Christian, What Do You Believe?

© Kuna George | 123RF.com

© Kuna George | 123RF.com

One way or another, the Apostles’ Creed has been part of my worship life since I was a child. Growing up in a liturgical church, we recited it every Sunday. I made a commitment to Christ in another liturgically-minded denomination in my twenties and continued reciting it weekly. For a number of years, I recited it as part of my daily prayer time. The current church I am a member of recites it monthly on our communion Sunday. Parallel to my personal experience, the Apostles’ Creed has been part of the worship life of the church since it was young.

The Apostles’ Creed was used in church history much as the Roman Creed was in the time of the early church: as a baptismal confession; as an outline for teaching; as a summary of faith and belief; as an affirmation in worship; and as a guard against heresy. Ambrose and Augustine suggested the repetition of the Apostles’ Creed in daily devotions. Augustine said in his work, The Enchiridion:

For you have the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. What can be briefer to hear or to read? What easier to commit to memory? When, as the result of sin, the human race was groaning under a heavy load of misery, and was in urgent need of the divine compassion, one of the prophets, anticipating the time of God’s grace, declared: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered.” Hence the Lord’s Prayer. But the apostle, when, for the purpose of commending this very grace, he had quoted this prophetic testimony, immediately added: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” Hence the Creed.

Martin Luther identified it as one of three binding summaries of belief. John Calvin divided his Institutes into four parts, corresponding to the Apostles’ Creed, which all Christians were familiar with.

For as the Creed consists of four parts, the first relating to God the Father, the second to the Son, the third to the Holy Spirit, and the fourth to the Church, so the author, in fulfillment of his task, divides his Institutes into four parts, corresponding to those of the Creed.

While each of the above noted uses can be identified at various points in church history, it seems to have been its growing use within the devotional and liturgical life of believers that eventually solidified its position as “the mature flower” of Western creedal development. The local variants of the older Roman Creed were increasingly laid aside in the worship and practice of local churches and replaced by the Apostles’ Creed. Thus the journey from the Roman Creed to the Apostles’ Creed is complex, woven together that of the historical documents and additional creeds of the first few centuries of the church.

The earliest evidence for the received text for the Apostles’ Creed or “T” is within the text of a Benedictine missionary manual written sometime between 710 and 724 AD. A comparison of the Roman Creed to the Apostles’ Creed calls for speculation that the additions were largely to address theological problems as the church confronted a series of heresies between the mid–second century and early eighth centuries. Such an understanding of its journey would draw upon the differences in a manner something like the following.

Roman Creed Apostles’ Creed
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty 1. I believe in God the Father Almighty [creator of Heaven and Earth]
2. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord; 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;
3. Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; 3. Who was [conceived] by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary;
4. Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried; 4. [Suffered] under Pontius Pilate, was crucified [dead] and buried [ He descended to Hell (Hades)];
5. The third day he rose from the dead; 5. on the third day rose again from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; 6. He ascended into heaven; and sits at the right hand of [God] the Father [Almighty];
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 7. From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
8. And the Holy Ghost; 8. [I believe] in the Holy Spirit;
9. The Holy Church; 9. The Holy [Catholic] Church [The communion of saints];
10. The forgiveness of sins; 10. The forgiveness of sins;
11. The resurrection of the body (flesh). 11. The resurrection of the body (flesh);
12. [And eternal life] Amen.

Beginning with the Roman Creed, we see that it contains the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and confesses belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The addition of  the phrase “Creator of Heaven and Earth” in the Apostles’ Creed to the first article of the Roman Creed rejects the Gnostic belief that creation was the act of a demiurge Christ; and the Manichean dogma that all matter was intrinsically evil.  The addition to article 3 that Jesus Christ was: “[conceived] by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” explicitly excluded the Ebionite denial in the virgin birth of Christ and the Monarchian denial that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost.

The addition of “I believe” to article 8 adds clarity to the confession of believing in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as God, countering the Modalistic or Monarchian conception of God. It seems the attempt to counter Modalism is within the specification in article 6 that the Father is “God Almighty.” The resurrection of the body in article 11 and the addition of article 12 countered Greek and Gnostic prejudice against the corporal body and specified an existence consistent with the “resurrection life” promised by Christ and distinctly different than the “eternal life” of the mystery cults.  Confessing the real birth, suffering, death (by crucifixion), and burial of Christ in articles 3 through 5 countered the Marcion and Docetic belief that such things were unworthy of the true Christ.

The additions of “Catholic” (meaning universal) and “the communion of saints” in article 9 may suggest an attempt to cope with the problem of unity in diversity within the early church. As distinct subcultures of theology and worship developed within the “catholic” church, there was a desire to acknowledge their legitimacy while attempting to exclude heresies, which also sought acceptance. As the body of Christ grew and diversified, the ears were denying they were a part of the body; the body was questioning the continuing function of the stomach. Despite the diversity within the church, if the “Head” of the creed in articles 1 through 8 was believed and confessed, there was a communion of saints within a universal church that existed beyond physical walls, geographic boundaries, theological particulars, and ultimately time itself. This acknowledgement of unity within diversity became an element of the rule of faith itself.

Unquestionably the Apostle’s Creed is a more detailed and theologically mature creedal statement of belief than the Roman Creed. However, it did not develop solely as a response to the various dogmatic concerns as noted above. There is also strong suggestive evidence that The Apostles’ Creed originated outside of Rome and was eventually accepted as the baptismal rite within the Roman church by the ninth century. Presuming the probability of this line of development, the church beyond the local reach of Rome was merely returning to her an enriched, improved statement of the same rule of faith, which she herself had compiled in the second century.

The Apostles’ Creed continues in modern times as the most widely accepted and used creed among Christians. All the individual articles noted above within it originated before the Nicene Creed was formulated—regardless of whether the final revision appeared as late as the early eighth century. And all the articles are in agreement with the New Testament and the teaching of the apostles. Phillip Schaff observed in his day that an attack on the Apostles’ Creed was also an indirect attack upon the New Testament. But he predicted that the Creed would outlive these assaults and continue in the life of the church, sharing in the victory of the Scriptures over all forms of unbelief.

This description of the Apostles’ Creed (and a previous one on the Roman 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, by Phillip Schaff. For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”


The Old Roman Creed

© Kayco | stockfresh.com Hill at Sunset in Drazovce, Slovakia

© Kayco | stockfresh.com Hill at Sunset in Drazovce, Slovakia

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.”