What are the Lutheran Confessions? Part 2–The Creeds

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Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).

This is the second post in a four part series on the Lutheran Confessions. Check out Part 1.

“Isn’t the Bible enough for you?”

 “I say, ‘No creed but Christ!’”

People sometimes direct such sentiments toward Lutherans and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. They do this because the Lutheran Church appears to have a second source of doctrine: the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions.

The charge, however, holds no water. The confessions to which the Lutheran Church subscribes (and by extension, to which those who are members, both clergy and laity, subscribe) do not replace the Bible. They confess what the Bible teaches. They offer witness and testimony to the truths of Scripture. Often, times of crisis or doctrinal controversy gave birth to these confessions of faith. In other words, they address a need that the Christian Church at a certain time and place had; a need the Church still has.

In my previous post, I took a few moments to introduce the topic of making a confession of faith and the existence of some specifically Lutheran confessions of faith. In this post, I wish to offer a thumbnail sketch of the particular confessions confessed and subscribed to by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, starting with the so-called “ecumenical” creeds: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

These confessions, along with the distinctly “Lutheran” confessions (which will be handled in a separate post) are contained in a single book called the Book of Concord, first published in 1580. You can read and listen to the entire Book of Concord for free online at www.bookofconcord.org. You can also buy copies of the various translations of this document that have been made, here for example.

The Ecumenical (“worldwide”, “general”, “universal”) Creeds: Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian

The Lutheran Church of the sixteenth century wished to make it clear that they did not invent doctrine. The Lutheran Church only “contends for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). To paraphrase Paul, the Lutheran Church wishes only to take what we receive from Scripture and pass it on to the world (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23).

To make that point, the Lutheran fathers confessed the Creeds Christians had confessed for more than a thousand years.

First, the Apostles’ Creed. This Creed, which likely had origins in Rome in the second century, served as the baptismal confession of faith for a new believer, hence the use of the first person singular, “I believe in, etc.” It summarizes most simply the basics of the Christian faith. We believe in a Triune God: the Father who created the universe; his Son, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer who suffered, died, and rose from the dead to destroy sin and death; the Holy Spirit, who brings to life the Holy Christian Church both today through faith and at the resurrection on the last day.

A pious legend (fraudulently) claims that each of the twelve apostles contributed one line until we have the Creed before us. In the sixteenth century, Luther gave us the three part division focused on the work of each person of the Trinity in his Small Catechism.

Also, we confess the Nicene Creed. The origins of this Creed are more certain. In the late third and early fourth centuries a heresy began to spook around known as Arianism. This false teaching said there was once a time when Jesus was not. In other words, Jesus, as godlike as he might be, was still a creature. The greatest, no doubt, of God’s creations, but for all that, a creature. Arianism leaned especially on Proverbs 8:22-31 for its interpretation.

The Roman emperor Constantine, fearing the division this heresy caused in his empire, called the first great ecumenical council of the Church (discounting the real first council in Acts 15). Over 300 bishops gathered in the city of Nicea (in modern day Turkey) in 325 AD to hash out their differences. It all came down to one thing: is Jesus “of one being with the Father” or is he “like the Father.” In other words, is he true God completely, or similar to God. In the Greek it came down to the difference of one letter (homoousios versus homoiousios). The line between truth and error was that slim.

Famously (and possibly just as legendarily as the origin of the Apostles Creed), at this council St. Nicholas of Myra (yes, THAT St. Nicholas) slapped the heretic Arius for his false teachings.

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About fifty years later, in 381, another council met at Constantinople to update this creed, because in the intervening years a debate about the divinity of the Holy Spirit broke out. The council, on the basis of Scripture, did for the Spirit what Nicea did for the Son: affirmed that he is also “of one being with the Father,” that is, true God, as much as the Father and the Son are.

The third of the ecumenical creeds we call the Athanasian Creed. It is named after a North African bishop, Athanasius. He stood firm and fast against the Arian heresy in his own part of the Christian Church and also attended the Council at Nicea.

Though named for him, the Athanasian Creed most likely was not written by him. For one thing, Athanasius was a Greek speaker and this Creed was written in Latin. For another, scholars date it to the fifth century (possibly even sixth or seventh) and France, when and where Athanasius did not live. The Creed however faithfully reflects the truths he willingly went into multiple exiles to defend.

Like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, it is an exposition of the Trinitarian faith of the Christian Church: “one God in three persons and three persons in one God….So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; yet they are not three Gods, but one God.” Like the other two Creeds, the Athanasian also devotes a single large section to Jesus Christ: “Though he is both God and man, Christ is not two persons but one, not by changing the deity into flesh, but by taking the humanity into God.” The Creed concludes powerfully: “Whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this cannot be saved.”

In Wisconsin Synod churches, the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds are confessed weekly. The Athanasian Creed has, sadly, fallen into general disuse, mainly pulled out on Holy Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost).

These three Creeds have been for nearly 1,700 years, and still remain the general confessions of faith of most of the Christians on the face of the planet. The Lutheran Church joins in this confession of faith.

Check out parts three and four of this series of posts tomorrow. Part three will deal with the distinctly “Lutheran” confessions of faith from the sixteenth century. Part four will try to wrap things up and answer the questions, “Why?” and “So what?”

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