Pre-Nicene Creeds

The confession of faith which we Orthodox chant or sing every Sunday at our Divine Liturgy has a long and complicated history, and examining its history plunges us back into the earliest days of the Church’s life. It is a glorious plunge.

Discipleship to Jesus and inclusion in His Church was never simply a matter of signing on the dotted line and keeping one’s motives and beliefs to oneself. Becoming a disciple of Jesus involved giving public and bold assent to a particular interpretation of who Jesus was and what His life on earth meant, expressed in turn in a series of simple statements. Simply saying that one wanted to be baptized as Christ’s disciple because one admired His teaching, or because one had asked Him into the heart was not enough. The Faith had form, and intellectual content.

There were many rival interpretations of who Jesus was current in the world then—what St. Paul once called “different Gospels” (compare 2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:6), but these different interpretations were judged inadequate and distortions. One needed to sign on through public confession to the interpretation of the historic apostolic Church, and accept the original apostolic Gospel. St. Paul refers to this public baptismal confession when he writes that Christians had become “obedient from the heart to that form of teaching [Greek tupon didaxes] to which they had been committed” (Romans 6:17). The word “tupos” here means not only form, but pattern, model, type. The tupos to which Christians had committed themselves included a certain specific interpretation of who Jesus really was. Thus when the Christians of Paul’s day were baptized, they had to publicly give their assent to these specific truths. Feeling an emotional connection with Jesus was not enough. Because baptism was Trinitarian (candidates were immersed three times in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; compare Matthew 28:19), the baptismal confession was tri-partite as well.

The earliest creeds sum up the material and the truths to which the candidate gave public assent at the time of his or her baptism. Churches were arranged city by city—for example, all the Christians in Corinth assembled together in one place on Sunday under the presidency of their main pastor, the bishop of Corinth. If they were too numerous to all assemble together in one place, there might be arranged a “spill-over” assembly, headed by one of the bishop’s fellow presbyters, but all these various assemblies in the city considered themselves as one single united family under their bishop. Accordingly, it was the bishop who arranged for the baptism of each one and who actually presided at the baptism.

One finds this early, in the letters of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. He died a martyr in about 107, and left us some letters that he wrote to the various churches while he was on his way to martyrdom. In one of them, he wrote, “It is not lawful either to baptize or to hold an agape [love-feast] apart from the bishop” (To the Smyrneans, chapter 8). The bishop was the main pastor, and inclusion in the local church over which he presided liturgically meant acceptance of the faith he proclaimed. Each local church then, though sharing the same apostolic faith as other churches in other cities, had slightly different ways of expressing this faith. In this sense, each church had its own verbal version of the common faith, its own creedal symbol.

One early example of such a local creed is that of the Roman church, known to history books as “the old Roman symbol” and to western prayer-books as “the apostles’ creed.” It reads:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth;
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of
sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and the life everlasting. Amen.

One can see at a glance how this differs from our own “Nicene Creed,” but the differences are merely stylistic and verbal. The faith is essentially identical, as is much of the wording. One can see also how it is tri-partite, with its three sections corresponding to the divine Persons of the Trinity. There is a section containing truths about God the Father, then a section about Christ the Son of the Father, then a final section about the Holy Spirit and His work in the holy Church.

The candidate for baptism was required to confess his adherence to all these truths at the time of his baptism. In a document known to scholars today as The Apostolic Tradition and ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome in the early third century (around 215 A.D.), we see one example of how baptisms in that day might have been conducted, at least in Rome. The document describes baptism like this:

A presbyter “shall hand [the candidate] over naked to the bishop or the presbyter who stands by the water to baptize. In the same way a deacon shall descend with him into the water and say, helping him to say: ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty…’ And he who receives [baptism] shall say according to all this: ‘I believe [Latin: credo] in this way’. And the giver [of baptism] having his hand placed on [the candidate’s] head, shall baptize him once. And then he shall say, ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born from the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died and rose again on the third day alive from the dead and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead?’ And when he has said, ‘I believe’, he shall be baptized again. And he shall say again, ‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?’ Then he who is being baptized shall say, ‘I believe’ and thus he shall be baptized a third time.”

The creed here functions as an early catechesis, the form or tupos of teaching to which all candidates for baptism had to give their public assent. (Well, semi-public assent—since everyone was then baptized naked, the baptisms were held in a private location, away from the rest of the assembled church who waited for them elsewhere. Rivers were favoured as baptismal locations, and later on each church had its own private baptistery. After the immersions, the newly-baptized put their clothes back on and rejoined the faithful for the rest of the Eucharistic Liturgy.) The creed gave expression to the main facts of the Gospel, rehearsing the mighty acts of God in creating the world, sending His divine Son, and sending His Holy Spirit upon the church to give forgiveness and new life. In these early days, the creed was a specifically baptismal work, and was used only at baptisms. It would only much later be incorporated into the weekly eucharistic Liturgy of the Church.

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Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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