The Apostles’ Creed
I Believe: The Creed begins with an affirmation of belief. It is important to make note of this and be reminded of what it means to “believe” something. Belief in these truths does not necessarily imply saving faith, James reminds us that even the demons believe, yet the demons remain in their rebellion. Yet, belief does imply an understanding of a body of information and at least some level of intellectual assent to the truth claims of that information. It is impossible for you to “believe” something that you intellectually cannot assent to. For example, were I to tell you that you were really invisible, yet you could see yourself and others seemed to be acting as if they could see you, you would think that I was severely mistaken if not deluded.
In addition, belief requires that there be some body of information upon which that belief is based. Just as one cannot intellectually assent to things that you know not to be true, one also cannot intellectually assent to things that one knows nothing about. Assuming the premise that I know no Chinese (which is a true premise), were someone to hand me a philosophical statement written in Chinese and to ask me if I could assent to it as true, I could not do so. Does that make the statement untrue? Certainly not. Yet, unless I first can read and understand Chinese, or a good translation is provided in English for me to read, I have no information upon which to base a belief. Thus, to believe, requires both a content of knowledge upon which those beliefs are based and an intellectual assent to the truth-claims of those beliefs.
Thirdly, belief also requires a volitional act. Before one intellectually assents to a given truth claim, certain decisions and evaluations have been made. Does this information seem reasonable? Is it consistent with other truth claims that are held? Will my assent to this truth claim mean that I must abandon other truth claims that I have assented to previously? All these questions must be addressed as the intellect decides to accept or reject what has been presented. One of the great problems with the post-modern mindset is that it encourages the abandonment of this aspect of belief. Post-modern thought affirms that information must be had to have a belief and it affirms that belief requires an intellectual assent to truth claims of that information, yet it rejects the idea that one must evaluate the claims that one is assenting to and it rejects that such an evaluation must take place in the presence of all other truth claims that one has assented to previously. Thus, the post-modern mind regularly affirms multiple truth claims that are mutually exclusive and that contradict one another, creating schizophrenic behavior as one lives out life in various contexts, each with its own set of compartmentalized truth claims and beliefs. The Christian world-view is not this way, but seeks to holistically unite all aspects of the Christian’s life under a consistent and united set of truth claims—truth claims that have been given within God’s word.
I believe in God: Following the statement about belief, the creed lists a series of truth claims that are assumed and that are expected to be understood by the believer. These are ideas the creed assumes that the believer has intentionally thought through and has intellectually assented to. The first of these is the belief in God. To begin with, the Christian is a theist, he cannot be considered an atheist. One of the false accusations that was made of the early Christian church is that they rejected theism. While it is true that the Christians rejected the polytheism of the Romans, it was equally true that the Christians did not reject theism altogether. Instead, Christians are fiercely monotheistic, recognizing the fullness of the Three-in-One, Trinitarian, God of the Jews—the one and only true God, and this creed affirms just that idea. We believe in God. Though the persons and attributes of this God have not yet been explicated at this point in the creed, there are some implications that we can draw from the statement.
If we believe in God, we must have some information about this God in which we are placing our belief. So, where does this information come from? Some comes from the natural world, but the bulk of the information we base our belief in God upon comes from scripture. That very fact, though, implies something very important for the Christian that is sometimes lost in the debates over the veracity and inspiration of the Bible. If you are going to claim the Bible as the factual basis upon which you intellectually assent to a belief in God, by definition, you must then assent to understanding God in the way that the Bible understands him. The problem with many liberal theologians today is that they want to hold to a “knowledge” of God, but the character of the God that they are assenting to is contrary to the character of God that is presented in the source upon which they are claiming to base their assent! This kind of scholarship ends up in absurdity, for the basis upon which the scholar is assenting to information of God has nothing to do with the way the Bible presents that information and everything to do with the preferences of the particular scholar. When this is done, it is no longer the Christian God that is being assented to, but a humanistic substitute that can no longer be called Christian or God at all.
Also, if we are stating our belief in God, knowing that the basis of our belief is found in the presentation of that God in scripture, it would seem to imply that we are acknowledging at least some level of submission to his authority and to the authority of scripture. The scripture is clear that there is one God only and that God will share his role and reign with no one. The scriptures present God as being king and ruler over all of his creation, and if we are going to affirm that position as true, doesn’t that imply some degree of responsibility toward him on our part? Thus, in affirming that God is God, we are also affirming that we are not God and that we are set in submission to God who is greater than we are. This too, is part of what it means to be “Christian.”
The Father Almighty: Two affirmations are being made within this clause. First, it speaks of the “Fatherhood” of God. This can be understood both in terms of his relationship to the second member of the Trinity, God the Son, Jesus Christ, and it can be understood in terms of God’s adoption of believers into his household, making himself our divine Father. Thus, the Christian, in affirming this creed, is affirming the Father-child relationship and his or her submission to God as “child.”
The second affirmation that is made is that of God’s almighty power. There is not anything in the heavens or in the earth or below the earth that can rival God. There is nothing in the seas or that is in the air that can stand before God and claim power and might. God is infinitely more almighty than his creation and he will not permit a rival. Yet, when this is applied to the believer, it takes on a whole new level of meaning. If God is almighty and you are a child of God, in submission to his Godhead and rule, then you also understand that you are not mightier than God and are not in a position to tell him what he must or must not do. All too often Christians fall into the trap of trying to tell God what he got right and what he got wrong about the way he did this or that. Just as God is God and we are not, the Christian affirms that it is God who is almighty over the Christian’s life, not the Christian. Paul reminds the Roman church of this great truth when he quotes from the prophet Isaiah and asks, “who has been his counselor?” God is almighty and we are not. Yet do not miss the connection between these two affirmations. While God is almighty, he is an almighty Father who exercises fatherly care over those whom he has called his children. Just as a little child trusts in the strength of his or her earthly father to guide and protect them, so too, Christians can take great confidence in the power of our almighty Father to guide and protect us as we serve him in this life.
Creator of heaven and earth: This statement affirms for the Christian, the creating nature of God. Not only is God almighty, but God has demonstrated a portion of his might in creating the heavens and the earth. This is a reference back to Genesis 1:1, which is what some people refer to as a “mirism.” A mirism is when two extremes are used to imply not only the extremes but everything that falls in between. In other words, not only did God created the heavens and the earth, but he created everything in between. In addition, the reference to Genesis 1:1 implies also that the context of Genesis 1:1 must be kept in mind. God not only shaped and formed creation as some would suggest, but God created ex-nihilo—he made all things out of nothing. The term that is used in this passage is the Hebrew verb arb (bara), which, when God is the subject, speaks of God’s sovereign creation. Thus, in affirming that God is the “creator of heaven and earth,” you are affirming the intent of Genesis 1:1 that God created all things and he created all these things out of nothing. This is in direct contradiction to the naturalistic explanation of the cosmological origin of the universe, yet many who call themselves Christians fail to understand what they are affirming when they recite the Apostles’ creed or they have been too blinded by post-modernistic presuppositions allowing them to equally affirm two mutually exclusive views separated by artificial contextual barriers of their own creation. Theology that is Christian, by its very definition, affirms the creative work of God as it is reflected in scripture.
And in Jesus Christ: The next affirmation that is made moves from the first to the second member of the Trinity, God the Son. This affirmation begins with an identification of who the one and only-begotten son of God happens to be—and his name is Jesus. The name Jesus comes from the Hebrew root [vy (yasha), which means, “to save.” Hence, when Joseph was being given the pronouncement that the child born to Mary would be called Jesus, it was because, “he will save his people from their sins.” Thus, the second member of the Trinity is the one through whom salvation was worked for his people.
The next word in the creed is the word “Christ,” which functions as Jesus’ title during his earthly ministry. Christ, or Cristo/ß (christos) in the Greek, is taken from the Hebrew word x;yvim’ (mashiach), or “Messiah.” Both words literally mean, “the anointed one” and speak of the one through whom God’s promised redemption would come. Thus, the Christian affirms that Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is the one that was promised throughout the Old Testament for the redemption of his people.
His only Son: This is a reference back to John 3:16, that though God will adopt sons and daughters, he only has one son that is “begotten” of him. The term that John’s gospel employs is that of monogenh/ß (monogenes), which refers to one who is unique in his nature, unlike any other. God has many children (by adoption), but he only has one child who is of the same divine essence as God the Father. Thus, not only is Jesus the Christ, but he is God’s only Son, the only one able to bring sinners to the Father. As Peter proclaimed, “there is only one name under heaven whereby men must be saved!”
Our Lord: This is the first point in the creed where the first person plural pronoun is used. This in itself is a reminder that not only is this creed meant to be personally believed, but it is meant to be used as a corporate confession and symbol of the faith. Jesus is not simply “the Lord” nor is he listed as “my Lord,” but the creed refers to him as “our Lord.” And note the importance of the use of the term “Lord.” This is remarkably significant for two reasons. First of all, in ancient times, the Jewish people developed a superstition around the third commandment and fearing to use God’s name in vain, they opted to not ever use it at all. Thus, instead of speaking the covenantal name of God, which is hwhy (Yahweh), they would substitute yn”doa] (Adonai), which is Hebrew for “Lord.” This name, Lord, being ascribed to the Son of God is language that affirms his deity, connecting him with the divine name of hwhy (Yahweh).
Secondly, proclaiming Jesus to be our Lord implies that the church body (remember the plural nature of this clause) is standing in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. How often Christians think of themselves as being autonomous and neglect the Biblical model that has been set before us of our being servants in the house of Jesus Christ. How often Christians proclaim Jesus to be their Lord but live as if Jesus’ only role is to help out during times of difficulty. Once again, we see the effects of the post-modern mindset affecting Christian thinking.
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary: In this clause of the creed, the dual nature of Jesus is articulated more specifically. Jesus is fully human as he was born of a human woman. Yet, Jesus does not have a human father, but a divine one. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she became pregnant. More will be discussed on the reason for this when we reach our discussion of Christology, but this simple affirmation is an affirmation of the dual nature of Christ. The writers of the creed correctly understood the importance and the Biblical testimony on this issue, that you simply cannot call yourself a Christian if you deny either the full humanity or the full divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Note also that Mary was a virgin. God has left no room in the equation for the possibility that Jesus could have really been conceived from Joseph or from another. Also, it is a reminder that God is the one who opens and closes the womb and that he is able to do this work in his servant Mary without the aid of human intervention. Mary’s virginity reminds us also of her integrity as a woman, having remained chaste until her marriage and that at no time in between the conception and the birth did Joseph and Mary actually consummate their marriage vows.
Suffered under Pontius Pilate: This is not to suggest that the only suffering that Jesus had was while he was on the cross, but it is a reminder that the cross was the climax of Jesus’ suffering, it was real, and it was suffered under the hand of Pilate, who was trying to appease the crowd. In addition to our Lord’s suffering, there is another crucial element to this clause in the creed. Pontius Pilate’s name is set before us. The religion that we have is a religion that is set in history and can be attested to by outside sources. The life and suffering of Jesus is a real, historical fact, documented by numerous primary sources and cannot be refuted. The Christian affirms the historical nature of the Christian faith and the outworking of God’s plan in human events.
Was crucified: This is a reminder that the prophetic statements about the Messiah were fulfilled on the cross. It is a reminder that the death that Jesus endured was a horrific one and it is a reminder that it was a Roman one. The Jews did not execute by crucifixion; the Romans did. Much more could be said on this matter, but we will again leave that for the section on Christology.
Dead and Buried: Jesus did die on that cross and was buried in a tomb. He paid the penalty for our sin in its fullness and Jesus entered into the grave just as you or I will do when these physical bodies of ours die. There are some who have chosen to reject the idea of Jesus’ death on the cross, creating a story of him entering into a coma on the cross or otherwise some sort of pseudo-deathlike state to trick the Romans. First of all, the Romans knew death and they knew the difference between a dead body and an “almost dead” body. The piercing of his side was done to confirm that he really was dead. The creed does not allow for such nonsensical teachings like this and affirms that Jesus really did die and that he really was placed in a tomb. Christianity offers no hope if Jesus did not die, for with no death there was no completed sacrifice. The Christian understands this and thus affirms the real, physical death of Jesus Christ.
He descended into Hell: This is one point in the final formulation of the Apostles’ Creed that differs significantly from the older Roman form. Historically, there was developing a theology, based on an interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19, that suggested that during the time Jesus’ body was in the grave, his spirit descended into hell, proclaimed the gospel to the Old Testament saints (some suggested that it was to all) and those who would believe would follow him into heaven. The point of this study is not necessarily to go into a detailed exegesis of 1 Peter 3:19 and Ephesians 4:9-10, but let us suffice to say that it misunderstands what Peter and Paul are seeking to communicate. In addition, it makes Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross that “today, you will be with me in paradise” nonsensical. This theology would eventually be referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell” and it would become part of the Roman Catholic understanding of intermediate states between heaven and hell. It was a theology that was becoming established in the church in the early parts of the seventh century, about the time that the final formulation of the Apostles’ Creed was being established by the church. Hence, it should not be a surprise that the language was included in the Creed’s finished form.
The protestant Reformers rejected this theology as un-Biblical, but were faced with the question of how to explain the theology to their people if the Apostles’ Creed were retained. Though there are a few different approaches to the question, most simply say that this refers to the entrance of Jesus’ body into the grave for three days and three nights. While this interpretation is not fully consistent with the language of the Creed, the reformers have pointed out that while the Apostles’ Creed is truly an ecumenical creed, the clause about the descent into hell is a later addition incorporated by the church. This is further confounded by the fact that the Athanasian Creed incorporates this language of Jesus’ descent as well, yet, as we have discussed before, there are some questions about the dating and authorship of that particular creed.
The third day he rose from the dead: Three simple affirmations are made within this clause. First, that Jesus did not remain dead. Therein lies the hope of the believer in Jesus Christ, for as Christ rose, so too will we rise with him in the resurrection. Were Christ not to have risen from the grave then we could have no hope that we too might one day be raised as well. Second that Jesus was dead. He was not simply placed in the tomb alive then revived later, but he was dead in every sense of the word. And thirdly, this line in the creed affirms the duration of Jesus’ time dead in the grave, which in itself is a fulfillment of prophesy. Just as with many other points of Jesus’ life, there are some scholars who have sought to deny in one way or another the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave and at the same time call themselves, “Christian.” This simply cannot be done. When you deny the resurrection you have essentially denied the heart of the Christian faith and have reduced it to moralistic teachings; something that Christianity was never meant to be.
He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: This affirmation naturally follows the previous statement, for if Jesus rose from the dead, one must ask, to where did he ascend? And here is the affirmation that Jesus did rise from the dead and that he triumphantly ascended into heaven and that he sits at the right hand of his Father: God Almighty. Note two things about this affirmation. First, Jesus sits. Sitting signifies a completion of the work that one came to do. Yes, Jesus still lives to make intercession for his people, but the work of redemption that Jesus came to earth to do was complete, and as victorious kings of the ancient times would do, after the completion of his victory, he took his seat at the right hand of his Father. The second thing that is worth noting is the location where that seat happens to be. In ancient times the right hand seat of the king was the seat of honor and dignity. Jesus, in ascending, is honored by his Father for his completed work. In other words, the sitting denotes honor and majesty, not complacency.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: The language of this clause looks forward to Jesus’ glorious return to bring all into judgment. The reality of judgment implies that there is a standard by which judgment will be carried out. It also implies that there are some who will be exonerated and some who will be convicted. It also implies that there will be a judge who discerns who is acceptable by the measure and who is not acceptable according to that measure.
This is where the post-modern line of thinking leads people into grave error. To say that a judge does not have a rule by which justice is measured, but who allows those who are being judged to construct their own rule by which justice may be measured is silly and removes the power from the seat of the judge and places it in the hands of the individual being judged. In doing so, justice loses all meaning, for who would condemn themselves to eternal damnation when it is within their own ability to free themselves? The concept of judgment becomes laughable.
Instead, the Christian faith affirms the reality of a standard by which men are judged, that it is singular in nature, and that mankind is unable, as a result of sin, to meet that standard. Thus, we stand guilty of the penalty of eternal damnation. In turn, what we need is not to recast the laws, but one who can substitute himself for us who will pay the penalty that we owe. Jesus did just that and intercedes for us to boot. Thus, those who are trusting in Jesus for their eternal salvation stand as righteous before the law as the penalty of the law has already been paid on our behalf. This clause of the creed affirms the nature of Christ and his authority to redeem his people. At the same time, it is a reminder that Jesus has the authority to condemn as well. Jesus has the authority as judge over all—the quick (meaning living) and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost: While this is structured as a separate statement, it is connected theologically back to the language of belief in God, now affirming the third member of the Trinity. For theology to be Christian, it must affirm all three members of the Triune Godhead, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Many of the heresies of the early church were over the nature of the Trinity as well as the dual nature of Christ. It is important to recognize that the church has always understood these questions as questions that one may not compromise and there is no room for discussion. We may debate this view or that view of some ordinance of the church or the meaning of this text or that, but the nature of God is not open for debate, and Christian theology as well as creedal formulations all affirm this great Biblical truth about our Triune God.
The Holy catholic Church: The term “catholic” means “universal” and the statement is a reminder that there is only one body of Christ and thus only one true church. Yes, there are different denominations and different congregations in different geographic locations, but the body of Christ is still united in Jesus Christ. The term “Church” is derived from the term ejkklhsi/a (ekklasia), which simply refers to a gathering. Yet, the creed reminds us that this gathering is a holy gathering. Why is it a holy gathering? First, God’s people have been set apart from the world for his service and for his glory, and second, God’s people have a holy calling upon their lives to live in a holy way, just as God is holy and lives in a holy way. This statement affirms both the unity of the church in Christ and the call to holiness that is placed upon the church—notably that is placed on the life of every member.
The Communion of the Saints: This statement, while not found in older creedal formulations, does not introduce any new theology to what has already been stated, but simply reiterates the previous line. Originally, this language was meant to communicate the idea that the saints who have died and gone on to heaven are in communion with one another and with Jesus Christ. As the creed began to be more and more widely used, it began to be understood to reflect the communion that believers have with one another here on this earth as well. Either way, the statement simply affirms the unity and fellowship of God’s people as one body of Christ both here and in heaven.
The Forgiveness of Sins: This statement almost goes without saying due to the implications of past elements of the creed. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross guaranteed forgiveness for his people and ascension to the right hand of God the Father is our assurance that forgiveness has been granted. At the same time, for a sinful people who struggle with the temptations that befall them in this world, this statement is sweet and meaningful enough that it deserves repeating over and over. In Jesus Christ there is forgiveness for wretched, fallen, sinners such as I—and such as you, assuming we come to him in faith and repentance. Were there no forgiveness there would be no hope for anything but wrath and judgment. In Christ there is hope and this frames how the Christian lives in and interacts with the world.
The Resurrection from the Dead and Life Everlasting: Have you ever stopped and considered what you are stating when you state that you believe this? What the Christian is affirming is that after he or she dies, and after his or her body has been placed in the ground, and after it has decomposed over the years to nothing more than a skeleton or even to ashes, that when Christ comes, he or she will rise and live again. This concept is something that is ludicrous to the modern mind. Certainly some have sought to go to extreme measures to preserve their bodies from death and some have gone to even more extreme measures to preserve their body on the brink of death for some future time when their diseases might be curable, but the Christian need not do such things. In fact, the Christian need not fear dying because the Christian understands that at some future point, a point fixed by God’s design, Jesus will return in the clouds and those who are dead in Christ will be resurrected free from the ailments that have brought death to their bodies. In fact, this resurrection body will be so perfect that it will not succumb to disease and the believer will be able to live forever. In addition, during the intermediate years, the believer’s spirit will reside with Christ. This great truth is an essential tenet of Christianity. The afterlife is not some sort of eternal sitting on clouds practicing harp-music as some skeptics would portray, but it is life everlasting, being bodily resurrected from the dead.
Amen: Many times when the Apostles’ Creed has been recited, the word “amen” is appended to the end. The word itself comes from the Greek ajmh/n (amen) which in turn comes from the Hebrew !ma (aman or amen). The Greek use is normally translated as “truly” in our Bibles and the Hebrew word is simply the verb that means, “to believe.” In other words, the closing word is a final, repeated affirmation that these are things that are held to be true in the most absolute sense. It is true that many people in the modern world would suggest that there is no such thing as absolute truth or absolute error, only truth and error that is relative to the situation that one finds oneself in. This is not the Bible’s presentation of what it means to be Christian. The Bible presents God as absolute and his word as objective truth with the expectation that the Christian will say “Amen” to the fullness of what God has revealed. So too, this creed ends with a resounding, Amen!
Through this formulation, the early church took the teachings of scripture and sought to concisely answer the question, “what must I believe if I am to claim to be a Christian.” In fact, many pastors echo this understanding even today as their churches recite the Apostles’ Creed. Just prior to beginning the recitations, many will introduce the creed by saying, “Christian, what do you believe?” The church then replies by reciting this creed in unison.
There have been two criticisms made of the assertion that the use of arb (bara) is used of God’s sovereign creation ex-nihilo. The first cites passages like Isaiah 43:15, where God is spoken as the “Creator of Israel.” The suggestion is that God did not create the people who made this nation from nothing, but that he gathered them together and formed them into a nation. Yet, people who make this argument miss the point of what the Biblical writer is asserting. Yes, God did gather the people together to form Israel, but Israel as an institution—as God’s people—was formed by God’s sovereign call, and in a very real, theological sense, the nation was formed ex-nihilo even though it incorporated many individual people. The second assertion builds upon the first. They argue that since arb (bara) can mean “to form from existing matter” then Genesis 1:1 can be understood in terms of God forming eternally existent matter to shape the cosmos as we know it (this is the predominant Mormon view). This can be easily refuted when one notes both the mirism that is employed (see above) and that if this mirism includes all things that are—from what did God create unless he created ex-nihilo? Secondly, in the creation account, the term hf[ (asah) is used in every instance where God is taking existing matter and making or forming aspects of the created order. The term arb (bara) is only ever used in the creation account to refer to that which God is making completely new—ex-nihilo.
Please note that though the theology of the Harrowing of Hell was not popularized until the 7th century, the theology had some minority support for many years. Likewise, there are older versions of the Apostles’ Creed that do contain the language of Jesus’ descent into Hell, but this language is not in the oldest versions, nor is it in the majority of the texts until we find ourselves in the sixth and seventh centuries.