The Early Christian Development Of Creedal Formulae
The early Christian confessions or affirmations of faith tended to focus on the “binitarianism” of God as Father—itself a distinctively Christian emphasis—and Jesus as Lord. This is not to suggest that the earliest Christians were somehow ignorant of the Spirit, but rather that they very naturally tended to focus on Jesus' relationship to the Father. Nor is this focus on Jesus and the Father at all surprising, given the centrality of the resurrection to Christian faith. But it's interesting to note that, while the gospels faithfully preserve Jesus' Messianic title (Christ) in relating his ministry—a fact that is key to Wright's contention that the centrality of kingship has been inexplicably lost, displaced by the creeds—this Messianic, kingly, aspect was very quickly deemphasized in favor of a focus on the identification of the risen Jesus as Lord. As Wright says, this characterization of Jesus as Lord places Jesus within “an explicit statement [i.e. the Shema] … of the doctrine that Israel's God is the one and only God, the creator of the world” (129). In other words, we are already--at this early date in the history of the Church--totally immersed in Christology. (We will later need to examine the reasons for the difference in emphasis—pre-and post-resurrection—in greater detail, since Wright fails to address this issue except to assert that it amounts to a “displacement” of the core of Christian faith.)
To illustrate, typical examples from the earliest Christian writings which reflect this binitarian confession of faith can be found in the blessings that begin most Pauline letters. Note that the wording of each is essentially identical, suggesting that these confessions of faith are already formulaic (i.e., creedal) in nature. Note further that, while the kingship of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” can hardly be in doubt, the kingdom is never explicitly alluded to in these very early formulae—a curious circumstance if kingship and theocracy are what the gospels are “really all about,” unless the evangelists' understanding of “kingdom” is different than Wright supposes:
grace and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)
may the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Corinthians 1:3)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:2)
Grace and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age in accordance with the will of our God and Father, 5 to Whom be glory forever and ever, Amen! (Galatians 1:3-5)
grace and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:2)
the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Philippians 1:2)
Colossians is an exception, in that the opening blessing contains no reference to the Lord:
grace and peace be with you from God our Father. (Colossians 1:2)
Now, a notable feature of our creeds is that they follow the same pattern, but expand it by introducing further details about Jesus as well as explicit reference to the Spirit. Thus, the typical format:
1. I believe in God, the Father ...
2. And [I believe] in Jesus, Messiah, Lord, Son ...
[details regarding Jesus]
3. I believe in the Spirit ...
Wright's complaint, as we have seen, is that these expansions leave out all reference to “kingdom inauguration,” which he sees as central to Christian faith and a subject of all consuming interest to the gospel writers. To take the simplest example, the Apostles' Creed, we find the following additional details regarding Jesus, which skip from his birth to his death, making no mention of his public ministry:
1. I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,
2. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
[gap: no mention of public ministry or kingdom]
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell.
The third day He rose again from the dead,
He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
From whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
3. I believe in the Holy Spirit...
Again, as we have seen, Wright accounts for this gap by claiming that the creeds arose as central tenets of the faith were challenged by heresies. But we've already seen that there are a number of problems with Wright's claim. One, of course, is that the creeds fail to allude to a number of basic tenets of the Christian faith, such as the Eucharist—the kingdom is hardly the only “essential” of the faith that is left out of the creeds. Secondly, the additional details regarding Jesus surrounding the “gap”--all of which are drawn from various New Testament books--were not really added to combat heresy. The expansions of the early creedal formulations that countered heresies came quite a bit later and deal with more developed issues of Christology than those we find in the earlier rules of faith. A further problem is that the evidence of the earliest Apostolic preaching about Jesus, as well as the evidence of early theological speculation, also avoids details of Jesus' ministry and even is notably sketchy regarding his teaching.
The Early Apostolic Preaching
For example. The Acts of the Apostles provides several examples of early apostolic preaching, attributed to Peter:
22 "My fellow Israelites, listen to these words: Jesus of Nazareth was a man who was vouched for by God by means of mighty works, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him in your presence, as you yourselves know. 23 You killed this man, who had been delivered to you in accordance with the set purpose and foreknowledge of God, by having him crucified at the hands of the Gentiles, 24 yet God raised him and released him from the throes of death, because it was not possible for death to hold him in its power. … 32 God raised this Jesus--of this we are all witnesses--33 and when he was exalted at the right hand of God and had received the promise of the Holy Spirit he poured it forth, as you can see and hear. (Acts 2)
"Fellow Israelites, why are you so amazed? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk with our own power or holiness? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our Fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and denounced before Pilate, who had decided to release him. 14 You denounced a holy and righteous man and asked that a murderer be released to you, 15 but you killed the author of life, whom God then raised from the dead--of that we are witnesses. (Acts 3:)
34 Then Peter opened his mouth and said, "Now I truly see that God doesn't play favorites; 35 instead, those of every nation who fear Him and do what's right are acceptable to Him. 36 He sent His word to the sons of Israel and proclaimed the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what took place throughout all Judea, starting in Galilee after the baptism that John preached. 38 Jesus of Nazareth, when he had been anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and power, traveled everywhere, doing good works and healing all those who were in the power of the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did, both in the Judean countryside and in Jerusalem, and then they killed him by hanging him on a tree. 40 God raised him on the third day and granted that he should be visible, 41 not to the people as a whole, but to the witnesses who had been chosen beforehand by God--to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead, 42 and he commanded us to proclaim to the people and solemnly declare that he is the one God has appointed to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10)
Note that, while the first and last examples make reference to “mighty works, wonders, and signs, which God performed through [Jesus],” “good works and healing,” the references are passing—the central point is that Jesus, who was crucified, is now risen and exalted. The second example dispenses with even that—unless we consider the reference to Jesus as “a holy and righteous man” to qualify. But there is no reference at all to the Kingdom, nor to any other aspect of the “good news.” The tendency here is almost to portray Jesus as a wonderworker, if it weren't for the pregnant characterization of Jesus as “the author of life.”
Paul also refers in his letters to “God's good news” and to the details of the faith—those that were of “primary importance”--that were “handed down”:
God's good news 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures--3 the good news about His Son, who was born from the line of David according to the flesh 4 and was designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead--Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1)
15. I want to remind you, brothers, of the good news I proclaimed to you, the good news you received and in which you stand firm. 2 You'll be saved through the good news if you hold fast to the message I proclaimed to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I handed down to you as of primary importance what I, in turn, had received, namely that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Kephas and then to the Twelve. (1 Corinthians)
Despite Paul's clearly stated intent to describe the central content of the “good news,” the only reference to Jesus' life before his crucifixion is that he “was born from the line of David according to the flesh.” Little more than twenty years after the resurrection, there is no reference at all to the Kingdom. On the other hand, the reference in Romans to the Spirit is noteworthy at this early date—it is evidence that, while the preponderance of New Testament passages focus on the Father and Son, Trinitarian development is not in doubt.
Early Christian Theological Development
Philippians 2, Colossians 1 and the prologue to John's Gospel also provide interesting examples of early Christian theological developments. There is no reference in any of these passages to the Spirit (although the Spirit figures prominently in Johannine and Pauline thought), but each passage can be seen as a theological expansion of the basic Christian creedal confession of faith: Jesus is Lord. They deserve to be quoted at length. First Philippians, which is widely considered to be an early Christian hymn that Paul is quoting:
5 Have the same outlook among you that Christ Jesus had,
6 Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God something to hold on to.
7 Instead, he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave,
he was born like a man and was found human in his appearance.
8 He humbled himself and became obedient,
even unto death, death on a cross.
9 For this reason God exalted him
and gave him a name above every other name,
10 So that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend,
on heaven, on earth, and below the earth,
11 And every tongue will proclaim to the glory of God the Father,
that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2)
Just as our creeds do, Philippians skips from Jesus' birth to his death on a cross and resurrection. This passage is all about Christology, the relationship of Jesus to his Father.
3 When we pray for you we always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 because we've heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all the saints 5 which come from the hope stored up for you in heaven. You first heard of this hope in the word of truth, the good news 6 that has come to you. This good news has been increasing and producing fruit in the whole world, just as it has among you from the day you heard and came to know the grace of God in truth.
15 He is the image of the unseen God,
the firstborn of all creation,
16 For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
both the seen and the unseen,
Whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or powers,
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He is before all things and in him all things hold together.
18 He is the head of the body, of the church,
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might be above all else,
19 For in him all the Fullness was pleased to dwell
20 and through him reconciled all things to Himself,
Making peace by the blood of his cross,
reconciling everything on earth or in heaven. (Colossians 1)
Paul, in seeking to express the essence of the “good news,” once again quotes what most scholars believe is an early Christian hymn. In it we see the essence of the faith: God as creator, and Jesus as Lord, his death by which Man is reconciled to God and his resurrection. Reference to Jesus' birth is oblique. There is no reference to the Kingdom, nor to Jesus' public ministry. The emphasis in v. 20 on reconciliation is noteworthy for the contrast with Wright's emphasis on victory over the powers, and especially over Caesar.
The prologue to John's Gospel is remarkably similar in the general trend of its thought to the Pauline passages, despite John's distinctive mode of expression:
1. In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made through him,
And without him nothing was made.
What came to be 4 through him was life,
And the life was the light of men,
5 And the light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent by God named John. 7 He came as awitness to bear witness concerning the light, so that all mightbelieve through him. 8 He was not the light, but was to bear witness concerning the light. 9 It was the true light that enlightens every man which had come into the world. 10 He was in the world.
And the world was made by him,
Yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to his own home,
Yet his own people did not receive him.
12 But all who did receive him, to them he gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believe in his name, 13 those who were born, not of blood nor of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh
And dwelt among us,
And we saw his glory,
Glory as of the only begotten of the Father,
Full of grace and truth ...
15 John bore witness concerning him and cried out, saying,"This was the one of whom I said, 'The one who's coming after me is above me, because he was before me.'"
16 For we have all received of his fullness,
and grace upon grace,
17 For the Torah was given through Moses,
Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God;
The only begotten Son of God--
Who is in the bosom of the Father--
He has revealed Him.
Once again, references to Jesus' public ministry are oblique. We are told that Jesus came to his own and was rejected by his own, but that's about it. There is nothing about the Kingdom, and nothing about the content of Jesus' preaching. Remarkably, there is no mention of the resurrection. The focus is very much on Jesus' relationship to his Father: Jesus is truly Lord.
Early Christian Trinitarian Formulae
Thus far we have largely stressed the early Christian evidence (pre-creedal confessions of faith) that focuses on the Father and Jesus the Lord, since that is also the focus of the creeds. But in addition, there are examples of equal antiquity—even drawn from the same documents—that illustrate the Trinitarian turn these confessions of faith increasingly took. Thus, we have already cited the letter to the Romans, where we find reference to the Spirit in the greeting:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle set apart for God's good news 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures--3 the good news about His Son, who was born from the line of David according to the flesh 4 and was designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead--Jesus Christ our Lord.
Even more strikingly, the adieu of 2 Corinthians reads:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:13)
The presentation in Acts of Peter's early preaching (which we have previously cited) also contains a Trinitarian structure, while also providing examples of the typical binitarian acclamation:
God raised this Jesus--of this we are all witnesses--33 and when he was exalted at the right hand of God and had received the promise of the Holy Spirit he poured it forth, as you can see and hear. … 36 So let the whole house of Israel know beyond any doubt--this Jesus, whom you crucified, God made both Lord and Messiah." (Acts 2)
38 Jesus of Nazareth, when he had been anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and power, traveled everywhere, doing good works and healing all those who were in the power of the devil, because God was with him. (Acts 10)
And, of course, the baptismal formula that closes Matthew is a classic Trinitarian affirmation of Christian faith, which is also reflected in the Didache:
19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28).
Given all this evidence from early Christian writings and practice, we can hardly be surprised at the form that the earliest true creeds take. For example, J. N. D. Kelly believes that both Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) and Irenaeus (2nd century AD – c. 202) cite the Old Roman Symbol in their works:
I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh
(the life everlasting)
For the sake of comparison, the original rule of faith in the early Christian Church as Irenaeus knew it (Against Heresies, 1,10,1), included the following statement, that the Church believes:
… in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them;
and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation;
and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race … (Wikipedia, Rule of Faith)
The point is, contrary to Wright's claim, the basic outline of the creeds as we know them can be found in the earliest writings of the Church. This outline, so strikingly similar to the later Apostles' Creed, had taken recognizable shape long before “the great battles with Gnosticism in the second and third centuries ... and with Arianism in the fourth and fifth centuries.”
And yet Wright protests.