The three short documents in the first part are the ecumenical creeds: Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed. Each of them, written long before the church divided into various branches, is accepted by most Christian churches. (Catholic and Protestant churches use all three creeds; the Orthodox church accepts only the Nicene.)
The three longer documents are distinctively Reformed confessions: Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort. Typically Protestant statements of faith, they were written at the time when divisions among Protestants were becoming permanent. Thus, they belong to that family of Reformed and Presbyterian creeds which also includes the Westminster, Gallican, and Scottish Confessions.
Statements of faith by God's people have tended to become longer as time passes. The typical Old Testament statement is only two Bible verses in length (Deut. 6:4-5). Those imbedded in the New Testament run from a few lines (1 Tim. 3:16) to several verses (Co1. 1: 15-20). The creeds of the ancient church, such as the Apostles' Creed, are longer yet; and the Reformation creeds have almost become short books. (The Westminster Confession, for example, is much longer than any of the three confessions included here.)
Creeds have usually emerged during major turning points in the history of the church, particularly during four critical periods when it was necessary for the church to differentiate itself from others in its environment. The first such turning point was Israel's division from the nations in her exodus from Egypt. Moses defined Israel's monotheistic faith in the shema of Deuteronomy 6 ("Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD").
The second turning point came with Christ. Writers of the New Testament wanted to distinguish the infant church's understanding of Christ from the views of its Jewish mother, and they often incorporated short summaries of that faith in their writings.
Documents on this web site represents statements of faith from the third and fourth critical turning points. The ecumenical creeds represent the ways in which the ancient church defined its faith in a Gentile world rich in competing philosophies and religions. And the Reformed confessions show how this branch of Protestantism differentiated itself not only from Roman Catholicism, but also from the other families of Protestant churches.
The Apostles' Creed was not written by the apostles; it is the culmination of several centuries of reflection on the meaning of the Christian faith. The ancient church used this creed to identify believers, to instruct new converts, and to provide a unifying confession of faith for worship and liturgy.
The Nicene Creed is the church's response, partly based on the Apostles' Creed, to a particularly dangerous set of teachings (Arianism) which would have masked the identity of Christ. And, because its unique phrases are meant more to defend than explain the faith, the Nicene Creed has always been used more for teaching than for worship.
The Athanasian Creed (quite certainly Athanasius did not write it) is the latest of the ecumenical creeds, dating back to the early Dark Ages. Though seldom used in worship, it is one of the clearest definitions of the Trinity and the incarnation ever written.
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) originated in one of the few pockets of Calvinistic faith in the Lutheran and Catholic territories of Germany. Conceived originally as a teaching instrument to promote religious unity in the Palatinate, the catechism soon became a guide for preaching as well. It is a remarkably warmhearted and personalized confession of faith, eminently deserving of its popularity among Reformed churches to the present day.
The Belgic Confession (1561) owes its origin to the need for a clear and comprehensive statement of Reformed faith during the time of the Spanish inquisition in the Lowlands. Guido de Bres, its primary author, was pleading for understanding and toleration from King Philip II of Spain who was determined to root out all Protestant factions in his jurisdiction. Hence, this confession takes pains to point out the continuity of Reformed belief with that of the ancient Christian creeds, as well as to differentiate it from Catholic belief (on the one hand), and from Anabaptist teachings (on the other).
The Canons of Dort come from an international synod of Reformed people held in Dordrecht, Netherlands, in 1618-19. While the synod accomplished many other things as well, one of its main purposes was to adjudicate a theological controversy (Arminianism) concerning the way in which believers receive the benefit of Christ. The canons, therefore, are polemic in purpose, articulating Calvinistic beliefs in direct rebuttal of Arminianism. This confession is a very finely tuned piece of theological writing, ably delineating a biblically Reformed perspective on matters central to Christian life and experience.