by a Theology Gals contributor
Most of the information on the creeds is coming from the fourth edition of A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker and edited by Richard Norris, David Lotz, and Robert Handy. You can get it on Amazon (http://bit.ly/willistonhistory). It is fantastic for lay people in the church and written very clearly. It also starts with a little bit of pre Christian history to set the scene for how Greco Roman philosophy influenced Christian heresies, which I really appreciate.
Every use of the word catholic for this series will mean “universal,” unless specified as Roman Catholic.
History of the Creed:
The Apostles’ Creed was among the earliest formal confessional statements that the church universally held (although it wasn’t completely universally used, as I’ll explain in a bit). The affirmations it outlined are what we consider core doctrines of the church.
The earliest known mention of the expression “Apostles’ Creed” is in a letter from a Synod of Milan in 390. According to Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, the twelve apostles got together and each contributed to one article of the creed. This was widely circulated in the Latin speaking parts of the church, but we have no evidence as to whether or not that’s actually true, I just think it’s an interesting idea. (http://bit.ly/rogerscreeds)
A simpler form of the creed (known as the Roman Symbol) did exist in 180 AD and many similar statements can be found in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novatian, Ambrose, Augustine, Nicetas, and Jerome (some of the early church fathers, 3 on this list we will cover this month). The earliest fully written copy came from De Singulis Libris Canonicis Scarapus (“Excerpt From Individual Canonical Books” in Latin) by St. Pirminius and the creed likely came out of France or Spain and then shared throughout Rome some time after 450 AD. The creed as we know it was most likely completed some time between 710 and 714.
Controversies Regarding the Creed:
The biggest controversies were debates over the trinity (which I will also cover more over the next 3 days), over the apostolic authorship, and on the line “descended into hell.” I personally don’t believe there is enough evidence to the apostolic authorship beyond a second or third generation Christian quoting scripture. According to A. A. Hodges, the reformers had their doubts on this too:
“This Creed was appended to the Shorter Catechism, together with the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments, in the first edition published by order of Parliament, “not as though it were composed by the apostles, or ought to be esteemed canonical Scripture, . . . but because it is a brief sum of Christian faith, agreeable to the Word of God, and anciently received in the churches of Christ.” It was retained by the framers of our Constitution as part of the Catechism.”
The phrase “descended into hell” (or “to the dead”) was present in one of the versions in 390, but did not appear in any other version until 650 AD. Because of that, some churches today still don’t say it. That said, the text seems to be quoting Ephesians 4:9-10:
“(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth*? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)”
* [an alternate translation for that phrase is “the lower regions of the earth”]
Reformed Liturgical Use and Confessional References:
The creed is affirmed by parents when an infant is baptized at Presbyterian, continental reformed, Anglican/Episcopal, and Lutheran churches. It is also affirmed at many reformed churches across denominations when congregants take their membership vows as new members. Some churches recite it before communion, as well. It is also part of the daily readings in the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican) for both the morning and the evening.
The Heidelberg Catechism exegetes the creed from questions 23 to 65. Calvin’s Institutes was also formatted to match the Apostles Creed, with Book I being on God the Creator (Father), Book II on God the Redeemer (Christ), Book III on the mode of obtaining grace (through the Holy Spirit), and Book IV on the means of grace (through the holy catholic church). The Belgic, Westminster, Savoy Declaration, and 1689 London Baptist Confession all follow a similar formatting. Along with, the Second Helvetic Confession, which also notably affirms the Apostles Creed in Ch 3 saying that it “delivers us true faith.”
Resources to Learn More:
- The Village Church (Matt Chandler) http://bit.ly/tvcapostlescreed
- Ligonier (RC Sproul) http://bit.ly/ligsproulapostles
- TGC Course http://bit.ly/tgcapostlescourse
- TGC 9 Things to Know http://bit.ly/tgc9thingsapostles