PMW 2021-007 Guest article by W. Robert Godfrey (Westminster Theological Seminary, California)

Imagine a Christian gathering in Alexandria on the night before Easter, 173. A young man who has heard the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is ready to be baptized. He has received some instruction in the faith and has brought his life into conformity with Christian ethics. He stands clothed in white with others near the water for baptism. The bishop and presbyters approach and ask him what he believes. He recites a brief summary of the faith that he has memorized. Others about to be baptized recite the same summary. This summary used by those about to be baptized was written by the bishop himself some years earlier to help prepare new believers for baptism.

The summary grew out of the bishop’s sensitive response to Paul’s warning that from the very heart of the church would arise some who would proclaim a false gospel: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). The bishop knew that he was an overseer and a shepherd over a part of God’s flock and saw his responsibility to preserve the sheep entrusted to him. He saw the dangers that surrounded the sheep.

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The obvious danger to the flock was the pagan world that not only denied the truth of Jesus the Savior but persecuted His followers. But there were other less obvious dangers as well – dangers from those who claimed to be Christians but taught false doctrines. Some said Jesus had not really been a man with a physical body. Some said Jesus was only a man on whom the Spirit of God had come with unusual power. Many other heresies were taught. Some of the false teachers had organized their followers into churches that they proclaimed were the true churches of Jesus Christ.

The bishop recognized his responsibility to protect the people and the truth from these false teachers. Again he was inspired by the words of Paul, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2Timothy 1:13). The bishop drew up a brief pattern or “form of teaching” (Romans 6:17) specifically to summarize true Christian teaching in a way that would not only affirm the truth, but do it in such a clear way that followers of false teaching could not use it. This summary was then given to candidates for baptism as part of their instruction in the faith. The summary helped define the faith more clearly for the new believer, protected the faith from false teaching, and provided a testimony to the world as to the truth of Christian belief.

The bishop in 173 is imaginary and his precise line of thought is conjecture. But in the second century it is certain that local church leaders began to write brief summaries of the faith to use with candidates for baptism. These summaries are the earliest evidence for the emergence of creeds in the life of the church. (The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, which literally means “I believe” and was the first word in Latin creeds.) These creeds were designed to define the faith, protect the faithful, and testify to the world what the church believed.

In time the creeds moved from being related to the baptismal service to becoming a part of the regular worship service. The whole congregation was united in reciting the creed to express its common faith. Initially local churches developed their own creeds. But gradually they began to show their unity with other orthodox churches by moving toward a common creed. Today among evangelicals the most familiar creed is the Apostles’ Creed. Elements in that creed probably go back to those baptismal creeds of the second century, although the Apostles’ Creed did not become the most used creed in the Western churches until the ninth century.

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The Apostles’ Creed is basically Trinitarian, confessing the persons and work of the Godhead. The Creed confesses the Father in His creating work, the Son as incarnate Savior, and the Holy Spirit as the One who applies the work of Christ to gather the church and bring salvation.

The most celebrated creed written in the first 500 years of the church was the Nicene Creed. This creed was . . . . To finish reading this article click: The Value of Creeds

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