Apostles' Creed

A statement of faith used by both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. Originally treated with suspicion by the Eastern churches, it is now accepted as orthodox but not used in public services.

Different Forms

The Apostles' Creed exists in various forms. Here is one of the more common.

"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, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father from whence 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."

"He Descended into Hell"

The controversial line that has been left out of the above formulation is "He descended into hell." There is good evidence that this line was added at a later date in order to affirm the totality of Jesus' death, but it raises other more serious questions. See discussion in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, pages 582-594.

History

The origin of the Apostles' Creed is to be found in the form learned by the catechumen in the course of his preparation for baptism in the early church. This kind of confession was called a symbolum and was not intended to be a complete summary of Christian doctrine, but rather a brief statement about the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. Since an important part of the catechesis consisted of memorizing the symbolum and repeating it to the bishop after scrutiny, it is not surprising that few written specimens of the early baptismal creed have survived. The old Roman form is known, however, from a commentary by Rufinus (c.404). Since virtually the same creed exists in a Greek version by Marcellus of Ancyra (c.340), it is supposed to date from the time when the liturgical language at Rome was still Greek (i.e., before c.250). The baptism service described in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c.215) puts a similar creed in the form of a question to the candidate in three parts, demanding a threefold response of faith.

Structure

The structure of the Old Roman Creed was Trinitarian, with a considerable expansion of the second article about Christ to include a list of His saving acts which were proclaimed in the primitive kerygma. Three German scholars (K. Holl, A. von Harnack, and H. Lietzmann) have argued strongly that in fact the creed was produced by welding together a Trinitarian formula (perhaps derived from Matt. 28:19) with an originally independent christological summary. Other scholars (e.g., J.H. Crehan) believe the christological part was the primitive baptismal confession.

The Old Roman Creed became the standard pattern for the church throughout the West. Nicetas of Remesiana was using a similar text at the end of the fourth century. In the sixth century Caesarius of Arles gives evidence of a process of elaboration which took place in Gaul and eventually gained acceptance at Rome itself. These additional phrases are seven in number: “maker of heaven and earth”; “conceived”; “dead”; “He descended into hell”; “almighty”; “catholic”; and, “the communion of saints.” The earliest example of the Latin text in exactly its modern form dates from the eighth century. While there is no foundation for the story of Rufinus that each apostle contributed an article to this creed, it has commended itself as a useful and succinct statement of faith which is today used frequently in worship. Although no longer confined to baptism, it should serve as a constant reminder of the Christian's baptismal confession.

Bibliography

P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (3 vols., 1877); J. de Ghellinck, Patristique et Moyen ãge-I: Les recherches sur les origines du symbole des Apõtres (2nd ed., 1949); O. Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions (ET 1949); J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (1950); J.H. Crehan, Early Christian Baptism and the Creed (1950).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The Apostles' Creed|Apostles’ Creed is the oldest creed, and lies at the basis of most others. Though not, as the long-current legend of its origin affirmed, the direct work of the Apostles, it has its roots in apostolic times, and embodies, with much fidelity, apostolic teaching. It will be seen immediately that it had an important place in the early church, when as yet no creed but itself existed. The oldest usage of the term "Rule of Faith" (regula fidei), now commonly given to the Scriptures, has reference to this creed. It was the creed that could be appealed to as held by the church in all its great branches, and so as forming the test of catholicity. It was as resting on this creed that the church could be called "catholic and apostolic." Of late the creed has been the subject of great controversy, and violent attempts have been made to thrust out some of its chief articles from the Christian faith. This is a special reason for considering the foundations on which these articles of faith rest.

I. Form of the Creed

In the first place, what is the creed? Here, first of all, it is to be pointed out that the received form of the creed is not its oldest or original form. The creed exists in two forms--a shorter and a longer; the former, known as the Old Roman Form, going back certainly as early as the middle of the 2nd century (about 140 AD), the latter, the enlarged form, in its present shape, of much later date. Its final form was probably given to it in South Gaul not before the middle of the 5th century (in one or two clauses, as late as the 7th). It is desirable, at the outset, to put these two forms of the creed (in translation) clearly before the reader.

1. Old Roman Form:

First, the Old Roman Form is given from the Greek of Marcellus, of Ancyra, 341 AD. It runs thus: "I believe in God the Father Almighty. And in Jesus Christ His only (begotten) Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary; crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father, from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost; the holy Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; (the life everlasting)."

The last clause is omitted in the Latin form preserved by Rufinus, 390 AD.

2. The Received Form:

The Received Form of the creed reads thus: "I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of Heaven and Earth; and in Jesus Christ His only (begotten) Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen." Such is the form of the creed. Something must now be said of its origin and history.

II. Origin of the Creed

The legend was that the creed took shape at the dictation of the Twelve Apostles, each of whom contributed a special article. Thus, Peter, it was alleged, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, commenced, "I believe in God the Father Almighty"; Andrew (or according to others, John) continued, "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord"; James the elder went on, "Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost," etc. This legend is not older than the 5th or 6th centuries, and is absurd on the face of it.

1. Baptismal Confession

The real origin of the creed has now been traced with great exactness. The original germ of it is to be sought for in the baptismal confession made by converts in the reception of that rite. The primitive confession may have contained no more than "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God," but we have evidence within the New Testament itself that it soon became enlarged. Paul speaks of the "form of teaching" delivered to converts (Ro 6:17), and reminds Timothy of "the good (beautiful) confession" he had made in sight of many witnesses (1Ti 6:12). Similar language is used of Christ’s confession before Pilate (1Ti 6:13). We may perhaps conjecture from the epistles that Timothy’s confession contained references to God as the author of life, to Jesus Christ and His descent from David, to His witness before Pontius Pilate, to His being raised from the dead, to His coming again to judge the quick and the dead (1Ti 6:13; 2Ti 2:8; 4:1). Early Christian writers, as Ignatius (110 AD), and Aristides the apologist (circa 125 AD), show traces of other clauses.

2. "Rule of Faith"

In any case, the fact is certain that before the middle of the 2nd century the confession at baptism had crystallized into tolerably settled shape in all the greater churches. We have accounts given us of its contents (besides the Old Roman Form) in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novatian, Origen, etc.; and they show substantial unity with a certain freedom of form in expression. But the form in the Roman church came gradually to be the recognized type. After the middle of the century, the confession rose to new importance as the result of the Gnostic controversies, and assumed more of the character of a formal creed. It came to be known as the "Rule of Truth," or "Rule of Faith," and was employed to check the license of interpretation of Scripture of these fantastic heretical speculators. The creed had originated independently of Scripture--in the early oral teaching and preaching of the apostles; hence its value as a witness to the common faith. But it was not used to supersede Scripture; it was held to corroborate Scripture, where men by their allegorical and other perversions sought to wrest Scripture from its real sense. It was employed as a check on those who sought to allegorize away the Christian faith.

III. History of the Creed

1. The Roman Creed

The Old Roman Form of the creed was, as said above, certainly in use by the middle of the 2nd century, in Rome; probably a considerable time before. We have it in both its Greek and Latin forms (the Greek being probably the original). The Latin form is given by Rufinus about 390 AD who compares it with the creed of his own church of Aquileia--a very old church. The Greek form is preserved by Marcellus, of Ancyra,in the 4th century. The old shorter form of the creed long maintained itself. We find it in England, e.g. up to nearly the time of the Norman Conquest (in 8th or 9th century manuscripts in British Museum).

2. The Received Creed

The Received Form of the creed has a much more obscure history. The additional clauses came in at different times, though in themselves some of them are very old. The addition to the first article, e.g. "Maker of heaven and earth," first appears in this form in Gaul about 650 AD, though similar forms are found in much older creeds. Another addition, "He descended into hell," meets us first in Rufinus as part of the creed of Aquileia, but is probably also old in that church. It is known that the creed had assumed nearly its present shape (perhaps without the above clauses, and that on the communion of saints) by the time of Faustus of Reiz, about 460 AD. Thence it spread, and had reached Ireland apparently before the end of the 7th century. In England it appears a century later, about 850 AD (from the court of Charlemagne?), and from the beginning of the 10th century it largely superseded the older from. The same applies to other countries, so that the Gallican form is now the one in common use. Two significant changes may be noted in the form given to it. In England, whose form we follow, the Reformers substituted for "the resurrection of the flesh" the words, "the resurrection of the body," and in Germany the Lutherans change the word "catholic" to "Christian," in "the holy catholic Church."

IV. Structure of the Creed

1. Its Trinitarian Form

The Apostles’ Creed, it will be perceived, has no theological or metaphysical character. It is not only the oldest, but the simplest and least developed of all creeds. It is a simple enumeration, in order, of the great verities which the church was known to have held, and to have handed down from the beginning--which Scripture also taught. Originating from the baptismal confession, it naturally follows the Trinitarian order suggested by the customary formula for baptism. The first article declares belief in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. The second to the seventh articles declare belief in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, and in the great facts embraced in the gospel testimony regarding Him. The eighth article affirms belief in the Holy Ghost, to which are appended the additional clauses, declaring belief in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh (body), and the life everlasting.

2. Creed of Apelles

It will help to show the kind of heresies the church of that age had to contend with, and what the earnest struggles of the Fathers of the time (using the Apostles’ Creed as a bulwark), if we append here the Creed of Apelles, a 2nd- century Gnostic, as reconstructed by Principal Lindsay (The Church and the Ministry, 222) from Hippolytus: "We believe, that Christ descended from the Power above, from the Good, and that He is the Son of the Good; that He was not born of a virgin, and that when He did appear He was not devoid of flesh. That He formed His Body by taking portions of it from the substance of the universe, i.e. hot and cold, moist and dry; That He received cosmical powers in the Body, and lived for the time He did in the world; That He was crucified by the Jews and died; That being raised again after three days He appeared to His disciples; That He showed them the prints of the nails and (the wound) in His side, being desirous of persuading them that He was no phantom, but was present in the flesh; That after He had shown them His flesh He restored it to the earth; That after He had once more loosed the chains of His Body He gave back heat to what is hot, cold to what is cold, moisture to what is moist, and dryness to what is dry; That in this condition He departed to the Good Father, leaving the Seed of Life in the world for those who through His disciples should believe in Him."

V. Modern Controversies

It was mentioned that of late the Apostles’ Creed has been the subject of many attacks and of keen controversies. In Germany, particularly, quite a fierce controversy broke out in 1892 over the refusal of a Lutheran pastor, named Schrempf, to use the creed in the administration of baptism. He did not believe in its articles about the virgin-birth of Christ, the resurrection of the flesh, etc. The offender was deposed, but a great battle ensued, giving rise to an enormous literature. The conflict has been overruled for good in leading to a more thorough examination than ever before of the history and meaning of the creed, but it has given precision also to the attacks made upon it. A leading part in this controversy was taken by Professor Harnack, of Berlin, whose objections may be regarded as representative. Professor Harnack, and those who think with him, criticize the creed from a twofold point of view:

(1) They deny that in all respects it represents true apostolical doctrine--this not only in its later arts., but even in such an article as that affirming the virgin-birth of Christ:

(2) They deny that the meaning we now put on many of the clauses of ~he creed is its true original meaning, i.e. we use the words, but with a different sense from the original framers.

Harnack’s Criticism:

In considering these objections, it is always to be remembered that those who urge them do so from the standpoint of rejection of most that is usually considered essential to Christianity. There is in their view no incarnation, no real Godhead of Christ, no real miracle in His life (only faith-cures), no resurrection from Joseph’s tomb. This no doubt takes the bottom from the Apostles’ Creed, but it takes the bottom also out of apostolic Christianity. Where Harnack, for instance, objects that "Father" and "Son" in the first and second articles of the creed have no Trinitarian reference, but relate only, the former to God’s relation to creation, the latter, to Christ’s historical appearance, the reply can only be the whole evidence in the New Testament for a Trinitarian distinction and for the essential Divinity of Christ. When it is declared that the virgin-birth is no part of the early Christian tradition, one can only appeal to the evidence of the fact in the Gospels, and recall that no section of the Christian church, except a heretical branch of the Ebionites, and some of the Gnostic sects, is known to have rejected it. (See Virgin Birth.) For detailed replies to Harnack’s criticisms, Dr. Swete’s book on the Apostles’ Creed may be consulted.

Bibliography

A list of the voluminous pamphlet literature produced by the German controversy on the Apostles’ Creed may be seen in Nippold’s Die theologische Einzelschule, II, 232-33. The most important contributions are those of Harnack (Das apostolische Glaubensbekenntniss, also English Translation); Kattenbusch, and Cremer. Compare also Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I, 14-23; II, 45-55. Special works are: Pearson, Exposition of the Creed (1659); Kattenbusch, Das apostolische Symbolum, 2 volumes (1894-1900); Zahn, Das apostolische Syrnbolum (1893); English translation (1899); H. B. Swete, The Apostles’ Creed and Primitive Christianity (1894); A. C. McGiffert, The Apostles’ Creed, Its Origin, Its Purpose, and Its Historical Interpretation (1902).

Additional Material

DESCENT INTO HADES (HELL) hā’ dez (Heb. שְׁאֹֽולָה, LXX καταβαίνειν εἰς ἅδου; κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα; cf. descendit ad inferna [inferos]). The descent into Hades or Hell is an article in the doctrinal tradition of the entire Christian Church. It is strange, however, that few doctrinal statements have had more research and less clarity of understanding than this single statement. Not only are the sources of tradition blurred, but Scripture passages alleged to throw light on the doctrine are denied by some authorities as source material, and those which are used as support create problems in exegesis even to every single word. Because of these obscurities, some denominations do not now include “He descended into Hades” in their liturgical use of the Apostles’ Creed.

The tradition.

This particular expression does not appear in the early Rom. Symbol but makes its first appearance in the Symbol of Aquileia by Rufinus (cf. Art., Apostles’ Creed). It appeared in the Fourth Sirmian Formula in a.d. 359, in the same year in the Formula of Nice and again in Constantinople in a.d. 360. Its appearance in these creedal statements, however, reflected an earlier tradition, as it had already been mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Thus there is a clear tracing to the apostolic period. The question still remains what was understood during the patristic period and in the early creedal statements. Was the descent for the deliverance of the OT saints? Was it an offer of the Gospel to those who had not heard it? Was it a victorious battle with Satan who tried to restrain Christ? None of these questions is clearly answered, and in some such form they still remain.

The Early Church had hard questions about what happened between Christ’s death and resurrection, questions akin to those reflected in the Thessalonian epistles regarding what would happen to those who died before Christ’s Second Advent. Two problems were particularly clear: (1) Where was Christ’s spirit between death and resurrection? (2) What was the fate of those who had died before the Gospel was preached? According to the climate of opinion of the day, Christ went to Hades (the abode of the dead) precisely because He was dead and buried. What, then, was He like there, and what did He do there? As far as can be known now, the beginnings of this doctrine of the Church rest more in tradition, for which there are now no clear answers, than in Biblical interpretation which seems to have been a later development used to justify the tradition.


Exegesis.

The basic text used in support of the Descensus is 1 Peter 3:19, with the wider context of 1 Peter 3:17-22. Interestingly enough, the basic text does not expressly state (as does the Apostles’ Creed) that Christ even descended into the realm of death, i.e., Hades. Interest is restricted to two particular facts: (1) that Christ preached and (2) that His preaching was for “spirits in prison.” Of significance in interpretation is the verb for preaching. In the NT this is always the careful expression for the announcing of the “kerygma,” i.e., the proclamation of the Christian Gospel that Jesus is the Christ, that the Suffering Servant is the Lord. One can assume, therefore, that this is the content of the preaching to the “spirits in prison.” Whether it was a message of judgment or release on this occasion is not even mentioned, and the reader is shut up to the single idea of the proclamation of the Gospel. That He went in the spirit and not in the flesh seems perfectly clear from the context, although this raises serious questions for the Lutheran tradition with their insistence on the ubiquity of Christ’s body.

Apart from the message preached, there are impossible questions about the nature of “the spirits in prison.” Although there is some light shed on this by a reference to Noah (1 Pet 3:20) and a reference to baptism (3:21), the character of these “spirits” is so confusing that attempts have been made to evade the thrust of the passage entirely. Rendall Harris, for example, insists that the Scripture contains a textual error in which the name of Enoch has been dropped out, and that there is, therefore, another reference to the apocryphal Enoch (relating to Gen 6:1-4) with scriptural authority equal to that of Jude 14. Peter was trying to give support to Christians under the pressure of evil men, and reading Jude from the sixth v. through the sixteenth, one obtains the impression that there are no distinctions between angels and men, and that exceptionally evil persons often assumed superhuman proportions. The relevant passage is in 1 Enoch 67:4-69:1 and esp. 67:12, “This judgment wherewith the angels are judged is a testimony for the kings and the mighty who possess the earth.” Although brilliant work has been done by Harris and supported by both Moffat and Goodspeed, there is no real evidence at all for their conjectures. Selwyn makes out of this passage that Christ’s death was a proclamation to the powers of evil. “What St. Peter and St. Paul assert of these powers of evil, as the divine Master asserted before them, is that ‘In Christ’s death their end is sealed’.” This may well be true, but there is no evidence for such an interpretation of this passage.

The simplest meaning, although still an unsatisfactory one, is that the Lord, between His death and resurrection, descended into Hades, although Peter does not say so (Hades or Sheol could be in this case a place of punishment or bliss or some such intermediate state) and preached to certain spirits in prison there. Possibly, judging from the context in 1 Peter, they could have been the fallen angels spoken of in Genesis 6:1-4 or, more likely, the spirits of that rebellious generation who perished in the flood (Gen 6:12ff.).

Church doctrine

The Roman Catholic position.

Christ descended into hell in the interval between His death and resurrection in the soul, and not in the body. The scene of the Descent is the forecourt of hell, the limbus patrum. The purpose of the Descent was to show His power and glory even in the underworld and to comfort and deliver the souls of the just held captive there, i.e., take them to heaven.

Although this is the official position, the theologians of the church are still left with many unsolved problems: (1) If Jesus promised Paradise to the thief on the cross, what is the relationship of Paradise to His time in hell, or is one to assume that Paradise is wherever Christ is? (2) Where was Jesus’ abode during the forty resurrection days between His preaching in hell and His ascension? In other words, where was He when He was not manifested to His followers? (3) After the incarnation can one think of nodetitle apart from His humanity? If so, what was His nature when only His spirit descended into hell while His body lay in the grave? (4) Does the passage in 1 Peter refer to the Descent at all?

The Lutheran position.

The Lutherans are faced with the difficulties of other doctrines as related to the Descent, such as the ubiquity of Christ’s body and the problem of soul sleep. The Lutheran problem is intensified by the apparent discrepancies between the theological position and the popular discourses. Luther seems to give a definition in his Easter sermon of 13 April 1533 (Earl. ed [Ger] XIX, 40-54). “The Lord Christ—His entire person, God and man, with body and soul undivided—had journeyed to hell, and had, in person, demolished Hell and bound the Devil.” Apparently in such a statement Luther has accepted ubiquity and dismissed its problems. In his exordium on this Easter discourse he commented, “And it pleases me well that, for the simple, it (Descensus) should be painted, played, sung or spoken...and I shall be quite content if people do not vex themselves greatly with high and subtle thoughts as to how it was carried out” (Earl. ed. [Ger] XIX, 40). Regarding the problem of the whole person, it is typical of Luther to say “Please God, the banner, doors, gate, and chains were of wood, or of iron, or did not exist at all.” In short, Luther rather characteristically gives some affirmations and dismisses the explanations.

The Reformed position.

Here there is a complete abandonment of Roman Catholic dogma. What matters is that Christ really died: vere mortuus est. He died and was buried and therefore went to Hades, the abode of the dead. He really died. Calvin thought that the Roman Catholic idea that the souls of the dead are confined in a prison is a fabula. He regarded the whole approach as “childish” (Inst. 1559, II, 16, 9.). With Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin looked upon the Petrine passage as referring to the agonies of the soul in death, what Jesus was experiencing during the hours of His death. He did not attribute the Petrine passage to the Descensus at all. The possibility that there is preaching to the dead and an offer of salvation after death has no basis in Scripture nor in any sound tradition of the Church in Reformed doctrine.

The modern emphasis.

The descent into Hades is merely another way of emphasizing the depth of Christ’s humiliation and His total identification with the sufferings of man in death. Furthermore, it is one more way of saying what the Creed already said; men are to reach a climax in the building up of phrases: crucified, dead, buried, descended into hell. The creedal phrase “descended into Hell” does not come out of the NT at all but develops out of the proclamation of His death and His “resurrection from the dead.” James D. Smart puts it well: “Perhaps, then, ‘He descended into Hell’ is meant to say to us that Jesus not only shared with us our death and burial, that strange and troubling end of our familiar life, but so bound Himself into one with men that He knew the agony of man’s utmost deprivation of life....Hell is the existence of the man who is alone with himself with no way of access either to God or to his fellow man. The descent into hell, then, is Christ with man in hell, what no man could expect, what no man could deserve; the love of God reaching across the abyss that sin has made, bearing the pain and darkness of hell with man in order to deliver him to the brightness and joy of life with God....This at last it means: that in His death He conquered death and hell, finishing the battle that He had waged throughout His life” (The Creed in Christian Teaching, p. 130ff.). See Sheol.

Bibliography

J. Calvin, The Institutes, ed. (1559), II, 16, 9; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1907), 707, 708 (esp. good for exegesis); HERE (1922), vol. 4, 654-663; E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of Peter (1946); IB (1957), vol. 12, 132, 133; J. D. Smart, The Creed in Christian Teaching (1962), 130-144; B. Reicke, Anchor Bible (1964), vol. 37, 106-115.