The Creed: Gateway to Grace

The Creed is both a prayer at Catholic Mass, and a basic catechetical instruction. It’s the statement of Catholic beliefs. What is a creed? Why do Catholics and other Christians need a creed? Here’s a look at how the creed developed and how it is crucial for Catholics today.

Singer-songwriter Rich Mullins won lasting fame with a series of contemporary Christian hits in the 1980s and 1990s. In less than a decade, he won a dozen Dove Awards. His anthem “Awesome God” remains a staple of evangelical praise. Mullins’s early music was influenced by his Quaker upbringing, which was austerely anti-dogmatic, and his nondenominational young adulthood. The Bible college he attended grew out of a movement whose foundational slogans touted “No creed but Christ.”

Reading in Christian history, he found a hero in St. Francis of Assisi, another poet given to spontaneous praise, a lover of spiritual freedom.

Yet, as Mullins learned, Francis drew his poetry from a deep well of Catholic doctrine and liturgy—from a tradition crystallized in its creeds.

Mullins’s study led him to love the creeds, so much, in fact, that he enrolled in RCIA classes in 1997. He died in an automobile accident that September, on the very eve of the day he was to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. The music he produced in that home stretch shows the change in his interior life. Among his most mature works is the song “Creed,” with its mighty chorus: 
And I believe what I believe 
is what makes me what I am. 
I did not make it. No, it is 
          making me. 
It is the very truth of God and 
not the invention of any man. 
I believe it, I believe. 
What you and I believe is making us what we are—and what we hope to be for all eternity. What we believe is a grace from God. You and I and Rich Mullins and St. Francis have been pleased to pledge it, to confess it, in the Church’s creeds.

What is a creed?

A creed is an authoritative summary of Christianity’s basic beliefs. In the articles of the creed, we profess our faith in mysteries—doctrines that could never be known apart from divine revelation: that God is a Trinity of persons, that God the Son took flesh and was born of a virgin, and so on. If God had not revealed the mysteries of Christianity, the mysteries we rehearse in the creed, we could never have figured them out on our own.

A creed is not the totality of Christian faith. It’s a summary that stands for everything that is taught by the Catholic Church, which is itself one of the mysteries we proclaim in the creed. A creed is a symbol of something larger—and, ultimately, of Someone we love, Someone who loves us and makes us who we are, by means of creeds and other graces.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it eloquently when it says that our faith does not rest ultimately in formulas, but in the realities expressed by those formulas, which faith allows us to touch (see CCC, #170). Faith is our personal clinging to God and to his truth in its entirety (see CCC, #150). It is our act of trust in everything God is and says and asks of us. Our object is not a proposition, but a Person. Yet we cannot love someone whom we do not know. The propositions of the creed help us along the way of knowledge, which is our way to love.

The need for creed

The word creed comes from the Latin word credo—literally translated: “I believe!”—which is the phrase with which Christians have always begun their profession. There is strong evidence that such summary acts of faith have been integral to Christianity from the very start. Credo (or its Aramaic equivalent) is the word cried out by the desperate father who begs Jesus for the healing of his child (Mark 9:24). St. Paul seems to allude to credal statements when he says: “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. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).

In the ordinary course of love, we believe with our heart and express our love with our words and deeds. If we live with integrity, there is a unity of our thoughts, words and deeds—our hearts and hands and voices. We say what we mean, and we do as we say. We “walk the talk.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that our recitation of the creed presumes a “mastery” of “material.” As Rich Mullins put it, the creed “is making” us. That “making” is an ongoing process. Think again about the man in the Gospel. He shouted out to Jesus, “I believe,” but then he quickly added, “Help my unbelief!” Our lives must be shaped by the Creed we profess, just as we ourselves must be mastered and enriched by the truth.

A creed marks the way of conversion, for a pilgrim Church on earth and for each of its members.

Creeds and conversion

Thus, creeds have always been an important part of the Rite of Baptism. This was one way the early Church made sure to fulfill Jesus’ command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Some of the most ancient creeds we know are simple statements professing belief in each of the persons of the Blessed Trinity. If they elaborate at all, they add statements affirming that Jesus is both God and man.

In the Church’s beginning, there were no New Testaments, no missals, no hymnals. The apostles would summarize the saving events of Jesus’ life, often in short, skeletal sermons—summaries of the gospel—that came to be known as the “rule of faith.” In Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles, we see this process at work. Peter preached a summary of Christ’s life and mission (see especially 2:29-36). The people experienced a change of heart (v. 37) and “received his word” and “were baptized” (v. 41). They heard the apostles’ teaching and went on to receive the Eucharist (v. 42).

The rule of faith, the creed in the making, was their gateway to the graced transformation made possible by the sacraments of initiation.

We find this pattern repeated frequently in the New Testament and, afterward, in the works of the early Church Fathers.

The rule of faith took many forms, but it always proclaimed certain mysteries: God is one; God became man in Jesus Christ; Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ is glorified and will come again. Over time, these proclamations became more detailed and more standardized. They were universally recognized marks of faith. In the East, they were known as “canons of truth,” from the Greek term kanon, a “measuring stick.”

From early on, there were two general types of creeds: the question-and-answer kind and the declaration kind. We still know both forms today.

The Church uses the Q&A form in Baptisms and at the Easter Vigil. It expresses the movement of conversion in dramatic terms as it moves from a rejection of sin and evil (“Do you reject Satan?” “I do.”) to an affirmation of the true God (“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty…?” “I do”).

Each “I do” resounds with power, glory and strength of commitment, reminding us of marriage vows and solemn oaths sworn in courtrooms. Like marriage, the Creed indeed changes us. It marks a key moment in the story of our ongoing conversion. It is making us.

I do declare

The “declaration creed” is even more familiar to us. We recite one of them at every Sunday Mass, and they are made up of a series of sentences that declare our belief in many distinct (but interrelated) mysteries: God’s fatherhood, Jesus’ divine sonship, the Holy Spirit’s divinity, the Church’s mission, future judgment and life everlasting.

Most missals give us both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed is based upon the faith expressed at the first two ecumenical councils of the Church: the fourth-century Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). The Apostles’ Creed is significantly shorter and less detailed; it is based upon the most ancient formula used by the Church in Rome; we find it in various forms dating back to the 200s.

For the last thousand years, we in the Western Churches have normally recited the Nicene Creed during Sunday Masses. The shorter and simpler Apostles’ Creed may be a suitable substitute for children’s Masses.

We recite the Creed after the homily. We recite it while standing. It is our custom to bow as we say the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

The Creed is the capstone of the Liturgy of the Word, a summation of the mighty works of God, past, present and future. We have heard the Law and the prophets and sung the praises of the Psalms. We have received the Gospel as truly as St. Peter’s congregation did on that first Pentecost. Now, as we recite the Creed, we say our “yes,” our Credo, like the first believers in Jerusalem.

It’s significant that, in our liturgy, the Creed follows after the Bible readings, since the Creed is a summary of the history of salvation. It’s helpful, too, that it comes after the homily. So even if our pastor is having a bad day and his homily notes don’t quite come together, we always end well with the Creed.

Development of doctrine

Our creeds emerged from those simplest and most ancient forms, but they developed over time. As 
the Church faced misunderstandings, dissensions and threats, it became necessary to respond with ever-clearer teaching. The Church’s doctrine did not (and does not) supersede the words of Scripture. Dogma is, rather, the Church’s authoritative interpretation of Scripture. For the Bible is not a self-interpreting text, as the Bible itself declares.

Think of the time, in the Acts of the Apostles, when St. Philip sees the Ethiopian man reading Isaiah the Prophet. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the man says, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” Philip responds by preaching the Rule of Faith. As Acts tells us, Philip “proclaimed Jesus to him” (see Acts 8:26-38).

Two thousand years later, we are not so technologically advanced that we no longer need such assistance.

Christians certainly needed it in the fourth century, when a teacher named Arius arose who claimed that Jesus was not truly God, but rather an exalted creature, neither eternal nor equal to God. Thus, Arius reduced God’s fatherhood to a mere figure of speech. If the Son was not eternal, then neither was God’s fatherhood. The Arian heresy spread rapidly. A few decades later, another movement threatened the traditional Christian faith in the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

To counter such opposition, the Church’s bishops gathered in Councils and forged the more detailed creeds. They had to do it, for the stakes were high. What was under attack was the truth about God, and the truth about our salvation. And the heretics always appealed to the Bible, as they interpreted it, to prove their false doctrine. History was making it clear that there were true and false ways of reading the Bible. The Arians and the Church held doctrines that were mutually exclusive. One had to be right and the other wrong.

The Councils pointed out that the heretics could not square their interpretation with the way Christians had always understood the Bible—the way that had been proclaimed throughout the world in the Rule of Faith, the Liturgy of Baptism and the Mass, and the earliest Creeds.
Here comes the Son

At the Council of Nicaea, the Church employed in its Creed a word that did not appear in the Bible. 
In Greek it is homoousion. We translate it to English as “one in being” (or “consubstantial”). Even if the term is not in Scripture, it sums up the very meaning of Scripture, the very identity of Jesus.

Homoousion captures the basic meaning of sonship. We know from our earthly families that children—sons or daughters—must share the nature of their parents. A human father cannot sire a puppy or a kitten; nor can he adopt one as his legally recognized offspring.

When we say that Christ is “one in being with the Father,” we are saying that he is God as the Father is God. They are coeternal, coequal. They share a love that is life-giving, a love we know in an analogous and imperfect way through human fatherhood.

Through the Incarnation, God the Son became what we are. He stooped down to the level of a creature, taking up what is ours and giving us what is his. He didn’t just assume human nature to wear it, like a jersey, for a day or two. He lived human life concretely and in the most painful and sacrificial ways. The human life he lived is a revelation of divine sonship, and that sonship is a revelation of God’s eternal fatherhood. God is the perfect Father, and there was never a time when he was not a Father, for he always dwelt with the Son in the uniting love of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus became what we are, so that we might become what he is. Through Baptism, we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). From that moment, we dwell in Christ, and he dwells in us. Sharing his nature, we share his sonship. We live the love of the Trinity. Thus, God’s fatherhood is the key not only to Jesus’ identity, but to ours as well. If God is our Father, then we are his family, his 
Church is our home.

That is our baptismal faith. It is the faith we profess in our baptismal creeds. To profess a different belief is to believe in a different God and to hope for a different salvation. But there is no other God, no other salvation.

Not an iota’s difference?

The great Fathers of the fourth century knew that, and they were willing to give their lives rather than change the articles of the Creed. Their opponents—those who wished for a compromise with the heretics—proposed a least-common-denominator approach to doctrine. They suggested that a single letter be added to homoousion—the Greek letter iota (i), which would change its meaning from “one in being” to “similar in being”—homoiousion. 
It was a deliberately ambigious phrase, because objects that are one and the same could also, and truthfully, be called “similar.” But the bishops would not accept this watering down of the faith and the Councils explicitly rejected it. One iota made all the difference in the world. Some Christians were martyred because of that one little letter.

The Creed, as it has come down to us, conveys the relational core of Christian faith. In telling the truth about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we profess that the mystery of God is the interpersonal relations we are called to share. We proclaim the relationship for which we have been reborn, and by which we are empowered to live as Jesus lived, to die with Jesus and to rise again to everlasting life.

And so, in the words of the Church, we “renew” our Baptism with the words of the Creed. And we are renewed. We are made a new creation, proceeding from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

By God’s grace, the Creed is making us.