By Jeff Spry . . .
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The various creeds of Christendom have aided the Christian church in the formulation of our faith through the centuries. They are not the Bible and they have never been considered equal with Scripture in any way by any orthodox believer. They are systematic commentaries on biblical doctrines. They are not authoritative unless they truly represent the teachings of sacred Scripture. Any teaching which is orthodox concerning the Sacred Scriptures should be heeded by all for all time.
It is often remarked that creeds should not be held to or heeded because they are not authoritative, and not inspired by God. However, the history of the church and the creedal formularies they have made were never thought to be inspired in the first place, but rather to define and express cogently what is inspired. If the Bible teaches that all men must wear white shirts, then the creedal statement of faith which explains this succinctly is attempting to teach Christians that the Bible says this, and that any false teaching (such as all men must wear black shirts) is erroneous. The Inspired Scriptures are commented on by every able and true minister of the Word each Lord’s Day, but that does not make their sermons inspired. Christians read books defining certain theological concepts but that does not make the book inspired, just helpful to the edification of the Christian.
Some have said the creeds are man-made and hence should be ignored in favor of Scripture. Should we then dispose of all sermons, Bible study texts, commentaries, doctrinal outlines, books on theology, and devotionals? Certainly not! The creeds do not masquerade as Scripture and many specifically point out that it is the Scriptures themselves which are “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”
Yet as Christians is it not valuable to consider how the Holy Spirit has spoken to our brothers and sisters over the millennia as they have struggled with various issues, poured over the Scriptures and often fasted and prayed heartily with their fellow Christians in the light of the inspired texts? Of course! To quote Charles H. Spurgeon to his students,
“You are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound the
Scripture without the assistance from the works of divine and learned men
who have labored before you in the field of exposition . . . . It seems odd
that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to
themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”
(Commenting and Commentaries)
Most of the creeds were born out of a time of turmoil fighting against heresies prevalent in the day. They helped define what was orthodox and true, and condemned what was heretical and false. Even many of the early church hymns were written to teach Christians true doctrine; and I know of very few people who would throw away the hymns of worship, as they would a creed of the church. The Christian church has been, through church history, a creedal church. We continue to define what the Bible says in order to combat heresy and teach one another the truth set forth by God in the Bible.
A Church Council is an official ad hoc gathering of representatives to settle Church business. Such Councils are called rarely and are not the same as the regular gatherings of church leaders (synods, etc). An ecumenical council is one at which the whole Church is represented. The three major branches of the Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) recognize seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicea II (787). Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern (Orthodox, Greek-speaking) and Western (Catholic, Latin-speaking) Churches, a split that was rendered official in 1054 and has not yet been healed.
In addition to these universally-acknowledged councils, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes a further fourteen ecumenical councils: Constantinople IV (869-70), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311-12), Constance (1414-18), Florence (1438-45), Lateran V (151217), Trent (1545-63), Vatican I (1869-70), Vatican II (1965). But these were councils of only the Roman Catholic Church, and are not recognized by the Orthodox or Protestant Churches.
The Council of Nicea, 325
In 324, Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, reuniting an empire that had been split among rival rulers since the retirement of Domitian in 305. Constantine reunified the empire but found the Church bitterly divided over the nature of Jesus Christ. He wanted to reunify the Church as he had reunified the Empire. The major dispute was over the teaching of Arius, but there were other doctrinal issues also.
Arianism: teaching of Arius of Alexandria (d. 335), who believed that Jesus Christ was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by the Father to be the means of creation and redemption. Jesus was fully human, but not fully divine. He was elevated as a reward for his successful accomplishment of his mission. The Arian rallying cry was “There was time when the Son was not.”
Monarchianism: defended the unity (mono arche, “one source”) of God by denying that the Son and the Spirit were separate persons.
Sabellianism: a form of monarchianism taught by Sabellias, that God revealed himself in three successive modes, as Father (creator), as Son (redeemer), as Spirit (sustainer). Hence there is only one person in the Godhead.
Constantine summoned the bishops at imperial expense to Nicea, 30 miles from his imperial capital in Nicomedia. Here they were to settle their differences in a council over which he presided. The council rejected Arianism. The Council issued a creed based upon an existing baptismal creed from Syria and Palestine. This Nicene creed reads:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and
of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
The Council also issued a set of canons, primarily dealing with church order.
The Council of Constantinople, 381
The second council met in Constantinople, the new imperial capital. The council issued a new creed, probably based upon another baptismal creed from Jerusalem or Antioch, which in turn was an expression of the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed adopted in 325. This Constantinopolitan Creed reads:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son1] who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Later the Western Church unilaterally added a single word to the Creed, inserting Filioque “and the Son” to the statement about the Spirit, so as to read “the Spirit…proceeds from the Father and the Son.” In 867, the Patriarch of Constantinople declared Rome heretical for this clause. To this day the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) accepts the filioque clause, while the Eastern Church (Orthodox) does not. With the exception of this clause, the Nicene Creed remains one of the eceumenical creeds, a creed recognized by all the Church. Any church that rejects the Nicene Creed is deemed heretical. During the Middle Ages, this creed became called the Nicene Creed, as it is known to this day.
The Council of Ephesus, 431
Condemned Nestorius and his teaching (Nestorianism) that Christ had two separable natures, human and divine. Declared Mary to be theotokos (lit. God-bearer, i.e. Mother of God) in order to strengthen the claim that Christ was fully divine against those who called her merely Christotokos (Christ-bearer).
The Council of Chalcedon, 451
Issued the Chalcedonian Formula, affirming that Christ is two natures in one person. This creed reads as follows:
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets
The Council of Constantinople II, 553
Condemned the Three Chapters, a compendium of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa. These three were advocates of Antiochene theology, emphasizing Christ’s humanity at the expense of his deity. Their opponents held Alexandrian theology emphasizing Christ’s deity.
The Council of Constantinople III, 680
Condemned monothelitism (Christ has a single will), affirming that Christ had a human will and a divine will that functioned in perfect harmony.
The Council of Nicea II, 787
Declared that icons are acceptable aids to worship, rejecting the iconoclasts (icon-smashers). Consider much of our stained glass windows.