From the earliest moments of the church it appears—intellectual honesty as well as humility demands that one admit of a necessary lack of certainty regarding our knowledge of many things from ancient times—that the earliest confession of faith, spoken when a new convert was baptized, was “Jesus is Lord.” That simple confession was actually quite dangerous in that it was scandalous to the Temple cult and subversive of Caesar. It was scandalous toward the Temple cult because the earliest confession of faith for Israelites was the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4—“Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” And now these Christians were confessing that this crucified messiah-pretender was Lord. It was subversive to the Romans Empire because it co-opted the very wording of the Roman proclamation that all conquered people were forced to acknowledge: “Caesar is Lord.”
Within a couple of centuries the baptismal confession was expanded into a series of questions that the baptismal candidate had to respond to affirmatively. The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus, written around 215, indicates that this series had achieved something of a fixed form used in most of the churches.
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, Son of God,
Who was born by the Holy Spirit out of Mary the Virgin, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died and was buried, and rose on the third day alive from among the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, to come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the dead?
Over time this formulation was expanded even more, and was used in the church not just for baptism but as part of its regular liturgy. By the seventh century it was fixed in the form that came to be called The Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell, on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, thence he will come 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 body, and life everlasting. Amen.
For those in our church who come from Christian traditions other than Baptist—and on any given Sunday that’s about half of our congregation—the Apostles’ Creed is very familiar to you. Perhaps you recited it each Sunday in church growing up, or memorized it in confirmation class. For most purebred Baptists, however, the creed is unfamiliar (I had never heard of it until my first year in seminary, when I had to memorize it as a requirement in a church history course).
This is because Baptists are non-creedal—we accept no human formulations as binding on any Christian. Or so we say, although in practice we can be as creedal as the next guy, but that’s another story for another time. In theory if not in practice Baptists have shunned creeds for a number of different reasons.
For one thing, it is in the nature of creeds that they expand. From the simple Jesus is Lord we get 90-word formulation recorded by Hippolytus, a 30-fold expansion in less than 200 years. The Apostles Creed is 107 words, but conceptually it is a much larger expansion i.e. it introduces many more theological concepts as necessary to the faith. The Nicene Creed, which was adopted by the church in 325 and is perhaps the most widely used creed today, has 226 words, depending on which form and translation is used. Christians may like to use the sentiment of Augustine in saying things like, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love,” but history has shown that the list of what a group of Christians considers to be essential tends to grow while the non-essentials tends to shrink, and this according to that group’s pet theological distinctives.
We also have shied away from creeds because there are some things in them that we are not comfortable with, such as the statement that after his crucifixion Jesus “descended into hell”, which made sense when Christians still more or less held onto the Jewish concept of Sheol as a place where all dead went, good or bad, but not as much after Christians began to accept the Greek notion of Hades, which was a place of eternal torment. (I reckon that’s another topic to be discussed some other time as well.) And while Baptists insist on the importance of the Virgin Birth to faith, we aren’t as comfortable referring to the Virgin Mary, wanting to avoid what some see as the worship of Mary in the Catholic Church.
But perhaps the biggest single reason why Baptists have wanted to claim to be non-creedal is that throughout our history Christians have been unable to fulfill the third part of Augustine’s formulation in all things love. Christians have used creedal formulations as clubs to beat other Christians either into submission or to death. Instead of being used as a tool for teaching new Christians those mysteries of the faith most Christians hold in common, creeds have been used as a dividing barrier between the “saved us” and the “evil them”. Instead of being used to bring Christians together in unity, they have been used to slander and injure fellow Christians. Christians literally burned one another at the stake over creedal formulations, and love has been nowhere to be found. And we still do so, figuratively if not literally, and perhaps no group is guiltier of doing so today than Baptists.
As long as they are not seen as binding, the historic creeds are interesting and useful as teaching tools. Just because some have used them as clubs doesn't mean we can't use them to learn more about our faith.