by Jared Lidgerwood
Christians around the world, of various denominations, and across the ages, have at times recited the Apostles’ Creed – a wonderful statement of the Christian faith. Where did we get the Apostles’ Creed? Why do we have it?
Let’s think about the beginning of the Christian church. Jesus Christ gathered a small group of Jews, and called them to be his disciples. For three years they followed, they listened, they watched, they learnt. But their ‘movement’ came to an abrupt end when Jesus was arrested and executed; hung on a cross on the outskirts of Jerusalem by the occupying Roman government. That would have been the end, except that Jesus didn’t stay dead: he rose from the dead, regathered his disciples, and told them this:
All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:18-20)
We know this as the great commission. And you will notice this commission came with a promise: that Jesus was with them always (that where they went, they went with his authority). The message they had learned through the Holy Spirit, they would speak and teach and write.
This commission was their job. And whilst they didn’t know what ‘making disciples’ would look like in practice, they knew it was tied up with their message (the ‘good news’), and that it needed to be proclaimed. And so they preached and lived the message as they went out to make disciples of all nations, baptising them, teaching them to observe all that Jesus had said and commanded.
It is in the Acts of the Apostles that we see how they did that job!
The appointment of some to be God’s apostles, his ‘sent ones’, meant that they would bear witness to all they had seen and heard from Jesus (Acts 1:8). And it was these Apostles who established the first Christian churches. As we read through Acts, we see extraordinary growth as more and more people gave their lives to Christ. These churches were filled with people who ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.’ (Acts 2:42). If one could accuse the first disciples and followers during the earthly ministry of Jesus of being fickle or shallow (hanging around for the miracles and healings, until they got what they wanted), you couldn’t say the same about the early church as described in Acts. They weren’t mucking around: a huge number of disciples were all-in.
The apostles would tell the stories about what they saw Jesus do, and as they taught through the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) they pointed out time after time what God was doing back then and how that pointed to Jesus now! The early church was taking shape and growing fast.
So how do we get from the teaching of the apostles to the creed that is named after them?
What’s the timeframe? When did Christians start professing the Apostles’ Creed? When did they start using it?
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Let’s work backwards: what do we have now? We have copies of the Apostles’ Creed which dates back around 1200 years. Christians have been (at least) reciting the Apostles’ Creed since the AD 800s (originally in Latin!).
That is a long time ago, but it is still relatively recent. This begs the question: Are we reciting a creed which someone invented the best part of a thousand years after Jesus? No: those copies from the 800s are the earliest surviving complete copies. Yet, there are also much earlier snippets; bits and pieces of the creed written in Greek and some in Latin. These snippets are strikingly similar to the wording we use today (when it’s translated into English of course). Putting all the snippets and bits and pieces together gives us the complete creed several times over. It is fair to say that Christians have been using some sort of creed since very very early – probably from the 3rd Century: that is the AD200s. In time, they came to call it the Apostles’ Creed: it was something Christians declared as a statement of their faith.
Yet, what do those words in the creed (or the earlier versions of it) have to do with the teaching of the Apostles? Well, the faith that is confessed in the Creeds is the faith that was taught by the Apostles, and when early Christians were baptised, they would declare the creed before they received their baptism (and later in confirmation).
As an aside, back around the year 390AD, it was suggested that the Apostles’ Creed was not just a summary of the teaching of the apostles, but that the apostles themselves had written it. Given the creed has twelve parts, and there were twelve apostles, the theory was that each apostle wrote one part! (E. Ferguson, Church History (Vol 1; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005, page 111). It’s a fun theory, but probably not true. We don’t need to make up a connection, because the teachings that come in the creed reflect the teachings of the Bible, and the statements in the creed really do summarise the things that the apostles taught and believed. Each section and every line is based in scripture: God the Father Almighty; Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord; and the Holy Spirit. You might note that the longest section of the Apostles’ creed concerns what Christians believe about Jesus. Every line comes from the historical events of Jesus’ life: his miraculous conception and birth, his identity as the Christ, his unjust suffering and crucifixion, his resurrection, and his assurance that he will return as the judge. This is a creed that doesn’t embellish. It doesn’t make things up. It takes what was there in scripture, plain as day, and sets it out clearly, making historical claims, of events witnessed by many.
And so as Christians today recite the creed, we can be assured that we are declaring that which happened and that which is documented in the pages of both scripture and history.
What caused these early disciples to put these things in writing as a creed or a statement of belief?
The unfortunate reality is that while the apostles and the early church were proclaiming the gospel, there were people who were proclaiming a false gospel: they did this either maliciously (trying to undermine the teaching and undermine the new church) or they did it mistakenly (confusing certain parts of the message). As we see in Acts, there are instances of the Apostles defending the message, and correcting mistakes. For instance, the Apostle Peter was criticised for speaking the message to Gentiles and he had to defend the truth that the gospel was a message for all people (in Acts 10-11).
There were those both inside and outside the church who wanted to attack or change the message of the gospel (2 Tim 4:3-4). So the development of a creed became a helpful way to summarise the rich truths of the gospel in a containable and memorable way which all believers could assent too.
Christians have the creed, because it is a helpful way to summarise what they hold to be true and foundational in faith.
In part 2, we’ll look more closely at how the creeds protect the life-giving gospel.
In part 3, we’ll look why Christians should use creeds today.