The basic creed of Reformed churches, as most
familiarly known, is called the Apostles' Creed1. It has
title because of its great antiquity; it dates from very early times in
the Church, a half century or so from the last writings of the New
Testament (see article)
believe in God the Father
Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in
Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day, he rose again.
He ascended to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the
the holy catholic church2,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
The Apostles' Creed3
The foundation of the Apostles' Creed was, in a way, laid by Christ
Himself when He commissioned His disciples, saying, Matt. 28, 19. 20:
"Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of
the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to
observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." The formula of
Baptism here prescribed, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost," briefly indicates what Christ wants Christians
to be taught, to believe, and to confess. And the Apostles' Creed, both
as to its form and contents, is evidently but an amplification of the
trinitarian formula of Baptism. Theo. Zahn remarks: "It has been said,
and not without a good basis either, that Christ Himself has ordained
the baptismal confession. For the profession of the Triune God made by
the candidates for Baptism is indeed the echo of His missionary and
baptismal command reechoing through all lands and times in many
thousand voices." (Skizzen atts dem Leben der Kirche, 252.) But when
and by whom was the formula of Baptism thus amplified? - During the
Medieval Ages the Apostles' Creed was commonly known as "The Twelve
Articles," because it was generally believed that the twelve apostles,
assembled in joint session before they were separated, soon after
Pentecost, drafted this Creed, each contributing a clause. But, though
retained in the Catechismus Romanus, this is a legend which originated
in Italy or Gaul in the sixth or seventh (according to Zahn, toward the
end of the fourth) century and was unknown before this date. Yet,
though it may seem more probable that the Apostles' Creed was the
result of a silent growth and very gradual formation corresponding to
the ever-changing environments and needs of the Christian
congregations, especially over against the heretics, there is no
sufficient reason why the apostles themselves should not have been
instrumental in it's formulation, nor why with the exception of a
number of minor later additions, its original form should not have been
essentially what it is to-day.
Nathanael confessed: "Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King
of Israel," John 1, 49; the apostles confessed: "Thou art the Christ,
the Son of the living God," Matt. 16,16; Peter confessed: "We believe
and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God,"
John 6, 69; Thomas confessed: "My Lord and my God," John 20, 28. These
and similar confessions of the truth concerning Himself were not merely
approved of, but solicited and demanded by, Christ. For He declares
most solemnly: "Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, him
will I confess also before My Father which is in heaven. But whosoever
shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which
is in heaven," Matt. 10, 32. 33. The same duty of confessing their
faith, i. e., the truths concerning Christ, is enjoined upon all
Christians by the Apostle Paul when he writes: "If thou shalt confess
with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shalt believe in thine heart that God
hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved," Rom. 10, 9.
In the light of these and similar passages, the trinitarian baptismal
formula prescribed by Christ evidently required from the candidate for
Baptism a definite statement of what he believed concerning the Father,
Son, and Holy Ghost, especially concerning Jesus Christ the Savior. And
that such a confession of faith was in vogue even in the days of the
apostles appears from the Bible itself. Of Timothy it is said that he
had "professed a good profession before many witnesses," I Tim. 6, 12.
Heb. 4, 14 we read: "Let us hold fast our profession." Heb. 10, 23:
"Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering." Jude
urges the Christians that they "should earnestly contend for the faith
which was once delivered iinto the saints," and build up themselves on
their "most holy faith," vv. 3. 20. Compare also I Cor. 15, 3. 4; 1
Tim. 3, 16; Titus 1, 13; 3, 4-7.
Apostles' Creed and Early Christian Writers.
The Christian writers of the first three centuries, furthermore,
furnish ample proof for the following facts: that from the very
beginning of the Christian Church the candidates for Baptism everywhere
were required to make a confession of their faith; that from the
beginning there was existing in all the Christian congregations a
formulated confession, which they called the rule of faith, the rule of
truth, etc.; that this rule was identical with the confession required
of the candidates for Baptism; that it was declared to be of apostolic
origin; that the summaries and explanations of this rule of truth,
given by these writers, tally with the contents and, in part, also with
the phraseology of the Apostles' Creed; that the scattered Christian
congregations, then still autonomous, regarded the adoption of this
rule of faith as the only necessary condition of Christian unity and
The manner in which Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, Aristides, and
other early Christian writers present the Christian truth frequently
reminds us of the Apostles' Creed and suggests its existence. Thus
Justin Martyr, who died 165, says in his first Apology, which was
written about 140: "Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who
also was born for this purpose and was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
procurator of Judea, that we reasonably worship Him, having learned
that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the
second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third." "Eternal praise
to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and of the Holy
Spirit." Similar strains, sounding like echoes of the Second Article,
may be found in the Epistles to the Trallians and to the Christians at
Smyrna, written by Ignatius, the famous martyr and bishop of Antioch,
who died 107.
Irenaeus, who died 189, remarks: Every Christian "who retains immovable
in himself the rule of the truth which he received through Baptism (ho
ton kanona tehs alehtheias aklineh en heautoh katechohn, hon dia tou
baptismatos eilehfe)" is able to see through the deceit of all
heresies. Irenaeus here identifies the baptismal confession with what
he calls the "rule of truth, kanohn tehj alehtheias." i. e., the truth
which is the rule for everything claiming to be Christian. Apparently,
this "rule of truth" was the sum of doctrines which every Christian
received and confessed at his baptism. The very pohrase "rule of truth"
implies that it was a concise and definite formulation of the chief
Christian truths. For "canon, rule," was the term employed by the
ancient Church to designate such brief sentences as were adopted by
synods for the practise of the Church. And this "rule of truth" is
declared by Irenaeus to be "the old tradition ... .. the old tradition
of the apostles": heh te apo tohn apostolohn en teh ekklehsia
paradosis. (Zahn, 1. c., 379 f.) Irenaeus was the pupil of Polycarp the
Martyr; and what he had learned from him, Polycarp had received from
the Apostle John. Polycarp, says Irenaeus, "taught the things which he
had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down,
and which alone are true." According to Irenaeus, then, the "rule of
truth" received and confessed by every Christian at his baptism was
transmitted by the apostles.
The contents of this rule of truth received from the apostles are
repeatedly set forth by Irenaeus. In his Contra Haereses (1, 10, 1) one
of these summaries reads as follows: "The Church dispersed through the
whole world, to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles
and their disciples the faith in one God, the Father Almighty, who has
made heaven and earth and the sea and all things that are in them; and
in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our
salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who has proclaimed through the
prophets the dispensations, and the advents, and the birth from a
virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the
bodily assumption into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord,
and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father." It thus
appears that the "rule of truth" as Irenaeus knew it, the formulated
sum of doctrines mediated by Baptism, which he, in accordance with the
testimony of his teacher Polyearp, believed to have been received from
the apostles, at least approaches our present Apostolic Creed.
Tertullian and Cyprian on Apostles' Creed.
A similar result is obtained from the writings of Tertullian, Cyprian,
Novatian, Origen, and others. "When we step into the water of Baptism,"
says Tertullian, who died about 220, "we confess the Christian faith
according to the words of its law," i. e., according to the law of
faith or the rule of faith. Tertullian, therefore, identifies the
confession to which the candidates for Baptism were pledged with the
brief formulation of the chief Christian doctrines which he variously
designates as "the law of faith," "the rule of faith," frequently also
as tessara, watchword, and sacramentum, a term then signifying the
military oath of allegiance. This Law or Rule of Faith was, according
to Tertullian, the confession adopted by Christians everywhere, which
distinguished them from unbelievers and heretics. The unity of the con-
gregations, the granting of the greeting of peace, of the name brother,
and of mutual hospitality, - these and similar Christian rights and
privileges, says Tertullian, "depend on no other condition than the
similar tradition of the same oath of allegiance," i. e., the adoption
of the same baptismal rule of faith. (Zahn, 250.)
At the same time Tertullian most emphatieally claims, "that this rule
of faith was established by the apostles, aye, by Christ Himself,"
inasmuch as He had commanded to baptize "in the name of the Father, and
of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." (Zahn, 252.) In his book Adversus
Praxeam, Tertullian concludes, an epitome which he gives of "the rule
of faith" as follows: "That this rule has come down from the beginning
of the Gospel, even before the earlier heretics, and so, of course,
before the Praxeas of yesterday, is proved both by the lateness of all
heretics and by the novelty of this Praxeas of yesterday." (Schaff,
Creeds of Christendom, 2, 18.) The following form is taken from
Tertullian's De Virginibus Velandis: "For the rule of faith is
altogether one, alone (sola), immovable, and irreform- able, namely,
believing in one God omnipotent, the Maker of the world, and in His Son
Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate,
raised from the dead the third day, received into the heavens, sitting
now at the right band of the Father, who shall come to judge the living
and the dead, also through the resurrection of the flesh." Cyprian the
Martyr, bishop of Carthage, who died 257, and who was the first one to
apply the term symbolum to the baptismal creed, in his Epistle to
Magnus and to Januarius, as well as to other Numidian bishops, gives
the following as the answer of the candidate for Baptism to the
question, "Do you believe?": "I believe in God the Father, in His Son
Christ, in the Holy Spirit. I believe the remission of sins, and the
life eternal through the holy Church."
Variations of the Apostles' Creed.
While there can be no reasonable doubt either that the Christian
churches from the very beginning were in possession of a definite and
formulated symbol, or that this symbol was an amplification of the
trinitarian formula of Baptism, yet we are unable to ascertain with any
degree of certainty what its exact original wording was. There has not
been found in the early Christian writers a single passage recording
the precise form of the baptismal confession or the rule of truth and
faith as used in the earliest churches. This lack of contemporal
written records is accounted for by the fact that the early Christians
and Christian churches refused on principle to impart and transmit
their confession in any other manner than by word of mouth. Such was
their attitude, not because they believed in keeping their creed
secret, but because they viewed the exclusively oral method of
impartation as the most appropriate in a matter which they regarded, as
an affair of deepest concern of their hearts.
It is universally admitted, even by those who believe that the apostles
were instrumental in formulating the early Christian Creed, that the
wording of it was not absolutely identical in all Christian
congregations, and that in the course of time various changes and
additions were made. "Tradition," says Tertullian with respect to the
baptismal confession, received from the apostles, "has enlarged it,
custom has confirmed it, faith observes and preserves it." (Zahn, 252.
381.) When, therefore, Tertullian and other ancient writers declare
that the rule of faith received from the apostles is "altogether one,
immovable, and irreformable," they do not at all mean to say that the
phraseology of this symbol was alike everywhere, and that in this
respect no changes whatever had been made, nor that any clauses had
been added. Such variations, additions, and alterations, however,
involved a doctrinal change of the confession no more than the Apology
of the Augsburg Confession implies a doctrinal departure from this
symbol. It remained the same Apostolic Creed, the changes and additions
merely bringing out more fully and clearly its true, original meaning.
And this is the sense in which Tertullian and others emphasize that the
rule of faith is "one, immovable, and irreformable."
The oldest known form of the Apostles' Creed, according to A. Harnack,
is the one used in the church at Rome, even prior to 150 A. D. It was,
however, as late as 337 or 338, when this Creed, which, as the church
at Rome claimed, was brought thither by Peter himself, was for the
first time quoted as a whole by Bishop Mareellus of Ancyra in a letter
to Bishop Julius of Rome, for the Purpose of vindicating his orthodoxy.
During the long period intervening, some changes, however, may have
been, and probably were, made also in this Old Roman Symbol.....
Present Form of Creed and Its Contents.
The complete form of the present textus receptus of the Apostles'
Creed, evidently the result of a comparison and combination of the
various preexisting forms of this symbol, may be traced to the end of
the fifth century and is first found in a sermon by Cesarius of Arles
in France, about 500. - In his translation, Luther substituted
"Christian" for "catholic" in the Third Article. He regarded the two
expressions as equivalent in substance, as apears from the Smalcald
Articles, where he identifies these terms, saying: "Sic enim orant
pueri: Credo sanctam ecclesiam catholicam sive Christianam." (472,5;
498,3.) The form, "I believe a holy Christian Church," however, is met
with even before Luther's time. (Carpzov, Isagoge, 46.) - In the Greek
version the received form of the Apostles' Creed reads as follows: -
Pisteuoh eis theon patera, pantokratora, poiehtehn ouranou kai gehs.
Kai eis Iesoun Christon, huion autou ton monogeneh, ton kurion hehmown,
ton sullehphthenta ek pneumatos hagiou, gennehthenta, ek Marias tehs
parthenou, pathonta epi Pontiou Pilatou, staurohthenta, thanonta, kai
taphenta, katelthonta eis ta katwtata, teh triteh hehmera anastanta apo
tohn nekrohn, anelthonta eis tous ouranous, kathezomenon en deksia
theou patros pantodunamou, ekeithen erchomenon krinai zohntas kai
nekrous. Pisteuoh eis to pneuma to hagion, hagian katholikehn
ekklehsian, hagiohn koinohnian, aphesin hamartiohn, sarkos anastasin,
zohehn eiohnion. Amehn.
As to its contents, the Apostles' Creed is a positive statement of the
essential facts of Christianity. The Second Article, says Zahn, is a
compend of the Evangelical history, including even external details."
(264.) Yet some of the clauses of this Creed were probably inserted in
opposition to prevailing, notably Gnostic, heresies of the first
centuries. It was the first Christian symbol and, as Tertullian and
others declare, the bond of unity and fellowship of the early Christian
congregations everywhere. It must not, however, be regarded as
inspired, much less as superior even to the Holy Scriptures; for, as
stated above, it cannot even, in any of its existing forms, be traced
to the apostles. Hence it must be subjected to, and tested and judged
by, the Holy Scriptures, the inspired Word of God and the only
infallible rule and norm of all doctrines, teachers, and symbols. In
accordance herewith the Lutheran Church receives the Apostles' Creed,
as also the two other ecumenical confessions, not as per se divine and
authoritative, but because its doctrine is taken from, and well
grounded in, the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New
Testaments. (Conc. Trigl., 851, 4.)
(1) For a history of the
development of the creed see
Phil Johnson's article at
spurgeon.org. Also the Catholic
Encyclopedia at newadvent.org has a lengthy article on the Apostles
(2) The words "catholic church" refers not
to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the "universal church" of the Lord
(3) Extracted from: Historical Introductions To The Symbolical
books Of The Evangelical Lutheran Church by F. Bente. (St.
Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921)