The Apostles’ Creed: Its History and Origins

The Apostles’ Creed
This article by Elliot Ritzema (with John D. Barry) was published in the
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Apostles’ Creed (Symbolum Apostolorum). A statement of Christian belief that is used by Western churches, both Catholic and Protestant. While it is explicitly affirmed only in Western churches, it reflects traditions that were affirmed officially by the entire Church in the Nicene Creed. Although its roots are much earlier, in its present form it dates to about the eighth century.

The Old Roman Creed

An early version of what later became the Apostles’ Creed, called the “Old Roman Creed,” was in use as early as the second century (Kelly, Creeds, 101). The earliest written form of this creed is found in a letter that Marcellus of Ancyra wrote in Greek to Julius, the bishop of Rome, about AD 341. About 50 years later, Tyrannius Rufinus wrote a commentary on this creed in Latin (Commentarius in symbolum apostolorum). In it, he recounted the viewpoint that the apostles wrote the creed together after Pentecost, before leaving Jerusalem to preach (Symb. 2). The title “Apostles’ Creed” is also mentioned about 390 by Ambrose, where he refers to “the creed of the Apostles which the Church of Rome keeps and guards in its entirety” (Ep. 42, trans. in Saint Ambrose: Letters). The text of the Old Roman Creed is as follows, with the last phrase (included by Marcellus but omitted by Rufinus) in brackets (Kelly, Creeds, 102):

I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended into heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence he will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh,
[life everlasting].

The Later Creed

What we now know as the Apostles’ Creed is an enlargement of the Old Roman Creed. The first known occurrence of the Apostles’ Creed, in a form that is nearly equivalent to its final form, is in the Latin tract De singulis libris canonicis scarapsus by the monk Priminius (sometimes spelled “Pirminius”) from the early eighth century. The process by which the Old Roman Creed became the Apostles’ Creed cannot be exhaustively known, though Kelly notes that creeds that are “practically identical” to the Apostles’ Creed began to appear in South Gaul in the fifth century (Kelly, Creeds, 413). Over the next few centuries, the Apostles’ Creed in its final form gained acceptance throughout France and Germany. It was officially recognized by Charlemagne throughout the Frankish Empire in the early ninth century, and was eventually incorporated into the liturgy of the Church of Rome.

The creed as it exists today consists of three main articles, like the Old Roman Creed divided according to a Trinitarian arrangement. The text is as follows (Kelly, Creeds, 369):

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born from the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, descended into hell,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
thence 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 remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh,
and eternal life.

Disputed Phrases

Grudem argues that the phrase “He descended into hell” is a late addition to the creed. This phrase is commonly understood as a reference to the “harrowing of hell,” which is based on one interpretation of 1 Pet 3:19. The phrase is first mentioned by Rufinus in the late fourth century, and does not appear in any other versions of the creed until AD 650. Rufinus himself notes that the clause “is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church” (Symb. 18), though he includes it in the version of the creed that was accepted by his own church of Aquileia (see Symb. 3). Moreover, Rufinus makes clear that he did not believe Christ literally descended into hell, but rather that the phrase merely meant He was buried. The Greek form of the creed has ᾅδης (hades), which can mean merely “the grave” rather than a place of punishment. Thus a more accurate version would be, “He descended into the grave” or “He descended to the dead” (Grudem, “He Did Not Descend,” 102). This understanding of the phrase is reflected, for example, in Question 50 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Instead of “holy catholic church,” some Protestant churches, particularly in the Lutheran tradition, recite “holy Christian church” to avoid misinterpreting the phrase as a reference to the Catholic Church. The creed seems to use “catholic” in the sense of “universal” or “global” (the Latin uses the adjective catholicam); this interpretation fits with the historic nature of the creed, which predates in its tradition the split of the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Tradition, the “Rule of Faith,” and Core Christian Beliefs

The Apostles’ Creed seems to represent some form of what the early church called the “rule of faith.” The early Christians were guided by the “rule of faith,” the Holy Spirit working in community and individuals, and the authoritative Scriptures. Before the “rule of faith” was called such, there were general references to the teachings and traditions of the apostles. It is these core teachings that seem to make up the Apostles’ Creed.

Signs of these “core teachings” are seen as early as the New Testament book of Hebrews, which speaks of a need for Christians to grasp and embrace the basic concepts of faith so that they can move into deeper parts of their Christian faith, while at the same time realizing how essential it is that they never depart from a core belief in the real and living Christ (Hebrews 5:11–6:12). The Apostles’ Creed represents a set of uncompromisable core beliefs for Christians. As such, the core tradition of it is also found in the Nicene Creed. The Apostles’ Creed, like all creeds, functions like a filter for orthodoxy; it indicates what is and what is not “Christian.” It is a public profession of belief in historic Christianity.

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  1. D. Saulque says

    The example of the Old Roman Creed does not agree with translation given in, “Creeds of Christendom”, Vol. 1, by Phillip Schaff. Some years ago I researched the history of the Apostles’ Creed as much as I could trying to find out when the word “again” was added to the phrase “the third day he rose from the dead”. The word “again” is inaccurate and misleading. That word implies that Christ rose more than once. It has been a source of frustration for me that I could not determine when “again” was added.

    • Elliot Ritzema says

      D. Saulque, you are correct in saying that the English text of the Old Roman Creed does not match exactly with the English text in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1. As the parenthetical citation indicates, this text is taken from Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 102. The phrase “rose again” is a translation of the Latin resurrexit.

  2. says

    N.T. Wright has said that the creeds were pretty much the beliefs that the early church had to come to a decision on. The reason the creeds don't mention things like looking after the poor, and don't mention love at all are because those things were givens in the early church. But what ended up in the creeds are those beliefs that had to be thrashed out more.

    Has anyone else come across this view? The fact that N.T. Wright has said it suggests to me it has validity.

  3. Randy says

    The Lutheran use of “holy Christian church” originates in a pre-Reformation translation from Latin to German which was in use in the medieval church in Germany before Martin Luther was even born. The retention of that usage, especially among (other) Protestants, may very well have been an expression of anti-Romanism.

    • Cynthia in California says

      Speaking relative to Missouri Synod Lutherans in the ’60s: I went through MS confirmation classes in the ’60s. The wording in the Apostles’ Creed used in our church–and the Missouri Synod churches my mother had us attend once we were back in the States from the Canal Zone–was “catholic church.”

      My confirmation minister was *quite specific* (!) that the word “catholic” with a little “c” meant “universal”, as in “universal Christian church.”

  4. mukisa hilda says

    The early church came up with this STATEMENT OF FAITH because of the invasion of the “other gospels” from which they wanted to stand apart. I am convinced more than ever that the modern Christian church particularly the Pentecostal (to which I subscribe) that has always dust binned this creed as simply Anglicanism need to take a second look at itand see whether its relevance has not caught up with it. There are just too many “other gospels” being preached we need to go back and re affirm which Christ and which God we are believing in

  5. mukisa hilda says

    The early church came up with this STATEMENT OF FAITH because of the invasion of the “other gospels” from which they wanted to stand apart. I am convinced more than ever that the modern Christian church particularly the Pentecostal (to which I subscribe) that has always dust binned this creed as simply Anglicanism need to take a second look at it and see whether its relevance has not caught up with it. There are just too many “other gospels” being preached we need to go back and re affirm which Christ and which God we are believing in

    • Ryan Nelson says

      Which app are you trying to access? If you cannot access a particular resource, it’s because that resource has not been purchased by that account. If you have purchased a resource and it is not working, it’s possible that you are signed into a different account.

      Can you send me an email from the address associated with your account, so I can look into your account for you?

  6. Tony Brown says

    I was pleased to see that Grudem does not accept the phrase “He descended into hell”. The notion that Christ went to hell stands in opposition to His prayer “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit” – which would imply Christ was in two places or had two natures – the error of Nestorianism. Clearly the phrase “He descended into hell” was not part of the original creed.

    • Gwendolyn Carson says

      I believe in God the Father Almighty. I’m teaching it to the youth of my church. I will not put in the “hell” phrase. That he died and rose again will be the lesson to them. Learning by song.

  7. says

    Creeds have one major problem : Jesus. My faith is in a living person who keeps on living and looking for opportunities to fully encounter and save all living persons including me. Creeds tend to forget this monumental fact and instead become the focus of faith. No creed, no matter how sound its theology can be a substitute for a living loveing rlelationship with the creator of the universe. Lastly creeds have become weapons to inflict pain and misery on those who don't confirm to whatever version of the creed is being presented as "most orthodox" or "most pure." The love and choice of God is not subject to any human creedal statement. No matter how sublime one professes their creed, no human person one has the power to live out their creed apart from the grace and mercy of God. Oh yea, grace, mercy and the unfailing love of God get left out of most of these creeds.

  8. says

    Interesting discussion. I agree with you Jeaux. Our faith is not in salvation; our faith is in Jesus, the author of our salvation. While creeds are important, they are not the most important thing. I see the most important thing as what Jesus said ie. love God and neighbour. Everything else flows out of this.

    That is not to say that creeds don't matter. It does matter what we believe, because that governs how we live our lives. But belief is not all that matters.

    It is also important to note that, in the New Testament, belief is a verb. It is much more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. To believe something in the New Testament means to live it out.

  9. says

    I've never taken the creeds as a substitute for my faith in Jesus. When I confess the creeds, I am confessing the statement is true, these truths point to the scripture. Creeds never replace scripture, only point to them. When I witness to others I point to Jesus as the only salvation, and the source of my faith. Creeds such as Nicene were written to dispell arianism. Arius basically denied Jesus's divinity and claimed that Jesus was adopted by the Father. Now I know there is more to the story, but trying to be brief. When I confess the Nicene creed I think of Arius and his heresy and am reaffirmed that these are true statements. The same thing with the Apostles creed if you break it down it is simple a statement of truths, not a statement of faith. A statement of faith would be John 3:16 or Acts 4:12. Hope this helps in some small way.

  10. Daniel Deschoolmeester says

    Belief from a hebraic perspective is not just agreement, but a willingness to live from that world view enough that it impacts how you live your life. Too many are willing to say I believe,yet live differently. The creeds were to strengthen unity in faith and life, never to replace God’s voice. Let your yes be yes.

  11. Robert Moore says

    Where do southern Baptist stand on the use of the apostles creed? Or for the use of any creed other than our core doctrine.

  12. N Hitchcock says

    Elliot, did you come across any studies on the English translation of “resurrection of the flesh”? Kelly excepted, English translations prefer “resurrection of the body.” This loose translation would have been deemed wholly inappropriate by earlier theologians (see the Originist controversies), but it didn’t seem to cause a stir in England. Do you know why?

    • Elliot says

      I didn’t come across any when I was writing this article, but looking into it briefly now I find a good discussion in chapter 9 of H. B. Swete’s The Apostle’s Creed: Its Relation to Primitive Christianity. The Old Roman Creed does indeed have carnis resurrectionem, “resurrection of the flesh.” Swete attributes this to a need in the early church to counter Gnostic and Docetic teachers. As for the Anglican preference for “resurrection of the body,” he writes: “Our reformers, who were very far from entertaining heretical views upon the doctrine of the Resurrection, were probably attracted to the words by their Scriptural character; they appeared in the Necessary Doctrine of 1543, and when in 1552 the Creed was for the first time printed in full in the Order for Morning Prayer, they took a permanent place in the English Prayer-book.”

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