The Apostles’ Creed- A historical overview

Introduction
           
For many in modern Christianity there is no understanding, nor any need to use ancient creeds that were developed over 1900 years ago. However, that does not mean we should not study what are known as some of the greatest defenses of Christianity in history. It was the bravery of these men who decided to stand up and fight for what they knew to be theologically true. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself the question “what is a creed?” The answer is probably not; for most American society the only time we even hear the term creed is when it is being spoken about in dealing with discrimination; such as, “We do not discriminate on race, color, creed, religion, sex, or age.” Even then we don’t fully comprehend what creed means in that sense either.
According to the LBD a creed is defined as,
Throughout church history, councils, denominations, and individuals have developed confessions that outline their beliefs. In the early church, such confessions were termed creeds (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed). Early Christian confessions of faith were primarily oral, and were rooted in the Old Testament Shema (שָׁמַע, shama’): “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4 NIV; Pelikan, Credo, 374). Confessions were often related to baptism, which involved interrogatory creeds where the candidate responded to the questions of the officiant (Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 466).[1]
Now that a clearer understanding of what a creed meant to the early church, a closer look can be taken at the Apostles’ Creed, and its reason for being created. The Apostles’ Creed was created to protect believers against heresies that were developing in the church, and in time would become the barometer of orthodoxy for the church.
History Behind the Creed
            When taken a cursory glance at the Apostles’ Creed and the history behind its formation, most people will automatically begin to ascribe to it the date of the original rule of faith. However, there is a difference between the two; according to Ferguson,
The rule of faith was a summary of apostolic message and expressed the legitimate content of Scripture, not a separate body of doctrine. In content it was roughly similar to the kerygma, is now used in New Testament studies, to stand for the summary of apostolic preaching. The Creed, on the other hand, was the fate confessed by those converted to the apostolic preaching, a fate confessed especially as part of the baptismal ceremony. The faith preached (rule of faith or Canon of truth) was also the faith believed in confessed (Apostles’ Creed).[2]
Knowing and understanding the difference between these two things is very hard to do. For the average parishioner or person taking a simple glance in church history, distinguishing between them is nearly impossible.
            ­ Despite having the name the Apostles’ Creed, and the common misconception that it was written by the original apostles who followed Jesus. Justo Gonzalez points out that, “the notion that the apostles gathered before beginning their mission and composed this creed, each suggesting a clause, is pure fiction.” [3]Most believers would be more than happy to accept this as more than a romantic notion, but we do have historical evidence to prove that it was not written by these 12 men. Gonzalez goes on to point out, “that it’s basic text was put together, probably enrollment, around the year 150.”[4]However, Grudem holds a different stance believing that the Creed was not compiled all at one time but spread out over several centuries before reaching its final completion. This chart (located in his systematic theology) shows that, unlike the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition, the Apostles’ Creed was not written or approved by a single church council at one specific time. Rather, it gradually took shape from about a.d. 200 to 750.[5]
            No matter when the official date is, one thing that can be determined is that the version of the Apostles’ Creed that the church has now is not the first version. Just like any great literary work it has gone through at least one major revision if not more. When this work was first compiled it was done so under the title of “The Roman Symbol”. You may be asking “why symbol?” The answer to that question lies in how terms have changed in their use over centuries. According to Ferguson, “A “symbol” meant a sign, a badge of identity, or a token of a pet, and so stood for one’s faith.”[6]Gonzalez further explains that a symbol would be a token, so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger.[7]Gonzalez also explains that the symbol put together in Rome was a means for Christians to distinguish true believers from anyone else who followed a heresy that was circulating the time the Gnosticism or Marcionism, is because anyone who could affirm the Creed was never a Gnostic nor Marcionite.[8]
            This symbol which was not highly regarded in the Eastern Church has become one of the foundational doctrinal documents for the Western church especially those churches of a protestant nature.[9] In discovering the history, the challengers are established and the Gnostics and Marcion are the primary opponents of the church at that time, and the reason for the development of the Apostle’s Creed.
The Theology of the Creed
            Before discussing the theology of the creed, a reading of the creed itself should be made so when reference to a specific section is made there is connection that can be made. The Apostles’ Creed reads as such:
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 Spirit,
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 Spirit;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.[10]
The very first line reads I believe; it is important for it to be made a personal confession while it is usually read in a corporate setting. J. I. Packer explains that,
the Creed’s opening words, “I believe in God,” render a Greek phrase coined by the writers of the New Testament, meaning literally: “I am believing into God.” That is to say, over and above believing certain truths about God, I am living in a relation of commitment to God in trust and union. When I say “I believe in God,” I am professing my conviction that God has invited me to this commitment, and declaring that I have accepted his invitation.[11]
It is important to understand that this is a matter of faith, which is something that Gnostics did not fully appreciate. Because for a Gnostic, the greatest thing a person could have was understanding or knowledge, which is what the Greek root word gnosis means “knowledge”. Look closer at the creed it asserts three times the “I believe”.[12]Both McGrath and Packer assert that faith is required before anyone can move further into the rest of the confession. McGrath says, “Faith cannot be equated with knowing. It is not something cold and cerebral, enlightening the mind while leaving the heart untouched. Faith is the response of my whole person to the person of God.”[13]
            Not only did the writers of the creed feel the need to mention God in his triune nature, they describe different virtues of each aspect of the Godhead. Once confession of faith I believe has been made, the object of that confession is defined God the Father almighty.  As Packer puts it, “We are professing faith in the God of the Creed itself, the Christian God, the God of the Bible—the Sovereign Creator whose “Christian name,” as Karl Barth put it, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If this is not the God in whom we believe, we have no business saying the Creed at all.”[14]  In describing God as Father the authors of the creed were describing Him in terms that anyone could relate to; it did not matter what type of father the audience grew up with there was still the means of connection that was able to be established. That connection was easily made until the use of the term almighty. Almighty is an all encompassing term it refers to the sovereignty of God; that there is nothing He is not in control of. I really do love the points that J.I. Packer makes about the omnipotence of God, Packer says
First, does omnipotence mean that God can do literally anything? No, that is not the meaning. There are many things God cannot do. He cannot do what is self-contradictory or nonsensical, like squaring the circle. Nor (and this is vital) can he act out of character. God has a perfect moral character, and it is not in him to deny it. He cannot be capricious, unloving, random, unjust, or inconsistent. Just as he cannot pardon sin without atonement, because that would not be right, so he cannot fail to be “faithful and just” in forgiving sins that are confessed in faith, and in keeping all the other promises he has made, for failure here would not be right either.[15]
            In the very next statement of the Creed God is described as maker of heaven and earth; to which Bruce Shelley in his work Church History in Plain Languageadds to the importance of God being the ultimate creator. Shelley says, “Thus, it repudiates the Gnostic idea that the created world is evil or the work of an evil god. This material world is good and worthy to be used and enjoyed by man.”[16]If God is the Creator of heaven and earth than he created everything; on the earth and in the earth, which affirms Genesis account of creating man. As McGrath points out being made in the image of God reminds us that we belong to God we are not our own masters.[17]
            Once a person comes to the understanding that they are no longer their own masters, and they confess their belief in Jesus Christ as the son and Lord, of God the father, their life will be eternally different. Gonzalez emphasizes that the creeds most extensive paragraph is the one that deals with the Son, because it was the Christology of Marcion and the Gnostics that differed the greatest from that of the church.[18]Upon closer inspection of the phraseology it can be determined that Jesus is referred to as his only Son; this is exteremely important, because one of the greatest arguments to ever come against Christianity was the fact that Christ was not equal with God. The phrase is tantamount to coming straight out and saying that Jesus was God.
            Modern readers also completely over look the fact that when the name of Jesus is mentioned it contains Christ behind it. Christ is not His last name like Smith, or Doe, may be for someone else. Christ is the office in which He held. He was what the word meant in Hebrew the Messiah the savior.
Another area a lot of different heretical groups centered on His birth. There were some groups that would argue and say that he was not born, he just happened to be, others like the Gnostics who felt that flesh was evil and if Jesus lived in flesh He could not really be God, because he would be evil. Shelley emphasizes this point a little farther when he says, “Many a modern man has been stopped by the phrase “born of the Virgin Mary.” He cannot believe in the virgin birth. But ironically, to the very early Gnostics, the problem was not Virgin: it was born. Modern man sees the red flag because he hears “born of the Virgin Mary”; the Gnostic saw a red flag because he heard “born of the Virgin Mary.”’[19]
            At a quick glance there is no significant reason to have any mention of Pontius Pilate in a creed dealing with God, but upon further evaluation it is very helpful. Since it is found right in the middle of the section dealing with Jesus and his humanity, it is a great way to tie Jesus back to history. According to Gonzalez, “The reference to Pontius Pilate is not there to put blame on the Roman governor, but rather to date the event, thus insisting that it was a historical datable event.”[20]
            The next statement is one that has caused controversy in the church for centuries and to some degree still does. It says that Jesus descended into hell, that raises a whole lot of questions when a person hears that; because nowhere in the Bible can you locate a Scripture that explicitly states Christ descended into hell (whether or not it was to gain victory over it). Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology tries very hard to explain not only historically but show how scripturally the early church fathers may have gotten this idea. Grudem explains that:
It is surprising to find that the phrase “he descended into hell” was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed (in the versions used in Rome, in the rest of Italy, and in Africa) until it appeared in one of two versions from Rufinus in a.d.390. Then it was not included again in any version of the Creed until a.d. 650. Moreover, Rufinus, the only person who included it before a.d.650, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell, but understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ was “buried.” In other words, he took it to mean that Christ “descended into the grave.”[21]
Dr. Grudems efforts help us gain somewhat of a better understanding; while there will always be people that take everything written at face value. After understanding that the best thought is Christ was put in the ground and it was in his death he defeated Satan; rejoicing can occur because what he had promised to His disciples was taking place. He was going to go and prepare a place for them as he returned to his rightful home, heaven. He is also described as sitting at the right hand of God the father almighty. For a person in modern American culture this phrase has little to no meaning, however, in Biblical times and those closer to that time to sit at the right hand of a person was to sit at a place of power and authority. That is why the next line ties into it so beautifully, for thence shall he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. How many times have you heard in a movie or something “This is my right hand man!”? because it is where you best enforcer and the person next to you in power was in your right hand, statically most people are right hand dominant and that shows when we think of God in more humanistic terms.
            Believing in the power of the Holy Spirit comes with the territory of accepting God fully being the creator of the heavens and the earth. Go back to Genesis and look for yourself it speaks of God’s spirit hovering over the waters of the earth, He (the spirit) has been present at every major act of creation this world has ever seen. Go back a half a dozen lines in the creed and you will see His presence there talking about the conception of Jesus Christ. Are there any more important acts that have taken place in history than the creation of the world and the conception of Jesus? There are so many things the Spirit accomplishes in the life of a believer, he convicts us of our sin, points us to a closer relationship with Christ, he equips us to be able to accomplish good works. We cannot affirm this part of the Creed without the Sprits work in our lives.
            The next phrase was one this author struggled with for a long time until learning the true meaning behind the word catholic. It was not until reading through different materials that the word catholic actually means universal, not in regards to a specific denominational heritage. That is something extremely important to grasp, no matter what denomination you may be a part of, if there is no acceptance of the universal body of Christ than it is time to examine the relationship that is in place with the savior. He is not coming back to save one denomination over another, He is coming back for his holy catholic (universal) church.
            Once the establishment of the nature of the church is universal, then the next step is the acceptance that Jesus established the communion of his saints in the upper room. If there is no communion taking place with fellow believers then there leaves a place to stumble or a foot hold for the devil to place seeds of doubt with in a person’s mind. If there is no forgiveness of sins then believing in all the things mentioned before are null and void; because they cannot earn you salvation and return you to the right relationship that was once in place with the Father.
            Since affirming all of these other truths, all that remains is to grasp the promises that have been laid out in Scripture that after the passing away of our bodies one day when He comes back to rule and reign on earth our bodies will be restored to a glorious state and in that state we will live out our eternal lives.
Conclusion
            After thoroughly examining the Apostles’ Creed you should walk away with a deeper appreciation for who God truly is and what He has in store for you. Also, seeing what the early church fathers felt was of the uttermost importance, as they battled heresy on all fronts should be an encouragement in our day and age. While the names may have changed the players and beliefs of many of our opponents are still the same. If your local congregation has never read this creed together as your pastor or leadership team why not. If you have enjoyed learning about this and want to know more about these extremely powerful 109 words, please find you a copy of the Packer and McGraths work listed in the bibliography. Michael Horton has a very through volume on the topic as well I was just unable to engage it as I would like to have.
Bibliography
Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Ferguson, Everett. Church History Vol One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004.
Hill, Johnathan. Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Raphds: Zondervan, 2006.
Horton, Michael. We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles’ Creed. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998.
Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Touchstone Book, 1976.
McGrath, Alister E. I Believe: Understanding and Applying the Apostles’ Creed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.
Packer, J.I. The Apostles’ Creed. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986.
—  Growing in Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.
Schaff, Philip and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language Second Ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.
Wiersma, J.T., and J.H. Schulte and Nordholt. The Apostles’ Creed Interpreted in Words and Pictures. Baarn: Westminster Press, 1959.


[1]Larry V. Brown, “Confession” In , in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).
[2]Everett Ferguson, Church History Vol One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation.(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)110.
[3]Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol One: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. (New York: Harper Collins, 2010)77.
[4]Ibid., 77.
[5]Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 586.
[6]Ferguson, Church History, 110.
[7]Gonzalez, Story, 77.
[8] Ibid., 77.
[9]Johnathan Hill, Handbook to the History of Christianity. (Grand Raphds: Zondervan, 2006)81.
[10]J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994).
[11]Packer, Growing in Christ, 19.
[12]Alister E McGrath, I Believe: Understanding and Applying the Apostles’ Creed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991)20.
[13] Ibid., 21.
[14]Packer, Growing in Christ, 23.
[15] Ibid., 30-32.
[16]Bruce L Shelley, Church History in Plain Language Second Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995)54.
[17] McGrath, I Believe, 40.
[18]Gonzalez, Story, 78.
[19]Shelley, Church History, 55.
[20]Gonzalez, Story, 78.
[21]Grudem, Systematic Theology),  586.
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