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Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume I. The History of Creeds.
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§ 1. Name and Definition.

A Creed,33    From the beginning of the Apostles' Creed (Credo, I believe), to which the term is applied more particularly. or Rule of Faith,44     Κανών τῆς πίστεως or τῆς άληθείας, regula fidei, regula veritatis. These are the oldest terms used by the ante-Nicene fathers, Irenæus, Tertullian, etc. or Symbol,55     Σύμβολον, symbolum (from συμβάλλειν, to throw together, to compare), means a mark, badge, watchword, test. It was first used in a theological sense by Cyprian, A.D. 250 (Ep. 76, al. 69, ad Magnum, where it is said of the schismatic Novatianus, 'eodum symbolo, quo et nos, baptizare'), and then very generally since the fourth century. It was chiefly applied to the Apostles' Creed as the baptismal confession by which Christians could be known and distinguished from Jews, heathen, and heretics, in the sense of a military signal or watchword (tessera militaris); the Christians being regarded as soldiers of Christ fighting under the banner of the cross. Ambrose (d. 397) calls it ' cordis signaculum et nostræ militiæ sacramentum. ' Rufinus, in his Expositio in Symb. Apost., uses the word likewise in the military sense, but gives it also the meaning collatio, contributio (confounding σύμβολον with συμβολη), with reference to the legend of the origin of the creed from contributions of the twelve apostles (' quod plures in unum conferunt; id enim fecerunt apostoli, ' etc.). Others take the word in the sense of a compact, or agreement (so Suicer, Thes. eccl. II. 1084: ' Dicere possumus, symbolum non a militari, sed a contractuum tessera nomen id accepisse; est enim tessera pacti, quod in baptismo inimus cum Deo '). Still others derive it (with King, History of the Apostles' Creed, p. 8) from the signs of recognition among the heathen in their mysteries. Luther and Melancthon first applied it to Protestant creeds. A distinction is made sometimes between Symbol and Symbolical Book, as also between symbola publica and symbola privata. The term theologia symbolica is of more recent origin than the term libri symbolici. is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church.

A creed may cover the whole ground of Christian doctrine and practice, or contain only such points as are deemed fundamental and sufficient, or as have been disputed. It may be declarative, or interrogative in form. It may be brief and popular (as the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds), for general use in catechetical instruction and at baptism; or more elaborate and theological, for ministers and teachers, as a standard of public doctrine (the symbolical books of the Reformation period). In the latter case a confession of faith is always the result of dogmatic controversy, and more or less directly or indirectly polemical against opposing error. Each symbol bears the impress of its age, and the historical situation out of which it arose.

There is a development in the history of symbols. They assume a more definite shape with the progress of biblical and theological knowledge. They are mile-stones and finger-boards in the history of Christian doctrine. They embody the faith of generations, and the most valuable results of religious controversies. They still shape and regulate the theological thinking and public teaching of the churches of Christendom. They keep alive sectarian strifes and antagonisms, but they reveal also the underlying agreement, and foreshadow the possibility of future harmony.


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