Why Do We Have Two Creeds?

Q: I noticed that in my worship aid at my Church, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are both printed. There is some small print referring to “The Directory for Children’s Masses” above the Apostles’ Creed. Is there an option? Why are there two creeds?

Most worship aids do print both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed may be used at Masses where children are the majority, like a parochial school Mass. The Directory for Children’s Masses does specify that, “the Apostles’ Creed can be used since they are familiar with it in their catechism class” (No. 49). Such a decision reflects sound pedagogy.

The importance, though, of the question concerns the origins of these creeds. The word creed derives from the Latin credo, meaning, “I believe.” The purpose of any form of the creed is to provide a basic, succinct statement of the faith. Moreover, the creeds are structured on the fundamental belief in the Holy Trinity and the “work” proper to each of the three Persons: the Father and creation; the Son and redemption; and the Holy Spirit and sanctification. As such, the creeds also capture the course of salvation history: Initiated by the Father, the history of salvation culminates in Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit the redemptive mission and Paschal Mystery of our Lord are operative in the Age of the Church.

Of course, the Apostles’ Creed is attributed to the teaching of the Apostles. An ancient tradition held that on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles composed this creed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, each Apostle wrote one of the 12 articles of faith expressed in the creed. (Keep in mind that St. Matthias had replaced Judas, who had betrayed our Lord and then killed himself.) St. Ambrose (d. 397) and Rufinus both attested to this tradition, especially in their preaching. Whether the Apostles themselves actually wrote this early creed is uncertain; nevertheless, the beliefs expressed in the creed are certainly rooted in their teachings. Interestingly too, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the 12 articles of the Apostles Creed as its paradigm for presenting the faith in Part I, “The Profession of Faith.”

Moreover, the substance of the creed is found in the profession of faith made by a person at Baptism in the early age of the Church. Here the person to be baptized responded to three questions, again divided according to the Persons of the Trinity. An example of this early baptismal profession is found in The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus (d. 235), which was written about the year 215. To this day, in the “Rite of Baptism for Children” and the “Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults,” the person who is to be baptized (or in the case of an infant, the parents and godparents) makes the profession of faith by responding to the three Trinitarian questions: “Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting?”

On the other hand, the Nicene Creed was produced by the Council of Nicea I (325), which was convoked to combat the heresy of Arius, who basically denied the divinity of Christ. Here the Council wanted to teach very clearly that Jesus Christ is “consubstantial” or “one in Being” with the Father, sharing the same divine nature; that He is begotten, not made or created; and that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through her, Jesus Christ, true God, became also true man. The original text of the Nicene Creed ended at the phrase, “And in the Holy Spirit.” Without question, the basis for the Nicene Creed was the Apostles Creed and the profession of faith administered at baptism.

Later, at the Council of Constantinople (381), the Church again not only affirmed its condemnation of Arianism but also condemned the Pneumatomachs (i.e. “the killers of the Spirit”). Therefore, the creed was expanded to define clearly the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Actually, the council adapted the creed written in 374 by St. Epiphanius of Salamis. This creed, officially entitled the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Symbol, was introduced into the Mass about the year 500.

While the answer to this question demonstrates how the faith was expressed first in the Apostles’ Creed and then even more clearly in the Nicene Creed, the real importance is that the faith was preserved, guarded and handed on to the next generation. Moreover, during the time of persecution (prior to 313), the creed was not generally written — it was part of the disciplina arcane, meaning it was memorized and handed on orally as a protection against paganism. In a sense, in this age of persecution, we too should know our creed by heart, know the faith we professes in it and hand that faith on to the next generation.

Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Avatar photo


Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage