Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part I

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about the importance of the early Christian creeds. In light of the multifarious challenges facing Christians today, everything ranging from post-modernism, progressive Christianity, liberation and process theologies, the ever-increasing proliferation of cults (e.g. Scientology), heresies (e.g. oneness Pentacostalism), other non-orthodox portrayals of Jesus, or just the seemingly endless battles of biblical interpretation, it seems critical to retrieve a clear understanding of what the early church held to be the most basic, most fundamental, and most central beliefs of the Christian Church- the church founded by the Apostles and eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thus, regaining a familiarity with these core beliefs, handed down by the first witnesses, and later consolidated by Christ-followers into formal and definitional statements, can provide a second mooring for understanding what we believe, why we believe it, and why we need to defend it. This task, therefore, can help us to better discern, as the theologian Thomas Oden put it, what is “Classical Christianity” over and against other, non-classical christianities.

Further, knowing the creeds can also help us to better appreciate the rich, intellectual history of our faith, something we probably want to do as loyal defenders of Christ’s church, but are often times unaware of. So, to know the deposit of faith left for us by our spiritual forefathers (and mothers!), can be not only apologetically useful for defending certain indispensable truth claims, but also spiritually formative in putting us in touch with our own past, a past often disparaged not only by those outside the Christian faith but also those within it.

Before we continue with this project, let me state up front: I am not claiming that creeds are on the same authoritative level as the revealed Scriptures themselves. The content of revelation is in the Bible. Creeds, if anything, are nothing more than an extraction and summarization of those parts of the inspired Scriptures that are most clear to us and most weighty for the life of the follower of Jesus. The earliest creeds were baptismal formulas developed in house churches, designed to help neophytes (new believers) express their newfound faith in Christ and enter into His community of faith.

In this series of posts, therefore, I would like to invite everyone into a conversation that, hopefully, will be an ongoing exploration of one of the earliest, and possibly first truly universal, creeds of the apostolic Church, the Nicene Creed (325 AD). I will take each line of the Nicene Creed and discuss it in detail. In doing so, this will raise all kinds of good questions about what are, in our contemporary contexts, the kinds of claims we need to defend in order to remain faithful to a Christianity that is rooted in a historical proclamation, not just in theological musings unanchored from historical events and metaphysical realities.

Moreover, we might also see where we do have some disagreements within the church catholic (Eastern, Orthodox Protestant, and Roman), perhaps not about the creedal claims themselves but about how more precisely to understand each claim. This endeavor should lead to fruitful theological discussion (something the early church Fathers never shied away from), a discussion that has already begun in many scholarly circles. Finally, as we go through this I will be studying and completing our discussion using J.N.D Kelly’s classic work on the topic, shown here:

In going forward, then, what I hope to accomplish is to think about the kinds of apologetic issues that arise as we explore each statement of belief found in the Nicene Creed. So, for example, if the first line of the creed states: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty,” what claims can we draw out of this that apologists would need to defend?

For example, in examining the first line, I see the need to defend the truth claim “that there is one God” not 8, or 12, or zero. Moreover, I should probably also defend the claim that God is called “Father” and not “mother” or “brother.” In first thinking about the kinds of things we would need to defend in order for a core belief to be true, only then can we consider what sources (philosophical, historical, scientific) we should access to get the data we need to defend that claim. Thus, line 1 of the Nicene Creed about belief in “one God” could be defended from Scripture alone (Gen 1:1, Jas 2:19), but, it would seem that natural theology is necessary to make a cogent case for its truthfulness. And then, we might further ask, which disciplines fuel natural theological arguments and who has presented most articulately or powerfully certain natural theological claims.

Finally, it is worth thinking about what audiences we need to defend this claim against (e.g. some theologians might reject the notion that God should be called “Father.” Should we agree with them, or stick with what is clearly stated in both Bible and creed?). Obviously, atheists, and even some who identify as “Christian” believe that there is no God to speak of; that god is just a concept. And so on, and so forth.

In the next post I will look more specifically at the Nicene Creed and its origins. Then, I will begin to extract from each line the propositional content requiring argumentative defense.