The Apostles' Creed

APOSTLES’ CREED, THE. A statement of faith used only in the western church. It is a series of brief positive affirmations with no proofs and no explanations.

Like other ancient creeds, the Apostles’ Creed falls into three sections, following the Trinitarian order customary in baptismal rites (a catechetical device of almost universal use in the catholic church; cf. Calvin’s Institutes). It is prob. based structurally on Matthew 28:19 and speaks of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. The major portion of the creed deals with Christ and the brief statement on the Holy Spirit is followed by a series of clauses setting forth the work of the Holy Spirit. With regard to the modern emphasis on the life and teachings of Jesus, it is worth noting that nothing of this appears in this ancient and universal creed which reflects the basic verities of the apostolic and ancient church.

The affirmations of the creed can be supported by NT evidence (as against Harnack, Bultmann, et al., who hold that it goes farther than the NT in specifics and in its dogmatism) but the formula itself is not, of course, of apostolic origin. Its title is first found c. a.d. 390 and it was soon after this that the legend that it was the joint composition of the apostles appeared. The legend is a quaint one (comparable to that of the writing of the LXX), assuring that each of the twelve apostles contributed a special article. Thus, Peter, it was reported, under divine inspiration began, “I believe in God the Father Almighty”; and Andrew (or was it John?) added, “and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord”; James the Elder continued, “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,” and so it went throughout. The form of the legend and the fact that the apostles wrote the creed are equally true!


Early Christian writers and apologists show additions and variations to the baptismal formula of Matthew, but by the middle of the 2nd cent. the confession at baptism had begun to crystalize with certain freedoms of expression in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novatian, Origen, etc. The Roman Form prevailed with time and took on new importance with the rise of controversies and heresies. It assumed more the character of a formal creed. It became known as the “Rule of Faith” and was created and formalized to check the license of heretical speculations on the Scriptures. The creed was to witness to the common faith as that faith arose out of the Scriptures.

The Received Form of the creed as it is known today is not its oldest or original form. There was a shorter and a longer form. The shorter form became known as the Old Roman Form, going back surely to the middle of the 2nd cent. (c. a.d. 140). The longer form is of much later date and its history is more obscure, prob. because its increasingly wider usage gave rise to variance in wider areas of the church. For those acquainted with the Received Form today, the short form or Old Roman Form is of interest as a stage in growth.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Ghost and 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 Lat. form preserved by Rufinus, a.d. 390.) This form is quoted from the Gr. of Marcellus of Ancyra, a.d. 341.

History of the creed. The Old Roman Form was surely in use by the middle of the 2nd cent. (vide ante) in Rome, possibly before that time. It may be traced in both its Gr. and Lat. VS and the Gr. was prob. the earlier. Rufinus has the Lat. form c. a.d. 390 and this points to earlier usage because he compares what he has with that of his own church, Aquileia, a very ancient foundation. Marcellus of Ancyra, 4th cent., preserved the Greek Form, and a shorter form of this Creed can be traced in England up to the time of the Norman conquest.

The Received Form appeared in a variety of interpretations for many centuries with additions and refinements marking its history in the first article, e. g., “maker of heaven and earth,” first appears in Gr. in a.d. 650. By and large, however, the Creed as it now appears had been established by Faustus of Reiz c. a.d. 460, moved to Ireland by the end of the 7th cent., to England (possibly from the court of Charlemagne) by a.d. 850, and by the 10th cent. had largely replaced the shorter Old Roman Form. An 8th cent. writer was the first to quote the Creed exactly in its present form, but it did not hold its structure until later. The Creed’s history in other lands followed the same obscure pathway of tradition and practice. Such phrases as “He descended into hell” struggled even into modern times for an established place. Variants such as “the resurrection of the body” for “the resurrection of the flesh” became fixed in time, and the use of “Holy Christian Church” (most frequent Lutheran usage) continues to struggle with “Holy Catholic Church.” One may say, however, that by the 12th cent. the Received Form was everywhere used at baptisms in the W and the practice of reciting the Creed in daily services had become common. Both usages continue to this day.

Bibliography

P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (1877), I:14-23; II:45-55; A. Harnack, The Apostles’ Creed (1901); A. C. McGiffert, The Apostles’ Creed, Its Origin, Its Purpose, and Its Historic Interpretation (1902); ISBE (1939), 204-206; J. de Ghellinck, S. J., Patristique a et Moyen-Age, I: Les Récherches sur les Origines du Symbol des Apôtres (1946, 2nd ed. 1949), prob. the most basic work. It supplies fully a summary of modern lit. on the subject; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (1950), 368-434; F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1958), 72, 73.