What is the Apostles’ Creed And Why Is It Important?

Chris —  April 29, 2015

The Apostles’ Creed is the most well-known summary statement of what orthodox Christians hold to be true.[1] It reminds of us central points about which all Christians must agree, serves as a defense against heresies or false teachings which deny any element, summarizes the faith, and provides an important resource for either private or corporate worship.[2]

The Apostles Creed reflects that the historical church saw the need from very early times to confess important doctrines in creedal or doctrinal statements. This is not surprising because the New Testament explicitly references the importance of sound doctrine. In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul stresses that Timothy should counter the false teachers in Ephesus by means of sound doctrine. Likewise, Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders who could encourage God’s people by means of sound doctrine. In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul refers to sound doctrine with various labels:[3]

the faith: 1 Tim 1:3, 19; 3:9; 4:1, 6:10, 12, 21; 2 Tim 3:8; 4:7; Titus 3:15[4]

the truth: 1 Tim 2:4, 7; 3:15; 4:3; 6:3, 5; 2 Tim 2:18, 25; 3:7-8; 4:4; Tit 1:1, 14

the sound doctrine: 1 Tim 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 2:1

the teaching: Titus 1:9; 1 Tim 6:1

the good deposit: 1 Tim 6:20, 1 Tim 1:4 (literally)

Stott points out that, “In nearly every one of these expressions, the noun is preceded by the definite article, indicating that already a body of doctrine existed which was an agreed standard by which all teaching could be tested and judged. It was the teaching of Christ and his apostles.”[5]

The Apostles’ Creed dates back to 700. But far earlier fragments exist. The most well known influence would be what is known as the “Old Roman Creed” which comes from the second half of the second century.[6]

Every phrase of the Apostles’ Creed is important and worth studying. We should notice:

  • The Trinitarian organization of the Creed.
  • The affirmation that our heavenly Father created all things and is all-powerful (omnipotent).
  • The miraculous conception of Christ that was denied by liberal theology in the 19th and 20th centuries
  • The reference to Pontius Pilate that insists on the historicity of the death, burial, and resurrection of our King.
  • The certainty of the impending resurrection and final judgment.

The Heidleberg Catechism acknowledges the central importance of the Apostles’ Creed in questions 22-23:

Question 22. What is then necessary for a Christian to believe?

Answer: All things promised us in the gospel, (a) which the articles of our catholic undoubted christian faith briefly teach us.

(a) John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. Matt.28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Mark 1:15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Question 23. What are these articles?

Answer: 1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: 3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell: 5. The third day he rose again from the dead: 6. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: 7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: 8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: 9. I believe a holy catholic church: the communion of saints: 10. The forgiveness of sins: 11. The resurrection of the body: 12. And the life everlasting.

The version of the Apostles’ Creed our church uses features three translation/interpretive decisions.

  1. First, it reads, “he descended to the dead,” rather than, “he descended into hell.” This serves to avoid confusing people by implying that Christ spent the time between his death and the resurrection in hell.[7]
  2. Second, we have substituted “living” for the word “quick.” In our use of language “quick” references physical ability to respond rather than merely the idea of being alive.
  3. Third, we prefer “the holy universal Church” rather than “the holy catholic Church” so as to not confuse people that this is a reference to the Roman Catholic religion.

To those who object that no updates should be made to the Apostles’ Creed, we would remind them that this is not Scripture nor does it date to the Apostles themselves. Like the Bereans, we eagerly receive the historic teaching of the Church. But we also examine it to for ourselves to make sure that we are being consistent with the clear and plain teaching of Scripture (Acts 17:11). Further, these decisions make no change to the consensus of understanding regarding the meaning of the creed.[8]

These considerations in mind, the version of the Apostles’ Creed we use reads as follows:

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 to the dead[9]

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 come to judge the living

and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy universal Church,

the communion of the saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

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[1] On the importance of confessions and creeds see Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

[2] O.G. Oliver, Jr., “The Apostles Creed,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 73.

[3] The list is based on Stott’s summary, though there are several errors in the references. John R.W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, ed. John R.W. Stott, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 42.

[4] The “faith” group of words is very important in the Pastoral Epistles and the major commentaries usually have extended sections on Paul’s varied use of faith. See especially, Jerome D. Quinn, The Letter to Titus: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary and an Introduction to Titus, I and II Timothy, the Pastoral Epistles, vol. 1st (New York: Doubleday, 1990); I. Howard Marshall and Philip Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999); William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson, 2000).

For more on “the faith” see, Ibid., cxxxi–cxxxii. See also Mounce’s point that Paul’s emphasis is as on doctrine as a whole and not with a particular issue as in Galatians. Ibid., lxxvi.

On the theological activity of the New Testament church, see Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), xxx. On the necessity and centrality of doctrine to Christianity, see J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 18.

[5] Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, 42–43.

[6] Oliver, Jr., “The Apostles Creed,” 72.

[7] See Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 90; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 586–590.

[8] Trueman argues that we should not change the phrase, “he descended into hell.” But even he admits that it does not mean what it appears to mean. He writes, “Given the near universal presence of the Apostles’ Creed across the Christian spectrum, it is ironic that it also contains one of the most controversial and disputed statements in creedal and confessional history: the clause which states that ‘Christ descended into hell.’ This seems to be a statement with minimal biblical foundation and unfortunate soteriological implications, as if Christ’s death on the cross was somehow an insufficient act in itself to fulfill the mandate of the Suffering Servant. In fact, as is often the case in the history of theology, the creed’s offense at this point is based more on a surface reading of the words from a later context than upon their original intent. Thus, a careful exploration of the words reveals that the creed is not claiming anything particularly objectionable at this point.” Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, 90. Grudem’s response is far more balanced and does not treat a creedal statement as though it is the Bible itself. After a careful consideration of the phrase, he concludes, “At this point, people on all sides of the question of whether Christ actually descended into hell should be able to agree that at least that the idea of Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ is not taught clearly or explicitly in any passage of Scripture . . . Does the phrase ‘he descended into hell’ deserve to be retained in the Apostles’ Creed alongside the great doctrines of the faith on which all can agree? The single argument in its favor seems to be the fact that it has been around so long. But an old mistake is still a mistake—and as long as it has been around there has been confusion and disagreement over its meaning.” Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 593, 594.

[9] This change suggested by Cranfield, Apostles Creed: A Faith to Live By, Grand Rapids (Eerdmans, 1993), page 3. The change was first suggested by the International Consultation on English Texts and published in 1970. C.E.B. Cranfield, The Apostles Creed: A Faith to Live By (Grand Rapds: Eerdmans, 1993), 3.

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