The Apostles’ Creed has been with the church from almost the very beginning (in some form). It is a statement of belief that contains the important facets of what Christians should hold as true. The Apostles’ Creed is not a statement to be made that guarantees a person salvation if they recite it, it is a condensed theological system that reflects what is right for a follower of Jesus Christ to believe. The English version is as follows:
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, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living 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. Amen.
History of the Apostle’s Creed
Why would something like the Apostles’ Creed come into existence and then become very widely disseminated and used? Consider the early days of the Christian faith. Even as the letters of the New Testament were being written, there are hints that the writers were responding to beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ that were not considered true by the founding members of the church.
Secular and religious ideas, such as Gnosticism, the worship of Diana, and the Roman Imperial Cult, were migrating into local congregations and these would have eventual effects as they spread around the world. The Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith can become very difficult to perceive if the nature of Jesus’ existence is not actually believed. How could they keep the faith true and uncorrupted? Add to this that most of the world in that day were uneducated and illiterate, and teaching everyone theological ideas becomes a difficult, almost impossible task.
A creedal statement that is easy to memorize fits the bill nicely. The earliest known form of creed was called the Roman Symbol and is known to have existed by the mid-second century AD. It contains most of the main components of what is now known as the Apostles’ Creed. The earliest documented reference to the current Apostles’ Creed is from a letter to Pope Siricius in 390 AD, as explained here by Herbert Thurston for the Catholic Encyclopedia. These creeds appear to have become popular because of the Christian belief that people must confess/profess their beliefs with their mouths to be saved. Early church leaders would have taught the creeds so that a person could recite them to the congregation and witnesses to their baptisms.
Are There Other Creeds?
Another creed that is perhaps more used than the Apostles’ Creed is the Nicene Creed. Its name comes from the area of Nicea near Constantinople where the Council of Nicea was held in 325 AD. This council was held to address the Arian Heresy which disputed the nature of Christ. Church leaders of the day were pressured to resolve the issue by Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire so that the empire itself would maintain a more peaceful status and not descend into a religious conflict.
As such, the Nicene Creed builds on a similar formula as the Apostles’ Creed by keeping a Trinitarian formula that describes the nature of God, but it further explains the substance of Jesus as being the same as God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Essentially, one God with three distinct natures. The following is a translation from the Latin version (note the language regarding the substance issues):
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Among the other creeds is one called the Athanasian Creed and it focuses on the nature of God as the Holy Trinity and the nature of Jesus Christ as being fully human and fully divine. There has been considerable argument recently as to the authorship of this creed, but the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have considerable weight of argument available to support Saint Athanasius as the author of said creed.
All that being considered, if you read it, you will discover a very beautiful description of the nature of the Godhead and the Christ. It is an unusual creed in that not only does it prescribe what a person should believe about God, it also describes specific condemnations for those that do not believe the truth found in these statements.
Variations and Controversy
The Apostles’ Creed does vary within denominational contexts. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox versions both refer to believing in a “catholic Church”, while Protestants use an uncapitalized “church.” The lower-case version is an emphasis on the broader or more universal nature of the entire church due to a perception that capitalizing “Church” emphasizes the specific Roman portion of the church. The word “catholic” actually means “universal”, so some church bodies reflect that word in their versions of the Apostles’ Creed to avoid the controversy within their contexts.
Along this same line of thought, there is a difference in understanding regarding the “Communion of the Saints” belief contained within the Apostles’ Creed. For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, this statement describes succinctly the belief that on earth, we have the ability to communicate with the church-canonized saints (usually martyrs) who have passed to eternity, and ask them to pray for us in their proximity to God in heaven. This concept is explained more here by Catherin O’Connell-Cahill.
For many Protestants, this presents a theological problem as most do not hold a belief that allows for praying to the dead (in heaven) or praying for the dead (in purgatory). A Protestant understanding of this expression is that all believing Christians are saints and that we have a commonality of belief and eternal hope with those who have gone before us in the faith. In both expressions, it is held that all Christians – past, present, and future – have a shared heritage and faith regarding the coming kingdom of God, and that the honored dead should be remembered in prayer.
Another controversy deals with the teaching that Jesus “descended into Hell” or “descended to the dead.” As an example, the United Methodist Church has a version of the creed that removes this teaching, but John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, always included it when recounting it in his writings.
The Apostles’ Creed has normally included this statement and is a reference to the Apostle Peter’s teaching that between the death and resurrection events, Jesus descended to the dead and preached the message of deliverance to the prior dead (1 Peter 3:18-20) (1 Peter 4:6). Some claim that this teaching is not validated enough in the scriptures, and so they exclude the statement from their version of the creed.
Is the Apostle’s Creed Biblical?
The Apostles’ Creed has been broken down into twelve sections by most of the older branches of the Church. Each of these sections contains Biblical support that has been cited over the millennia. There have also been significant arguments regarding some of these beliefs and their Biblical support.
This article does not propose to make an argument for or against the items of the creed, but it does intend to share what parts of the Bible have been cited as support. Some of the creedal items have several Bible verses that support them, some only a few. I will share one or two per section for the sake of brevity and I would encourage you to read the verses and prayerfully decide for yourself.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. (John 3:16)
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. (Luke 1:26-38)
4. Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died, and was buried. (Luke 23:23-25)
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. (Mark 16:19)
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. (2 Timothy 4:1)
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit, (John 15:26)
10. the forgiveness of sins, (Matthew 6:14-15)
11. the resurrection of the body, (John 6:35-40)
12. and the life everlasting. (1 John 5:11-12)
While the Apostles’ Creed contains the main message of the Gospel within it, it actually has a broader scope. The creed was used as a confessional statement (and still is) for people preparing for baptism so they are already saved. The role of the creed in those moments is to formulate a statement of belief that incorporates ideas regarding God’s nature and the nature of the Church.
Though there has been controversy over the Apostles’ Creed over many years of the history of the Church, it has been a part of church life for a very long time. It is a powerful tool for teaching Christian doctrine that a person can access from memory. When we do this, we are acknowledging the wisdom of the ancient Church in creating an educational product that combats subversive ideas that can be dangerous to a person’s faith. So read the Apostles’ Creed. Get to know it and let it help you grow in your faith.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Sarah Noltner
Larry White is the pastor of Ephesus Baptist Church near Sanford, NC