The Origin of the Creed
The Apostles’ Creed gets its name from its supposed authorship. Legend says that the Apostles composed it ten days after the ascension of Christ when the Holy Spirit was poured out from heaven. The Roman Catholic Church has even claimed to know which Apostle wrote each part of the creed. But while Apostolic authorship has been summarily disproven, the creed is still appropriately named since it faithfully communicates the inspired Apostolic teaching of the NT.
Various phrases found in the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to the Roman Symbol which developed as early as the late second century. This symbol was preserved in three subsequent formulations (cf. John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., 23-24):
- The Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (215 AD): Do you believe in God the Father all governing? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died and was buried and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and in the resurrection of the body?
- The Creed of Marcellus (340 AD): I believe in God, all governing. And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried, who rose from the dead on the third day, ascending to the heavens and taking his seat at the Father’s right hand, whence he shall come to judge both living and dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting.
- The Creed of Rufinus (404 AD): I believe in God the Father almighty, invisible and impassible. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit from Mary the Virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; he descended to hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended to heaven, where he sits at the Father’s right hand and from whence he will come to judge both living and dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of this flesh.
St. Augustine also preached a sermon on a North African variant of the symbol around 400 AD. Leith offers this reconstruction (Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed., 25):
We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of all things, ruler of the ages, immortal and invisible. We believe in Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord, born of the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father, thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead,. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting through the holy catholic church.
The Textus Receptus of the Creed
Leith writes, “The date and place of the origin of the present form of the Apostles’ Creed cannot be fixed with precision. There is considerable evidence for a date late in the sixth or seventh century somewhere in southwest France” (24). The Textus Receptus (i.e. received text) of the Apostles’ Creed dates to 710-24. 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.
The Use of the Creed
Historically, the church has used the Apostles’ Creed as a catechetical guide and profession of faith for new converts. It serves as a brief summary of the Christian faith, which, combined with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed defined Christian orthodoxy in the NT church up to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Since then that definition has also included the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide. The Apostles’ Creed, therefore, helps us to recognize and avoid any inadequate or incomplete versions of Christianity that may arise today. It also reminds us that Christian identity is not simply a matter of subjective feelings. It is an objective reality based on the doctrines we profess to believe. Saving faith may involve more than knowing these doctrines but it never involves less. It may be true even while our knowledge is incomplete and inaccurate, but it cannot be true while we consciously reject the doctrines of the creed. Saving faith is not a matter of individual preference. It is to have one’s heart and voice joined with others in a common confession of faith about the triune God and his works. The Apostles’ Creed is useful to that end. It is a time-tested confession of faith suitable for the church’s life and liturgy. It is a towering monument and trustworthy guide to the Spirit’s work in his church over the last 2000 years.