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A pedestrian’s guide to the history and content of the Creed

Some less-known facts about the Orthodox Creed

symbol of faith

Every Orthodox Christian is well familiar with the Symbol of faith that we sing at every Liturgy along with the Lord's Prayer. However, a number of facts related to it are far from being widely known.

Delving into the dogmatic truths contained in the Creed would take a very long time. Since we are not at a lecture, let us focus  on some information that may slightly improve our understanding of the history and meaning behind one of the most important texts in Orthodox Christianity.

The Author

If we ask any believer where the Creed came from, the vast majority will say that it was composed by the fathers of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils. It is not quite so simple however. Yes, the text of the Symbol itself was indeed approved at these Councils, but it was not invented there. At the Council in Nicaea, the fathers took a more ancient Symbol as a basis, changing only a few words in it. In the case with Constantinople, it was either the Jerusalem Symbol or the Symbol of St Epiphanius of Cyprus.

The most significant change then was the introduction of the term "homoousios" [one in essence or substance, consubstantial]. It raised a good deal of controversy and was not easily accepted even by such prominent figures as St Basil the Great.

The problem with new verbal formulations raising so many questions was because in the 4th century the terminology was not yet settled. The term "homoousios" was proposed by Emperor Constantine, although it is clear that he did not invent it himself. Most likely, the idea came from Sts Alexander of Alexandria and Hosea of Cordoba, presiding at the Nicene Council, and perhaps even Athanasius the Great, who was then still a deacon.

The foresight of the holy hierarchs is amazing, as this term later became the main banner in confrontation with the Arian heresy.

When Was the Practice of Singing the Creed at the Liturgy Introduced?

It seems to many that the Creed has always been part of the Liturgy, but it is not so. When Sts Basil and John composed their service orders, there was no Creed in them. This practice first appeared in Syria in the 5th century. Patriarch Peter Fullo, a supporter of the Monophysite heresy and a man of outstanding intellectual abilities then headed the See of Antioch.

We must understand that at that time it was impossible to determine the confessional affiliation of a parish by the name of the hierarch commemorated at the Liturgy. Peter Fullo introduced the singing of the Creed during the liturgy as a distinctive feature of Monophysite worship. It is worth saying that the same person introduced today's rite of the Great blessing of the water and the commemoration of the Mother of God during every litany.

A little later (in the first half of the 6th century) Patriarch Timothy introduced the singing of the Symbol in Constantinople. Since that time, for one and a half thousand years, this tradition has remained familiar to all Orthodox Christians.

Singing Vs Reading

For a long time after becoming part of the liturgy, the Creed was not sung, but read. This practice still exists in Greek Churches. In Russia, it continued until the middle of the 19th century. In the author's opinion, the transition to singing was well justified, since the joint prayer of the entire parish inspires the congregation, which can be seen at every Liturgy.

Today, in some churches, with the blessing of the rector, parishioners sing other liturgical hymns together as well. Even though singing the entire service “with one mouth” is not an easy task, parishioners may do part of it (e.g. singing the “Lord have mercy” during litanies).

The Creed and Baptism

The below is a "potshot" at those who treat baptism formally and do it for the sake of box-checking.

According to church canons, knowing the Creed by heart is mandatory for a baptismal candidate, or godparents (in the event of a child's baptism). This is paramount, since a Christian must be familiar with the foundations of faith. This means that besides memorizing the text, it is also necessary to understand its meaning.

Related Controversies

With some skill, you can find inconsistencies even in the Creed (although those will fail to prove valid if you study them). Here is at least one example. In the very beginning of the Creed we read, “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty...” I.e. it is precisely the First Person of the Holy Trinity that we call the "Lord of all being". Then why do we have the iconographic image of Christ Almighty depicting the Saviour sitting on a throne? The answer to this question lies not only in the fact that the Son and the Father have one essence, but that the Son is glorified because of the Incarnation, His atoning sacrifice on the Cross, and the Resurrection. For one thing, the apostle Paul writes about this in his epistle to the Philippians. He concludes with the words, “Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11).

* * *

We have discussed only some aspects of the Creed in terms of its history, use and semantic content. As you can see, there is a wide field of research here. These twelve brief theses are a result of tremendous intellectual and spiritual work. The holy fathers have filled this sacred text with deepest meaning for each of us. Therefore, we should not only know it by heart, but also understand what depth and mystery it contains.

Archpriest Vladimir Dolgikh


February 05, 2024
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