The Apostles’ Creed is a summary confession of vital Christian doctrines used liturgically throughout the Western church. It was once believed that the Creed originated with the apostles on or around Pentecost, but now most historians reject this view, seeing the Creed as containing the apostolic faith while not actually having been written by the apostles themselves.
The Background to the Apostles’ Creed
How did the Creed originate? First, it is important to recognize that creedal formulations are common in holy Scripture. The Hebrew shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 was itself a kind of confessional statement used daily by pious Hebrews. The language of 1 Corinthians 15 is creedal, where Paul mentions the transmission of the gospel message which he received and passed on to the Corinthians. Brief summaries of the faith were used devotionally and liturgically under the old covenant, and later among the apostles. It makes sense then that the church would adopt this custom.
In the post-apostolic period, the need for clear and concise articulations of the faith was due in part to the rapid growth of the church throughout the first few centuries of her existence. It is widely believed that the Apostles’ Creed evolved as a kind of baptismal confession. The articles in the Creed were the elementary principles of the faith which the catechumenate – think ancient new members class – were instructed in prior to being baptized. After a period of learning, they would confess the Creed and then receive the sacrament.
Does this ancient Creed really contain the apostolic “ABC’s” which the first Christians taught initiates? Yes! Consider what the author to the Hebrews said,
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Heb. 6:1-2)
From as early as Hebrews was written, the foundational doctrines taught to new converts centered on Christ, repentance, faith toward God, instruction about washings (perhaps an allusion to sacramental theology?), the laying on of hands (ordination and ecclesiology?), the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. These fundamental teachings (all of which are present in the Apostles’ Creed) made up what the Fathers referred to as the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith. Men like Irenaeus and Tertullian believed this Rule had come down from the apostles, and that they were passing the baton to subsequent generations. The holy deposit of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” matured into creeds like the Apostles’ Creed between the 4th and 6th centuries, although each article of the Creed traces its lineage to the earlier teachings of Scripture.
The Articles of the Apostles’ Creed
The Creed puts forward twelve articles of faith (at one point it was believed that each apostle had contributed an article), and there are three main sections in the Creed. The first section begins with God the Father, and the work of creation; the second with Jesus Christ, and the work of redemption; and the third with the Holy Spirit, and the work of sanctification.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Throughout the history of the church, commentators on the Creed have begun by defining what it means to believe. Belief includes assent (i.e. agreeing with or approval of), but it isn’t exhausted by it. The Creed isn’t simply a set of propositions for us to say “amen” to, but the faith once for all delivered to the saints through which we experience communion with God and one another. In explaining what it means to believe, 16th century theologian Caspar Olevian wrote, “Faith is to acknowledge and rest in the unchangeable will of God, namely; that He will graciously give us the salvation promised through the prophets and presented in reality through Christ, as the Articles of the Faith testify.” Biblical belief lays hold of faith’s content and makes it ones own.
The first object of our faith in the Creed is God the Almighty Father. He is a Father in two senses, first, by his personal relationship to the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Because the Word is eternally begotten, the Father is always Father. Second, as to our adoption through Christ, he is the Father of all the faithful. Christ who is by nature the Son of the Father, makes us sons and daughters by grace (Jn. 20:17; Gal. 4:4-5; Eph. 1:5).
The emphasis on God’s creative majesty echoes the opening line of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” We confess God as Cosmic-King without rival who made everything from nothing. This is hinted at by the identification of God as almighty. St. Augustine noted that the creation of the world ex nihilo (from nothing) reveals to us the absolute independence of God. “For granting that he is almighty, there cannot exist anything of which he should not be the Creator.”
Embedded in this identification of God as Creator is also his providential rule over creation. The One God and Father who made all things is also intimately involved with the world he made, down to the seemingly insignificant occurrences of life (Prov. 16:33; Mt. 10:29). This first section is a comfort to the church in that it introduces us to the God who not only rules over all, but cares for his creation.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Credo Magazine.
 The Greek word used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3, paradidomi was often used to describe the transmission of written tradition or creedal statements (See 1 Corinthians 11:2, 23; Romans 6:17; Jude 1:3).
 See Pelikan, Jaroslav The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 117.
 See Heidelberg Catechism question 24.
 Olevian, Caspar An Exposition of the Apostle’s Creed.
 See Augustine, De Fide et Symbolo, Ch. 2
 For an edifying discussion on this, see Olevian’s Exposition where he gives five key takeaways from God’s providence: 1) It highlights God’s intimate involvement in the world. 2) It reveals that everything tends toward the salvation of God’s elect. 3) It reveals God’s control over the actions of those around us. 4) It reveals God’s control over the angelic realm. 5) It encourages the use of God’s appointed means for growing in grace, rather than a fatalistic laziness.