clause is usually associated with the Council of Toledo, 589. [4] Although, therefore, the Creed is not strictly Nicene in the sense that it was drawn up at that Council, yet it may be rightly described by this name because “it contains the great formula which was then inserted in the Creed, and it guards and maintains the faith that was then defined against Arianism. [5] Three matters connected with the English translation are usually noted.

(a) “By Whom all things were made.” The original clearly shows that the Son, not the Father, is referred to as the Agent of creation. “Through Whom all things were made” (John 1:3, 8).

(b) “The Lord and Giver of Life.” Attempts are sometimes made to express accurately the original idea, which is “The Lord and the Life-giver,” referring to the Deity of the Holy Spirit in a way that the present English version cannot do. The new Canadian Prayer Book has a comma after the Lord.

(c) “One Catholick and Apostolick Church.” It has often been a matter of surprise that there is no English equivalent to the word “Holy,” and if, as is often thought, the omission was originally due to a printer’s mistake, the question naturally arises why it has never been corrected. There seems no doubt whatever that the word “Holy” ought to be read in order that we may understand the four essential marks of the true Church as “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic.”

3. The Athanasian Creed. The history and authorship of this document are matters of great controversy, because it is neither a Creed, nor does it come from Athanasius as the author. Waterland argues very ably for the authorship of Hilary of Arles, 429, and there does not seem much doubt that it was due to some author of the fifth century. Not many years ago a prevalent view was that it consists of two separate parts which were brought together in the present form of the Creed in the eighth century. [6] But this is now universally rejected, and more recent authorities tend to return to an approximation to Waterland’s view, at least of the date. It is thought that while verse 34 excludes Eutychianism, yet because that heresy is not formally condemned the Creed must be before 451. Ommanney argues that it probably arose in South Gaul in the fifth or sixth century. It was clearly influenced by the writings of St. Augustine. Bishop Dowden does not think that any evidence yet produced enables us with confidence to assign the authorship to any known writer, though he is strongly in favour of some time in the fifth century for its date. [7]

Its use as a Creed is peculiar to the Church of England, and was probably due to the desire of our Reformers to emphasise the importance of instruction and the necessity of an intelligent, clear, full faith. Up to that time the Creed had been used as a Canticle. Since then it has become definitely a confession of faith. It should be remembered that it is intended for those who already possess the actual faith. [8] The first verse refers to the necessity of holding the faith, meaning thereby to retain what we possess, not to obtain what we have not. It is not, therefore, for the heathen or those outside the Church, but for the Church’s own members, to safeguard them against error, to prevent them letting go what they have. As there is a tendency to deflect from the true standard the Creed is a test, a safeguard, like the plumbline or the spirit-level. And so it does not pass any judgment on man, or individuals, but is a declaration of the whole counsel of God on the matters concerned. It has two parts, dealing respectively with the Christian doctrine of God and the Christian doctrine of the Person of Christ, emphasising the importance of revelation and redemption. It means that we must have right thoughts of God and Christ, especially since in Christ alone God is a reality and power in human life. Mohammedanism separates Him completely from men. Buddhism loses Him entirely in the world. Paganism of every sort has no contact of God with men, no mediation, no salvation, no grace, no love. It is, therefore, essential and important to have true ideas of God, and so it is unfair to speak of the Creed as teaching salvation by correct opinions. Indeed, it refers to our giving account of our own works, though opinion always governs conduct. The Creed is to be regarded as an amplification of Scripture, and we only receive it because it can be proved thereby.

It is urged that the clauses about condemnation are really no stronger than those found in the New Testament (Mark 16:16; John 3:36; 12:48), so that what Scripture means the Creed means. At the same time, it is necessary to distinguish between the acceptance of the doctrines of the Creed and the use of the document itself in public services as a Creed. There are many who accept the former while thinking the latter inexpedient. They feel it better to avoid putting on the lips of a general congregation highly technical words and solemn assertions which can only be properly understood in the light of their original purpose and after due interpretation. It is noteworthy that the Church has never included anathemas in any formulary of public worship, so that our present use of the Athanasian Creed has been rightly described as “a definite and far-reaching change from what had previously been the case.” [9] It is also observable that Bishop Dowden is of opinion that “there is nothing essential to the faith in the retention of the minatory clauses.” [10] Further, it is well known that the American Church has omitted the use of this Creed altogether, while the Church of Ireland, though retaining it in its place in the Prayer Book, has, by omission of the rubric, dispensed with its use in public service. [11] The Canadian Church has also made its use optional.


>> Part 5. The Use of The Creeds



[1] It is unnecessary to state in detail the various points and stages of the history of these documents. Three modern works are ample for this purpose. Bishop Gibson, The Three Creeds (Oxford Library of Practical Theology); Dr. A. E. Burn, The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Athanasian Creed (three volumes, Oxford Church Text Books); C. H. Turner, The History and Uses of Creeds and Anathemas in the Early Centuries of the Church. Earlier works are Maclear, Introduction to the Creeds; Swete, The Apostles’ Creed; Lias, The Nicene Creed. A fuller bibliography is given in Gibson, ut supra, p. 316.
[2] C. H. Turner, ut supra, p. 41.
[3] Gibson, ut supra, pp. 169-174.
[4] But see Burn, ut supra.
[5] Gibson, ut supra, p. 115.
[6] In Swainson’s and Lumby’s works on the Creeds.
[7] Bishop Dowden, Further Studies in the Prayer Book, pp. 132-134.
[8] “These condemnatory expressions are only to be understood to relate to those who, having the means of instruction offered to them, have rejected them, and have stifled their own convictions, holding the truth in unrighteousness, and choosing darkness rather than light: upon such as do thus reject this great article of the Christian doctrine, concerning one God and Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and that other concerning the Incarnation of Christ, by which God and man was so united as to make one person, together with the other doctrines that follow these, are those anathemas denounced; not so as if it were hereby meant, that every man who does not believe this in every tittle must certainly perish, unless he has been furnished with sufficient means of conviction, and that he has rejected them, and hardened himself against them” (Burnet, On the Articles, p. 127).
[9] “The sense of the Spirit-bearing body, as true and real a thing as its more formal decisions, has always, it would seem, been clear in the end against the exaltation of anathemas into an integral and permanent part of the worship of the Christian people” (C. H. Turner, ut supra, p. 88).
[10] Dowden, ut supra, p. 127.
[11] For various views on the history, meaning, purpose, and liturgical use of the Athanasian Creed, see the valuable works by Dowden and Turner, already mentioned; and Some Thoughts on the Athanasian Creed, by Dean Armitage Robinson; and The Athanasian Creed in the Twentieth Century, by R. O. P. Taylor.



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Article 8

>> Introduction

>> The Creeds

>> The Acceptance of The Creeds

>> The Ground of Acceptance

>> The History of The Creeds

>> The Use of Creeds

Content of The Principles

>> Index

>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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