In the late 3rd and early 4th century AD the Christian church experienced a fierce conflict over the exact nature of Jesus’ deity. The conflict was over a doctrine called Arianism, after Arius, a priest who was one of the doctrine’s chief advocates. The doctrine denied that Jesus was truly God, and became very popular. In 325 AD the Council of Nicea was called to settle the matter by the new Christian emperor, Constantine. They rejected Arius and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity and the full deity of Christ. They wrote a creed, known as the Nicene Creed (along with some later additions from the council of Constantinople in 381).
But that, unfortunately, was not the end of the matter. No doctrinal matter has ever been truly resolved by simply calling a council. Many people, including emperors and barbarian kingdoms such as the Goths and Vandals, professed Arianism. For a time it very much looked as if Arianism would be the dominant belief of the Christian church.
But over time, a practice developed which ended up being far more determinative; in the church service, the people would recite the Nicene Creed together. Over time, this ensured that the people of the church thoroughly learned the doctrine of the Trinity and of Christ’s full deity which was expressed at Nicea. This, far more than the decision of the council by itself, gradually led to the eradication of Arianism.
The recitation of creeds continues to have this value. The Scriptures were not given alone, but were given to a church to teach to the world. The medieval church and the institution of the Papacy made the mistake of thinking that the Scriptures meant what the church said it meant, while the Reformers recaptured the truth that the Scriptures gain their meaning and authority from the Spirit of God, not from the church. But all too many Protestants entirely discard the role of the church in promoting and teaching the Scriptures and act as if the Scriptures were given to them as individuals apart from the historic church.
Therefore the ancient creeds, as well as those of more modern origin, can be of great value to the church. A child who grows up reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed learns a great deal of theology as he does so, theology which will be at his fingertips for the rest of his life. Tools such as the Heidelberg Catechism supplement this with doctrinal insights and precision from later stages of the church’s development.
Reciting creeds in church does not place them above Scripture any more than singing hymns with non-inspired words places those hymns above Scripture. In both cases, those creeds and hymns express the doctrine of Scripture, and are therefore dependent on it. But their use recognizes the role that God gave the church in teaching the doctrine of Scripture to people. Heretics always come with the words of Scripture, and therefore the church uses these summary statements to clarify and explain what the church believes the Scriptures to teach. Doing so is a useful and valuable practice that has served the church well for all of its history.