The 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.
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.
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 (Romans 6:17), and reminds Timothy of “the good (beautiful) confession” he had made in sight of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12). Similar language is used of Christ’s confession before Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13). We may perhaps conjecture from the epistles that Timothy’s confession contained references to God as the author of life, to Jesus 707 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 (1 Timothy 6:13; 2 Timothy 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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. For detailed replies to Harnack’s criticisms, Dr. Swete’s book on the
Apostles’ Creed may be consulted.
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).