At Sunday Masses, just after the Liturgy of the Word, Catholics across the world stand shoulder to shoulder to recite the Creed—which you may have noticed includes some rather unique terms and a moment of surprising repetition.
“I believe,” we begin. What follows all sounds fairly obvious and rather vital for Catholicism—such as belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, baptism, the saints, etc.
But how we say it all and the words we use offer profound insights—especially about Jesus Christ—that are, sadly, not often unpacked for the faithful.
The First Creeds
From the Gospel of Matthew, we hear Christ’s commandment to go forth and baptize all nations (that is, all peoples) in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Not surprisingly, it became common for baptisms in the earliest years of the Church to use that precise language.
In time—especially during times of persecution—those being baptized were expected to acknowledge publicly that they do indeed believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well as other beliefs central to Catholicism, such as the resurrection. Such acknowledgement would often come by way of a simple question-answer format.
For instance, in a second century baptismal instruction used in Rome1, the catechumen (that is, the person seeking baptism) would be asked the following, to which the person would respond “I believe.”
“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died, and rose the third day living 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?”
“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?”2
Now, you may notice a few traits here that are also apparent in the Creed that we recite at Mass. The questions are relatively short for God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and all the other elements of belief, such as the resurrection. But like the Creed, the section about Christ is much longer and it includes several statements both about Christ’s divinity and his humanity. But why is this the case? What was happening in the early Church that made all this necessary? And why must we still use these same words today?
The First Few Centuries
First, a brief reminder of early Church history—especially the critical decades when the aging followers of Christ began teaching in earnest the next generation of apostles, or bishops, and by extension their followers.
This careful preservation of the shared, lived memory of Jesus Christ was (and is) even all the more important because of what we believers say about his human and divine natures—not to mention in how his passion, death, and resurrection are the keys to the salvation of human souls.
In other words, what’s at stake in teaching about Jesus correctly is an understanding of our very salvation. Which is why the descendants of those first followers were so careful in how they preserved and passed on the memory of Christ’s history among us.
Not surprisingly, there were voices that got some of this wrong—whether by accident or design. These wayward beliefs, known by the technical term “heresies,” championed errors often out of an inability to comprehend the amazing and revolutionary truths of Jesus Christ.
In the second century, for instance, we find Docetism, from the Greek word “to appear,” which denied Christ’s humanity. In short, it taught that Christ simply appeared human. He was, they believed, really only pure, divine spirit.
A related heresy was Gnosticism, from the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism taught that secret information was needed to be saved. It also taught that the only good world was the spiritual one—which is also a theme in Docetism and several other wayward beliefs. The created, physical reality was, for Gnostics, evil and must be escaped.
But there’s a problem with all this. Actually, several.
Any teaching that creation is inherently evil runs counter to the Book of Genesis, which is more than a little clear that God created the cosmos and humanity as good. The Gnostics, who saw despair and death as something inherent to the created order, rejected the normative understanding of the simple teachings in Genesis 1. For that reason and others, the Gnostics and others often rejected the entire Old Testament. But thankfully, the early bishops of the Church understood the holistic, organic connection between faith in Christ and Hebrew Scripture and maintained the entirety of the bible that we use today.
In the third and fourth century, another heresy arose: Arianism, a term referring to its chief proponent, a priest named Arius. Arianism taught that Christ was a creature of (and thus was subordinate to) God the Father.
“There was a time,” Arius would teach, “when Christ was not.”
All of this counters the experiences and teachings of those who knew Christ the best: the very men and women who had spoken to Christ; those who witnessed his miracles, especially those who benefited from them; those who were taught by Christ Himself and who witnessed the Crucifixion and encountered the Resurrected One.
These men and women were clear about something that all those heresies got wrong: Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human. They were certain, having witnessed it all, that God truly entered human history, and thanks to Mary, had a human nature that abided with his divine one.
Much of what we know about all this come from documents written in these first few centuries that are full of refutations of these heresies. From St. Clement I in the first century to Sts. Ignatius and Polycarp in the second (who were taught by St. John the Apostle), to St. Athanasius in the fourth—to name just a few—insistence on sharing the authentic memories, teachings, and traditions of Jesus Christ would be the bulwark for believers for age upon age, coming to us today, most especially in our Creed.
In the early fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine sanctioned Christianity, Church leaders could finally debate things in the open—which Constantine facilitated somewhat out of frustration, rather than put up with the social implications of ecclesial bickering.
In 325 AD, in the City of Nicaea, in modern day Turkey, the bishops of the Church assembled legally for the first time. Their goal? Among others, the chief intent was to hash out the words to be agreed upon for a unified statement of belief. This was followed up in 381 AD when another council of bishops met in Constantinople to affirm Nicaea’s statements and to add even more precision and certainty to the Creed. (Hence the formal name of the statement we say at Mass is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, as compared to the more general Apostle’s Creed, which is also based on a baptismal formula, that we use in prayer and devotion.)
Not surprisingly, given the heresies of the time, the bishops at Nicaea and Constantinople gave a good deal of attention to their words. But here we must remember that the bishops were writing in the universal Greek language, which brings an added issue today of translating ancient Greek terms into English, which may or may not map very well from the former to the latter.
For instance, Christ is described in the Creed as “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.” That is, Christ’s existence is eternal because he was “born … before all ages,” eternally outside of time.
But the English word born implies something new and original. We say “a star is born” because there was a time when that star did not exist. The divine Christ, however, has always existed. It was his human nature—his conception, birth, and death—that entered time because of Mary’s agreement to give birth to the Son of God. And so, the use of the word born here must be fleshed out, so to speak. This is why the Creed also uses a more precise word in this statement, which is a Greek word from which we English speakers get the word begotten. It’s this Greek term that conveys more of a sense of “existing for all time” rather than “created” or “brought into creation.”
As if the bishops at Nicaea and Constantinople anticipated this translation issue, they used a variety of terms, metaphors, and literary conventions to hammer all this home—all to counter Arianism and other heresies that denied that Christ was true God and True Man. This is the core of Christianity, after all. And so, the Creed insists and insists again that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
The word consubstantial, by the way, is just another way of saying “of the same substance.” In other words, Christ is the same essence as Father, and thus is equal.
After this series of metaphors and repetitions come statements that do a different kind of hammering home. While what preceded focused on Christ’s divinity—and thus countered Arianism—what’s next stresses Christ’s humanity—and thus counters both Docetism and Gnosticism. Here, the Creed notes with historical certainties that Christ was conceived, born, and died. Just like all humans.
After this, we return to the divine. The Creed states that Christ rose, and thus his human nature now also rises to divinity. With his ascent into heaven and his place at the right hand of the Father, Christ opens the door for all humans to his divine nature.
All this is meaningful for believers not just because it is true, but because it affirms how Christianity bridges the divine-human divide in ways that other faiths do not and, indeed, cannot.
The history of the Creed speaks to a shared belief that is founded on authentic memories and an attention to detail about what words best transfer those memories from generation to generation. And so, our recital of the Creed should be more than some automated ritual. When we speak these words, we should ponder and appreciate them. Learn from them. And in learning, we can better pass them on to the next generation of believers, who will do the same, until the return of Jesus Christ.
After all, the message of Christianity taught in the Creed is vital in today’s age that either fully spiritualizes one’s faith, much as the heresies of Gnosticism or Docetism, or like Arianism, minimizes Christ to some creation of God, but is not God.
On Sundays, we Catholics get to stand together and publicly reject all this. And in so doing, we affirm something wonderful.
As the great teacher St. Athanasius said in the fourth century, as the debates of the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople were underway, “God became man so that man might become a god.”
But in order for that truth to be understood, the words we use—especially in our Creed—must be precise. And we are blessed and grateful that so long ago, so many great minds fought for those right words. And now we today can have hope from the certainty of God’s amazing, undeserved, life-giving entrance into human history.
1 Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy, “A History of the Christian Church,” Fourth Edition (New York: Scribner, 1985), 72.