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.