Q: What is true faith?
I believe is a common phrase used by most people in the world today. People love to talk about what they believe, and very often it is not thought through very well. The word “belief” has come to be synonymous with opinion rather than confession, and even the word confession has come to mean something which resembles a black wooden box and a Roman Catholic Priest.
However, here in the Latin text of the Apostle’s Creed, the word credo means something of a sort of statement of belief, a dogmatic assertion, a proposition held to by conviction, or in other words, trust in something held to be true. All three monotheistic religions hold to summary statements of what they deem to be true. Judaism has the Shema; Islam has the Shahada; and Christianity has the Creed. All three of these give the foundation of religious belief: The Shemma, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your soul, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself”; the Shahada, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”; and then of course the Apostle’s Creed, which we will now study, has as its subject God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.
What is it to believe?
Now the creed is a confession of faith or trust in something believed to be true. Today people may believe the news, or they may believe their friends, or they may believe empirical science; however rarely will people say that they trust in these things. What does it mean, therefore, to trust in something?
When a person trusts in something, they don’t just agree with it, like they may with the results of empirical investigation, but they place their hope in it. This sort of understanding is prevalent in the betting world. When someone places their bet on a certain horse winning a derby, they place their hope in the horse and the jockey. They hope that the horse will win, and that their reward will be the winning of a large sum of money. Perhaps the person has studied the riders very carefully and followed the horse over a few races to increase his confidence in the winning horse, but in the end there is always a chance that the horse may not win. Or what about taking a flight from one city to the next? A person who chooses a certain airliner places their trust in the aircraft to bring her safely to her destination. She may well pay a little extra money in order to secure a flight on a safer airline, but there is still a chance that the aircraft will fail to arrive at the given destination safely. Nevertheless, the person has placed her trust in this particular airliner and hopes she will arrive safely on the other side.
However, when the creed affirms “I believe in God…”, the trust it seeks to affirm and the hope it produces is vastly different from the above examples. Pannenberg asks, “In what do we ultimately put our trust? What are our hearts set on, in the last resort? This is the most fundamental question which can face a man.” In other words, the object of one’s faith, or trust, is what makes all the difference between authentic religious belief and mere wishful thinking. Pannenberg continues, “For trust means reliance, and the person who relies on superficial delusions and alluring pretence is lost, as the future will prove.” In the above examples, both the betting man and the hopeful lady have placed their trust in objects which cannot hold out any promise or guarantee. In this sense, even though a person does all the hard work in following the development of the best horse and seek the most reliable airline, there is always a chance that these will fail, and therefore ones trust can only be superficial. It cannot be ultimate. What then does the Creed hold out that is different?
When we talk about belief according to Christianity, we are referring to the subject of faith and how this relates to our understanding of God. The famous statement of faith according to the Christian understanding is found in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here faith is described as both assurance and certainty. Ellingworth shows that this is “a summary of what faith does: faith binds the believer securely to the reality of what he does not (yet) see, but for which he hopes.” The author continues in 11:6 by stating that “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” So here the author gives us the foundation of Christian faith, which has as its starting point the firm belief in the existence of God, and the hope that he rewards those who seek him. The question is, how do we know that he will reward those who seek him?
It is no surprise, therefore, that the author of Hebrews uses the examples of the many heroes of faith recorded right throughout the Old Testament, who modelled this kind of faith for us to follow. We have, as it were, “a great cloud of witnesses” who have demonstrated persevering faith even through trying times, and who now stand to spur us forward. These men and women trusted in God, and have now left us a record of God’s faithfulness in order that our faith is not just founded upon opinion, but in the direct involvement of God in the lives of countless that went before us. These men and women trusted in the promises of God, even though in their own lifetime they never saw the fulfilment of these promises (see Hebrews 11:39). But it is not as if there faith had failed them, but rather, in a very telling verse the author of Hebrews writes that "that apart from us they should not be made perfect" (11:40). The whole point of the author of Hebrews is that we now have seen this fulfilment in the gospel of Christ, and so God did ultimately fulfil his promises through the coming of Jesus, and since His coming we are gathered together into the same hope as the Old Testament saints who longed to see its fulfillment. In this sense faith has as its object a God who fulfils his promises.
But Christian faith must necessarily lead to hope, and so when a person confesses “I believe”, not only are we confessing the truth of a particular set of articles of faith, but we are confessing the hope to which these articles point, and that is “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Calvin writes, “If faith is a sure persuasion of the truth of God, a persuasion that cannot lie to us, deceive us, or vex us, then those who have grasped this assurance expect that it will straightaway come to pass that God will fulfil his promises, since according to their opinion they cannot but be true. To sum up, hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things that faith believed to have been truly promised by God.” 
Christian hope therefore looks at God’s past action, and believes in his promises for the future on the basis of his past fulfilment of his promises. It is very similar to the betting man, who looks at past jockey and horse winnings to place his bet, or the hopeful lady who looks at the track record of an airliner and chooses the safest options, however neither with the betting man nor the hopeful lady is there any guarantee that what they hope for will come to pass. With the Christian, the promises are guaranteed by God, “maker of heaven and earth,” who is “almighty”, a firm affirmation that the One who promises is able to fulfil his promises, and it is grounded in the work of Christ who is the fulfilment of God’s redemptive promsies, something the saints of old were looking forward to when they believed and trusted in God. When a Christian therefore says, “I hope”, he does not mean the kind of wishful thinking of a betting man or a lady flying across the ocean, but rather speaks of a hope that is grounded in the very character of God who is trustworthy.
Pannenberg explains faith as the movement from trust to hope by grounding our faith in truth in three ways, “First, it is a question of the visible indications in the existing world in which trust finds support. In the Apostle’s Creed, these are above all the events of the life of Jesus, which the second article lists, but also the world of creation, to which the first article relates. Secondly, on the basis of these indications, trust bases itself on the invisible reality toward which trust is really directed, and which manifests itself in these indications. For the Apostle’s Creed this is the reality of God, the reality of his Son, now exalted to the right hand of the divine majesty, and the reality of the Holy Spirit, who is at work in the life of the church as a mysterious underlying dimension. Thirdly, trust is related to what it hopes for from the reliability of that to which it clings: in the creed this is the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life.”
In other words, Christian faith moves from (1) trust in the visible elements (i.e. creation and the person of Jesus), to (2) the belief in the invisible reality (God as Creator and Redeemer), to (3) the hope of the promise held out (redemption). Therefore, the person who confesses the creed and believes what it states to be true is the one who has come to the conviction that the world in which we live must have been created and the claims of Jesus must be salvific; and acknowledges that both the world and Jesus point beyond themselves to an invisibly reality, that the God who has created the world has also come in Christ to redeem it; and that this holds out a promise to anyone willing to believe, that in this God there is the promise of redemption and the hope of eternal life which is guaranteed by the Spirit at work in the life of every believer.
To conclude then, Christian belief is vastly different to popular belief in the world today that is grounded mostly opinion or superficial things that have no guarantee. Christian faith clings to the reality of God when we confess, “I believe…” It is not a belief in a philosophy thought up by man, but grounded in the world as created and is the fulfilment of God’s promises to the saints of old in Jesus Christ. Christian faith is therefore an assurance of things hoped for, because it is grounded in past promises, and it is also a conviction of things still unseen, or in other words, promises still waiting to be fulfilled, because it is guaranteed by God who is the “almighty creator of heaven and earth.” When we confess, “I believe” then, we are confessing trust in the God Almighty, and we are confessing the sure hope that he will fulfil his promises. Next week we will see how we can know who this God is, and as we unpack the Creed, we will come to learn exactly what his promises are. Soli Deo Gloria.
 Pannenberg, W. 1972. The Apostle’s Creed in light of Today’s Questions. London: SCM Press, pg. 4.
 Ellingworth, P. 1993. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pg. 566.
 Calvin, J. 1538. 21 (in Hesselink, I. J. 1997: Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pg. 27.)
 Pannenberg, W. 1972. The Apostle’s Creed in light of Today’s Questions. London: SCM Press, pg. 6-7.
Disclaimer: I have rewritten this post from a previous post.
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church located on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.
We live in a non-creedal age. On the one hand there are many churches who confess the early creeds of the Christian church, and yet have practically departed from the faith that the creeds proclaim. On the other hand the majority of churches today claim to have only one creed, “We have no creed but the Bible.” Michael Bird points out the great irony of the statement itself, that this statement is not found in the Bible, and thus has become an extra-biblical mantra! The churches that do both profess the creeds as well as believe them, are few. Therefore, in light of the great need for a creedal confession, we will embark on a teaching series through one of the earliest creeds in the Christian tradition: The Apostle’s Creed. But before we get into the history of the Apostle’s Creed, we must first ask the question whether or not confessing a creed is Biblical?
The Bible, it may come as a surprise, is full of mini creedal formulas. For example, one of the earliest ones we encounter is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, otherwise known as the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This simple statement affirms to every confessing Jewish believer that the God whom they worship is different from the polytheistic gods of the surrounding nations. Bird points out that “The Shema described the essential elements of Israel’s faith in a short and simple summary.”
The New Testament itself has hints of early Christian creeds that were used to express the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 records an early creedal formulation when Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Here we see the early church confessing that Christ died, that he was buried, and that he was raised again to life, all of which influenced the later creeds such as The Apostle’s Creed. More importantly, we also find a creed relating the nature of God in three persons in an early creedal formula, very likely confessed at baptismal rites, found in Ephesians 4:4-6 which states, “There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Notice how similar this creedal formula is to the Shema, emphasizing the unity in the divine being of God, as well as the unity of the church who is said to be united to Christ!
From this we can see that from the earliest of times, believers have formulated summary statements of what they believe concerning the nature and being of God, and how this relates to us as His people. The summary statements aid in memorizing doctrine, as well as teaching far more than the statement contains. Therefore, they are not mere formulas to memorise on their own merit. Creeds must be taught and elaborated on, but like a student making summary notes to memorise work for a coming exam, so creeds are to bring to mind a whole range of doctrinal teaching that relates to the creed itself. This is why we will spend the next semester studying the creed together, and not merely reciting it or committing it to memory. We want to understand what the creed states so that it will grow our love and understanding of the truth it summarises. But what is The Apostle’s Creed? Who wrote it, and for what purpose?
The Apostle’s Creed in History
We do not know who precisely compiled The Apostle’s Creed. It certainly wasn’t the Apostles themselves, for it was compiled long after the Apostles were already dead. Why then call it The Apostle’s Creed? Well, simply because it contains the sum of apostolic teaching. Calvin writes of this, “Who the author was or rather who wrote down this epitome of the faith is not of great concern to us, for it contains nothing merely human but has been assembled from very sure testimonies of Scripture.” The beauty of the creed is that in its simplicity it has preserved the confessional doctrine of the Christian church which is easily verifiable by Scripture. There are no philosophical categories found outside of Scripture that is used to explain anything of God, it is just a simple summary of what the Christian Scriptures teach concerning God and the church.
From its earliest use in the church it was likely formulated initially for baptismal rites, where “three questions were put to the second-century candidate for baptism: ‘Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, our Saviour? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, a holy church, and the forgiveness of sins?’” Pannenberg continues and writes that “the earliest form of our creed was the baptismal affirmation of faith of the church in Rome.”
The Apostles Creed, together with the Nicene Creed has come to be a standard for confessing orthodox Christian belief throughout the Western Church, and especially during the Reformation. Many of the great Reformed catechisms deal significantly with The Apostle’s Creed, such as Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of Geneva and the famous Heidelberg Catechism, though sadly missing from The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Apostle’s Creed, together with the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, became the standard summary of Christian dogmas commented on throughout the Reformation period and in Reformed churches thereafter, covering the whole range of Christian doctrine: Christian obedience through law, Christian salvation through faith, and Christian experience through prayer. It is insisted on by Calvin scholar, T.H.L. Parker, that Calvin actually structured his famous The Institutes of the Christian Religion after the structure of The Apostle’s Creed. Whether or not this is true, it is clear from the development of Calvin’s Institutes that the creed played an important role in formulating Calvin’s own thought.
The Structure of the Apostle’s Creed
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 again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Above is one of the standard English translations, and helps us see the subdivisions in the text clearly by starting each new division with the confessional formula, “I believe…” This does not follow the original Greek nor Latin manuscripts, which simply moves into the doctrine of Christ by reading literally, “and in Jesus Christ…” However, the above translation helps us see the natural division of the creed, which moves as such: First it addresses the doctrine of God both as Father and Creator; secondly it moves into the doctrine of Christ, his relationship to the Father and divine being, his incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and then ascension and return; and thirdly it deals with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, together with the doctrine of the church, for the church is birthed by the Spirit. As we can see, though the order is reversed, this creed follows the basic structure of Ephesians 4:4-6.
As we embark upon the study of The Apostle’s Creed, I pray that through this early summary of Christian doctrine, we may come to value and appreciate the tradition of faith that is handed down to us through the centuries, and that we may come and confess the same faith as countless believers who went before us. We will come to see that all Christians confess some form of creed, even those who claim to have “no creed but the Bible,” because we are unable to divorce ourselves from the traditions we have received. The only question is this: is your “creed” that you confess orthodox? In other words, if you depart from the early creeds because you believe that you can make up your own mind from what the Scriptures teach, are you sure that you are not in danger of falling into the same heresies that the early Christians sought to avoid by developing these short summaries of faith, which convey far more than they state?
It is also my prayer that as we study this creed together, our hearts may be moved as our minds are informed, and that we may come to experience a fuller measure of the God who is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Spirit, as we confess together, “I believe…”. Soli Deo Gloria!
 Bird, M, 2016: What Christians Ought to Believe. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 17.
 Ibid, pg. 18.
 Calvin, J. 1538. 20 (in Hesselink, I. J. 1997: Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pg. 21.)
 Pannenberg, W. 1972. The Apostle’s Creed in Light of Today’s questions. London: SCM Press Ltd., pg. 1.
 In Hesselink, I. J. 1997: Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 111; see also Parker, T.H.L. 1975. John Calvin. London. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., pg. 37ff.
 Hesselink, ibid.
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church located on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.