What is the story with the creeds? Why do we sometimes say one and sometimes another?
The Creed is the church’s reply to God’s Word. We say in the creed what God has taught us through His Word. Whenever we say it, it is to be a reminder of our Baptismal covenant. It is, in a very concise form, the sum of the Christian faith. The creeds establish the minimum requirements to be called “Christian”. That is, if one does not believe something which we confess in the Creeds, that one is to be considered outside the kingdom of God. They also teach and remind Christians of the “basics” of the faith and lay the groundwork for the rest of what we believe, teach, and confess. Certainly there is more that we believe than we say in the creeds. But the creeds form a relatively easy-to-memorize summary of what we believe. They outline the basics from which all other doctrines flow.
The three creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) are commonly known as the three Ecumenical Creeds, because we share them with all of Christendom; they are not distinctly Lutheran. There is no denomination considered to be Christian that denies what the Creeds teach, though some denominations do not like the use of “man-made” statements. The creeds are not direct quotations from Scripture, but they say no more than the Scripture teaches; each part can be found in Scripture. They do, though, have a striking resemblance to 1 Peter 3:18-22.
The Apostles’ Creed is the earliest of the creeds. The first recorded use of this creed (in a format very similar to our current usage) was at the Baptism of new Christians around the second century. It gradually developed and could be found in its current form as early as the eighth century. Because of its tie to Baptism, Luther included this creed in the Small Catechism. This creed is still used in conjunction with baptisms.
The Nicene Creed was established at the Council of Nicaea (325AD) and further refined at the Council of Constantinople (381). The form was finalized at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It was developed to refute specifically the heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not truly the divine Son of God, but a great man adopted by the Father. Because this creed is more detailed in the second article, it is used alongside the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, when we focus on the body and blood of Christ, who is both true God and true man.
Both of these creeds which we routinely use are divided into three sections, or articles. The first article contains what we confess about God the Father. The second article confesses God the Son, Jesus Christ. In the third article, we confess God the Holy Spirit. In the creed, we review the whole of the church’s belief before giving specific attention to a particular doctrine or idea in the sermon and the rest of the service.