We Believe

The Story of the Apostles’ Creed

Article by

Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary

The Augsburg Confession. The Helvetic Confession. The Gallican Confession. The Belgic Confession. The Westminster Confession and Catechism. The Second London Baptist Confession. The Canons of Dort. What do these historic evangelical confessions have in common? Each of them has its roots in the Apostles’ Creed.

The Creed, also known as the Twelve Articles of Faith, expresses essential biblical doctrines that have been articulated, defended, and embraced for nearly two thousand years of church history. Many evangelical Christians throughout history have used the Apostles’ Creed as a personal proclamation of their own faith. Further, all evangelical denominations since the Protestant Reformation have affirmed the Apostles’ Creed without reservation.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
     creator of heaven and earth.

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 the dead.
     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.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
     the holy catholic church,
     the communion of saints,
     the forgiveness of sins,
     the resurrection of the body,
     and the life everlasting. Amen.

Against Heresy

The precise origin of the Apostles’ Creed is shrouded in mystery. Though there is no historical or textual evidence that it is the direct product of the apostles, the Creed does have roots in the apostles’ teachings and the generation of disciples that followed the apostles in the patristic era. An abbreviated version of the Creed can be traced back to the second century. It seems to have been used first as a confession at one’s baptism, and it also appears in some martyrdom accounts. By the fifth century, the Apostles’ Creed developed into the form as it is now used today (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1:204).

The Apostles’ Creed, like all creeds during the patristic era, was composed as a direct response to heresy in defense of the gospel and the Christian faith. It was intended to be apologetic in nature — to articulate the essentials of the Christian faith against a backdrop of heresy. The immediate heresy that the Creed responded to was Gnosticism. Gnosticism denied, among other tenets, the divine creation, the incarnation of Christ, the deity of Christ, and salvation by faith in Christ alone, all doctrines that are expressly affirmed in the Creed.

The early church fathers frequently cited articles of the Apostles’ Creed in their own apologetic treatises, most of which were written for pagan recipients in the Greco-Roman world. The articles of the Creed were succinct, yet weighty enough to be effective tools for sharing and defending the Christian faith in the first three hundred years of the church’s existence.

Ignatius of Antioch, in his Epistle to the Trallians, cited the Christological section of the creed in order to exhort the Trallian Christians to refute any teaching contrary to orthodox Christology (9:1–2). In Against Heresies, composed in the third century, Irenaeus cited several articles of the Creed to defend the patristic church’s beliefs and repudiate the teachings of Gnosticism (I.10). Similarly to Ignatius, Tertullian incorporated the entire Creed into his Prescriptions Against Heretics to “acknowledge what it is which we defend” (chapter 13). Augustine provided a theological exposition of the Creed in Of Faith and the Creed, arguing that it should be “committed to memory” and employed against the “insidious assaults of the heretics” (chapter 1).

Our Common Creed

Since the time of the early Christian church, the Apostles’ Creed has been affirmed in Reformed traditions and taught as a summary of our faith’s cardinal doctrines. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin averred that the Creed “furnishes us with a full and every way complete summary of faith, containing nothing but what has been derived from the infallible word of God” (2.16.8). John Old, an evangelical of the English Reformation, affirmed the Creed, because it “agreed wyth the doctrine of the gospell, and the apostles scripture” (The acquittal, sig. F5v). The Belgic Confession of 1561, which became the official doctrinal statement of the Dutch Reformed Church and one of the Three Forms of Unity, explicitly referenced the Apostles’ Creed as one of the historic creeds that “we willingly accept” (article 9).

The Reformers also frequently used the Creed as a didactic tool for their congregations and readers. For instance, Heinrich Bullinger, the Swiss Reformer and pastor of a church in Zurich, preached fifty sermons to his congregation on the “chiefe and principall pointes of Christian religion,” three of which were on the Apostles’ Creed (Fiftie godlie and learned sermons, title page). One of the leading French Reformers, Pierre Viret, published a massive exposition of the Creed in order to “shewe unto the supersticious christians, and Idolatours, howe they do and beleve all contrarie to the fayth whyche wyth theyr mouthes they confesse, to the ende they may learne to beleve wyth the hert that which they confesse wyth theyr mouthes” (A verie familiar [and] fruiteful exposition of the xii articles of the Christian faieth, sig. A2v). In his treatise, Viret unpacked each of the twelve articles, similarly as it has been in this series.

Not only did the evangelical clergy of the Reformation embrace and teach the Creed, but Protestant traditions since the Reformation have consistently upheld and defended its articles. William Perkins, an English Puritan, following the precedent of Viret and Bullinger in delivering an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, asserted that the Creed was “the very pith and substance of Christian religion, taught by the Apostles, imbraced by the ancient fathers, sealed by the blood of Martyrs” (An exposition of the Symbole or Creed of the Apostles, preface, sig. 3r). Richard Baxter, minister at Kidderminster parish, recommended that pastors lead their parishioners in reciting the Apostles’ Creed at baptism and the Lord’s Supper in order that they “declare what doctrine it is that we assemble to profess, and to preserve it in the minds of all” (The Christian Religion Expressed, sig. E5r).

Hold Fast the Confession

Subscribing to and systematically teaching the Apostles’ Creed is rooted in historical precedent and has timeless spiritual benefit for Christians of all eras. The Creed has been and continues to be a helpful aid for worship and discipleship in providing Christians with the summations of the essential doctrines of the faith. The Creed has been a centerpiece of evangelism in regards to Christian apologetics. Its truths remind Christians of the essence of their faith and to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

As we rehearse the Creed together as a church, however regularly, we pray that God would make Hebrews 10:23 true for us — that we “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” knowing that “he who promised is faithful.”