In working on the most recent issue of Christian History & Biography ("Debating Jesus' Divinity"), we once again ran into the old canard that the Nicene bishops relied more on Greek philosophical concepts than on the Bible. That is the conventional wisdom in some circles, but let's take a closer look at what those bishops did. With the help of Norwegian church historian Oscar Skarsaune and his book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish influences on Early Christianity (IVP, 2002), we'll learn a different story.

Let's begin at the beginning. The oldest creeds were simple baptismal vows—affirmations of belief in God the Father, in Jesus the Messiah, his Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Hints of such early baptismal statements can be found in Justin (writing about 150) and Tertullian (writing between 190 and 200).

By about 220, baptismal candidates were affirming a slightly more complex set of beliefs. Here is how the Roman presbyter Hippolytus describes the questions they were asked:

Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in the Messiah (Christus) Jesus, the Son of God,
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day living from the dead and ascended into the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

If you translate those "Do you believe" questions into "I believe" statements, you have something very much like the Old Roman Creed which took final form in the Apostles' Creed (5th century).

These baptismal vows say a lot more about Jesus and his activity than they do about God the Father ...

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