The Apostle's Creed: An Introduction
Many have known the Apostle’s Creed from youth. Likely, it is the most popular creed in Christendom. The Anglican Prayer Book simply calls it, The Creed, like Thomas simply called Aristotle, the Philosopher. It has primacy of place.
And Christians have treated it that way. Universally, it seems to have been thought of as an expression which summarizes basic beliefs. For instance, you can find a number of simple books on the Apostle’s Creed, which are meant to explain the faith. Not to mention that throughout church history theologians have used it as a template to divide the heads of theology.
What is more, the Creed is often seen as something that unites Christians because it has that sense of taking one to the lowest common denominator, doctrinally speaking. But this prompts a question. Was the Apostle’s Creed written to occupy this sort of place in the church? Was it written as a universal summation of the Christian faith?
Before we can answer that question there may be another question lurking in the background with which we must deal. What reason or reasons were there for developing a creed in the early church? Foundationally, drawing up boundaries, transmitting truth and protesting error are the big three.
For instance, the Nicean Creed was formed to fence off Arianism. The Council of Constantinople in 381 dealt with the Decetism of Apollinarius. The council of Ephesus in 431 dealt with Nestorius. Boundaries, the passing on of truth and protest were uppermost in the thinking of these councils. And that is true of the creed known as the Apostle’s Creed.
It had its beginnings in Roman. In fact, it was originally called the Roman Symbol and appeared on the scene around 150 to 175 AD. So, perhaps the logical question is what was happening in Rome about that time? The answer is not hard to discover.
About 140 AD there was a man by the name of Marcion in Rome and his teachings were nothing short of heretical. For instance, he taught that the God of the OT was different from the God of the New. Thus, the God of the Christian was not the creator God of the OT. Marcion taught that the God of the OT was angry and stern whereas the God of the NT is a God of love.
According to Marcion, not only was the God of the OT angry, he also created all material. And if the God who created material was a mean old god, then the material he created must not be far behind in terms of badness! Now, think of the implication. If Jesus was different from that mean OT God, then Jesus couldn’t really have had a material body. Therefore, Marcion taught that Jesus only seemed to have a body. This, in particular is the heresy is docetism.
Dokew (transliteration) is Greek for “to seem.” Thus, Jesus only seemed to have a body. But Marcion wasn’t the only docetist around. There were others. For instance, the Gospel of Peter, another heretical document, began to circulate in the church after 150. And notice the docetism in it. It says of Christ, “And they brought two wrongdoers and crucified the Lord in the middle of them, but He was silent as having no pain.”
Do you see the docetism? Since Christ only appeared to have flesh he didn’t suffer pain. Furthermore, there was another docetic pastor in the church of Rome named Valentinus. He too was popularizing his heresy. And so naturally the church responded by formulating a creed.
And we have evidence that the Roman Symbol was developed at this time because we have two faithful pastors in Rome using it; Ireneaus, a student of Polycarp who was a disciple of John, and Turtullian. Both of these men mention and use the creed to combat the heresy of docetism that was beginning to emerge in Rome.
But if we think that simply introducing a creed brings an end to the heresy then we are more optimistic than theological. With the introduction of the creed the heretics sharpened their heretical teachings. And as the heretics refined their false theology the church was forced to further define orthodoxy. And so, the creed was gradually amended to answer the heretics.
For example, “Maker of heaven and earth” was a later addition to the creed, obviously in response to Marcion, who said that God the creator was separate from the God of the NT. The word “suffered” was also added. Why? Because the docetists claimed that Christ did not have a body and therefore did not suffer. And even though the resurrection was in the original form of the creed the word “body” was added for the sake of emphasis. We could also comment on the phrase “descended into hell” but since we are going to take that up later we won’t deal with it here.
Clearly, the Apostle’s Creed was an expression of truth meant to combat a particular heresy. But like all good creeds it unites the church in any generation around Biblical truth. So, in this series we are going to look at a valuable and enriching statement of the Christian Faith and we will do it line by line.
Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.