The Apostles’ Creed is a compilation of belief statements that embodies a widely accepted and terse summary of the fundamentals of Christianity, and although the Apostles’ Creed does not have the same authority as Scripture, this paper will seek to prove that if upheld to the apostolic tradition, or its orthodoxy, the creed’s summation of Christian doctrine is one that all believers should grasp, support, and consider.
Throughout church history it has been necessary for the church to adopt and embrace creedal statements to clarify the Christian faith and to distinguish true content from error and false representations of the faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest creeds of Christianity, dating in an early form to at least the middle second century with roots in the biblical traditions of the Gospels. Some phrases were added for clarity as late as the fourth century, but the basic creed remained intact. The clearly Trinitarian structure was likely intended to counter the teachings of Marcion who denied that the God of the Old Testament was the same God revealed in Jesus the Christ.
This Trinitarian formulation would remain the basic structure of all the early creeds. The Apostles’ Creed has often been divided into 12 sections for catechesis, instruction for new converts or children.
DEFINITION OF CREED
In order to understand the Apostles’ Creed and its necessity, a definition or understanding of a creed is warranted. Derived from the Latin word credo, which simply means ‘to believe’, a creed is simply a statement of belief. For the Church, it is a shortened version of what they understand and know to be true about God, Christ, and humanity. Irenaeus, an early church father, described a creed as “the canon of truth.”It is a summary of the basic principles, practices, ideas and foundational beliefs that define what makes one a Christian. Creeds originated in churches because of the baptism ceremony. Many believers in the early church were converts from pagan traditions and the church needed something to help them fully convert to the Christian faith. They had to confess their faith in order to be baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19 KJV). To help with this confession, creeds were established.
For the early church, creeds were written in order to address doctrinal issues and helped to identify milestones within the development of Christian doctrine. As the church ascribed to Christianity and stretched across the Roman Empire, they found themselves having to defend their faith against Marcion, and the Gnostics, who laid claim to having received a special secret tradition through succession dating back to the apostles. In response, Christians needed something to signify or bring clarity to what they believed and professed. As the church continued to grow, one particular creed grew in prominence. The Apostles’ Creed was birthed to meet this need, although these “beliefs stated were already present in Christian teaching prior to these controversies.”
WHAT IS THE APOSTLES’ CREED?
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.
The Apostles’ Creed did not receive its name from the apostles but is believed to be based on their apostolic teaching. This notion derived from a legend that the apostles came together before departing their separate ways and decided to formulate a statement of belief for their faith, which would show unity amongst their teachings. As the legend continues, being endowed with the Holy Spirit, they each contributed one of the twelve articles. There is, however, practically no evidence that this actually took place, or even that any apostles were directly involved in its creation. The structure of the creed is perhaps based on the command from Jesus to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19 KJV). In a time when many Christians were illiterate and unable to read, having something to recite orally helped preserve their faith. “. . . some who joined the church lacked the leisure or the ability to read the Scriptures, to say nothing of the fact that a grasp of the whole of Scripture would take time.
What they required was a brief summary of key doctrine.” Surrounded by tales of its use by the Roman church for candidates of baptism, we find the earliest evidence of the creed’s origin. It is highly probably that the Apostles’ Creed was established from a question and answer format. It can be perceived from the evidence available, having no single writer, nor a specific date of origin, that the Apostles’ Creed was developed gradually from a simple question: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” In the Apostolic Tradition ascribed to Hippolytus, a typical baptism would follow this format ―‘And when he who is to be baptised goes down into the water, let him who baptises lay his hand on him saying thus, “Dost thou believe in God the Father almighty?” And he who is being baptised shall say, “I believe”.
Let him forthwith baptise him once, having his hand laid upon his head. And after this let him say, “Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who was born by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died, and rose again on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?” And when he says, “I believe”, let him baptise him a second time. And again let him say, “Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?” And he who is being baptised shall say, “I believe”. And so let him baptise him the third time.’ It is from statements like these that the other statements were gradually and progressively added to form the statement of faith that we know today.
The Apostles’ Creed offers a broad survey of Christian doctrine. It begins with creation and concludes with eternal life. The Creed contains both undisputed and controversial statements.
[ 1 ]. 1 Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 110. [ 2 ]. Ibid., 111.
[ 3 ]. O.G. Oliver, Jr. Apostles’ Creed. In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ed. by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 87. [ 4 ]. Ferguson, 111.
[ 5 ]. Graham Keith, “The Formulation of Creeds in the Early Church,” Themelios 24, no 1 (October 1998): 17-18. [ 6 ]. Chapter 21 as translated by Kelly, op.cit., p. 46