There are three early Creeds, or Professions of Faith as they are also known, that are considered official in the Catholic Church; the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed and the Apostles' Creed. These three creeds form an important statement about what we as Catholics believe. The Nicene Creed is the creed that is recited on Sundays and Solemnities at Mass and was first formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325. The second creed, the Athanasian Creed, composed sometime in the 5th century, is less well known, but has also been a part of the Church's Liturgy. The last Creed, the Apostles' Creed, is the simplest of the three creeds and did not take its final form until the 6th century.
Since the earliest of the above dates is from the 4th century, this begs the question as to what the early Church did with respect to creeds. Did they have them? What were they? And what, if anything, did the Council of Nicea draw upon as its model for the creed it produced? While the early Church did not have a single, standard formal creed like the three we have today, they did indeed have creeds which summarized the faith and were the prototypes of the creeds we have today. Testimony from the early authors shows us that the notion and general contents of a creed were universal to the Church. Creeds played a particularly important part of the process by which catechumens were catechized. The following authors give a sample of the forms of this protocreed and it is clear from the common language they share that an underlying Apostolic creedal tradition of some sort was present from the beginning.
St Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Trallians [ca 107] writes:
"Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and truly died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess true life."1
St. Irenaeus writes in his Against Heresies [ca 185]:
"The Church .... believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus , the Son of God, who became incarnate, for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one."2
Tertullian likewise testifies to an early creed. In his On Prescription Against Heretics [ca 200], he writes:
"Now with this regard to the rule of faith ... 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 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; 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."3
Other preNicene authors who testify to a creedal statement are Hippolytus (ca 250), Origen (ca 230), St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (ca 250), and St. Cyprian (ca 250). Thus it is pretty clear that creeds were by no means a unique item when the Council of Nicea was called. They had plenty of examples to draw from.
The fourth and last creed consider authortative by the Catholic Church is the Professio fidei Tridentinae, also known as the Creed of Pius IV. It was promulgated by Pope Pius IV and then later modified after the First Council of the Vatican. Its main purpose was to clearly delineate the differences between the Catholic faith and the Protestantism. It is rarely used these days, if at all.
1,2,3 Quotes taken from the Ante Nicence Fathers, 1885