The Early Church & Symbolics

We are accustomed to refer to the doctrine of confessions with the word symbolics based on the word symbol. This is a very old expression and dates back to the early church. Cyprian already used this word around the year 250 B.C.  The synod of Arles in 314 B.C uses this expression symbol relating to people requesting to join the Christian church: if that person first belonged to a heretical community, one must ask him concerning his confession (symbolum) in order to ascertain if he can be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It is common knowledge that at the administration of baptism a certain confession was requested from the candidates. Irenaneus speaks about the regula fidele that one has received at his baptism. Tertullian refers to this confession as a characteristic whereby the members of the church distinguished themselves from others and whereby they could recognize each other as belonging to the same church.

A symbol originally was a document whereby people could give evidence to legitimize oneself, consisting of two halves that fitted together. Afterwards, this word symbol received the meaning of recognition mark. Cyrillus of Jerusalem and Augustine as well as others referred to the expression symbol as the confession adhered to at one’s baptism.

From the very first beginning of the Christian church there were confessions. Early Christianity displays three motives for the forming of confessions: The catechetical motive, the anti-heretical motive and the liturgical motive.

The catechetical motive is in the foreground. Often three questions would be asked with certain answers to be given by the candidates for baptism as a form of confession: As the candidate was in the water the minister would ask: Do you belive in God the father, the Almighty One. The answer: I believe. Then the presbyter would lay his hand upon the head and baptize once. Then the presbyter would ask: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born through the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, buried and raised on the third day from the dead and is ascended into heaven and is seated at the right Hand of God and shall come to judge the living and the dead? The answer: I believe. He would then be baptized for the second time. Again the question: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and a holy church, the resurrection of the dead. Then again the candidate for baptism would answer: I believe. Then he would be baptized for the third time. (From the baptismal questions of Hippolyte of Rome, 215 A.D.)

Besides this we also have the anti heretical motive. To combat false doctrine. We find this element already in the Apostolicum, for instance against docetism and gnosticism. It is conccluded that already in the fourth century every church had a confessional statement explaining what her faith was. The issue in personal confession of faith was not so much his personal faith but that he confessed the faith of the church, that he agreed with the contents of the confession of the church. Eventually adherence to confessions became the touchstone for doctrinal orthodoxy. (Niceano-Constantinopolitanum 381) This emphaszies the homo-ousios, equality of Father and Son; confession of the Holy Ghost, against the Pneumatomachen, who believed that the Spirit issues from the Son but not from the Father. The Creed confessed this still without the filioque (later promoted by Augustine, adopted by Synods in Spain, Toledo 589, adopted by Rome in her mass liturgy in the 11th century.This led to the breach in 1054 between East and West).

The Bel. Conf. shows that we also accept the statements made at the Chalcedon 451 (against Eutyches) and Synod of Orange 529 against semi-pelagianism.

There is also the Liturgical motive, to be used in worship servcies. We find this in baptismal formulas but also in the apostolicum that has even a certain rythm and a succint kerugmatic content focused upon salvation in Christ. Calvin called the Niceaeno-Constantinopolitanum more a hymn to be sung than a confessional creed. It has something of a doxology. It became the credo used at the eucharist.

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