Creed of our Apostolic Fathers
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: Matthew 28:19
Devotional text: 1 Timothy 6:11-16
On the first Sunday of each month, most of the churches I have pastored and visited serve communion. As part of that service, many of the churches also recite together the Apostles’ Creed.
As many of us are not meeting together yet within our church buildings due to safety precautions of the novel coronavirus, this may be a good time to read it together by way of this column.
Traditionally believed to have been written in part by each of the 12 apostles following the resurrection of Jesus and the forming of the new church called Christian (or The Way), it is written as a testament to the beliefs that all Christians hold to be true.
Since I have been speaking about the early church as we work our way up to the celebration of Pentecost Sunday, I think it is helpful to see how those known as the Apostolic Fathers gave to the new church, and to us today, a way to remember the truths on which our faith is based.
It is believed that the truths found in the Apostles’ Creed were the same truths elicited by those who came forward to receive baptism at the time of the early church. As the apostles went out into the world in service to the Lord Jesus under the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), and as they taught new believers about salvation and new life through Christ, they would prepare them for baptism. In some early church manuscripts, those being baptized were asked questions of their belief. The answers to those questions were found in the creed.
Although the words of the creed were not to be found mentioned in written form until the year 140 A.D., it is believed the words were taught to the disciples verbally by the 12.
These are the words found in the traditional form of 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, dead and buried;
He descended into hell (this portion was not original but added later), the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick (the living) and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
Other tradition has it that the apostles wrote the creed together on the day of Pentecost as a way for the thousands of new believers to remember forever the source of their salvation and new life.
As seen in the above statements, “descended into hell” was not a part of the original creed but was added later. It can also be found in scripture in Ephesians 4:9. Also to understand the definition of “catholic,” it does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the meaning of the word “catholic” as referring to all who are part of the Christian church.
The phrase “the communion of saints” refers to the entire community of Christians, living and dead, past, present and future.
The creed has also been known as the Apostolic Creed and the Symbol of the Apostles. We don’t find mention of the creed in written form until 390 A.D., when Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, mentioned it in a letter to Pope Siricius in Rome. However, looking a little deeper, we find that portions of the creed were mentioned in writings by early church officers and theologians dating from the time of the Greek bishop Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.) and also Tertullian (155-240 A.D.), who was known as the founder of western theology.
I decided to dig into the life of Irenaeus, since his name was mentioned as being the closest to Christ’s time. I found that he originally came from Smyrna (now in Turkey) and established the church in Southern France.
However, Irenaeus mentioned that he was blessed to both see and hear preach a martyr known as Polycarp (69-155 A.D.), who in turn was known as a disciple of the Apostle John (known as one of the three chief Apostolic Fathers).
If indeed the Apostles’ Creed was first brought together by the Apostles, and used as the testament to the belief of all Christians, we can at least see a possible way it moved from teacher to disciple throughout the founding of the church.
We do not have all that was either written or taught verbally through the formation of the Christian church. However, referring to the letter by Ambrose again, it was clear when he wrote his letter that the creed was not a new thing but something that had been accepted already by the church.
Going back through Christian history, we have no factual proof of who wrote the creed or when it was actually begun as a recitation of beliefs held to be true. But, as we are familiar with the writings of the New Testament, it is easy to find corresponding scriptures written by the gospel writers as well as in the letters of Paul. Putting these elements together, from both Old Testament writings and prophecies, and New Testament gospels and letters, it is possible the apostles left us this creed to remind us the wonders of our God.
Today, as the church continues to recite the Apostles’ Creed during our worship services, it is another wonderful example of God with us, always. It is an example of the continuation of the church down through the generations, showing us that our trust and hope is rightfully in our God.