The Birth of Christian Creeds

© Irina Dubovik | 123rf.com – christian symbol fish

In “Legend of the Apostles’ Creed,” I looked at the belief of how the Twelve Apostles agreed upon a standard for their future preaching that came to be known as the Apostles’ Creed. But this legend was just a “pious fiction.” However, there was evidence for “creeds of a looser sort,” lacking the textually determined state of the later confession and creeds. There was even a brief survey of “creedal elements” present in the New Testament. Formal creedal statements seem to have not emerged until the middle of the third century. However, “It is indisputable … that the root of all creeds is the formula of belief pronounced by the baptizand, or pronounced in his hearing and assented by him, before his baptism.”

The reader of the New Testament will continually come across creed-like sayings, which became slogans expressing the new faith. J.N.D. Kelly said in Early Christian Creeds that: “Creeds in the true meaning of the word were yet to come, but the movement towards formulation and fixity was under way.” Particular occasions, like when a candidate sought to be admitted to the Church, called for some kind of assurance of faith; some kind of statement of belief. So catechetical instruction and the baptismal rite itself called for declaring what you believed. Preaching was another occasion that would have lent itself to the formulation of doctrinal sayings.

The day-to-day polemic of the Church, whether against heretics within or pagan foes without, provided another situation [favorable] to the production of creeds. Yet another was supplied by the liturgy; solemn expressions of faith, in the form of hymns, prayers and devotional cries, had a natural place there.

“Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is the Son of God” were simple, one-clause Christologies that appeared in Scripture as well as baptismal rites. There were also Binitarian (Jesus and God the Father) and Trinitarian (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) summaries of the Christian faith. Binitarian summaries like 2 Timothy 4:1—“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom”— were more common. But there were Trinitarian summaries as well, like 2 Corinthians 13:14 or the baptismal command of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Paul gave what has all the appearance of being a summary of his gospel, drawn up for catechetical instruction or preaching in 1 Corinthian 15:3ff. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …” Or there is 2 Timothy 2:8, where he said: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.” There are creed-like passages in: Romans 8:34, 1 Peter 3:18ff, Philippians 2:6-11, and others.

It was, after all, natural and inevitable that the initial proclamation of the gospel should emphasize the distinctively Christian, entirely novel and revolutionary element in the divine revelation. But the framework was there. It was always presupposed; and the firmness with which it was apprehended is evidenced by the extraordinary way in which the Binitarian and Trinitarian patterns wove themselves into the texture of early Christian thinking. In due course, with the development of catechetical teaching and of more systematic, comprehensive instruction in generally, as well as with the evolution of liturgical forms giving fuller expression to the faith, these vital aspects of it came to receive more regular and formal acknowledgement in creeds and semi-creedal summaries. . . . The impulse towards their formulation came from within, not from without; and at the New Testament stage we can observe the process in full swing, with confessions of all three types coexisting and interacting.

Above we noted how creeds emerged from a variety of sources, including preaching, liturgy, hymns prayers, devotionals and above all, baptismal initiation into the Church. In their traditional form, creeds are declaratory; they are short statements, in the first person, asserting belief in a selected group of facts and doctrines. Some declaratory professions of faith must have been part of the baptismal service of the early church. “In fact, it was precisely the need for a formal affirmation of belief to be rehearsed by the catechumen at baptism which instigated the Church to invent creeds in the first place.” Whatever their other uses may have been, “their primary raison d’être, was to serve as solemn affirmations of faith in the context of baptismal initiation.”

The Didache was most likely edited into its present form towards the end of the first century from materials written around 70 AD. The first known copy was not discovered until 1873, although there had been references to it by many ancient writers. It is composed of two parts: the “Two Ways” (1.1–6.2) and a manual of church order and practice (6.3–16.8). The Two Ways is a summary of basic instruction about the Christian life to be taught to those who were preparing for baptism and church membership. “In addition to providing the earliest evidence of a mode of baptism other than immersion, it records the oldest known Christian Eucharistic prayers and a form of the Lord’s Prayer quite similar to that found in the gospel of Matthew.”

The baptismal process of the early church was a series of questions asked of the individual, to which they would say: “I believe” before being submerged a series of three times, in a Trinitarian framework. The fourth century treatise by Ambrose, De Sacramentis, consists of six short addresses delivered to the newly baptized, which claimed it followed the Roman models as far as possible. The candidate entered the baptismal font and renounced the devil and his works, the world and its pleasures, and then:

You were questioned, “Dost thou believe in God the Father almighty?” You said, “I believe”, and were immersed, that is were buried. Again you were asked, “Dost thou believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and his cross?” You said: “I believe”, and were immersed. Thus you were buried along with Christ; for he who is buried along with Christ rises again with Him. A third time you were asked, “Dost thou believe also in the Holy Spirit?” You said, “I believe”, and a third time were immersed, so that your threefold confession wiped out the manifold failings of your earlier life.

During the first few centuries of the Church, the only “creeds,” loosely conceived, were ones directly connected with baptism. Yet their roots lay not so much in the rite of baptism, as in the catechetical training, which preceded it. Declaratory creeds were summaries of Christian doctrine “compiled for the benefit of converts undergoing instruction.” They can then be seen as a by-product of “the Church’s fully developed catechetical system.”

Additionally, by the 2nd century there was a “rule of faith” or a “canon of truth” believed and taught by the Church, and inherited from the Apostles. It just wasn’t an official, textually set confession of faith or creed. The content of that rule, in all it essentials, was foreshadowed by the “pattern of teaching” accepted in the apostolic Church. As was noted in “Legend of the Apostles’ Creed,” the early Church was a “believing, confessing, preaching Church,” with a collection of documents (the New Testament) telling “a unique story of redemption.”

As with the time of the New Testament itself, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers did not allude to any formal, official creed. But there was an abundance of “quasi-creedal scraps” which show that the creedal making impulses of the Christian communities were alive and active.” The author of 1 Clement (95/96 AD) echoed the Trinitarian pattern when he inquired of his readers, “Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us?” In the Shepherd of Hermas (95-100 BC?), is this comment on the first commandment: “First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing. He alone is able to contain the whole, but Himself cannot be contained.” The letters of Ignatius have several quasi-creedal scraps, including this Binitarian pattern from To the Magnesians (110 AD): “There is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence.”

With Justin Martyr, we come across for the first time “what can plausibly be taken to be quotations of semi-formal creeds.” Justin converted to Christianity around 130. He was born in Nablus, in Palestinian Syria, and taught Christian philosophy after his conversion in Ephesus and later in Rome, where he opened a Christian school. In 165 he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians and when they refused to sacrifice to pagan gods, they were scourged and beheaded.

The first thing to note is how deeply the Trinitarian pattern seems to have been reflected in his writings. Here in his first Apology (written In Rome around 150-155 AD), within a discussion on baptism, he said: “To the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” And again when discussing weekly worship: “We bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.” There is then another passage, again from his first Apology, that seems to be a loose paraphrase of a set, creed-like formula.

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove.

Kelly said it was difficult to resist the conclusion that Justin knew of “a developed Christological kerygma [an irreducible essence of Christian apostolic preaching], which already enjoyed a measure of fixity.” However, there is no evidence it was “an official declaratory creed used at Rome or in any other church.” Nevertheless, as early as the time of Justin “there was apparently something approaching a settled form for the baptismal questions.” Irenaeus and Tertullian knew of formularies, which seemed to have an official character and a distinctive outline, even if their wording wasn’t always given verbatim.

By the middle of the third century the process of crystallization had gone a very long way: there were (and had been, we may conjecture, for some time) “customary and established words”. The endorsement of the local ecclesiastical authority, it would seem, had been added. The framework of the questions was always and everywhere the Lord’s baptismal command, the candidate being asked three times whether he believed in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Gradually these bare interrogations were expanded.

For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”


Legend of the Apostles’ Creed

© jorisvo | 123rf.com – fresco (1450) depicting the articles of the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed has been a central part of worship and declaring what individuals and congregations believe about the members of the Trinity since the early centuries of the Christian church. For centuries it was believed that after Pentecost and before the apostles dispersed in the Great Commission, they “mutually agreed upon a standard of their future preaching.” They were said to have developed this standard so that when they were separated, they would not unintentionally vary “in the statements which they should make to those whom they should invite to believe in Christ.” Yet it seems this origins tale for the Apostles’ Creed is just a legend.

The fourth century monk and historian, Rufinus Tryannius wrote a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, probably around 307-309 AD. In his commentary Rufinus related the above origins story for the Creed which was widely believed in the Western Christian church until the 15th century. Each of the apostles, “filled with the Holy Ghost,” were said to have contributed several sentences to the one common summary, which later became known as the Apostles’ Creed. Rufinus said:

Our forefathers have handed down to us the tradition, that, after the Lord’s ascension, when, through the coming of the Holy Ghost, tongues of flame had settled upon each of the Apostles, that they might speak diverse languages, so that no race however foreign, no tongue however barbarous, might be inaccessible to them and beyond their reach, they were commanded by the Lord to go severally to the several nations to preach the word of God. Being on the eve therefore of departing from one another, they first mutually agreed upon a standard of their future preaching, lest haply, when separated, they might in any instance vary in the statements which they should make to those whom they should invite to believe in Christ. Being all therefore met together, and being filled with the Holy Ghost, they composed, as we have said, this brief formulary of their future preaching, each contributing his several sentence to one common summary: and they ordained that the rule thus framed should be given to those who believe.

The Apostles’ Creed itself was present and increasingly became an important summary of confession and belief in the life of the church from at least the time of Rufinus in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. In his 5th century treatise on Christian piety, the Enchiridion, Augustine explained how the Apostles’ Creed was useful in teaching Christian doctrine and in refuting heresies. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, he thought the Creed was a succinct summary of the Christian doctrine and faith.

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 [Joel 2:32].” 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 [Romans 10:14]?” Hence the Creed. In these two you have those three graces exemplified: faith believes, hope and love pray.

The above legend was an accepted part of the history of the church until the Council of Florence (1438-1445), which attempted a reunification of the Western and Eastern churches. At the beginning of the negotiations, the Western, Latin representatives invoked the Apostles’ Creed. In response, the Eastern Greek representatives said they did not possess and had never seen “this creed of the Apostles.” Moreover, as J.N.D. Kelly quoted Marcus Eugenicus in Early Christian Creeds, “If it had ever existed, the Book of Acts would have spoken of it in its description of the first apostolic synod at Jerusalem, to which you appeal.”

Once the question is squarely faced, the extreme unlikelihood of the Apostles having drafted an official summary of faith scarcely merits discussion. Since the Reformation the theory that they did has been quietly set aside as legendary by practically all scholars, the conservative-minded merely reserving the right to point out that the teaching of the formula known as the Apostles’ Creed reproduces authentically apostolic doctrine.

Kelly went on to say the legend is an example of the tendency of the early Church to “attribute the whole of its doctrinal, liturgical and hierarchical apparatus” to the Twelve Apostles, and through them to Christ himself. He said this could be acknowledged without prejudice to the question of whether 2nd century Church fathers were correct to claim their rule of faith was the same as the faith of the Apostles. If the question was “Did the apostolic Church possess an official, textually determined confession of faith” the answer is no, it did not. However, “creeds of a looser sort,” that lacked the fixed and official character of the later formularies—yet clearly foreshadowing them—were is use early on.

The early Church was a “believing, confessing, preaching Church.” If the Christians of the apostolic age had not seen themselves as possessing a body of distinctive, consciously held beliefs, why would they have separated from Judaism and begun their program of missionary expansion? “Everything goes to show that the infant communities looked upon themselves as the bearers of a unique story of redemption.” The New Testament is a collection of documents written “from faith to faith.”

The Gospels carefully elaborate certain dogmatic beliefs about Jesus, “which they seek to explain and justify.” The other documents “presuppose a background of faith shared by the author and those for whom he is writing.” For all their differences of nuance, the documents of the New Testament “comprise a body of literature which could only have sprung from a community with a strongly marked outlook of its own.”

In light of these considerations it is impossible to overlook the emphasis on the transmission of authoritative doctrine which is to be found everywhere in the New Testament. In the later strata the reference to an inherited corpus of teaching are clear enough. In Jude 3, for example, we read of “the faith once delivered to the saints”; later (verse 20) the author speaks of “your most holy faith”, again using the word in the sense of an accepted body of beliefs.

Further examples given by Kelly were from the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13; Titus 1:9. Hebrews advises its readers to “hold fast our confession;” without wavering (Hebrews 4:14, 10:23). In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorted his readers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either our spoken word or our letter.” In Romans 6:17 Paul referred to the “standard of teaching to which you were committed.”

What we have before us, at any rate in rough outline, is the doctrinal deposit, at the pattern of sound words, which was expounded in the apostolic church since its inauguration and which constituted its distinctive message.

The story that the Twelve met and composed an “Apostles’ Creed” is a pious fiction. But by the 2nd century there was a “rule of faith” or a “canon of truth” believed and taught by the Church, and inherited from the Apostles. It just wasn’t an official, textually set confession of faith or a creed, as with the Apostles’ Creed and others that followed. The content of that rule, in all it essentials, was foreshadowed by the “pattern of teaching” accepted in the apostolic Church. Its essentials were prototypically contained in the New Testament. From the end of the first century to the middle of the third century, there were only creeds in this elastic, nontechnical sense of the term. “That the Church in the apostolic age possessed a creed in the broad sense of a recognized body of teaching may be accepted as demonstrated fact.”

For more on the early creeds and heresies of the Christian church, see the link: “Early Creeds.”


Descent into Hell

© LoraLiu | stockfresh.com

© LoraLiu | stockfresh.com

I confess, I am not much of a listener of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). So I had never heard of the CCM artist Kari Jobe or her music until someone asked me about a theological controversy that is making the rounds online about one of her songs, titled Forever. Apparently, the dispute is over a reference in her song to Jesus as the Son of God descending into hell where He defeated the enemy. The person was asking me to see whether I thought that lyric was heretical, and whether Jobe was spreading heresy. My initial reaction was to recall that some versions of the Apostles’ Creed made a similar claim and say that those who are critical of Jobe and her song seemed to be majoring on minor points.

Here is a description of one view of the controversy written by Jeff Maples on his blog, Pulpit & Pen: “Popular Charismatic Worship Artist, Kari Jobe, Teaching Dangerous Heresy.” Maples began by criticizing the Outcry 2016 music festival that will be held in several U.S. cities this year. Kari Jobe is part of the tour. He said: “Now, I’m not exactly sure who these people are worshiping, but it isn’t Jesus. Yet, thousands of Christians are blindly sending their children to partake in this evil.” This is provocative stuff to be saying about the participants of the Outcry 2016 and those who attend it.

His beef seemed to be focused primarily on something called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), which he said is a movement that elevates experience above doctrinal truth. Whether NAR is or is not heretical is not the focus here. Someone who wants more information on the movement or its beliefs can easily find discussions online. To get you started, try a Fresh Air podcast in 2011, “The Evangelicals Engaged in Spiritual Warfare”; or a Charisma News response to the NPR interview and article: “The New Apostolic Reformation Is not a Cult” by C. Peter Wagner. Also try “New Apostolic Reformation” on Wikipedia.

In his article, Maples quoted the lyric from Jobe’s song that he saw as offensive:

One final breath He gave
As heaven looked away
The Son of God was laid in darkness
A battle in the grave
The war on death was waged
The power of hell forever broken

Also there is a YouTube clip embedded on the page where Jobe said her favorite part of the song was the part that talks about the time in between the cross and the resurrection when “Jesus was in hell … defeating the enemy … taking those keys to death and hell and the grave to be victorious over that when he rose from the dead.”  Maples then equated this with an old heresy he said is found in the Word of Faith circles, that Jesus died spiritually and was “born again” after defeating Satan in hell. Personally, I’m not a fan of the teachings of Joyce Meyer or Kenneth Copeland, who Meyers quotes as promoting this heresy. But it seems to me the “culprit” behind Jobe’s lyric is the Apostle’s Creed rather than the Word of Faith movement.

The Apostles’ Creed has been a confessional element of orthodox Christian belief since the times of the early church. Ambrose and Augustine suggested repeating it in daily devotions. Luther saw it as one of three binding summaries of belief. Calvin divided his Institutes into four parts that corresponded to the Apostles’ Creed. See “Christian, What Do You Believe?” for more background on the Apostles’ Creed.

J. N. D. Kelly, in Early Christian Creeds, pointed out that the first appearance of saying that Jesus “descended to hell” appeared in the Aquleian version of the creed referred to by Rufinus, a fourth century monk and theologian, in his Commentary of the Apostles’ Creed. There he noted the phrase “He descended into hell” was not part of the Roman Creed (See “The Old Roman Creed”) or those of the Eastern (Oriental) churches. Nevertheless, it seemed to be implied in saying that Jesus was buried. Kelly said the clause was also present in some Spanish creeds of the sixth century and Gallican creeds of the seventh and eighth centuries.

Rufinus remarked in his commentary that Jesus descending into hell was foretold in the Psalm 22, classically seen as intimately associated with the passion of Christ. The first words of the Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are cried out by Jesus as he was dying (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Psalm 22:7-8 is alluded to in Matthew 27:39, 43, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him!” The final words of the Psalm, “he has done it” were said in Hard Sayings of the Bible to have been alluded to by Jesus in John 19:30 as he bowed his head and died: “It is finished.” Rufinus saw similar references to a descent into hell in Psalm 22:15, “you lay me in the dust of death”; Psalm 30:3, “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit”; and Psalm 30:9, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit?”

Tom Macy also expressed concern with Jobe’s reference to Jesus descending into hell in his article, “Did Jesus Go to Hell?” Macy said it was bad theology that taught an error striking at the heart of understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus. He said it taught the battle was not won on the cross. Rather, the real battle took place in hell between the death and resurrection of Jesus. “That is what seriously distorts the truth and why this song must not be used.”

A further example of the confusion arising from this reference to a descent into hell in the Apostles’ Creed is in this short video by Garrett Kell from Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I don’t concur with his explanation, but it does show how wild speculation creeps in to explain difficult passages of the Bible. Macy attributed the root of this confusion to Roman Catholic teaching. He then referenced Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology to explain passages that have been used to support Jesus’ decent into hell.

Fanciful interpretations of difficult passages must not override the declarations from the cross definitively showing that Jesus did NOT spend Saturday in hell, was NOT fighting Satan to finish the work of salvation, was NOT preaching a second chance salvation or simply condemning to those in hell. Jesus was with the repentant thief in Paradise in the presence of the Father.

And yet, the descent into the underworld was specifically mentioned by: Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian and others, according to Kelly. “The belief that Christ spent the interval between His expiry on the cross and His resurrection in the underworld was a commonplace of Christian teaching from the earliest times.” One strand of patristic teaching thought Jesus himself hinted at it when he said in Matthew 12:40 that the scribes and Pharisees seeking a sign would get only the sign of the prophet Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Attempts to explain where Jesus was when his body was in the tomb ask space and time-oriented questions about something that occurred beyond the space and time of the created universe. The answer can’t fit within the cosmos in which we live and move and have our being. And yet, we still wonder where Jesus was when he wasn’t with his body in the tomb. The question says more about us, and our view of the cosmos, than it does about what actually happened to Jesus between about 3 pm Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning.  In a similar way, the addition to the Apostles’ Creed of Jesus descending into hell, and the Old and New Testament passages supposedly referencing the same, tell us more about how the people of Biblical times viewed the cosmos than where Jesus was between his death and resurrection.

In his book, Scripture and Cosmology, Kyle Greenwood described how ancient Hebrew cosmology of a three-tiered universe of the heavens, earth and sea had a place for the underworld or the abode of the dead—Sheol. “When people died, they were buried in the ground, and their bodies remained in Sheol, the abode of the dead.”  This three-tiered cosmology was shared by other Near Eastern cultures. “It was the abode of the dead, the final resting place beneath the earth for all who once lived.”

OT cosmos

 On the BioLogos website is a series of blog articles on a scholarly paper by Brian Godawa, “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible.” Here is a link to Part 4 of that series where there is a discussion of Sheol; here is a link to Godawa’s entire paper. The following quotation can be found under either link.

Sheol was the Hebrew word for the underworld. Though the Bible does not contain any narratives of experiences in Sheol, it was nevertheless described as the abode of the dead that was below the earth. Though Sheol was sometimes used interchangeably with “Abaddon” as the place of destruction of the body (Prov. 15:11; 27:20),and “the grave” (qibrah) as a reference to the state of being dead and buried in the earth (Psa. 88:11; Isa. 14:9-11) it was also considered to be physically located beneath the earth in the same way as other ANE worldviews.

The New Testament was written during a time of transition to an Aristotelean cosmology of spheres within rotating spheres.  “In time Aristotelean cosmology and biblical faith became inseparable, not because Aristotle was a Christian, but because his system was easily reconciled with biblical anthropology and monotheism.” While the idea of Sheol or the grave underwent some major changes in the Christian era, Aristotelean cosmology didn’t require an abandonment of the idea that beneath the surface of the earth was a region where the dead went. Greenwood added this shows up conspicuously within the Apostles’ Creed.

The added phrase of “descended to hell” to the Apostles’ Creed is then simply making clear that Jesus truly died. Like all people, the humanity of the Son of God died. Not only was he crucified and buried, as it was said within the Roman Creed; Jesus was crucified [dead] and buried [He descended into Hell]. So on the third day, He would arise from the dead; the grave; Sheol. In other words, he would live again. This is the promise of faith in Christ. He reversed the irreversible, according to the ancient thinking about death. I think Kari Jobe can sing about it Forever, if she likes.


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.”