How Did We Get Our Creeds?

Around 308, Rufinius wrote an exposition of our most popular, the Apostles’ Creed,  and popularized a legend that each of the 12 (excluding Judas Iscariot) contributed a line. Fun legend it may be, but poor history; the real story is far cooler. I did some digging for a class on how we got our creeds (specifically the Apostles’ and Nicene), and found our Christian creeds are built upon:

Apostolic testimony

Rufinius wasn’t completely off, apostolic testimony or kerygma, does underpin our creeds. A kerygma is an apostolic proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, and each is rooted in their witness to the Incarnation. This is why we say suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died and was buried/On the third day, he rose again because it locates Jesus in history, confessing facts that can be historically proven or disproven. The power of this historical locality means we Christians believe in Jesus not out of convenience or blind trust – we believe based on historical truth. Without the historical reality of the Incarnation, we have nothing [1]. This is why Paul was able to say “if Christ were not raised, our faith is in vain.”

Baptismal formulae

Early Christians took Jesus literally and seriously (such a novel approach!), so when he said “And baptize everyone in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” they did just that. You can see easily in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (c. 215) an interrogatory baptismal formula containing nearly the entire Apostles’ Creed:

When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him shall say: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?” And the person being baptized shall say: “I believe.” Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say: “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?” And when the person says: “I believe,” he is baptized again. And again the deacon shall say: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and in the resurrection of the body?” Then the person being baptized shall say: “I believe,” and he is baptized a third time.

Debates (and slapping) over theology

The first 400 or so years of the church was one big argument about who exactly Jesus is: Docetists thought he only appeared to be human; Arians that he was a created being like us; Catholics and Orthodox Christians argued whether he sent the Spirit or if just the Father sent him. I’ve seen posts on Facebook about such theological arguments that boil down to, “Stop fighting and focus on Jesus :) #smh” which, is… cute, but naïve. Being exact in our theology about God is damned important, and deserves argument.

The council of Nicea was called in 325 to discuss the teachings of Arius, that Jesus was not co-equal with the Father but was a created being. Arius’ teachings had rocked the Church. New, Arian Churches sprouted and confusion on the nature of Jesus, because they challenged traditional understanding. Constantine, to his credit, called the bishops to Nicea to debate the matter and out of it we received the first draft, if you will, of the Nicene Creed. During the meeting, Arius was allowed to speak. His teachings so agitated Saint Nicholas – yes, Santa Claus – that he got up, crossed the room and slapped Arius. Now, we shouldn’t slap people (actually they jailed St. Nick over the incident) but we should get that excited about theology.

It was not until more than 125 years later that St. Athanasius and the Council at Chalcedon explained intellectually what was known by faith, that Jesus was begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made

Lex orandi, lex credendi

An intriguing, and almost scandalous to the evangelical mind, common thread to the above three are united in this last building block to our Christian creeds. It is rooted in adherence to Apostolic Tradition: that which has been handed down to Christians to pray and practice (lex orandi), this is what Christians also should believe (lex credendi). The lex rule has had a greater influence on more second tier beliefs and practices, such as prayers for the dead (a post for another day), but the most interesting influence was on the theology of Jesus’ humanity.

In the mid 400s controversy erupted between a bishop named Nestorius and the church over devotion to Mary and the divinity of Jesus. In the East, Mary had a special title, Theotokos, the “God-bearer” or “the Mother of God”. Nestorius argued that Jesus’ two natures, divine and human, were not commingled, and since humanity could not give birth to the divine, she could not be the Theotokos, but must be the Christokos, the “Mother of Christ”, that is, of his human, not his divine nature.

Christians weren’t having it. At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius was removed from office, his teachings repudiated, and the Theotokos was affirmed alongside a confession that Jesus’ two natures were united, being complete God and complete human being. Ephesus laid the groundwork for Chalcedon, where the Nicene Creed was (mostly) drafted into the form we know today. Interestingly, it was the common practice of devotion to Mary as the Mother of God (lex orandi) that directly led to the Church formulating the Christian doctrine of hypostatic union (lex credendi).

On another post, I’ll share how we got I believe….in the communion of saints into the Apostles’ Creed.


The far cooler, 450 year story arc of our Apostles’ and Nicene-Chalcedon creeds show us how critical it is to know what we believe and why, and to stay true to our historical witness. At several turns the truth about Jesus could have been obscured and our faith hijacked, and we owe a debt to those who came before and held tight to the deposit of faith.

We owe it to them, to God and to ourselves, to know our creeds, by heart, and why each part is true. Without it, we throw ourselves to the mercy of every wind of doctrine or any teaching our ears want to hear. Let’s rededicate ourselves to knowing the great creeds by heart, confessing them daily as an active renewal of our baptismal commitment to Christ.


[1] Endnotes are for detours. Let me note here my view that the Evangelical obsession with finding Noah’s Ark, proving a 6-day creation or other adventures in biblical literalism gets it ass backwards. Christianity is not proven by the historical fact of the Exodus, the Flood, or King David; Christianity rises and falls on whether Jesus is risen. Paul said this himself… in the Bible. If we stopped trying to excitedly show people the wavy line of stratum in the rock layer as proof of Noah’s Flood and instead pointed them to the empty tomb we might actually lead people to Jesus… just saying.



  1. I wasn’t aware of the lack of historical evidence for King David, but it was cool to then read about the Tel Dan stele that was discovered in 1993, mentioning “House of David”. I don’t believe historical evidence will soften any hardened hearts, but I do find it edifying and the closest we’ll get to a photo album of the faith.


    1. Relics of any sort, the kind that substantiate our faith, allowing us to touch history, are important, no doubt. Christians have always loved relics, so I won’t dispute that. My point is more about order of precedence. We present evidence of, say Noah’s Ark, as substantiation of Jesus being true. I dispute that order. Jesus’ resurrection substantiates the faith, and is our bedrock. But if the Ark story were nothing more than fable, it wouldn’t tear down the truth about the resurrection. We have to keep this order of precedence in mind. We can cherish relics to edify us, but be careful not to let them be the bedrock of our faith nor a proof to unbelievers. It only detracts from the centrality of Christ.


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