One of the things that fascinated me about the early church is the historical context within which the early creeds developed. We are fast approaching the anniversary of the second millennial since the death and resurrection of Christ. That distance of time has contributed to the vast majority of Christians being largely ignorant of the history shaping their creeds, if not the creeds themselves. For instance, did you know there was a so-called “Roman Creed” that was the model for many of the creedal statements in the West, including the Apostles’ Creed?
A tradition developed in the early church that soon after Pentecost the apostles, when “filled with the Holy Spirit,” gathered together and drafted a short summary of their beliefs. Allegedly this was done so that if they ever were widely scattered from one another, they would not be preaching different messages in their diaspora. In seems that Rufinius wrote of this gathering in his 404 AD exposition of the Apostles’ Creed.
So they met together in one spot and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, compiled this brief token . . . and they decreed that it should be handed out as standard teaching to believers.
As appealing as it may be to believe in such a gathering, it is highly unlikely that it occurred. An early and telling challenge to its historicity was the observation by Marcus Eugenicus in the fifteenth century that the book of Acts never mentioned it, particularly at the first apostolic council at Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the reality of this event happening some ten days after the Ascension was widely accepted and taught as historical until the fifteenth century.
Although the event itself is fictional, a “rule of faith” believed and taught as early as the second century does seem to have a claim to apostolic origins. There was fluidity evident in the exact wording of orthodox affirmations evident in the various localized confessions of faith. But that variability was not present in the orthodox articles. The ongoing encounter with pagan influences as well as heretical beliefs within the church itself seems to have led to the gradual acceptance of a common creed. But this process was not fully resolved even by the time of the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 AD.
The first early church document to show what appears to be a fixed creed is the Apostolic Tradition written around 200 AD by Hippolytus, a conservative, dissident church leader in Rome. His Tradition seems to have been compiled so “that those who have been rightly instructed may hold fast to the tradition which has continued until now.” The implication here is that an accepted, formal creed or confession of faith existed in the life of the Roman church of that time. It was most likely as a guide to the instruction of catechumens and ultimately for their public confession within the rite of baptism.
While worship, preaching, catechetical instruction, anti–heretical and anti–pagan apologetic efforts all contributed to the need for such expression, the rite of baptism seems to have been the primary circumstance to encourage the development of formal creedal statements. And the available evidence points to the Roman confession or creed as one of the earliest. The original text for the Roman Creed or “R” as it is conventionally referred to by scholars, seems to have been a three article Trinitarian confession that went something like this:
I believe in God the Father almighty, and in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh.
Historical studies have suggested that, in accordance to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19, it was formulated as an expression to be declared by converts in the midst of their baptismal rite. Noticeably absent in R is the Christological statement in the current form of the Apostles’ Creed on the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This declaration was part of the gospel message from the time of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–41). And it had reached a fair degree of consistency in the apostolic times of the church, as an expression of belief in the works of Jesus as Christ, Son, and Lord.
The consistency was in the articles of the statement, namely the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and not in the exact wording of the articles themselves. Peter’s counsel to those who heard his words and were under conviction in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” suggests a natural association of such a confession with the rite of baptism.
The work of Christ from his birth to his ascension made the forgiveness of sins possible. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ declared a catechumen’s belief in the reality of that redemption. A formal declaration of what he or she believed about Christ within the rite of baptism is a logical extension of the original formula. Within the writings of early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Hippolytus is a ‘rule of faith,’ which was the foundation of teaching provided to catechumens.
A related and important observation is that the inclusion of a Christological statement within a baptismal confession helped to exclude those holding to heretical beliefs. Some examples of early heretical groups are the Ebionites, Gnostics, and Docetics (who regarded the sufferings and human aspects of Christ as only apparent, and not part of a real incarnation). All three of these heretical systems were active around 150 AD, and were apologetic and doctrinal concerns within the church, as evidenced by the existing writings of the pre–Nicene church fathers.
Given these observations, the redaction of R in the third decade of the second century to include an elaboration of the belief in “Christ Jesus,” along the traditional doctrinal lines of the rule of faith, seems to be a natural addition to the original three article confession. As J. N. D. Kelly observed after a careful analysis of each phrase of the Christological statement, “Thus in the whole of this section the Old Roman Creed faithfully reflects the feelings of the primitive Church.”
This description of the Roman Creed (and the forthcoming one on the Apostles’ Creed) was compiled from the New Dictionary of Theology (179-181), by Sinclair Ferguson and J. I. Packer; the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (72–73), Walter A. Elwell, editor; The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (117), by Jaroslav Pelikan; Early Christian Creeds, by J. N. D. Kelly; and The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 1, The History of the Creeds (14–23; 368–434), by Phillip Schaff. For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”