The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of The Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24 AD. It was adopted by Rome and became a common creed of the Western Church. It states:
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 and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will come 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.
What are the characteristics of this creed?
The Apostles’ Creed has a trinitarian structure. It begins with a focus on the Father, continues with a focus on the Son, and ends with focus on the Holy Spirit. While there is no precise formulation concerning persons and substance as with The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, there is, nonetheless, an implicit recognition of the trinitarian nature of God. We see an ordering within the trinity, the Father is first, the Son is second, and the Spirit is third. The Father is the Father due to his eternal begetting of the Son, and he is our Father due to the Son's redemptive work for us. The Son is the Son due to his being eternally begotten from the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit due to his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. These are their distinct personal properties (Larger Catechism, Q. 10). They are assumed here and made explicit later in church history. We also see particular operations ascribed to each person. The Father is the almighty creator. That’s not to say that the Son and Spirit are any less mighty or any less creator. It is simply to say that in the works of God ad extra (i.e. creation and providence), certain operations are attributed to the Father, certain operations to the Son, and certain operations to the Spirit. The Father creates and redeems through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an intra-trinitarian order of operations that is fundamentally indivisible and thus, properly speaking, one operation of the divine will. Yet each person performs a different action in the execution of that will.
The Apostles’ Creed is also intensely historical. Christianity, at its most fundamental level, is not a set of abstract philosophical axioms. It is an account of concrete historical events. To be sure, these events have immense philosophical import, but they come first. The infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God has revealed himself through time and space. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Thus time and space began. In the course of time and in a particular place the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. The incarnate Son suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead. These are all historical events.
Among these events the past is emphasized. The creed mostly covers what the triune God has already done for us. He created us. He provided all that was needed for our salvation. But we also see the present. The incarnate Son is presently seated at the right hand of the Father where he continually intercedes for us as our priest and rules over us as our king. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, presently indwells and sanctifies the church, binding its members together as one body, and applying to us the forgiveness of sins. We see the future as well. The Son will eventually return for the final judgment, and at that time the Holy Spirit will raise our bodies from the dead, thus fitting us for life everlasting. Whether looking to the past, the present, or the future, the creed teaches us the basics about what God is doing in and through history. It is quite literally his-story.
The Apostles’ Creed is redemptive. The history through which the triune God has been revealing himself is not chaotic but purposeful. It’s purpose is the good news of the accomplishment and application of our salvation. This should be the main focus of the church of Jesus Christ, which is why she is properly called evangelical.
The accomplishment of our salvation is the special work of the the Father’s only begotten Son, our Lord. It began with his incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was born to die, suffering under Pontius Pilate so that he would be crucified, die, and be buried. In this way he descended into Hell for us, suffering the full penalty we were owed for our sins. He was raised from dead for our justification, ascended into heaven, and sat at Father’s right hand to continually intercede for us and rule over us. On the last day he will come again for the final judgment, openly acquitting his saints and condemning his enemies.
The application of our salvation is the special work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who sanctifies the church universal, making it holy. He is the one who binds us together as one communion. He is the one who seals to us the forgiveness of sins and fits us for his future resurrection work that we might live in glory forever.