The Three Universal Creeds, Pt. I

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.[1]

A Brief History

In a way, the foundation for the Apostles’ Creed was laid down by Christ when He commissioned His Disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[1] The Baptismal formula briefly indicates what Christ wants Christians to be taught, believe, and confess. The Apostles’ Creed is evidently an amplification of the Trinitarian formula of Baptism.

During the Medieval ages the Creed was known as the “Twelve Articles,” because they believe that the Apostles gathered together shortly after Pentecost to draft this confession. This is a legend, but it’s not super offensive. Nathanial confesses in John 1, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God,” Peter confessed, “We believe, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:69). Thomas confessed that Jesus was, “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28). These confessions came about through the demand of Christ, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is even heaven” (Matt. 10:32).

In light of these and similar passages, the formula prescribed by Christ required the candidate for Baptism to give a definite statement of what he believed concerning the things of God. Of Timothy it is said that he made, “the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Tim. 6:12) Right away it seems there acclamations such as, “Jesus is Lord.”[2] These became sort of a litmus test for identifying people as Christians.

Early Christian writers provide proof that from the beginning candidates for Baptism were required to make a confession of faith and there existed in the congregations a regular confession that was used, though we do not have the exact words. The way in which Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, and many others write suggests that some form of the Creed existed even in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Justin Martyr, who died in 165, writes in about 140, “Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third.”[3] Language such as this is also used by letters of Ignatius, who died in 107.

Tertullian, who died in 220, writes, “When we step into the water of Baptism we confess the Christian faith according to the words of its law.”[4] The language often used was “canon of truth.”[5] It seems that most congregations had a formula of the profession of faith, though not all were exactly the same. Instead, they were shaped by tradition as they were passed down. The oldest known form of the Apostles’ Creed is the one that was used in the church in Rome prior to 150, though we don’t have it quoted entirely until 331 by Bishop Marcellus of Ancyra in a letter to Bishop Julius of Rome, to show his orthodox faith.[6] It developed as the Church began using earlier Gospel acclamations and adding phrases to it to combat growing heresies.  The creed was originally in the form of question and answer, and Augustine, Ambrose, and Rufinus all testify that the Apostles’ Creed was developed in Rome.[7]

The complete text we have today dates to the 5th century and is first found in a sermon by Caesarius of Arles in France, about 500 A.D.[8] In Luther’s translation of the Creed, “Christian” was substituted for “catholic.”


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 28:19–20.

[2] Charles Arand, Robert Kolb and James Nestigen, The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. 16.

[3] Friedrich Bente, Historical Introductions to the Book of Concord, St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1965. 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Arand, 16.

[6] Bente, 23.

[7] Arand, 21.

[8] Bente, 24.

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 16–18.

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