Repetition is the key to long-term memory and learning. If so, regularly reciting and more importantly constantly explaining the basic tenets of the Christian faith is critical to preserving the glorious truths upon which the church is founded. Churches and Christians who neglect to remember what they fundamentally believe are likely to believe in nothing particularly important, and/or potentially believe anything that is faulty.
Biblical Scriptures are replete with repetition. God reminds the Israelites again and again about the covenant stipulations He required of them, so as to renew their relationship with him and enjoy its benefits. The Apostle Peter is unashamed when he speaks of the importance of reminding them again and again of the basics of the Christian life (2 Pet. 1:12, 13, 3:1). In discussing, therefore, the Apostles’ Creed, I hope to give a brief background to its development, review its content, and propose why its use and study are important to the theology, worship, and discipling in the local church.
A difference must be made between Church Creeds such as Apostles’ Creed and Confessions such as the Westminster Confession.
“A ‘confession’ pertains to a denomination, and includes specific beliefs and emphases relating to that denomination; a ‘creed’ pertains to the entire Christian church, and includes nothing more and nothing less than a statement of beliefs which every Christian ought to be able to accept and bound by.”
For this reason, a creed is “concise, formal, and universally accepted”. They are sometimes called ecumenical, even though they existed in different regions with minor differences.
Background of the Apostles’ Creed
It is difficult to date the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed. Many church historians and theologians think that the basic tenets of this creed existed in the form of affirmation statements that new believers were required to affirm during their baptism and preparation for church membership. The affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed in their briefest form are found in the command to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Jesus commanded his disciples to “baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (vs.19). The “name”, singular, applies to three different persons. Jesus himself seems to imply the oneness of the three persons of Godhead. Although we see the actual formation of the Apostles’ Creed occurred between the 2-4th century AD, the early apostolic fathers did repeat and affirm the same in their baptismal practices and in their teachings and writings. “In the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, [new converts] then receive the washing with water” (First Apology, 61)”. The formulation of the Apostles’ Creed began with Jesus, and continued with the teachings and practice of the early church. The Trinitarian belief about God is not something that was later imposed on the church.
Content of the Apostles’ Creed
Church creeds existed in local regions with minor differences, but the differences did not reflect in the main doctrinal content they were affirming. The Apostles’ Creed seems to have existed in the second and third centuries and was first known as the Old Roman Creed, which in the fourth century was formulated as the Apostles’ Creed with two small additions (highlighted in bold, in the text below). For a more popular version, please see Britannica.com. The text provided below reflects an older form.
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 Ghost; born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and was buried; He descended into hell [a late addition]; the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence he shall return to judge the quick (=living) and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
We can surmise that the original form and the additions may reflect the early church’s care in responding to the novel doctrinal ideas that deviated from the apostolic teachings and defending the doctrines of the New Testament with more precision.
The first observation to be made about the Apostolic Creed is that it is first and foremost a statement of the church in its confessional faith in the Triune God (I prefer this term rather than ‘Trinity’). We might also observe that, according to this form, the creed affirms the church’s faith in “God the Father” and “God the Only Son” in one breath, so to speak, as it is tied to the first of two “I believe” parts.
Unfortunately churches that use the Apostles’ Creed in their liturgical recitation have changed the “I believe” to “We believe.” While this may highlight a corporate confession, it may also be perceived as what a particular denomination believes. Originally, the “I believe” emphasised the individual’s affirmation of their belief in the Triune God of the Scripture as he received baptism in the church.
The second key observation about its content is that, of the 128 words, 12 are about God the Father, 6 about the Holy Spirit but a whopping 72 are about God the Son. The church did not seem to have to defend God the Father at the formation period of this creed. Similarly, the understanding of the Holy Spirit was not yet fully formulated as we know it today. Thus, the statement about the Father and the Spirit is brief. But the doctrine of the Son was under attack, in regard to the person and work of Christ.
The historicity of Jesus as God’s Son is affirmed in the references to Mary and Pontius Pilate. The doctrine of Incarnation is preserved in the phrase, “conceived by the Holy Ghost”. His sinlessness in the word “virgin”. Even of the 72 words attributed to the Son, more than 50 are about the work of Christ. “Suffered”, “dead”, “buried”, “descended”, “rose again”, “ascended, sitteth”, “shall return to judge.” These not only defend the doctrine of God the Son, but also highlights the gospel of the Son; the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross are cardinal to the church. More than 1700 years later, the church had to yet again make similar affirmations. Two of the Five Fundamentals the church affirmed against 20th-century liberalism were: the Virgin Birth of Christ, and Christ’s Bodily Resurrection.
The creed also affirms the universal dimension of the church (“holy catholic church”), the shared common faith all over the world (“communion of saints”), the benefits of Christ’s work (“the forgiveness of sins”), “the resurrection of the body”, and (“the life everlasting”).
The usefulness of the Apostles’ Creed
How can the Apostle’s Creed be useful for the help of the church? I propose that regular use of it in different ways (rather than rote memory and recitation every week) can strengthen the church’s theology, revive its worship, and emphasise its discipleship.
The core of what a church must believe begins with its affirmation about God. We consistently see the Scriptural pattern of teaching theology for practical purposes. One of the examples I think of is Ephesians 4:4-6. Paul here affirms the oneness of seven theological truths the church members share for the practical purpose of maintaining unity in the church: “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.”
The affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed reminds the church members about the tri-unity of the Godhead. It is the church’s comprehension that the God they worship exists in three persons but in one and the same substance of divine nature without any conflict or contradiction. In particular, it strengthens the church’s view of the person and work of Christ. This part of the creed reiterates the Gospel-centeredness of the church in Christ, the second person of the God-head. The theology here is soteriological.
The affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed reminds the church members about the tri-unity of the Godhead.
The hymnody and prayer books of protestant churches are weak in regard to the worship of the Triune God. I grew up in a Christian tradition that invokes the Triune God in almost every prayer and hymn. Most of the familiar protestant hymns (English) I am familiar with limit the worship to God in general, or the Father and Christ separately. Fewer songs portray the Holy Spirit as our object of worship. Frequent use of the Apostles’ Creed can fill this gap to some extent. Churches and members need to be constantly awakened by the praiseworthiness of our Triune God as the Scripture teaches.
As said earlier, the origin of the Apostles’ Creed is traced to the confession of baptism candidates. The early church used this form to aid the new believer to share his faith in the Triune God and particularly in the person and work of Christ. The creed is one more way by which we can teach and disciple new believers about the faith in the God of the Scriptures, and the work of Christ on their behalf. It contains enough biblical content to teach a new believer about God and salvation.
I recommend that we require new members seeking baptism to affirm these important statements of faith publicly in the church. To reject any basic tenets of Christianity is to reject Christianity altogether. At present, I am aware of a church nearing division because a professing member now rejects the deity of Christ.
We have discussed the background, content, and usefulness of the Apostles Creed. Churches that are intentional in their mission to strengthen their theology, revive their worship, and focus their discipleship should use all equipment in their arsenal, and the Apostles’ Creed will be a great tool. Although attributed to the Biblical Scriptures, the words of the hymn, Ancient Words, is apt for the Creeds as well:
Holy words long preserved
For our walk in this world,
They resound with God’s own heart
Oh, let the Ancient words impart.
 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. Page 17.
 Coleman Ford, “Trinitarianism in the Early Church”. Ford quotes Justin Martyr here. “https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/trinitarianism-in-the-early-church/
 See Fairbairn and Reeves, Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics.
 Editors, “Apostles Creed”, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Apostles-Creed
 Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical. Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications Ltd. Page 420
 As indicated in the text, “descended into hell” is a later addition and a possible misunderstanding of Eph 4:9, “descended into the lower regions of the earth”. An accurate translation is “lower regions, the earth”. The comma indicating, ‘namely the earth.”
 Michael W. Smith, “Ancient Words”, https://www.lyrics.com/ (2002).