The word ecumenical means universal and the ecumenical creeds are the church’s articulation of the universal (or, in that same sense) catholic faith taught in Holy Scripture and confessed by the church since the time of the apostles. The apostolic church itself formed short creedal statements which are preserved by the Holy Spirit in Scripture, e.g., Deuteronomy 6:4; Philippians 2:5–10; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.
The early post-apostolic church followed the biblical pattern by articulating the “rule of faith” (regula fidei), which became the basis for the Apostles’ Creed, which, through not written by the Apostles’ themselves, was and is received as a summary of the doctrine of the apostles. We find Irenaeus (c. AD 130–202), the pastor of Lyons, articulating the regula fidei as early as the AD 170s. Tertullian (c. AD 155–c.220), the father of North African theology and hence Western or Latin theology, also articulated the regula fidei. The Apostles’ Creed was substantially complete by the mid-fourth century.
In AD 325, the church universal gathered, represented by pastors, met at Nicea and rejected the Arian heresy i.e., the doctrine that God the Son was the first creature and, as such, is subordinate in his being to the Father. In AD 381 the church met again, in her representatives, at Constantinople, to revise the Nicene Creed to make clear that the Holy Spirit is not subordinate in his being to the Father and the Son.
The Definition of Chalcedon was drafted and adopted in AD 451 to address the Christological heresies that had troubled the church since the 3rd century. At Chalcedon the church affirmed that God the Son became incarnate and is one person with two, distinct, unconfused, but inseparable natures, divine and human.
The Athanasian Creed was not written by Anathasius himself and its is not certain but was probably drafted in the late fifth century, after the Definition of Chalcedon, to summarize the confession of the ecumenical church on the Trinity and the person of Christ. It is longer than the others but has been traditionally confessed in Anglican services annually. The Reformed Churches also sometimes confess the Athanasian Creed orally in worship services. It is a marvelous summary of the consensus of the ancient church on the teaching of Scripture concerning the Trinity and Christology.
- Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325, 381)
- Apostles’ Creed
- Definition Of Chalcedon (AD 451)
- Athanasian Creed