A Brief Description of the Great Christian Creeds

by Francis R Beattie

Before the exposition of the doctrines contained in the Westminster Catechisms and Confession of Faith is entered on, some account of the origin and contents of the leading doctrinal symbols of the Christian church in its various branches may be of interest and value. In particular, the history of the Westminster Assembly, and of the work which it did, as exhibited by the Catechisms and Confession, is in a measure necessary to the intelligent exposition of the doctrinal system which they unfold.

In this connection it is interesting to notice the modes by which the great creeds have usually been produced. Historically, there seem to have been three chief methods according to which they have come into existence. First, In some cases creeds, or statements of Christian doctrine, seem to have been formed as an attempt to express, at certain periods, the mind of the Christian community in regard to the doctrines contained in the sacred Scriptures. It is likely that the Apostles’ Creed and some later doctrinal symbols came into existence in this way. Secondly, In other cases certain summaries of Christian doctrine seem to have been prepared for purposes of religious instruction. These catechetical statements of religious truth evidently arose from a desire to have a simple, orderly outline of the elements of the Christian system for purposes of instruction in holy things. Such catechisms were usually intended for the young. Thirdly, In most cases the great historical creeds were forged in the fires of controversy. The great credal statements of divine truth made in patristic times nearly all originated in this way. The elaborate symbolic documents of the Reformation period very generally had the same violent origin. In proof of this we need but recall the circumstances under which the Nicene Creed, the Augsburg Confession, and the Canons of Dort were formulated. It is proper to add that, although these three modes of creed formation are to be observed in the history of the church, yet as a matter of fact they ought not to be entirely separated, inasmuch as more than one of these purposes may, to a certain extent, be served by any single creed, confession, or catechism.

In giving a brief description of the most important religious creeds, those symbols other than the Westminster Standards will be first described in a very general way, and then a somewhat more detailed account of the origin of the Westminster Catechisms and Confession will be given.

I. The Creeds other than the Westminster Standards.

In describing these creeds they may be arranged under three heads, following the order of their historical sequence. These three heads represent the ancient, medieval, and modern periods respectively.

1. A Description of the Ancient Creeds.

In the New Testament age the germs of a creed, or confession of faith, may be seen in the personal confessions of Peter and Thomas. In the early apostolic age these germs were doubtless expanded in various ways, and thus the earliest Christian creeds were formulated. The creeds to be considered under this head are those which came into existence during the period when the church remained undivided. On this account these doctrinal symbols are known as the ecumenical creeds. At the present day they are generally regarded as the precious heritage of all branches of Christendom. Mention is now to be made of the more important of these summaries of religious truth.

(a), The Apostles’ Creed.

This ancient statement of the leading facts or doctrines of the Christian system has usually been held in high esteem. Though not inspired, it has a place beside the ten commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in the literature of the early apostolic age. Though it bears the name of the apostles, there is little reason to believe that it was drawn up, as we now have it, by them. Still less is there ground for believing the old tradition that each of its significant clauses was produced by one of the apostles, and that the whole was formed by putting these clauses together. This creed appears in several different forms, and has always been held in greater reverence by the Western church than by the Eastern, since the division between them. In early times it was used in connection with the rite of baptism, and it is found incorporated in nearly every subsequent creed. At the present day many of those who advocate a comprehensive reunion of divided Christendom propose this creed as a doctrinal basis for the unified church of Christ.

(b), The Nicene Creed. This important symbol is the product of the first General Council of the Christian church, and like many other ancient creeds has passed through several forms. It has always been regarded with favor by the Eastern church. In its orignal form it dates from the year 325 A. D. In its Nicene - Constantinopolitan form it comes to us from the second General Council, held at Constantinople in the year 381 A. D. It received its final form and general recognition at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 A. D. As it now exists, the great difference between its Eastern and Western form is the presence of the word filioque (and the Son) in the latter, and its absence from the former. It seems pretty clear that this word was not in its original form, since the first distinct trace of it is found in the proceedings of the third Council of Toledo, in the year 589 A. D. In these great historical statements of religious truth the doctrine of the Trinity was stated in the Nicene Creed in such a way as to lay emphasis upon the deity of the second person, and then the person of Christ is further defined in the creeds of Constantinople and Chalcedon.

(c), The Athanasian Creed.

The origin of this creed is almost as obscure as that of the Apostles’ Creed. Since about the ninth century it has been popularly ascribed to Athanasius, but there is no good reason to believe that it came from his hand, or that it existed till long after his time. Indeed, it seems to presuppose the great trinitarian and christological creeds already mentioned. To a large extent it repeats their contents, and adds some of the views of Augustine concerning the incarnation of Christ. In addition, it contains some strong damnatory clauses quite unlike anything in the creeds which precede it. This creed was held in high esteem in the Latin or Western churches, and in some of the Reformed creeds it received marked approval. This is specially the case in the Lutheran Form of Concord and in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

The three great ecumenical ancient creeds have been described. The most important of these is the Nicene symbol in its various forms. The next period in the history of the church is one very prolific in the production of creeds, confessions, and catechisms.

2. The Medieval Creeds.

Under this head we place some creeds which might very properly be classed as ancient. But as they arose after Christendom began to divide into its eastern and western branches, it may be best to put them with the medieval creeds. These creeds may be naturally divided into two classes, as represented by the Eastern, or Greek church, and by the Western, or Roman church. In both cases the final statements were not reached till after the Reformation, still the explanations to be made may be very properly ranked under the two heads just mentioned.

(a), The Eastern or Greek Creeds.

Three of the great creeds of the early church have already been explained, and four others are to be considered in connection with the doctrinal products of the Eastern church. After the division between the east and the west, the eastern branch in the course of time came to be known as the Greek church, but its adherents are now to be found in all the old eastern lands, and throughout the Russian empire, where it is the established religion. A great many creeds and confessions might be mentioned here, but only brief summaries can be made. The four great creeds above referred to were produced at four celebrated councils, viz.: Ephesus, 431 A. D., Second Constantinople, 553 A. D., Third Constantinople, 682 A.D., Second Nice, 787 A. D.

In addition to the seven ecumenical creeds, excluding the filioque clause, the following may be mentioned as important, viz.: The Orthodox Confession, by Peter Mogilas, 1643 A. D., The Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem, 1672 A. D. The latter is a very important document. Mention may also be made of the Russian Catechisms, published 1839 A. D.

There are also some less important confessions of a somewhat local or private nature which need scarcely be named. There are also some interesting statements of doctrine made in reply to some approaches for sympathy and union made by the Lutheran branch of the Reformation. So far these approaches have been in vain, for the Greek church remains immovable, or indifferent to the overtures made by the Lutherans.

The creed of the Synod of Jerusalem contains eighteen articles, and is a full statement of the doctrines of the Greek church in Russia at the present day. The two chief catechisms used in Russia at present are that of Platon, issued in 1813 A. D., and that of Philaret, published in its final form 1839, as above noted.

Attempts to come to a doctrinal agreement with the Greek church, whether made by the Roman, the Lutheran, or the Reformed branches of Christendom, have all failed. What may be the result of the efforts of the present pope remains to be seen.

(b), The Western or Roman Creeds. This great branch of Christendom accepts the historic ecumenical, or council creeds, including the filioque clause respecting the procession of the Holy Spirit. In addition, the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, published in 1564 A. D., hold a high place among the Roman creeds. They were projected specially against the doctrines of the Reformation, and are cast in the form of anathemas. This council sat for twenty years, and its decisions, both as to doctrine and discipline, were intended to check the progress of the Lutheran and Reformed doctrines.

The Professio Fidei Tridentinae is an outcome of the same council. It consists of the Nicene Creed and eleven other articles. The Roman Catechism also grew out of this great council, and was issued in 1566. It was intended for the religious instruction of the people, and it is made up of four parts, treating of the Apostles’ Creed, of the Sacraments, of the Decalogue, and of the Lord’s Prayer.

Other catechisms by Canisius and Belarmine are also in use among Romanists. Then the bulls of the popes, issued from time to time, and the decrees of recent councils in regard to the immaculate conception, passed in 1854, and of the papal infallibility, passed in 1870, are also of importance in this connection. There have also grown out of the controversies between Jansenist and Jesuit, and between Ultramontane and Gallican, other statements of doctrine and practice which have also their value as parts of the Romish creed. The Vatican Council of 1870 has much importance in this regard, as it virtually clothed the pope with power to make religious creeds, and to settle the doctrines of the church. Against this extreme action the old Catholics have always made their stand.

(c), Modern Reformation Creeds.

Here the field is very extensive, for the Reformation, both in its Lutheran and Reformed branches, was very fruitful in the production Of creeds and confessions. A brief sketch of the chief of these, with the exception of the Westminster Standards, will be given in this section.

(i), The Lutheran Creeds and Cateehisms.

As very important among these, the ancient ecumenical creeds are to be included. These have already been described, so that the discussion of the creed products of Lutheranism may be at once begun.

The Augsburg Confession, drawn up in 1530, rightly stands first. It was first called an Apology, and it was prepared chiefly by the hand of Melancthon, no doubt with the full approval, and perhaps by the assistance of Luther himself. As a statement of Reformation doctrine it is of very great importance. It consists of two parts. The first is positive, or dogmatic. The second part is largely negative, rejecting the main tenets of Romanism in seven articles.

The Apology of the Augsbury Confession followed soon after, appearing in 1531. It was prepared by Melancthon in order to defend the Confession from the assaults which the Romish theologians had made upon it. It is a splendid production, and in some respects it is judged by many to be superior to the Confession itself. As a complete refutation of the Romish theologians it was entirely successful.

The Catechisms of Luther, issued in 1529, are of much importance in their bearing upon religious instruction. They are the heralds of many such outlines of Christian doctrine produced by the Reformation, and intended for catechetical purposes. These Catechisms are two in number. They are called the Larger and the Smaller, and in many respects they resemble the Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, which were issued a hundred years later on. No description of these Catechisms can be given. The fact that they stand at the head of the catechetical creeds is emphasized.

The Articles of Smalcald may be next mentioned, for they were drawn up in 1537. Melancthon’s hand again appeared in these articles, although others were also prominent in drafting them. They consist of three parts, and are directed more definitely against Romish doctrines than was the Augsburg Confession of a few years before.

The Form of Concord is the great Lutheran creed to which the Lutheran churches the world over adhere with more or less strictness. It was matured in 1577, and its great purpose was to bring peace and concord to the Protestant cause after a long period of bitter controversy. Much of this controversy was about the Lord’s supper, and concerning the ability of man to cooperate with divine grace in the experience of redemption in the soul. Augustus, Elector of Saxony, was active in the movement to frame the Formula Concordiae. Andrea, Chemnitz, and Selnecher were the theologians who drew it up. It is composed of two parts, both of which treat of the same points. There are in all twelve articles in the Formula, and they contain comprehensive statements upon such topics as original sin, free-will, justification, good works, the law and the gospel, the Lord’s supper, and the person of Christ. After a good deal of diplomacy and discussion, this statement was generally accepted by the Lutheran branch of the Reformation. While in many respects a good statement of doctrine, it exhibits at several points a decided toning down of the doctrine of the Augeburg Confession, especially in regard to what is known as synergism. Two other catechisms, called the Saxon and the Wurtemberg, were drawn up about 1550, but they never obtained recognition as of authority in the church.

(ii), The Reformed Calvinistic Creeds.

The field here is even more extensive than among the Lutherans. In addition to the ancient creeds there are many symbols which we can do little more than mention in this connection. Dr. Schaff states that the number of Reformed creeds is about thirty. On the continent of Europe there are two classes of these creeds, one of Zwingfian and the other of Calvinistic type. Then the Thirty-nine Articles in a measure stand by themselves, though they are nominally Calvinistic.

The early Swiss creeds are connected with the name of Zwingle. His Sixty-seven Articles were issued in 1572 at Zurich. The Bernese Theses, ten in number, were issued by Zwingle, Ecolampadius, Bucer, and others, as a refutation of the Romish assault upon the Sixty-seven Articles. The contents of these Theses are compact and convincing. Zwingle, in 1530, also sent a Confession of Faith to the Augsburg Diet, addressed to Charles V., but it received scanty courtesy there. From that time and stage in the Reformation, Luther and Zwingle unfortunately drifted apart. The last doctrinal statement made by Zwingle was an Exposition of the Christian Faith to Francis I. Of Zwingle’s doctrinal views, as distinct from those of Luther and of Calvin, nothing definite can now be said. The chief subject of contention between them was the Lord’s supper.

The First and Second Confession of Basle were framed in 1534, and form the transition symbol in the passage from the creeds of Zwingle to those of Calvin, whose advent they precede and herald. They are simple and orthodox in form, evangelical and temperate in spirit, and consist of twelve articles.

The First Helvetic or Swiss Confession, dating from 1536, is a much more important document, and is to be really identified with the Second Confession of Basle above named. Its authors were Bucer and Capito, though others seem to have been associated with them in the work. Luther was so pleased with it that he sent letters of approval. This is the first of the Reformed creeds which obtained what may be called national authority.

The Second Helvetic or Swiss Confession, dating from 1562 - 1566, is the last, and Schaff says the best, of all the Zwinglian Creeds. It is the work of Henry Bullinger, who was in correspondence with leading Reformers everywhere. This is a creed of much value, and it is more largely recognized than any of the continental creeds, except, perhaps, the Heidelberg Catechism. It is a well-matured product, and consists of thirty chapters. It deals with all the doctrines and ordinances of the church in a very clear and comprehensive manner. In many respects the Westminster Confession of Faith seems to follow this creed. In this connection the Consensus of Geneva, 1552, the Consensus Formula, 1675, the Gallican Confession, 1559, the French Confession, 1572, and the Belgic Confession, 1561, can only be mentioned.

The Synod of Dort, 1618 - 1619, dealt with the rising Arminian controversy. Arminius, 1560 - 1609, and Episcopius, 1583 - 1644, were the chief promoters of the Arminian views. The debate in the Synod gathered about five points, viz.: unconditional election, original sin, particular redemption, invincible grace, and final perseverance. On all of these points the Calvinistic views were confirmed, and they have been ever since that time known as the five points of Calvinism. The Arminians drew up a remonstrance against the conclusions of the Synod, in which they set forth opposing views, hence they have been known as the Remonstrants ever since.

The Heidelberg Catechism is the great creed of the Reformed Church in Germany, and, indeed, of that church everywhere throughout the world. It dates from the year 1563, and was drawn up by Ursinus and Olivianus, who were called to the task by the elector, Frederick II., who was a truly good man. Many editions of it have been issued, and it has been translated into many different tongues. This Catechism is divided into three parts, which treat of the sin and misery of man, of redemption by Christ, and of the Christian life. It will be observed that the order of topics is about the same as that found in the Epistle to the Romans. In the second part there is a full explanation of the Apostles’ Creed. This Catechism is admirable in many respects, and especially for purposes of religious instruction.

The Waldensian Catechism, whose date is 1498, and the Bohemian Catechism, made out in 1521, are interesting because they are so early, the former, indeed, being a prereformation document. Minor Reformed Confessions, such as that of Sigismund, 1614; of Anhalt, 1581; of Nassau, 1578; of Bremen, 1598; of Hesse, 1607, can only be named. Of the symbols of Hungary and Poland nothing can be said.

The Church of England Articles deserve some more adequate notice. As a matter of fact, they were a gradual growth. At first they consisted of forty-two articles, but they were afterwards reduced to thirty-nine, whence the title, Thirty-nine Articles. These Articles, with slight modifications, constitute the doctrinal symbols of the Anglican churches everywhere. No history of their production can be given here. The Reformation in England is not easily understood, especially as connected with Henry VIII. First of all, ten articles were formulated in 1536. In 1538 thirteen articles were issued, and these became the basis of the forty-two, which are sometimes called the Articles of Edward VI. Under Elizabeth these Articles were revised and reduced to thirty-nine, in 1562, and they were ratified by Parliament in 1571. These are known as the Articles of Elizabeth, and they have remained substantially the same ever since.

A comparison of these Articles with the continental creeds is a very interesting and instructive task, as they represent various types of Calvinism. These Articles have been revised by the Episcopal churches in America, to meet the changed conditions of church and state in this country. The Church of England Catechisms, a larger and a smaller one, as also the Lambeth Articles, of 1595, nine in number, deserve mention in passing. These Articles are decidedly Calvinistic in their contents. The Irish Articles, drawn by Usher in 1615, are also strictly Calvinistic, and they are of much interest in relation to the Westminster Standards, for they exhibit in a large measure the same type of doctrine. The Reformed Episcopal Church in this country in 1875 changed the Articles in many important respects, and reduced their number to thirty-five.

The Methodist churches are usually Arminian in doctrine. The Articles of Religion, twenty-five in number, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes, together with the Book of Discipline and Catechisms, constitute the standards of the Methodist churches in general the world over. The stage has now been reached where the passage may properly be made to the history of the Westminster Standards, the creed of the Presbyterian churches almost everywhere.

II. The Westminster Catechisms and Confession.

Prior to the Assembly which met in Westminster Abbey, London, doctrinal standards of Calvinistic type and Presbyterian in polity had been formulated in Scotland. Among these the National Covenant of 1581, and its renewal in 1638 - 1639, may be mentioned. The latter marks the second Scottish Reformation. The solemn League and Covenant was drawn up and signed in 1643, and it forms the stepping-stone to the Westminster Assembly. The reasons for formulating these leagues were in a measure to defend both civil and religious liberty. They were testimonies against error as well as confessions of faith.

There were native Scottish catechisms prior to those of the Westminster Assembly. Two such Catechisms were made out by John Gray, 1512 - 1600, about the time of Knox. The larger appeared in 1581, and the smaller in 1591. Latin catechisms, one by Andrew Simpson and another by John Davidson, were in use prior to 1640.

The Westminster Doctrinal Standards and Directory of Worship arose out of the Puritan conflict in England. Episcopacy of various types was on the one side, and Presbyterianism with Independency was on the other. The conflict was partly civil and partly religious, and the real cause of the struggle, lay in the fact that the Church of England, as established after the Reformation, was not thoroughly reformed. There were many earnest spirits who desired to see the Reformation completed. This was the early Puritan element. The struggle was long and violent.

In July, 1643, Parliament issued instructions to have an Assembly called at Westminster Abbey, in London, on July the first, of that year, to effect the complete reformation of the Church of England, in its liturgy, discipline and government, according to the word of God, and in harmony with the Reformed churches in Scotland and on the continent. The members of the Assembly were named, and their number was one hundred and fifty-one. There were one hundred and twenty-one divines and thirty laymen, ten of the latter being lords and twenty commoners.

The work of the Assembly was difficult, for there were really four parties in the body. There were some strict Episcopalians, a number of able Independents, several Erastians, and a large body of Presbyterians. In matters of doctrine proper there was not much difference of opinion. There were no Pelagians and really no Arminians, so that the type of doctrine which prevailed was well-defined Calvinism. Dr. Twisse, the moderator, was a supralapsarian, but the sublapsarians were greatly in the majority in the Assembly. It was concerning matters of government and discipline that the diversity of view soon appeared. Hence it is that upon these matters the Westminster Standards do not give such clear statements as they do upon points of doctrine; nor were the respective provinces of the church and civil authority at first clearly defined. The Episcopalians, as a matter of fact, never took much part in the discussions. The Independents and Erastians really withdrew before the Discipline was finished, so that the Presbyterian system was finally agreed upon, but without the support of any but the Presbyterians. A little less strictness on their part at that time might have made England permanently, as she was for a short time nominally, Presbyterian.

The Assembly held one thousand one hundred and sixty-three regular sessions, from July 1, 1643, till February 22, 1649. It was never formally dissolved, but simply vanished with the Long Parliament, which, under Cromwell, had brought it into existence. No account of the civil features of the struggle can be given here.

The first task the Assembly undertook was to revise the Thirty-nine Articles, somewhat in the line of the Lambeth and Irish Articles, which were distinctly Calvinistic. This task was given up by the direction of Parliament in October, 1643, and the work on a new Confession was then begun. By means of committees and sub-committees the work was pushed on, so that in two years and three months, with many breaks in the work, it was completed about the close of the year 1646, and reported to Parliament in 1647.

The Scripture texts were added in April, 1647. In regard to the Catechisms, the Larger was prepared first and the Shorter soon after. Dr. Tuckney had much to do with framing both of them, and they were completed towards the close of the year 1647. The Scottish General Assembly approved of them in July, 1647. These Catechisms, together with Luther’s and the Heidelberg Catechism, are likely to be enduring instruments of catechetical instruction in the church.

It would be interesting to follow the action of the English Parliament in regard to these Standards. They were carefully considered by both Houses of Parliament, and some slight changes were made. The House of Lords agreed to the Confession on June 3, 1648, and the Commons on June 20 of the same year. The English Parliament twice endorsed the Confession as to its doctrinal articles, but it was inclined to an Erastian position in regard to matters of government and discipline. When the monarchy was restored, the Confession shared the fate of Presbyterian polity in England, and Scotland was afterwards to become the heroic scene of its life and triumphs.

With some slight changes, made necessary by the different conditions of the country, these Standards were adopted by all the Presbyterian churches in America, and in other parts of the world, as people sought new homes in foreign lands. The Congregational churches in New England also adopted these Standards “for substance of doctrine,” but their adherence to this type of doctrine has loosened during the past century in this country.

Early in this century the Cumberland Presbyterian Church originated. It modified the doctrine of the Confession in regard to predestination, so as to become virtually Arminian, while it retains a Presbyterian polity. It is really an Arminian Presbyterian Church, just as the Welsh Church is a Calvinistic Methodist Church.

Finally, the great body of the regular Baptists, in America especially, while they do not formally accept the Confession and the Catechisms, yet they hold and teach the Calvinistic doctrines which they contain in such a systematic and scriptural form.

At this point the historical sketch is concluded. The next chapter is also to be introductory, and will seek to explain the nature, and show the important uses, of religious creeds and confessions.

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links