[B02] The Apostles' Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is not merely a child’s confession. The child, indeed, at an early age, may learn its words, and a helpful measure of its truth; but no sage has ever exhausted it. It is like the ocean, the child may enjoy the waves as they roll up on the sandy beach, no man can touch its bottom where lie its deepest depths.

As we study this ancient symbol from Sunday to Sunday, comparing each statement with the Word of God from which it is drawn, I am sure we shall all find truths hidden here hitherto unsuspected. As a result, we shall love it more, and be able to put our souls more fully into it when we use it.

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2. The Apostles’ Creed

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. — [St. Matt.] 28:19.

At almost every service, at least in every chief service, of the congregation and Sunday school, we use the Apostles’ Creed. It is a stated part of our service. And many faithful Christians use it, as did Doctor Martin Luther, as the daily confession of their faith.

What does this Creed mean to us? Is its recital the expression of a living, conscious faith; or is it a dead formality? Is its use a habit that would leave us feeling somewhat ill at ease if it were not exercised? or is it the putting into these old words the new life that throbs within? our expression of unity with the great Church of God? our declaration against all perversions and denials of God’s truth?

We believe that on the part of our people generally, the Apostles’ Creed is the honest expression of what they truly believe with respect to the greater fundamental truths of our faith. Unquestionably, however, there is still room, on the part of all of us, for a better understanding, and a livelier appreciation of this old confession.

The Apostles’ Creed is not merely a child’s confession. The child, indeed, at an early age, may learn its words, and a helpful measure of its truth; but no sage has ever exhausted it. It is like the ocean, the child may enjoy the waves as they roll up on the sandy beach, no man can touch its bottom where lie its deepest depths.

As we study this ancient symbol from Sunday to Sunday, comparing each statement with the Word of God from which it is drawn, I am sure we shall all find truths hidden here hitherto unsuspected. As a result, we shall love it more, and be able to put our souls more fully into it when we use it.

As intelligent creatures, endowed with the power of thinking and understanding, we ought never to be satisfied to use anything habitually, especially in the service of Almighty God, without seeking to understand it as thoroughly as possible. There are a few matters concerning the Apostles’ Creed the knowledge of which, though not of fundamental importance, should afford us a great deal of satisfaction. They are such points as these, how did we come to have such a creed? what is the source from which it was taken? who formulated it? and the like. The more important of these questions we will be able to treat under these two general heads, — The Biblical basis of the Apostles’ Creed, and its historical development.

The Biblical Basis of the Apostles’ Creed

Every Christian should be extremely careful as to the source of the principles he is asked to endorse and proclaim. Every Christian doctrine must come from God’s Word. Every rule of conduct, to be binding, must come enforced by the “thus saith the Lord.” This is the position of the Lutheran Church. We do not accept anything simply because the Church fathers may have advanced it, or because some man of learning and address of today may advocate it. A great many errors have been thus advanced. Whenever some principle, as professed truth, is presented to us for acceptance, the only right thing to do is to compare it with the inspired records of the Old and New Testaments. “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). In this we follow the laudable example of the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures daily in order to find out whether or not the things proclaimed for their acceptance were true (Acts 17:11).

We must practice this principle with respect to the Apostles’ Creed. The fact that it has been a confession of practically the universal Christian Church for sixteen or seventeen hundred years is strong presumptive evidence in its favor. To presume carelessly to say a word against a confession so ancient, so generally received and revered, would be the height of pride and folly. But under no circumstances can any one accept, without the most thorough possible personal investigation, anything which has to do with his soul’s salvation on the mere word of any man, or body of men. We are dealing here with matters on which depend our hopes of heaven, and we should proceed with caution. For more than one reason, it is not possible for every one to make such a study of these matters as can be made by the trained theologian; but no one should rest satisfied till he has made such an investigation as time and talent will permit. And any Christian, capable of reading and thinking along elementary lines, who will take our catechism, and study the second chief part, can soon convince himself that the Apostles’ Creed, in all its parts, is taken directly from God’s Word.

There are twelve members, or distinct doctrinal statements, contained in the Creed. The first article is the first one. Can anyone question for a moment that God is the universal Father? that almightiness is one of His attributes? that creation is His work? There can be no question that all these truths are taught in God’s Word. Those who deny them must deny also the correctness of Bible teaching.

The second article of the Creed has six members. The first proclaims Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, our Lord; the second, His conception by the Holy Ghost, and His birth of the Virgin Mary; the third sets forth His treatment at the hands of Pontius Pilate, His death, burial, and descent into hell; the fourth tells of Jesus’ resurrection; the fifth gives the story of His ascension, and assumption of the throne of sovereignty and glory in Heaven; the sixth relates the promise of His coming again to judgment. Is there anyone who will dare say there is a single statement here that is not found many times over, in the clearest, strongest language in God’s Word? Just take your catechism and confirm this statement by reading again the many proof passages under these different points. We all know that some do not believe these statements of the Creed, but they disbelieve them in spite of the clearest teaching of God’s Word.

In the third article of the Creed there are five members. The first one tells us that there is a third person of the Godhead known as the Holy Ghost; the second sets before us the fruits of the Spirit’s work, the holy Christian Church; the third makes known the first and most essential step in the building of the Church — the forgiveness of sins; the fourth member reveals the great truth of the resurrection of the body; and the final one establishes the truth of that which is a universal hope, the fact that there is for the children of God a life everlasting. We can say of every one of these statements all that was affirmed of all the others, that they are in complete accord, not only with certain isolated statements of God’s Word, but with its teaching as a whole. This we will establish more in detail, and by abundant quotations, when we take up the separate members of the Creed, or portions of them, for special study.

Brethren, let us not give way for a moment to the fear, which some would like to awaken, that we are following mere human opinions when we make confession of our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We are giving expression to our faith in the very truths set down by holy men inspired of God; and in most instances in the very words of inspiration itself. Instead of being ashamed of this old Creed, which has expressed the faith of hundreds of millions, yes, which is being used this very day as the vehicle for expressing the faith of hundreds of millions, let us learn to prize it more highly by learning to understand it better. Then it will become more fully what it ought to be, the statement of what we wholeheartedly believe, the assured foundation of our hope.

Most of us, even professing Christians, do not appreciate our spiritual blessings as we should. Think of the hopes and fears which have perplexed the souls of the thoughtful heathen. As their literature shows, they sometimes caught lofty visions of the Divine Being, and His nature. But at best, how great was the uncertainty in which they lived with respect to some of the most profound problems of human life. Think of the pathos of that inscription on the altar that stood by one of the streets of that intellectual center of the ancient world — old Athens: “To the unknown god.” That God was, they were convinced. That the destiny of man was in His hands they were equally sure. But who He was, how He worked, how His heart beat toward the children of men, no one knew. Equally pathetic was the inscription borne by one of the most famous of the old Egyptian temples: “I am He that was, and is, and shall be; but no mortal hath lifted my veil.” No man by mere mortal strength has ever lifted it, or had strength of vision to penetrate it. But God Himself has lifted it. He has revealed to us in His Word all of His mind necessary for us to know. He has told us of the plans He has made for us, of what He has done, and is still doing, for their realization.

For us God has caused the sun to rise above the spiritual horizon. The day has dawned. For trembling consciences, driven by fear, conscious of a Presence they wholly failed to comprehend, facing a mystery of life for which there seemed no possible solution; for all these, living in the night and crying for the light, God has spoken His Word, “Let there be light.” Men may now live in peace, and die in hope. And the sum of this precious truth we have in the Apostles’ Creed. How we ought to appreciate it!

The Historic Development of the Apostles’ Creed

We reaffirm that this Creed is not only in a general way in harmony with the teachings of God’s Word; but that every phrase, and every thought in it can be substantiated by clear, positive statements of God’s holy Word. But you will look in vain to find the Creed in any one place in the Bible. The Bible is a large book, indeed, it is a library of books. And the Apostles’ Creed is the briefest kind of a summary, not of the whole Bible, but of its Gospel teachings. This explains its name, — the Apostles’ Creed. It is called Apostolic, not, as some have thought, because it was written by the Apostles; but because it sets forth the kernel of the Apostles’ teaching. Some, in times past, have even gone so far as to declare which one of the twelve members of the Creed was furnished by each Apostle. The claim that the Creed is of Apostolic origin, so far as its form is concerned, is historically untenable, and is held by very few Protestant investigators.

If the Apostles wrote the Creed before they left Jerusalem, or, as some even go so far as to maintain, immediately after the miraculous gift of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, it is inconceivable that no mention would be made of it in the New Testament. St. Luke, author of the third Gospel, tells us in the introductory verses of this Gospel, that many had taken it in hand to set forth in order the things most surely believed among them, even as they delivered them who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. And he tells us that he is going to do the same. And remember, this Gospel was written at least twenty-five years after Pentecost. But in this record the Apostles’ Creed is not given, nor is there any mention of its formulation. The second book of St. Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, written probably forty years after Pentecost, gives us the first Church history; but it has nothing to say of the writing or existence of the Creed. And as the Acts deal, in a very special way, with the activities of the Apostles, the silence of this book on the subject of the composition and existence of the Creed must be taken as conclusive evidence that it was not of Apostolic origin as to its literary form.

The true origin of the Apostles’ Creed, according to the testimony of history, both sacred and ecclesiastical, is as follows: The last command of the risen Savior was, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (St. Matt. 28:19). This passage is generally believed to be the germinating seed out of which grew the Creed. This passage was not only the formula used in the administration of Baptism, but it set forth, in a few pregnant words, the faith of those who were baptized. They were required to confess their faith in the triune God; in God the Father, the creator and sustainer of all things; in God the Son, the God-man, the redeemer of the world; in the Holy Ghost, the enlightener and sanctifier of the children of men. This is the testimony of the earliest and most trustworthy of the fathers. Athanasius, who became the patriarch of Alexandria in 328, says, “The whole sum and body of our faith is comprised in the words of our baptism, and is founded on that Scripture, ‘Go and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’” St. Augustine, the noted bishop of Hippo, born 354, says in his discourse on the Apostles’ Creed: “Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself furnished us with this standard of doctrine, and no man of piety entertains any doubt respecting that canon of the Catholic faith, which was dictated by Him, who is the object of faith. Our Lord Jesus Christ, I say, after His glorious resurrection from the dead, and shortly before His ascension to the Father, bequeathed to the disciples these mysteries of faith, saying, ‘Go teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’”

These words of institution alone probably formed the original creed; a very simple, but, nevertheless, comprehensive confession. But in the course of time men arose who denied certain truths clearly contained, but not specifically stated, in this formula. And, step by step, explanatory clauses, taken from other portions of Scripture, were added. We do not know that there was any concerted action on the part of any of the leaders of the Church in developing the Creed. Indeed, the preponderance of evidence seems to confirm the opposite view. Under the stress of similar opposition, like confessions seem to have developed in different places; these being more fully developed in one province than another. This is what we know of this development of the Creed. In a letter written by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, to the Christians of Tralles, a town near Smyrna, he sets forth the faith which they should hold, and under no circumstances deny. He does not follow the order of the Apostles’ Creed, but his statement contains, either in so many words, or by unmistakable inference, more than half of the present content of the Creed. And bear in mind that Ignatius died a martyr’s death in 107, probably less than ten years after the last of the Apostles, St. John.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in the year 180, less than a century and a half after the death and resurrection of Jesus, gives the Creed in this form:

“We believe in one God the Father Almighty,
Who made the heaven, and the earth,
And the seas and all that is in them:
And in Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
Who was made flesh for our salvation:
And in the Holy Ghost,
Who preached through the prophets the dispensations [of God],
And the advents [of Jesus Christ],
And His birth of a Virgin,
And His passion,
And His resurrection from the dead,
And the ascension into the heavens in the flesh of the beloved Jesus our Lord.
And His coming from heaven in the glory of the Father, to gather up again all things unto Himself,
And to raise up all flesh of all humanity.”

You will observe that in the Creed as above given, before the close of the second century all the members are present but three, though they are not given in the later order. The absent members are those treating of the Church, forgiveness, and eternal life. These were not disclaimed. There simply had been no particular occasion for their development, though the idea of eternal life is contained in the doctrine of the resurrection.

Of this faith Irenaeus says that the whole Church, though scattered throughout the world, the Germanies, the Iberias, in Egypt, among the Celts, in Lybia, and in the central parts of the inhabited world, all held this faith as if it still occupied one house, and proclaimed it with one harmonious voice.

Tertullian, speaking for the Church of Africa, about the close of the second century, gives a statement of their faith which, though it does not follow the same order, presents virtually the same points which are found in the creed of Irenaeus.

It was in 337 that Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra, in Asia Minor, wrote to a brother minister, setting forth what he had received from his predecessors, and now proclaimed himself. This declaration of the tenets of the faith contains every article which we now have in the Apostles’ Creed, and in exactly the same order as we now have them. The only difference is that most of the statements are not quite as complete as they are at present. This creed, older than Marcellus, but handed down by him as a heritage from 1600 years ago, is as follows:

“I believe in God Almighty,
And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son our Lord;
Who was born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary;
Crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried;
The third day He rose from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father;
From thence He cometh to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost; the holy Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; the life everlasting.”

The History of the Apostles’ Creed

What now is, in brief, the history of the Apostles’ Creed? It is, in few words, this: Christ gave to the infant Church, in the baptismal formula, the simple fundamentals of the Christian faith. Opposition to these truths, and those implied in them, necessitated a gradual elaboration of them from other portions of clear Scripture teaching, with the result that in the first part of the second century, not more than seventy-five years after Christ’s death, there was a nucleus of our present creed in existence. Before the close of the second century most of the members of it were formulated and confessed, though not fully, and not always in the same order. In the early part of the fourth century we find all the members of the present Creed, and in the present order. True, it is not till about four hundred years later, near the middle of the eighth century, that we find, in the writings of Pirminius, a Benedictine monk, who labored in France and Germany, the Apostles’ Creed in exactly its present form.

A remarkable fact worthy of remembrance in connection with the development of the Apostles’ Creed, a fact which distinguishes it from the Nicene and the Athanasian, is that this development was altogether independent of the action of Synods or Councils. It was a natural development, an expression of the faith within the hearts of the early Christians, given forth under the pressure of opposition from without. It was a growth which sprang up in widely separated communities from the common seed of Christ’s words. That which adds to the remarkable character of this development is the fact that up to the time when the Creed was virtually completed, Christianity was outlawed. Its confession, during most of this time, could not be published to the world, but had to be transmitted by word of mouth. Evidently the hand of God was in its development and preservation.

Is any one ashamed of this ancient symbol? Then it would seem he must be ashamed of Christ’s own words; ashamed of those early heroes of the faith, not a few of whom sealed their faith with their blood. We are not ashamed of our Creed. And those who are ashamed of it are not worthy to be numbered with the noble army of saints and martyrs who have gone on before. Indeed, those who deny its truths read themselves out of the Christian Church.

The Apostles’ Creed does not by any means contain all that we as Christians believe. It but lays the broad foundation on which much more must be built as we quarry deeper into God’s Word. But we glory in this bond which binds us to the millions who went on their way before us confessing this faith, and with the millions who confess it now. And we are sure that to know it better will only lead us to love it still better.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

To request a printable copy [PDF] send an email to: editor@lutheranlibrary.org with the title of this post.

Luther's Small Catechism: Series B – The Apostles' Creed

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
  • Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0

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