Councils and Creeds

Councils

Unknown, Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea, Sourced from http://home.scarlet.be/amdg/index.html
Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the council of Nicaea (325), with the Nicene Creed.
The first church council was held in Jerusalem early in the history of the church (Acts 15). The apostle James (the less) apparently presided over this council . The church leaders were attempting to answer the question of how one became a Christian. Did one have to become a Jew first? The Jerusalem Council decided that gentiles could become Christians without having to go through the ritual of becoming Jewish first. Their reasoning and conclusions were recorded in the New Testament book the Acts of the Apostles

This has been the pattern of councils for most of church history.

  • A question arises within the Church that is understood to be very important to the core understanding of what it means to be a Christian and differing opinions develop. This is not a question we can just agree to disagree about.
  • The council meets to determine what the opinion of the Church should be using
    • Bible study,
    • Prayer, and
    • Reason
  • a dogma or creedal statement is written.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes twenty-one councils after the writing of the New Testament. Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize the first seven of these councils. The Oriental Orthodox churches recognize the first three of these councils. The Reformed Tradition (and Presbyterian churches within that tradition) values the work of councils and much of the theology developed in them. But we also believe that all councils may make mistakes. Creeds are not a replacement for Scripture or for the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart. But they are very important as statements of what thoughtful Christians believed, about a specific question, at that specific time. Below is a summary of the seven church councils which most branches of the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize.

Nicaea, 325

Question: Was Jesus God, human, or both?
Answer: Jesus is God.

Constantinople, 381

Question: Was the Holy Spirit a person or a power of God?
Answer: The Holy Spirit is God.

Ephesus, 431

Question: What is the nature of Jesus?
Answer: Jesus is God and human in one person.

Chalcedon, 451

Question: How can Jesus be both God and human?
Answer: Jesus is completely God and completely human.

Constantinople, 553

Question: Was Jesus' nature divine or human?
Answer: Jesus has a divine and a human nature.

Constantinople, 680

Question: Which of Jesus' natures makes the decisions?
Answer: Both natures act freely and in concert united "mystically" in one person.

Nicaea, 787

Question: What may be done with images of God, Jesus and saints?
Answer: One may venerate images, but true worship is only for God.

Creeds

The Church develops creeds for two reasons

  • to answer important questions about faith and
  • to state what we believe in the words and terms of the current world.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the following creeds. You may notice that they fall into three categories.

  • Those in the early church that helped define Christianity,
  • Those in the Reformation period (early 1500s to mid 1600s) which defined what Protestants believe, and
  • Those more recent statements that are helping us understand what the church means in the world today.

The Nicene Creed, ca. 325-381

Teaches how Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit relate to God
It was developed in the first two councils and officially adopted at the fourth council in 451.

The Apostles' Creed, ca. 180-750

Teaches the doctrine of the trinity
It was developed to be used at baptisms.

The Scots Confession, 1560

Teaches how we are saved and why we have a church
It was developed to distinguish Protestants in Scotland from Roman Catholics.
Written at the end of the Scottish Civil War by John Knox.

The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563

Teaches what we believe about the Lord's Table
It was developed to distinguish Reformed Christians from Lutherans.

The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566

Teaches what we believe about baptism and the covenant
It was developed to distinguish Reformed Christians from Baptists and to begin to reconcile with Lutherans.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646

Teaches the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture
It was developed to distinguish reformed Christians from high church Anglicans.
Written at the end of the English Civil War by the Westminster Assembly.

The Shorter Catechism, 1647

The Larger Catechism, 1649

The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 1934

Teaches the lordship of Jesus Christ and the limits of external authority
It was developed to help Christians understand the limits of governmental authority.
Written in Nazi Germany just before the beginning of the Second World War.

The Confession of 1967

Teaches the need for reconciliation and inclusion in the church
It was developed in response to the general questioning of the 1960s.

A Brief Statement of Faith, 1991

Teaches a summary of faith
It was developed as part of the reunion of the Northern and Southern streams of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. (They had split in stages during the mid 1800s over whether Christians should own slaves.)

For Further Study

Catholic Encyclopedia article on Councils
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on Councils
Catholic Encyclopedia article on Creeds
Creeds of Christendom