The introductions to the works on Symbolics by
§ 1. Name and Definition.
or Rule of Faith, or Symbol, is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church.
A creed may cover the whole ground of Christian doctrine and practice, or contain only such points as are deemed fundamental and sufficient, or as have been disputed. It may be declarative, or interrogative in form. It may be brief and popular (as the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds), for general use in catechetical instruction and at baptism; or more elaborate and theological, for ministers and teachers, as a standard of public doctrine (the symbolical books of the Reformation period). In the latter case a confession of faith is always the result of dogmatic controversy, and more or less directly or indirectly polemical against opposing error. Each symbol bears the impress of its age, and the historical situation out of which it arose.
There is a development in the history of symbols. They assume a more definite shape with the progress of biblical and theological knowledge. They are mile-stones and finger-boards in the history of Christian doctrine. They embody the faith of generations, and the most valuable results of religious controversies. They still shape and regulate the theological thinking and public teaching of the churches of Christendom. They keep alive sectarian strifes and antagonisms, but they reveal also the underlying agreement, and foreshadow the possibility of future harmony.
§ 2. Origin of Creeds.
Faith, like all strong conviction, has a desire to utter itself before others—'Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh;' 'I believe, therefore I confess' (Credo, ergo confiteor). There is also an express duty, when we are received into the membership of the Christian Church, and on every proper occasion, to profess the faith within us, to make ourselves known as followers of Christ, and to lead others to him by the influence of our testimony.
This is the origin of Christian symbols or creeds. They never precede faith, but presuppose it. They emanate from the inner life of the Church, independently of external occasion. There would have been creeds even if there had been no doctrinal controversies.
In a certain sense it may be said that the Christian Church has never been without a creed (Ecclesia, sine symbolis nulla). The baptismal formula and the words of institution of the Lord's Supper are creeds; these and the confession of Peter antedate even the birth of the Christian Church on the day of Pentecost. The Church is, indeed, not founded on symbols, but on Christ; not on any words of man, but on the word of God; yet it is founded on Christ as confessed by men, and a creed is man's answer to Christ's question, man's acceptance and interpretation of God's word. Hence it is after the memorable confession of Peter that Christ said, 'Thou art Rock, and upon this rock I shall build my Church,' as if to say, 'Thou art the Confessor of Christ, and on this Confession, as an immovable rock, I shall build my Church.' Where there is faith, there is also profession of faith. As 'faith without works is dead,' so it may be said also that faith without confession is dead.
But this confession need not always be written, much less reduced to a logical formula. If a man can say from his heart, 'I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,' it is sufficient for his salvation (Acts 16:31). The word of God, apprehended by a living faith, which founded the Christian Church, was at first orally preached and transmitted by the apostles, then laid down in the New Testament Scriptures, as a pure and unerring record for all time to come. So the confession of faith, or the creed, was orally taught and transmitted to the catechumens, and professed by them at baptism, long before it was committed to writing. As long as the Disciplina arcani prevailed, the summary of the apostolic doctrine, called 'the rule of faith,' was kept confidential among Christians, and withheld even from the catechumens till the last stage of instruction; and hence we have only fragmentary accounts of it in the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers. When controversies arose concerning the true meaning of the Scriptures, it became necessary to give formal expression of their true sense, to regulate the public teaching of the Church, and to guard it against error. In this way the creeds were gradually enlarged and multiplied, even to the improper extent of theological treatises and systems of divinity.
The first Christian confession or creed is that of Peter, when Christ asked the apostles, 'Who say ye that I am?' and Peter, in the name of all the rest, exclaimed, as by divine inspiration, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God' (Matt 16:16).
This became naturally the substance of the baptismal confession, since Christ is the chief object of the Christian faith. Philip required the eunuch simply to profess the belief that 'Jesus was the Son of God.' In conformity with the baptismal formula, however, it soon took a Trinitarian shape, probably in some such simple form as 'I believe in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.' Gradually it was expanded, by the addition of other articles, into the various rules of faith, of which the Roman form under the title 'the Apostles' Creed' became the prevailing one, after the fourth century, in the West, and the Nicene Creed in the East. The Protestant Church, as a separate organization, dates from 1517, but it was not till 1530 that its faith was properly formularized in the Augsburg Confession.
A symbol may proceed from the general life of the Church in a particular age without any individual authorship (as the Apostles' Creed); or from an œcumenical Council (the Nicene Creed; the Creed of Chalcedon); or from the Synod of a particular Church (the Decrees of the Council of Trent; the Articles of Dort; the Westminster Confession and Catechisms); or from a number of divines commissioned for such work by ecclesiastical authority (the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England; the Heidelberg Catechism; the Form of Concord); or from one individual, who acts in this case as the organ of his church or sect (the Augsburg Confession, and Apology, composed by Melancthon; the Articles of Smalkald, and the Catechisms of Luther; the second Helvetic Confession by Bullinger). What gives them symbolical or authoritative character is the formal sanction or tacit acquiescence of the church or sect which they represent. In Congregational and Baptist churches the custom prevails for each local church to have its own confession of faith or 'covenant,' generally composed by the pastor, and derived from the Westminster Confession, or some other authoritative symbol, or drawn up independently.
§ 3. Authority of Creeds.
1. In the Protestant system, the authority of symbols, as of all human compositions, is relative and limited. It is not co-ordinate with, but always subordinate to, the Bible, as the only infallible rule of the Christian faith and practice. The value of creeds depends upon the measure of their agreement with the Scriptures. In the best case a human creed is only an approximate and relatively correct exposition of revealed truth, and may be improved by the progressive knowledge of the Church, while the Bible remains perfect and infallible. The Bible is of God; the Confession is man's answer to God's word.
The Bible is the norma normans; the Confession the norma normata. The Bible is the rule of faith (regula fidei); the Confession the rule of doctrine (regula doctrinæ). The Bible has, therefore, a divine and absolute, the Confession only an ecclesiastical and relative authority. The Bible regulates the general religious belief and practice of the laity as well as the clergy; the symbols regulate the public teaching of the officers of the Church, as Constitutions and Canons regulate the government, Liturgies and Hymn-books the worship, of the Church.
Any higher view of the authority of symbols is unprotestant and essentially Romanizing. Symbololatry is a species of idolatry, and substitutes the tyranny of a printed book for that of a living pope. It is apt to produce the opposite extreme of a rejection of all creeds, and to promote rationalism and infidelity.
2. The Greek Church, and still more the Roman Church, regarding the Bible and tradition as two co-ordinate sources of truth and rules of faith, claim absolute and infallible authority for their confessions of faith.
The Greek Church confines the claim of infallibility to the seven œcumenical Councils, from the first Council of Nicæa, 325, to the second of Nicæa, 787.
The Roman Church extends the same claim to the Council of Trent and all the subsequent official Papal decisions on questions of faith down to the decree of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and the dogma of Papal Infallibility proclaimed by the Vatican Council in 1870. Since that time the Pope is regarded by orthodox Romanists as the organ of infallibility, and all his official decisions on matters of faith and morals must be accepted as final, without needing the sanction of an œcumenical council.
It is clear that either the Greek or the Roman Church, or both, must be wrong in this claim of infallibility, since they contradict each other on some important points, especially the authority of the pope, which in the Roman Church is an articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiæ, and is expressly taught in the Creed of Pius V. and the Vatican Decrees.
§ 4. Value and Use of Creeds.
Confessions, in due subordination to the Bible, are of great value and use. They are summaries of the doctrines of the Bible, aids to its sound understanding, bonds of union among their professors, public standards and guards against false doctrine and practice. In the form of Catechisms they are of especial use in the instruction of children, and facilitate a solid and substantial religious education, in distinction from spasmodic and superficial excitement. The first object of creeds was to distinguish the Church from the world, from Jews and heathen, afterwards orthodoxy from heresy, and finally denomination from denomination. In all these respects they are still valuable and indispensable in the present order of things. Every well-regulated society, secular or religious, needs an organization and constitution, and can not prosper without discipline. Catechisms, liturgies, hymn-books are creeds also as far as they embody doctrine.
There has been much controversy about the degree of the binding force of creeds, and the quia or quatenus in the form of subscription. The whole authority and use of symbolical books has been opposed and denied, especially by Socinians, Quakers, Unitarians, and Rationalists. It is objected that they obstruct the free interpretation of the Bible and the progress of theology; that they interfere with the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment; that they engender hypocrisy, intolerance, and bigotry; that they produce division and distraction; that they perpetuate religious animosity and the curse of sectarianism; that, by the law of reaction, they produce dogmatic indifferentism, skepticism, and infidelity; that the symbololatry of the Lutheran and Calvinistic State Churches in the seventeenth century is responsible for the apostasy of the eighteenth.
The objections have some force in those State Churches which allow no liberty for dissenting organizations, or when the creeds are virtually put above the Scriptures instead of being subordinated to them. But the creeds, as such, are no more responsible for abuses than the Scriptures themselves, of which they profess to be merely a summary or an exposition. Experience teaches that those sects which reject all creeds are as much under the authority of a traditional system or of certain favorite writers, and as much exposed to controversy, division, and change, as churches with formal creeds. Neither creed nor no-creed can be an absolute protection of the purity of faith and practice. The best churches have declined or degenerated; and corrupt churches may be revived and regenerated by the Spirit of God, and the Word of God, which abides forever.
§ 5. Classification of Creeds.
The Creeds of Christendom may be divided into four classes, corresponding to the three main divisions of the Church, the Greek, Latin, and Evangelical, and their common parent. A progressive growth of theology in different directions can be traced in them.
1. The Œcumenical Symbols of the Ancient Catholic Church. They contain chiefly the orthodox doctrine of God and of Christ, or the fundamental dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. They are the common property of all churches, and the common stock from which the later symbolical books have grown.
2. The Symbols of the Greek or Oriental Church, in which the Greek faith is set forth in distinction from that of the Roman Catholic and the evangelical Protestant Churches. They were called forth by the fruitless attempts of the Jesuits to Romanize the Greek Church, and by the opposite efforts of the crypto-Calvinistic Patriarch Cyrillus Lucaris to evangelize the same. They differ from the Roman Creeds mainly in the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit, and the more important doctrine of the Papacy; but in the controversies on the rule of faith, justification by faith, the church and the sacraments, the worship of saints and relics, the hierarchy and the monastic system, they are much more in harmony with Romanism than with Protestantism.
3. The Symbols of the Roman Church, from the Council of Trent to the Council of the Vatican (1563 to 1870). They sanction the distinctive doctrines of Romanism, which were opposed by the Reformers, and condemn the leading principles of evangelical Protestantism, especially the supreme authority of the Scriptures as a sufficient rule of faith and practice, and justification by faith alone. The last dogma, proclaimed by the Vatican Council in 1870, completes the system by making the official infallibility of the Pope an article of the Catholic faith (which it never was before).
4. The Symbols of the Evangelical Protestant Churches. Most of them date from the period of the Reformation (some from the seventeenth century), and thus precede, in part, the specifically Greek and Latin confessions. They agree with the primitive Catholic Symbols, but they ingraft upon them the Augustinian theory of sin and grace, and several doctrines in anthropology and soteriology (e.g., the doctrine of atonement and justification), which had not been previously settled by the Church in a conclusive way. They represent the progress in the development of Christian theology among the Teutonic nations, a profounder understanding of the Holy Scriptures (especially the Pauline Epistles), and of the personal application of Christ's mediatorial work.
The Protestant Symbols, again, are either Lutheran or Reformed. The former were all made in Germany from A.D. 1530 to 1577; the latter arose in different countries—Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland, Hungary, Poland, England, Scotland, wherever the influence of Zwingli and Calvin extended. The Lutheran and Reformed confessions agree almost entirely in their theology, christology, anthropology, soteriology, and eschatology, but they differ in the doctrines of divine decrees and of the nature and efficacy of the sacraments, especially the mode of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper.
The later evangelical denominations, as the Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Arminians, Methodists, Moravians, acknowledge the leading doctrines of the Reformation, but differ from Lutheranism and Calvinism in a number of articles touching anthropology, the Church, and the sacraments, and especially on Church polity and discipline. Their creeds are modifications and abridgments rather than enlargements of the old Protestant symbols.
The heretical sects connected with Protestantism mostly reject symbolical books altogether, as a yoke of human authority and a new kind of popery. Some of them set aside even the Scriptures, and make their own reason or the spirit of the age the supreme judge and guide in matters of faith; but such loose undenominational denominations have generally no cohesive power, and seldom outlast their founders.
The denominational creed-making period closed with the middle of the seventeenth century, except in the Roman Church, which has quite recently added two dogmas to her creed, viz., the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (1854), and the Infallibility of the Bishop of Rome (1870).
If we are to look for any new creed, it will be, we trust, a creed, not of disunion and discord, but of union and concord among the different branches of Christ's kingdom.
—Creeds of Christendom