The Development of Core Christian Teachings:
Early Christian Beliefs and Creeds
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

The first disciples of Jesus not only passed on what he himself taught and did during his lifetime, but they also came to believe that this Jesus, a Jewish man born in Nazareth and executed in Jerusalem, was the long awaited "Messiah" or "Christ" (Mark 1:1). As we see in the canonical Gospels, these believers soon ascribed many other titles to Jesus, including "Lord" and "Son of God," and even began to think of him as the divine Word, who was not only from God, but was God (John 1:1-3; see Christological Titles).

Yet most early Christians also wanted to remain monotheists; they continued to believe that there was only one God, the God of Israel and creator of the world, whom Jesus had called "Father." But if there was only one God, how could Jesus also be divine? What was the precise relationship between the Father and the Son? And if Jesus was divine, then how could he also be human? Such questions about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God the Father were heftily debated in the first few Christian centuries, with many different opinions and heated arguments all around.


Some Core Teachings of Jesus (or attributed to Jesus):

A Compilation of the Apostles' Preaching:

The apostles preach some or most of the following points in various speeches recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 2:14-41; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 7:2-53; 8:26-38; 10:35-49; 13:16-41; 16:30-34; 17:22-34; 19:1-7; 20:17-35; 22:1-21; 23:1-6; 24:10-21; 26:1-23; 28:23-28):


Some Short Creedal Statements in the New Testament (NAB translations):

Some Johannine Texts Important for the Development of Christology:


Some 2nd and 3rd Century Controversies:

In the first three centuries after the life and death of Jesus, the majority of Christians already came to agree that there was only one God (the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus) and that Jesus was both human and divine. These Christians came to be know as catholic and orthodox, not in the sense of the "Roman Catholic" or "Eastern Orthodox" institutional Churches (which only separated from one another centuries later), but in the root meaning of these words (catholic = "universal"; orthodox = "correct teaching"). Their opponents, those who held opinions rejected by the majority, came to be called heterodox ("other/false teaching") or heretics ("separatists; sectarians").

Heterodox Group  Their Opinions, Ultimately Rejected Orthodox Positions, Eventually Accepted
[ Jews who don't
believe in Jesus ]
[ Jesus was not the Messiah; he was at best a great prophet, healer, and teacher; or at worst a blasphemer or a fraud. ] Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, sent from God as King of Israel and Savior of the world (cf. all four Gospels)
Marcionites The harsh God of the OT is not the same as the loving Father of Jesus seen in the NT; the former should be rejected and replaced by the latter. The God of the OT is one and the same as the God and Father of Jesus; both the OT and the NT contain God's revelation (cf. Matt 5:17-20).
Adoptionists Jesus was born as a man, who became divine only at his baptism, when he was "adopted as God's son." Jesus was divine from the moment of his birth; he was born of Mary, but "conceived by the Holy Spirit" (cf. Luke 1:35)
Gnostics The OT God is the creator of the material world, which is evil, from which people can be freed through the secret "knowledge that Jesus revealed to a select few." The universe created by God is good (Gen 1), but sin later entered the world (Gen 3-11); Jesus preached openly to all people, wanting everyone to be free from sin and death.
Docetists Jesus was divine, but not really human; he only "appeared to be human so that people could see him and hear his message." Jesus was divine, but also truly human; he was "like us in all things but sin" (cf. Heb 4:15).
Note: The first line is in square brackets because Jews of that time were obviously not a group of "Heterodox Christians," even if most of them opposed the Christians' teachings about Jesus.

The Creeds of Nicea and Constantinople:

In the early 4th century, the Roman persecutions of Christians ceased, the Emperor Constantine became Christian, and with imperial support Christianity grew rapidly. Yet the debates about the exact nature of Jesus and his relationship with God the Father continued. In order to resolve these issues and unify the Christian faith, the leaders (bishops) of the Christian Churches throughout the Mediterranean held several large meetings, called "Ecumenical Councils," at which they agreed on some short summary statements of what Christians believed. The "Creed" (from Latin credere = "to believe," or credo = "I believe") from the Council of Nicea was accepted but expanded upon by the Council of Constantinople.

Symbol of Eusebius (AD 325) Symbol of the Council of NICEA (AD 325) Symbol of Cyril of Jerusalem (c. AD 348)

We believe in one God, the Father almighty,
the maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Word of God,
.
God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life
the only-begotten Son, first born of all creation,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
through whom all things were made.
.
For our salvation
He became flesh and lived as a man,
He suffered
and rose again on the third day
and ascended to the Father.
He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
.

We believe also in one Holy Spirit.

We believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of all things, visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, the only-begotten generated from the Father,
that is, from the being (
ek tes ousias) of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in being (
homoousion) with the Father,
through whom all things were made
those in heaven and those on earth.
For us men and for our salvation He came down,
and became flesh, was made man,
suffered,
and rose again on the third day.
He ascended to the heavens
and shall come again to judge the living and the dead.
.

And in the Holy Spirit.

As for those who say: "There was a time when He was not"
and "Before being begotten He was not";
and who declare that He was made from nothing (3);
or that the Son of God is from a different
substance (hypostasis) or being (ousia) [than the Father],
that is, created (ktistos),
or subject to change and alteration,
[such persons] the Catholic Church condemns.

We believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God, generated from the Father,
.
.
true God before all the ages,
through whom all things were made.
.
He came down,
became flesh,
and was made man,
was crucified [and buried].
He rose again [from the dead] on the third day,
and ascended to the heavens,
and took his seat at the right hand of the Father.
He shall come in glory to judge the living and the dead;
to His Kingdom there will be no end.

And in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
who has spoken in the prophets,
and in one baptism of conversion for the forgiveness of sins,
a
nd in one holy and catholic Church,
and in the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Symbol of Epiphanius (AD 374) Symbol of the Council of CONSTANTINOPLE (AD 381) Latin Version of Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

We believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
generated from the Father before all ages,
that is, from the being (
ek tes ousias) of the Father,
Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in being (
homoousios) with the Father,
through whom all things were made,
those in the heavens and those on earth.
For us men and for our salvation He came down from the heavens,
and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
was made man.
For our sake too He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
suffered and was buried.
On the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to the heavens and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead;
to His Kingdom there will be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
[And] in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We expect the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

We (1) believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
generated from the Father before all ages.
.
[God from God,] Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in being (homoousios) with the Father,
through whom all things were made.
.
For us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens,
and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.
For our sake too He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
suffered and was buried.
On the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures,
He ascended to the heavens and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead;
to His Kingdom there will be no end.

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son] (2),
who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
[And] in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We expect the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem,
factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium, et invisibilium.

Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum,
Filium Dei unigenitum.
Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula.
.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero.
Genitum, non factum,
consubstantialem Patri:
per quem omnia facta sunt.
.
Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis.
Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria Virgine:
et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, sub Pontio Pilato passus,
et sepultus est.
Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas.
Et ascendit in coelum: sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria, judicare vivos et mortuos:
cujus regni non erit finis.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem:
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.
Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur:
qui locutus est per prophetas.
Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

Translations: The Christian Faith, in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church , edited by J. Neuner & J. Dupuis (6th edition, 1996).
Notes:
4: Some versions and translations use the plural "We"; others use singluar "I"; other slight variations in the ancient texts are indicated in square brackets throughout.
5: The addition of the phrase "and the Son" (filioque) has been a major disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches, even before AD 1054.

Western Creeds:

Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c. 215-217) Symbol of St. Ambrose (d. 397) Symbol of Rufinus (c. 404)

Do you believe in God, the Father almighty?
.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
who was born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit,
has been crucified under Pontius Pilate,
died [and was buried],
.
who, on the third day, rose again alive, from the dead,
ascended into heaven,
and took His seat at the right hand of the Father,
and shall come to judge the living and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit,
and the Holy Church,
.
.
and the resurrection of the body?

I believe in God, the Father almighty.
.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit,
who suffered under Pontius Pilate,
died and was buried.
.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father,
wherefrom He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Church,
.
the forgiveness of sins,
and the resurrection of the body.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
invisible and impassible,

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit,
was crucified under Pontius Pilate
and was buried.
He went down to the dead.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Church,
.
the forgiveness of sins,
and the resurrection of the body.

Apostles' Creed (Latin Text) Apostles' Creed (ca. 10th Century) Apostles' Creed (Modern Translation)

Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem;
Creatorem coeli et terrae. 

Et in Jesum Christum, Filium ejus unicum, Dominum nostrum;
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto,
natus ex Maria virgine;
passus sub Pontio Pilato,
crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus;
descendit ad inferna;
tertia die resurrexit a mortuis;
ascendit ad coelos;
sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis;
inde venturus (est) judicare vivos et mortuos. 

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum;
sanctam ecclesiam catholicam;
sanctorum communionem;
remissionem peccatorum;
carnis resurrectionem;
vitam oeternam. Amen.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth. (1)

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, (2)
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, (3)
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He went down to the dead. (4)
On the third day He rose again from the dead. (5)
He ascended to the heavens,
and is seated at the right hand of God, the Father almighty, (6)
wherefrom He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. (7)

I believe in the Holy Spirit, (8)
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints, (9)
the forgiveness of sins, (10)
the resurrection of the body, (11)
and the life everlasting. (12)

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
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 the life everlasting. Amen.

Translations: The Christian Faith, in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church , edited by J. Neuner & J. Dupuis (6th edition, 1996).
Notes
1-12: A medieval legend claims that when the twelve apostles met to discuss their faith, each of them contributed one article, as numbered above, to their common creed.

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