Many people make the honest mistake of referring to the most famous creed as the “Apostle’s Creed” (note the placement of the apostrophe). Having made the mistake myself during my first several years of ministry, I do not typically point it out to others.
After I printed it incorrectly in the church bulletin one week, a member of my second congregation asked, “Just which one of the apostles is responsible for this creed?” His wry question reminded me that this creed is properly the creed of all the apostles.
This is not merely a matter of grammatical nitpicking. Even though this creed came into its final form seven centuries after the last of the apostles died, the Church has always called it the “Apostles’ Creed” because the truths contained within these brief lines represent the gospel faith as it was handed down through the witness of our Lord’s chosen apostles.
In one form or another, this creed goes back to the very earliest days of the Christian Church. It appears to have its most ancient origin in three questions asked of those being baptized: “Do you believe in God the Father?” The one being baptized would reply (in Latin), “Credo” (“I believe”).
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God?”
“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?”
This is the basic Trinitarian formula that undergirds the Apostles’ Creed to this day.
Over time, pastors and theologians added content under each of the headings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in order to give believers a handy way to summarize the basics of the Christian faith. So God the Father was described as the almighty Creator of heaven and earth. The Son’s work was summarized by tracing out the essentials of his virgin birth, sacrificial death, and resurrection from the dead. The Spirit’s work was filled in along the lines of the Spirit’s work in the Church, assuring us that the Church is finally one body that preaches a forgiveness of sins and a resurrection of our bodies that will usher us into everlasting life.
When we recite the Apostles’ Creed today, we can read it from a page in our hymnal or projected onto a screen. Much has changed since the creeds were first written. For nearly 1,500 years prior to the invention of the printing press, there were no books, pamphlets, or screens. Knowledge had to be carried around in people’s memories. Relatively brief creeds were easy to memorize and provided a tool for witnessing in case someone in the marketplace or at work would ask, “I hear you’re one of those Christians. So tell me, what do you believe?”
We 21st-century Christians can easily look up doctrinal and biblical teachings on our BlackBerries, iPhones, and the like. We’re no longer limited to our memories. But in our increasingly diverse and religiously pluralistic world, we do well still to know the basics of our faith by heart so that we can speak those truths from the heart in case we are asked, “So, what do you believe?”
Because of uncertainty about what the creed really means by “[Jesus] descended into hell,” some church traditions have dropped that line. Recite the creed with them, and they’ll finish ahead of you.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
*that is, the true Christian church of all times and all places
- What is the connection Hoezee draws between this confession and baptism? Does that connection still hold up today? How does it apply to infant baptism?
- Does the Apostles’ Creed do a good job of summarizing scriptural teaching? What improvements would you suggest?
- Should we delete the clause “he descended into hell,” as some churches do? What does it mean? Is it biblical?
- Who “owns” this creed? Who would have to the right to revise it? Does it need to be updated?
- If someone asked you, “So what do you believe?” How would you answer? Would the Apostles’ Creed help you to give a succinct and clear response? Why or why not?