I keep hearing this tired refrain:
“‘Jesus is Lord’ is the earliest creed.”
They are pulling this phrase from 1 Corinthians 12.3 although they seem to miss the first part of said verse.
But, honestly, it isn’t.
There are more “creeds” than that in Scripture. The New Testament, a collection of early works assembled later, contains references to traditions pre-dating Scripture (the same canon later assembled by the same church that developed the creeds).
Let me name a few. There is the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.5–11. John 6.52–58 has some resemblance to an early eucharistic liturgical celebration. There is also 1 Timothy 3.16, which while not Pauline (shoot me, but it is Pseudo-Pauline) shows a creedal presence. Let us not forget Matthew 28.19–20 as well. Hebrews 1.1–3 seems creedal-ness, but I will admit that may be stretching it just a bit.
Revelation is liturgical. Hebrews is homiletic. Both do so to point to a belief that Jesus is Lord and what that means. It is not simply “say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and you are in like flinn.” In other words, even if “Jesus is Lord” is a creed, it is never without explanation and understanding.
So, how do the creeds and symbols develop? From the baptismal confessions. Indeed, baptism and creeds go together.
From St. Irenaeus:
1. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?
2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in
one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.
Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, 4, 1-2)
“Now, with regard to this rule of faith-that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend-it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son,and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.” (Tertullian, the Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter XIII)
St. Hippolytus, in preserving to us the Apostolic Tradition (c. 215) preserves older traditions as well. This is the baptismal formula:
Then, after these things, let him give him over to the presbyter who baptizes, and let the candidates stand in the water, naked, a deacon going with them likewise. And when he who is being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say thus:
Dost thou believe in God, the Father Almighty?
And he who is being baptized shall say:
Then holding his hand placed on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say:
Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?
Admittedly, the Apostolic Traditions’ worth will be dependent upon the side in the scholarly debate you fall. For me, I’ll go down the middle and say that while it may be assembled later (say, like several books throughout the canon, and the canon itself) it does contain earlier recollections.
To sum, the first creedal statements focus on two things simultaneously: Who Jesus is and what did he do? We see this developed through the baptismal confessions exactly because we are being baptized into Christ. It is only right to ask the new believer “do you know what you are doing?” and require that they actually tell you.
We can argue all the day long about creeds and litmus tests and the such, but we really shouldn’t argue whether or not creeds were in the early church — they were, before Scripture, and it equalized everyone. We can’t even argue that the Trinity is somehow a 4th century creation. Well, you can, if you want to appear ignorant of history and all.