See also the PDF handout: The Apostles’ Creed: A Thoroughly Scriptural Summary of the Faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is a precious part of my personal devotions, family worship, and pastoral ministry. It warms my heart to hear the whole church, a new believer, or my four-year-old son say from memory, “I believe in God the Father … and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord … [and] in the Holy Spirit.” Of course, I want my children to believe “all Scripture” (2 Tim. 3:16), but the Bible is a big book (around 1200 pages in print), in which “some things are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), and not all things are “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Augustine explained that the Creed, in its beautiful simplicity, ensures “that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes” (Sermon to the Catechumens, 1). For centuries, the church has recognized the Apostles’ Creed as a thoroughly scriptural statement of the Christian faith, ideal for catechesis, confession at baptism, and daily use in the Christian life.
First and foremost, the Apostles’ Creed is a thoroughly scriptural statement of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The faith was “delivered” or “passed on” to the saints by Christ’s holy apostles, whose sacred task was to lay a foundation for the church (Eph. 2:20; cf 2 Thess. 2:15). In turn, the first mark of the church after Pentecost was a devotion to “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42; cf. Eph. 2:20). The apostolic teaching included matters “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) such as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:4), and centered on his Lordship over all creation (Acts 10:36; Rom. 14:9; Php. 2:10–11).
The seeds of an apostolic Creed can be found in Scripture itself. Key passages include Peter’s proclamation in Matthew 16:16; the central confession that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3); Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15; the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6–11; and the creedal statement in 1 Timothy 3:16. Because the Apostles’ Creed adheres so closely to the record and writings of the apostles, a legend developed and persisted for centuries that each of the twelve wrote one line of the Creed on the day of Pentecost to preserve the unity of the faith before going their separate ways.
In its final form, the Apostles’ Creed weaves together many strands of Scripture into an exquisite tapestry of faith.
In its final form, the Apostles’ Creed weaves together many strands of Scripture into an exquisite tapestry of faith. Augustine explained, “These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one” (A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed). Martin Luther likewise taught, “We did not create or invent [the Apostles’ Creed]—nor did the church fathers. Instead, just as a bee makes honey by gathering together many lovely, delightful, dear flowers, so this creed is gathered from the books of the dear Prophets and Apostles. That is, it is finely and succinctly distilled from the entirety of Holy Scripture for children and simple Christians” (Sermon on Trinity Sunday 1535). In fact, the Creed can be constructed almost verbatim from words and phrases in Scripture:
- I believe in God the Father — “for us there is one God, the Father” (1 Cor. 8:6; cf. 2 Cor. 1:3; Mt. 28:19; John 14:1; 1 Pet. 1:20–21)
- Almighty — “Almighty” (Gen. 17:1; cf. Jer. 32:17)
- Maker of heaven and earth — “God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1)
- And in Jesus Christ — “and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6; John 14:1; Acts 2:38; cf. 1 Cor. 8:6)
- His only Son — “his only Son” (Jn. 3:16; Mt. 28:19)
- Our Lord — “our Lord” (Rom. 1:4; cf. Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; 1 Cor. 1:2)
- Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit — “conceived in her … from the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20; cf. Lk. 1:35)
- Born of the Virgin Mary —“the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk. 1:27; cf. Mt. 1:23)
- Suffered — “Christ also suffered once for sins” (1 Pet. 3:18; cf. 1 Pet. 2:23)
- under Pontius Pilate — “before Pontius Pilate” (1 Tim. 6:13; cf. Mt. 27:2)
- Was crucified — “they crucified him” (Mk. 15:25; cf. Acts 2:36)
- Died — “Christ died” (1 Cor. 15:3; cf. Rom. 5:8; Jn. 19:30)
- And was buried —“he was buried” (1 Cor. 15:4; cf. Lk. 23:35)
- He descended to the dead [or “into Hades”] — “he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth” (Eph. 4:9); “he was not abandoned to Hades” (Acts 2:31; cf. Ps. 16:10; Rom. 10:7; Mt. 12:40; 1 Pet. 3:18–20; Rev. 1:18; Jn. 5:25)
- On the third day he rose again from the dead — “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4; cf. Acts 10:40)
- And ascended into heaven — “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk. 24:51; cf. Eph. 4:10)
- And sits at the right hand of the Father — “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3; cf. Acts 2:33; Psalm 110:1)
- From there he will come — “Jesus … will come in the same way” (Acts 1:11)
- To judge the living and the dead — “to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42)
- I believe in the Holy Spirit — “and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19)
- The holy … church — “the church … holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27)
- The … catholic [katholikos (“through the whole”); universal or worldwide] church — “the church [singular] throughout [kata] all [holos] Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31); “one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles” (1 Cor. 12:13; cf. Eph. 1:21; 4:4)
- The communion of saints — “called to be saints together” (1 Cor. 1:12); “we have fellowship [koinōnia, communion] with one another” (1 Jn. 1:7)
- The forgiveness of sins — “the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14; cf. Acts 13:38; Acts 2:38)
- The resurrection of the body — “the resurrection from the dead” (Php. 3:11; cf. Acts 24:15; Php. 3:21)
- And the life everlasting — “in the age to come eternal life” (Mk. 10:30; cf. Dan. 12:2)
- Amen — “Amen” (Rev. 22:21)
Some object to the word “catholic” in the Creed. There is no reason for concern. The word was used to describe the church long before the Roman Catholic Church had any formal existence (e.g., Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, 8.2), and is derived from a compound of two biblical Greek words that appear together in Acts 9:31 (kata [“through”] and holos [“the whole”]). For Protestants, the word “catholic” is polemical: by retaining it in the Creed, we say, “Sorry, Roman Catholics—the true catholic church is bigger than you!” For Wesleyans, catholicity is a cherished hallmark. John Wesley preached an entire sermon on the virtue of “Catholic Spirit,” and Methodist theologian William Burt Pope celebrated that “Methodist theology is … Catholic in the best sense.”
Others hesitate to confess that Christ “descended to the dead” or “descended into Hades,” especially since some translations say that Christ “descended into hell.” But as W. B. Pope explains, the English “hell” was used in the past to mean nothing more than the Hebrew “Sheol” or the Greek “Hades,” “without reference to punishment endured in it” (Compendium of Christian Theology, 167). The church has never held that Christ suffered in hell. Rather, the descent clause means that in his human soul, “our Lord triumphantly descended into the lower world, and took possession of the kingdom of the dead” (ibid., 168). The 39 Articles of Religion (a primary doctrinal source for Methodists) explicitly affirms the descent (Article III) and maintains that the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture” (Article VIII).
A Tool for Catechesis
Second, the Apostles’ Creed is intended for catechesis—systematic instruction in the Christian faith, especially in preparation for baptism. Wesley observed that baptism and teaching are “the two great branches” of the Great Commission, and that while children may be baptized first, adults should be instructed prior to baptism to ensure that they understand the faith and have responded appropriately (Notes on the Bible, Matthew 28:19). The three articles of the Apostles’ Creed address this need by expanding on the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Creed tells us, first, that “the Father” in whose name we are baptized is the Father of Jesus Christ and the same person who created all things in the beginning. Second, “the Son” is the same person as Jesus Christ our Lord, the one who became incarnate for us and our salvation, and is coming again to make all things new. Finally, “the Spirit” is the third person of the Trinity, the one who sanctifies and gives life to the church.
While the Nicene Creed makes crucial affirmations about the God of the gospel, the Apostles’ Creed focuses on the gospel of God, which is what needs to be emphasized with catechumens—those being taught in preparation for baptism and church membership. Philip Schaff contends, “[The Apostles’ Creed] is by far the best popular summary of the Christian faith ever made within so brief a space. It still surpasses all later symbols for catechetical and liturgical purposes, especially as a profession of candidates for baptism and church membership. It is not a logical statement of abstract doctrines, but a profession of living facts and saving truths. It is a liturgical poem and an act of worship” (Creeds of Christendom, Volume I).
A Baptismal Confession
Third, the Apostles’ Creed is intended for confession at baptism. Once the catechumen is instructed in the faith, they are asked to confess it with their mouth. Augustine quoted Romans 10:10 to his catechumens: “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” When spoken from the heart, confessing the Creed is a salvific act.
When spoken from the heart, confessing the Creed is a salvific act.
Confessing the Creed is one of three parts of the Baptismal Covenant in the Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America (Wesley’s adaptation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). First, the baptized renounces Satan, the world, and the flesh. Then, they confess faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the Creed). Finally, they vow that, being baptized in this faith, they will keep God’s holy will and commandments all the days of their life.
The Methodist Episcopal Church (the first Methodist denomination) produced a catechism that expounded the Apostles’ Creed and Baptismal Covenant, which was to be frequently recited and “accompanied with instruction on the nature and obligations of Christian baptism.” Saying the Creed at baptism was as important as saying marriage vows at a wedding. It shaped the believer’s whole life after baptism, which is why Christians of the past were regularly reminded, “Remember your baptism!” (see Romans 6:1–4).
A Resource for the Christian Life
Finally, the Creed is a resource for the daily Christian life. It is included in the Methodist and Anglican Order for Morning and Evening Prayer. Luther likewise taught his disciples to say the Creed every morning and evening. Augustine told his catechumens, “Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed.” Saying the Creed is a way of “arming” oneself—“taking up the shield of faith” to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16).
Saying the Creed is a way of “arming” oneself—“taking up the shield of faith” to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16).
In our family, we often say the Apostles’ Creed before bed or at the dinner table. Each week in our Wednesday small group, we take a minute (literally—the Creed only takes around 45 seconds to say) to confess our faith. I often ask, “Which word or phrase stood out to you today?” Sometimes it’s “he suffered”—a precious reminder as we struggle through life. Often it’s “he shall come again to judge the living and the dead”—something that I need to remember every single day (and how would I, if I didn’t confess the Creed?).
I’ve had the privilege of introducing the Creed to each of the three churches that I’ve pastored. When I encounter someone who is skeptical of creeds, I remember the words of one older parishioner: “I’ll admit that when we started saying the Creed every week, I had a hard time with it. But as I listened to the words and really thought about it, I realized, ‘This is good! This is our statement of faith! This is what we’re supposed to do as a church! We’ve been missing something all these years!’” He was onto something important: confessing the faith is part of what makes us a Christian; confessing the faith together is part of what makes us a church. With the Apostles’ Creed, even children and simple Christians are able to state their faith and carry it with them.
This article was first published in the Bible Methodist Magazine. Used by permission.