(Latin credo, I believe).
In general, a form of belief. The word, however, as applied to religious belief has received a variety of meanings, two of which are specially important. (1) It signifies the entire body of beliefs held by the adherents of a given religion; and in this sense it is equivalent doctrine or to faith where the latter is used in its objective meaning. Such is its signification in expressions like "the conflict of creeds", "charitable works irrespective of creed", "the ethics of conformity of creed", etc. (2) In a somewhat narrower sense, a creed is a summary of the principal articles of faith professed by church or community of believers. Thus by the "creeds of Christendom" are understood those formulations of the Christian faith which at various times have been drawn up and accepted by one or the other of the Christian churches. The Latins designate the creed in this sense by the name symbolum which means either a sign (symbolon) or a collection (symbole). A creed, then, would be the distinctive mark of those who hold a given belief, or a formula made up of the principal articles of that belief. A "profession of faith" is enjoined by the Church on special occasions, as at the consecration of a bishop; while the phrase "confession of faith" is commonly applied to Protestant formularies, such as the "Augsburg Confession", the "Confession of Basle", etc. It should be noted, however, that the role of Faith is not identical with creed, but, in its formal signification, means the norm or standard by which one ascertains what doctrines are to be believed.
The principal creeds of the Catholic Church, The Apostles', Athanasian, and the Nicene, are treated in special articles which enter into the historical details and the content of each. The liturgical use of the Creed is also explained in a separate article. For the present purpose it is chiefly important to indicate the function of the creed in the life of religion and especially in the work of the Catholic Church. That the teachings of Christianity were to be cast in some definite form is evidently implied in the commission given the Apostles (Matthew 28:19-20). Since they were to teach all nations to observe whatsoever Christ had commanded, and since this teaching was to carry the weight of authority, not merely of opinion, it was necessary to formulate at last the essential doctrines. Such formulation was all the more needful because Christianity was destined for all men and for all ages. To preserve unity of belief itself was quite clearly stated. The creed, therefore, is fundamentally an authoritative declaration of the truths that are to be believed.
The Church, moreover, was organized as a visible society (see CHURCH). Its members were called on not only to hold fast the teaching they had received, but also to express their beliefs. As St. Paul says: "With her heart we believe unto justice; but, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation" (Romans x, 10). Nor is the Apostle content with vague or indefinite statements; he insists that his followers shall "hold the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me in faith" (2 Timothy 1:13), "embracing that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he (the bishop) may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers (Titus i, 9). Hence we can understand that a profession of faith was required of those who were to be baptized, as in the case of the eunuch (Acts 8:37); in fact the baptismal formula prescribed by Christ himself is an expression of faith in the Blessed Trinity. Apart then from the question regarding the composition of the Apostles' Creed, it is clear that from the beginning, and even before the New Testament had been written, some doctrinal formula, however concise, would have been employed both to secure uniformity in teaching and to place beyond doubt the belief of those who were admitted into the Church.
Along with the diffusion of Christianity there sprang up in the course of time various heretical views regarding the doctrines of faith. It thus became necessary to define the truth of revelation more clearly. The creed, in consequence, underwent modification, not by the introduction of new doctrines, but by the expression of the traditional belief in terms that left no room for error or misunderstanding. In this way the "Filioque" was added to the Nicene and the Tridentine Profession forth in full and definite statements the Catholic Faith on those points especially which the Reformers of the sixteenth century had assailed. At other times the circumstances required that special formulas should be drawn up in order to have the teaching of the Church explicitly stated and accepted; such was the profession of faith prescribed For the Greeks by Gregory XIII and that which Urban VIII and Benedict XIV prescribed for the Orientals(cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion). The creed therefore, is to be regarded not as a lifeless formula, but rather as a manifestation of the Church's vitality. As these formulas preserve intact the faith once delivered to the saints, they are also an effectual means of warding off the incessant attacks of error.
On the other hand it should be remarked that the authoritative promulgation of a creed and its acceptance imply no infringement of the rights of reason. The mind tends naturally to express itself and especially to utter its thought in the form of language. Such expression, again, results in greater clearness and a firmer possession of the mental content. Whoever, then, really believes in the truths of Christianity cannot consistently object to such manifestation of his belief as the use of the creed implies it is also obviously illogical to condemn this use on the ground that is makes religion simply an affair of repeating or subscribing empty formulas. The Church insists that the internal belief is the essential element, but this must find its outward expression. While the duty of believing rests on each individual, there are further obligations resulting from the social organization of the Church. Not only is each member obliged to refrain from what would weaken the faith of his fellow-believers, he is also bound, so far as he is able, to uphold and quicken their belief, The profession of his faith as set forth in the creed is at once an object-lesson in loyalty and a means of strengthening the bonds which unite the followers of Christ in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism".
Such motives are plainly of no avail where the selection of his beliefs is left to the individual. He may, of course, adopt a series of articles or propositions and call it a creed; but it remains his private possession, and any attempt on this part to demonstrate its correctness can only result in disagreement. But the attempt itself would be inconsistent, since he must concede to every one else the same right in the matter of framing a creed. The final consequence must be, therefore, that faith is reduced to the level of views, opinions, or theories such as are entertained on purely scientific matters. Hence it is not easy to explain, on the basis of consistence, the action of the Protestant Reformers. Had the principle of private judgment been fully and strictly carried out, the formulation of creeds would have been unnecessary and, logically, impossible. The subsequent course of events has shown how little was to be accomplished by confession of faith, once the essential element of authority was rejected, From the inevitable multiplication of creeds has developed, in large measure, that demand for a "creedless Gospel" which contrasts so strongly with the claim that the Bible is the sole rule and the only source of faith. (See DOGMA, FAITH, PROTESTANTISM.)
DENZINGER, Enchiridion (Freiburg, 1908); MOHLER, Symbolism (NEW YORK, 1984); DUNLOP, Account of All the Ends and Uses of Creeds and Confessions of Faith, etc. (London, 1724); BUTLER, An Historical and Literary Account of the Formularies, etc., (London, 1816); SCHAFF, The History of the Creeds of Christendom (London, 1878); GRANDMAISON, L'Estasticite des formules de Foi in Etudes 1898; CALKINS, Creeds and Tests of Church Membership in Andover Review (1890), 13; STERRETT, the Ethics of Creed Conformity (1890), ibid.
APA citation. (1908). Creed. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04478a.htm
MLA citation. "Creed." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04478a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Suzanne Plaisted. In Memory of Reese Jackson.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.