Apologetics Index
History of the Creeds

History of the Creeds

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There have been two great eras of theological controversy in the history of the Church. The great creeds of Protestantism were hammered out in the period of theological dispute at the time of the Reformation. The earlier period of theological controversy occurred between 325 and 451, when universal or ecumenical councils of leaders of the Church were held to resolve conflict. These councils brought about such great universal formulations of the Christian Church as the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. It was the era when the main dogmas of the Christian Church were developed. The unfavorable connotation conveyed by the word "dogma" in a day of doctrinal laxity, such as the present, should not obscure the value to the Church of dogma. The word "dogma" came through the Latin from the Greek word dogma, which was derived from the verb dokeo. This word meant to think. The dogmas or doctrines formulated in this period were the result of intense thought and searching of the soul in order to interpret correctly the meaning of the Scriptures on the disputed points and to avoid the erroneous opinions (doxai) of the philosophers.

The era is also an excellent illustration of how intense zeal for a doctrine may unwittingly lead an individual or church into error unless there is a balanced study of the Bible. Just as Sabellius was led to a denial of the essential Trinity by his attempt to safeguard the unity of the Godhead, so Arius became involved in an anti-Scriptural approach to the relation of Christ to the Father in his attempt to escape what he thought was the danger of polytheism.

One might wonder why controversy over theological questions came so late in the history of the ancient Church, but, in the era of persecution, allegiance to Christ and the Scriptures took precedence over the meaning of particular doctrines. The threat from the state forced the Church to internal unity in order to present a united front. Then, too, Constantine's attempt to unify the Empire in order to save classical civilization meant that the Church must have a unified body of dogma if it were to be the cement to hold the body politic together. One Empire must have one dogma.

The method adopted by the Church to resolve the vital differences of opinion concerning the meaning of the Scriptures was the ecumenical or universal council, usually called and presided over by the Roman emperor. There were seven councils that were representative of the whole Christian Church.

  • Nicaea (325)
    to settle the Arian dispute
  • Constantinople (381)
    to assert the personality of the Holy Spirit and the humanity of Christ
  • Ephesus (431)
    to emphasize the unity of Christ's personality
  • Chalcedon (451)
    to state the relationship between the two natures of Christ
  • Constantinople (553)
    to deal with the Monophysite dispute
  • Constantinople (680)
    to condemn the Monothelites
  • Nicaea (787)
    to deal with problems raised by the image controversy

Great Church leaders from all parts of the Empire represented their respective localities and gave their assistance in the working out of solutions to the theological problems that dominated the thinking of Christians in this era.