The Apostle's creed — what is it and why is it called that?

Outside of the New Testament, this is one of the oldest creeds we have, dating back to the sixth – eighth century in its current form that is commonly known today, but having its origins much earlier — as far back as the second century in a shorter form known simply as the “Old Roman Creed”.

The Apostles creed is also sometimes referred to as the “Rule of Faith” as it is a summary of the Gospel and is the basis for pretty much all modern theology. The points of the creed cover all the major pillars of the Christian faith which aims to safeguard what is true orthodoxy (right belief), which one must agree and adhere to in order to be counted amongst the Christians. Most often, the need for creeds arose in opposition to heresy so that the Church could point to what was historically taught by Christ and the Apostles to show what was ancient and true, as opposed to new and “novel” doctrines.

The Old Roman Creed

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The text of the Old Roman Creed survives in a letter from a bishop Marcellus of Ancyra, which was sent to Julius, the bishop of Rome, dating back to around 340–360 AD where it was mainly used as a baptismal text in the Roman church. Roughly 50 years later, Tyrannius Rufinus (an Italian monk) wrote a commentary on this creed whilst translating it into Latin, where he made a note about the view and belief that this creed had been originally written or determined by the Apostles themselves shortly after Pentecost and before they left Jerusalem, hence the name this creed eventually came to be known as.

I mentioned last week in my introductory post to this series, that there’s a handful of creedal statements within the New Testament, and one in particular in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is similar in structure to the Apostle’s Creed, though not necessarily in wording. Let's take a look at the Old Roman Creed and the Apostle’s Creed side by side to have a look at what developed and was expanded on later in time, and also to see the Apostolic link to this creedal statement from Scripture:

Old Roman Creed

The Apostle’s Creed

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Scripture

I believe in God the Father almighty;

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth;

Genesis 1:1; Genesis 17:1; Exodus 20:11; Isaiah 40:28;

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and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,

Matthew 14:33; Matthew 16:16; Mark 3:11; Luke 1:32; John 1:34; John 1:49; Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 1:9; Hebrews 1:5; 1 John 5:20;

Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

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Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born from the Virgin Mary,

Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:34-35; Galatians 4:4

Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,

suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried,

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Matthew 27:1-2; Matthew 27:24; Matthew 27:57-59; Mark 15:15; Acts 4:27; 1 Timothy 6:13

 

descended into the grave (Gk. hades),

Acts 2:31; Ephesians 4:9; 1 Peter 3:18-20

on the third day rose again from the dead,

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on the third day rose again from the dead,

Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-6; Luke 24:5-7; John 20:8-9; Acts 2:31; Ephesians 1:20

ascended into heaven,

ascended to heaven,

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John 3:13; John 20:17; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:9; Ephesians 4:8,10

sits at the right hand of the Father,

sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty,

Matthew 26:64; Mark 12:36; Mark 14:62; Mark 16:19; Luke 20:41-43; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:25; Acts 2:33-34; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22

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whence he will come to judge the living and the dead;

thence He will come to judge the living and the dead;

Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 10:42; Romans 14:9; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5; Revelation 20:11

and in the Holy Spirit,

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I believe in the Holy Spirit,

Matthew 3:11; Matthew 12:32; Matthew 28:19; Mark 1:8; Mark 3:29; Mark 13:11; Luke 1:15; Luke 2:25; Luke 2:26; Luke 11:13; John 1:33; John 14:15-16; John 14:26; Acts 1:8; Acts 2:4; Acts 2:38; Acts 5:32; Acts 8:17; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 1:13; Titus 3:5; Jude 1:20

the holy Church,

the holy catholic Church,*

*In this context, the word “catholic” means “universal”

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Matthew 16:18; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 12:23; Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32; Colossians 1:18

 

the communion of saints,

Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Hebrews 12:1; 10:25

the remission of sins,

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the remission of sins,

Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; Luke 3:3; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; Acts 5:31; Acts 10:43; Acts 13:38; Acts 26:18; Romans 3:25; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:22; Hebrews 10:18; 1 Peter 3:21

the resurrection of the flesh,

the resurrection of the flesh,

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Daniel 12:1; Luke 14:14; Luke 20:35-36; John 5:29; John 11:24-25; Acts 4:2; Acts 24:15; Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15:12-13, 21;Philippians 3:10-11; Hebrews 6:2; 1 Peter 1:3; Revelation 20:5-6

[life everlasting]*

*This line was included by Marcellus but omitted by Rufinus

and eternal life.

Amen.

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Matthew 19:29; Matthew 25:46; John 3:15-16; John 3:36; John 4:14; John 5:24; John 6:40, 47, 54; John 10:28; John 12:50; John 17:3; Romans 2:7; Romans 6:23; Galatians 6:8; Titus 3:7; 1 John 2:25; Jude 1:21


As can be seen in the above table, there’s not a lot of change between the older creed and the later wording of the Apostle’s Creed, and all of the statements come straight from the Apostle’s teaching (ie. Scripture). Only two extra lines have been added in the later version, and the word “catholic” to the statement about the Church. Often these days, when people hear the word “Catholic” they think of the Pope and Roman Catholic churches and priests etc., but this isn’t the original meaning. It comes from the Greek word καθόλου (kathólou) which literally means “on the whole” or “according to the whole”, often translated as “universal” or “global” in modern usage.

Additional Phrases

Other than the “catholic” addition, there’s two more noticeable additions that weren’t in the Old Roman Creed, but that still have their basis in Scripture.

The first is one that can be quite controversial, depending on how it gets translated, is: “descended into the grave”.

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You may also see this worded as “descended into hell”, which is where the controversy can come in. Apart from the obvious meaning that Jesus died and was buried, it also harkens back to 1 Peter 3:18-20, where it says that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” rather than being condemned to actual hell. The Greek word used here is “hades” which is commonly translated and understood to mean “grave” or to an extent, the place of the dead/intermediate state.

The Italian monk Rufinus is the first to mention this phrase in his commentary on the creed around the fourth century, and says that it “is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches” (Commentary on the Apostles' Creed: §18) but that there are certain additions “on account of certain heretics” (Comm. §3) to try and tackle false beliefs. He does also make it clear that saying Jesus went to hell would be the wrong interpretation, and “grave” would be better understood. This phrase is then not seen again until around 650 AD in any other version.

The second phrase, or clause, which is an addition is: the “communion of saints”. This seems to have been a point of confusion to many for a number of years, as those who venerate Saints see it as confirming that doctrine, whereas others see it as merely expressing the need to have “communion” (ie. Eucharist) together; others still saying it speaks more to affirming the wider body of Christ, both dead and alive, who make up the Church universal. This would be more in accordance with what we see in Scripture in places such as Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12 and Hebrews 12:1, so for me personally, this is how I understand this phrase, as well as having the caveat of not forsaking meeting together in person as well (cf. Hebrews 10:25).

Early References

There's also ample evidence within the works of the Early Church Fathers which essentially quote these creeds almost word for word, going back as early as the first century in one of Ignatius’ letters! Ignatius was a disciple of the Apostle John too, so this just gives more strength to the argument that this creed really did originate with the Twelve Apostles in some form, which was passed on to their disciples, and so on and so on through the ages.

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life. Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, Chapter 9 (around 110 AD)

Similar wording can also be found in Justin Martyr’s First Apology (around 165 AD) to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (around 200 AD) and beyond, showing that this “rule of faith” had been passed on for centuries before taking being formalised, which has now survived millennia to this day!

Conclusion

This creed is really just a summary of Biblical principles and doctrines which make up the Gospel message, as handed on to us by the Apostles. This is their teaching which was memorised and recited before much of the New Testament had been written, and we'd do well to also commit it to memory as the rule of faith for ourselves so we've always got the Gospel in mind to tell others about in a concise and pointed format whenever asked (1 Peter 3:15)!

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the Apostle’s Creed, the next installment of this series will be looking at the next major historical creed: the Nicene Creed. Don’t forget to subscribe using the form below so you don’t miss any updates!

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