Ancient Christian confessions like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed define the boundaries and content of the Christian faith in accordance with Scripture. But they also function as essential identity formation. These creeds are much more than checklists of personal beliefs. Their propositional and narrative content together offer a unified account of reality in relation to God, ourselves, and one another. In reality, these creeds are one credo, one “I believe”—so in this essay I’ll refer to them in the singular.
The creed describes not only who God is but also who we are. In these ways, the creed is both a no and a yes. “The Nicene Creed was written to say no, in the strongest possible terms,” Phillip Cary explains, to heresy. But the creed “said no by saying yes to who God really is, and who Jesus is . . . and sometimes it says who God is by saying what he has done to make us who we are: God’s creatures who he raises from death to everlasting life in Christ.”
The question of identity is perennial. And in the modern West, the question seems to generate even more existential angst than in the past, as we became unmoored from traditional identity anchors of faith, family, place, and even from biology itself. Numerous identity alternatives have been proposed as solutions, and many thoughtful Christians have responded to this question with powerful calls to find our identity in Christ. It’s a vital case to make—but one that frequently remains abstract and intangible. What does it really mean to encourage people to find their identity in Christ? How am I anchored beyond myself, my thoughts, and my feelings? Is Christianity just another identity choice among many?
The creed helps us move beyond the abstract into the realm of the concrete, revealing that Christianity is a deeply rooted identity-gift of ultimate and eternal significance, anchored in the God who is. This is the God who speaks the world into existence by the word of his power, the God who is the Word made flesh, the God who gives gifts to his people through words that mean something and sacraments that do something. The creed recounts and revels in this Triune God’s work of creation, redemption, and sanctification revealed in his word; and as we believe, it also shapes our identity. In confessing the creed, we’re led further up and further in (as C. S. Lewis might say) to this deepest reality of knowing God and ourselves. We are what we believe—because what we believe, as given in the creed, is reality.
The creed defines who we are in three fundamental ways: In relationship to God, to self, and to others, which I’d like to explore together in connection with the creed’s three articles. But first, we should consider how competing stories—cultural creeds—also shape us as we believe them.
Confounded by Creating Ourselves: How Stories Form or Malform Us
Humans are storytelling creatures. And our stories shape our identity. Countless competing narratives attempt to tell us who we are. Consider the Darwinian creed, which tells us we are just material stuff, here by accident. Or the consumerist creed, which presents humanity as customers who find meaning in their possessions. So too, the creed of expressive individualism, which tells us that our internal desires are who we are, manifest in everything from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—which George Barna flatly calls “fake Christianity”—to the LGBTQ+ identities exploding even among professing Gen Z Christians.
No matter what story or cultural creed tempts us, the common thread linking them together is a vision of the human person as self-defined and self-creating. The various cultural creeds might be summed up best with this simple statement of faith: I believe in myself.
At first, self-creation seems freeing: We get to throw off stodgy external structures and limiting moral codes—no more cramping my style! But for anyone who takes life just the least bit seriously, self-creation easily morphs into an anxiety-inducing burden bigger than our shoulders were designed to bear. Alan Noble calls this “the fundamental lie of modernity: that we are our own.” He suggests that “until we see this lie for what it is, until we work to uproot it from our culture and replant a conception of human persons as belonging to God and ourselves, most of our efforts at improving the world will be glorified Band-Aids.” The self-help Band-Aids aren’t stopping the bleeding and are actually making things worse, considering rising anxiety, depression, and suicide. While “no single cause can explain the presence of such social ills,” Noble suggests that they all “share important characteristics: they are systemic in nature, they are inhuman, and they all rely on a particular set of assumptions about what it means to be human.” A cultural creedal identity untethers humans from God and from external structures of meaning and morality. Ironically, this creates a boomerang effect in which all those responsibilities are sent reeling back toward us, leaving us on our own to find, formulate, or even fabricate meaning for our lives.
How do we avoid getting crushed under the weight of having to invent ourselves—to be our own creators and sustainers and redeemers? Noble points to a way out by remembering that we are not our own. This is a profoundly countercultural move: “An anthropology defined by our belonging to God is diametrically opposed to the contemporary belief that we are autonomous, free, atomistic individuals who find our greatest fulfillment in breaking free from all external norms.” The creed concretizes this “no”toward cultural self-identity with clear doctrinal claims and a compelling narrative structure for our life in Christ, uniting the worlds of fact and story, the objective truth outside us, and the subjective truth about us. As Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, put it more than eighteen hundred years ago, “Faith is established upon things truly real, that we may believe what really is, as it is.”
I Believe: Formed and Re-formed by the Creed
Each time we recite and reflect on the creed, we are brought further into its story and its story is brought further into us. We’re doing more than stating bare facts or reinforcing social bonds in the local congregation. We’re responding to what God has said and done by saying “this faith is mine; this is my story.” But not just mine. It’s the same faith confessed by Irenaeus and Athanasius, by Anselm and Aquinas, by Luther and Calvin, by peasants and kings, by mothers and fathers, by sisters and brothers, by friends and enemies, by rich and poor. When you recite the creed, you join millions of living Christians in thousands of languages in hundreds of countries—with untold numbers of faithful saints who have gone before—echoing together the true story and meaning of the cosmos. Talk about an identity-making event that many of us experience every Sunday!
The creed, however, shouldn’t then be set aside until the following Sunday. It can form our daily life in Christ. Peter Bender explains,
It is intended to be used daily in the life of the Christian and the Christian family for the purpose of faithful meditation upon the Word of God. The Creed anchors meditation in what is true, not for the self alone, but for every Christian for all time . . . [and] stands as a grid or framework through which the text of the Scriptures is to be properly understood.
Historically, we Christians receive the creed as an apostolic deposit given to us in our baptism, that provides us with the language and grammar to think and speak about God, ourselves, and one another. Already in the second century, Irenaeus referred to the long-established rule of faith, or “rule of truth,” that is “received by means of baptism” and that this “truth proclaimed by the Church is immovable.” Irenaeus then described the rule within the trinitarian structure and language familiar to anyone who knows the creeds:
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [It 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] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all.
The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. . . . For although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same.
We have all received the weight and wisdom of this shared sacred tradition.
I Am a Creature: The First Article and My Relation to God
God, the Father, uncreated, uncontainable, invisible; one God, the creator of all: this is the first article of our faith.
The creed’s first article begins by expressing our faith in the work of God the Father as Creator, which simultaneously tells us something about ourselves: We are creatures. God alone is uncreated; we as humans can’t help being creatures. So where do we ultimately find our identity? In the forces of nature or nurture? Society or self? Because we confess God as Creator, we confess that we receive our identity from another because we receive our very existence from another. As Irenaeus put it, “God indeed makes, but man is made.”
We may not think of creatureliness as good news. Being a creature can be rather disgusting at times. Smelly. Messy. Unsexy. Richard John Neuhaus notes that “the word ‘creature’ is hardly ever used today except negatively. Horror movies have creatures from the deep, and we speak of bothersome insects as creatures, but most people would not call their pet dog a creature, never mind their best friend.” Neuhaus sees this as “a triumph of Gnosticism in our popular culture,” a rejection of the gift of bodily life, and “the desire to be like God on our own terms.” Neuhaus encourages us to remember “the most elementary fact about what and who we are—creatures. We are not the Creator; we are not God.”
The creed’s first article frees us from trying to be God. We are embodied, contingent beings with in-built limits—and this is indeed good news. We have a Creator who, as Luther says, “has made me and all creatures; . . . he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. . . . All this he does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”
“If we belong to ourselves,” Noble explains, “then we set our own limits—which means we have no limits except our own will. If we belong to God, then knowing and abiding by His limits enables us to live as we were created to live, as the humans He designed us to be.” The creed’s first article reveals a Creator whose actions are driven by love—nay, who is love. We are defined in relation to this fatherly Creator as creatures who are loved with an eternal and unending love, a love that takes on flesh. The God who made us as bodily beings and pronounced it as all “very good” enters history bodily. This further defines our identity.
I Am Christian: The Second Article and My Relation to Self
And the second article: The Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man.
The creed’s second article about the Son’s work of redemption helps to define the self. Now, confessing our beliefs in relation to ourselves may sound dubious after all my earlier warnings about the dangers of self-creation and navel gazing. But it’s in the second article that we see how Christ remakes and redefines human identity around himself. For believers, self-identity is now Christ-identity. Saint Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Christ in me. Jonathan Linebaugh describes the identity-forming power of Paul’s words here as “the meeting of the christological past and a personal pronoun, a pairing that gives peace to ‘a trembling and troubled heart’ and ‘rest to your bones and mine.’”
The ancient church testifies to this comprehensive understanding of identity in Christ, as evidenced in their frequent confession of Christianus sum (“I am Christian”) in the face of persecution. Christianus, in both its Latin and Greek equivalents, is suggestive of something more than simply a lifestyle choice or an individualistic decision. When someone says “I am a Christian” today, it just doesn’t quite capture the weight and force of the original. When Christians confessed Christianus sum, they weren’t making a claim of personal perspective or wishful thinking; it was primal and real. There were now of Christ, belonging to Christ; Christ was in them, and they were in him. Such an ultimate claim reordered their allegiance under the world’s rightful king, Jesus, to whom they were united. They saw themselves as part of a new humanity constituted around the risen and glorified Christ, made up of people from all tribes, nations, tongues, and peoples. The claims of the creed radically changed Christian self-identity. No longer did the early Christians primarily identify as citizens of this or that country, or members of this or that family or class. This is not to say that their personal distinctiveness was lost or absorbed. Those things weren’t erased but transformed as they were now in Christ, who took on flesh, lived, died, and rose again proving his divinity and victory over the forces of evil and the empires of this world by the foolishness of his cross. Now that is a self-identity worth reclaiming—and urgently so, considering the scope and breadth of our contemporary identity crises.
I Am Communal: The Third Article and My Relation to Others
And the third article: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God, and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, throughout the world, to God.
The creed’s third article on the Spirit’s role as sanctifier reminds us of our relational nature. The creed tells us that we are not solitary, mechanistic units but created to be in living relation to a people and a history. In the church, not in isolation, the gifts of God are distributed to the people of God: communion, forgiveness, resurrection, and everlasting life.
In his explanation of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther highlights the inseparability of the individual and communal. Not only has “the Holy Spirit . . . called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith,” but also “in the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” The Spirit makes us new creatures in the image of Christ, our new head, which situates our rich and robust individual Christian identity in his larger body, the church where we all have varying gifts and roles. Confessing “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” roots us in our relationship to God as redeemed sinners and in community with other sinful saints where we together receive God’s spoken and sacramental gifts. Here, both self and other are properly placed in relation to God. Each individual is valued for their unique identity, but they are also united into one body. Christianity is particularly applied to individuals in each locale and community but is also universal in scope and application. All of this provides us with a firm place within the larger ordering of the cosmos—a position from which to live with assurance and purpose.
Being Formed by the True Story of the World
This creedal identity frames my relation to God, myself, and others. How can this not have significant influence in my daily life? The creed calls us to a life properly ordered toward the world’s master key, its deepest reality and unifying principle: Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the one in whom all things hold together (John 14:6; Col. 1:17). Here are a few starting points for further meditation on how a creedal rather than a cultural identity transforms everything about who we are and how we live.
Creedal Identity Is Subversive
Confessing the creed is a countercultural act that places us in a new community, in a new body, with a new king, and his name is neither Self nor Caesar. In the church’s confession, all our stereotypes and assumptions are turned upside down. Societal outcasts and social butterflies, truck drivers and doctors, those who clean toilets and those who design them are equally humbled and honored. All are united with our king and with one another in God’s paradoxical kingdom as we confess where our ultimate allegiances lie.
This dislocates us by reminding us that we’re pilgrims in a world that confesses different creeds. But it also locates us, anchoring us to a place and a people in a way that heals worldly divisions. From the church’s earliest days, this reality came through as our baptismal creed established a new community—a chosen race and royal priesthood that is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, elevating the status of those who were considered lower, and breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14).
Creedal Identity Is Anchored to the Body
Being a creature means that our bodies are gifts to be received and embraced, not rejected or deconstructed. Life in the body has limits, and it is from such a place of finitude and contingency that wisdom, virtue, and day-by-day faithfulness can grow. Consider the extreme inefficiency of caring for a young toddler or an elderly parent, or the long agonizing hours of conversation and presence required to walk together with someone through despair, grief, or depression. These are highly inconvenient but deeply human and deeply beautiful expressions of belonging to Christ and his body. Today, the body frequently seems not only too limited but also expendable, a waste product to be disposed of as neatly and quickly as possible. There is little thought of the body’s inherent value, its creation by God, or its ultimate resurrection. Our bodies have inherent value, however, and should be treated with respect and care, both during life and in our final Christian act: what we do with our bodies upon death.
Creedal Identity Is a Gift
Quite distinct from self-constructed and self-made forms of identity, the creed grants us an identity-gift, reminding us that God plants us in webs of mutual interdependence and support. At our birth, our name is given, our place is given, our family is given, our community is given. And if we take our cues from the church fathers, the rule of faith is gifted to us as well. The apostolic deposit is exactly that—a deposit we receive and inherit. The language of creedal and baptismal inheritance is common throughout the early church. Irenaeus notes how the faith has been “handed down to us . . . [which] exhorts us to remember that we have received baptism for the remission of sins . . . [as] the seal of eternal life and rebirth unto God, that we may no longer be sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and everlasting God.” In a culture that sees only self-chosen commitments and identities as authentic, we see in the creed a vision not of an identity we choose but one we receive by grace.
Creedal Identity Connects Us to Milestones and Rhythms
The creed frames the passage of time and seasons as structured by the church and marked by the milestones of God’s work in word and sacrament. It places us on a path rich with meaning, with accompanying rites to mark life’s journey: baptism, the Eucharist, Christian death and burial—all of which are explicitly referenced in the creed in the life of Christ and thus anticipated in the life of believers. These milestones are enacted and re-enacted in the church’s weekly rhythm of Lord’s Day rest. Kelly Kapic suggests that the concept of Sabbath is “one of the most countercultural and radical ideas in the Bible.” We cannot keep running the modern rat-race endlessly—we will perform ourselves to death. Structuring our lives around, and resting in, the rhythms of God’s gift of rest and word frees us to step off the tyrannical treadmill and into the Sabbath of God. These milestones and rhythms also ensure that our beliefs are embodied in our practices and that there is wholeness between our hearts and our heads, our bodies and our brains.
Creedal Identity Has a Destiny
The creed also clearly points us to our journey’s end. The pilgrim church daily confesses our faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The goal of human identity runs much deeper than individual choice or lived experience, personal achievement or social status, race or sexual preference. Your true purpose is found not in your own name, history, or constructed identity, but in the name, history and identity of Christ given in the ancient creed. This is an earth-shaking and life-altering identity that offers hope for this world and the next, knowing that what awaits us in the eschaton is the fullest expression of human identity imaginable: a glorified humanity in full communion with the Trinity and with one another.
The creed tells me that I am fundamentally a creature, a Christian, and communal. It tells me that you and I are in Christ and thus belong to each other. Despite the false and fleeting alternative identities we try to create for ourselves or adopt from our culture, Irenaeus has been right all along: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Let’s embrace the creed’s call to be defined by what we believe because we belong to the One in whom we believe. Let’s embrace reality.
Phillip Cary, The Nicene Creed: An Introduction (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2022), 2.Back
George Barna, “American Worldview Inventory 2021, Release #02: Introducing America’s Most Popular Worldview—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” Cultural Research Center, April 27, 2021; Paul Bond, “Nearly 40 Percent of U.S. Gen Zs, 30 Percent of Young Christians Identify as LGBT, Poll Shows,” Newsweek (October 20, 2021).Back
Alan Noble, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 5.Back
“Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary and Trends Report,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/YRBS_DataBack
Noble, You Are Not Your Own, 17.Back
Noble, You Are Not Your Own, 6.Back
Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 41.Back
Peter Bender, “The Creed Defines the Scriptures and Strengthens the Faith,” in We Believe: Essays on the Catechism (Fort Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2000), 44.Back
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.9.4–1.9.5, vol. 1, p. 330, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James DonaldsonBack
(1885–1887; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.10.1, 330.Back
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.20.2, 331.Back
Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 43.Back
To be sure, we understand that the work of creation is the work of all three persons of the Godhead (inseparable operations). But we also understand that there is a proper work to each Person of the Godhead when considering the economic Trinity, which the creed reflects: Father as Creator, Son as Redeemer, Spirit as Sanctifier.Back
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.11.2, 474.Back
Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 120–21.Back
Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2017), 16.Back
Noble, You Are Not Your Own, 118.Back
Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 43–44.Back
Jonathan Linebaugh, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022), 72.Back
For an excellent short treatment of martyrdom and Christian identity in the early church, see William Weinrich, “Christian Martyrdom: Some Reflections,” Journal of Lutheran Mission, vol. 2, no. 2 (September 2014): 9–15.Back
Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 44.Back
Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, 17–18.Back
Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 42.Back
Kelly M. Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022), 219.Back
This is a frequently used paraphrase that is faithful to the more wooden translation: “For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7, 490.Back