I offer the following teaching outline for those who wish to familiarize others with the Apostles’ creed. The outline assumes understanding of and agreement with the core doctrines of the faith expressed in the creed. Therefore, it only focuses attention on the later addition of questionable doctrines.
I. The Development of the Apostles’ Creed
The late Church historian Philip Schaff gives an excellent brief summary of the development of the Apostles’ Creed in the early Church:
As to the origin of the Apostles’ Creed, it no doubt gradually grew out of the confession of Peter, Matt. Xvi. 16, which furnished its nucleus (the article on Jesus Christ), and out of the baptismal formula, which determined the trinitarian order and arrangement. It can not be traced to an individual author. It is the product of the Western Catholic Church (as the Nicene Creed is that of the Eastern Church) within the first four centuries. It is not of primary, apostolic, but of secondary, ecclesiastical inspiration. It is not a word of God to men, but a word of men to God, in response to his revelation. It was originally and essentially a baptismal confession, growing out of the inner life and practical needs of early Christianity. It was explained to the catechumens at the last stage of their preparation, professed by them at baptism, often repeated, with the Lord’s Prayer, for private devotion, and afterwards introduced into public service. (Creeds of Christendom, Vol.1 “The History of the Creeds,” CCEL)
II. An Early Form of the Creed
Although not written by the Apostles themselves, the Creed does reflect Apostolic doctrine and a form of confession that is very ancient. It most likely originated in the form given here in the 3rd-4th centuries.
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; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at 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 catholic Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
III. A Contemporary Form of the Creed
The more common form of the Creed, which is often cited as a part of corporate worship in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, is also a fuller form of the Creed. An example of this is # 716 in The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Word Music, 1986), which is used by many Evangelical Christians. I have included it here with brackets indicating additional phrases.
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 hades]; 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 quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian church, [the communion of saints], the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Notice that this version also alters the phrase “holy catholic Church” to read “holy Christian church.” This change is probably due to a desire to avoid confusion because many wrongly equate the term catholic with the Roman Catholic Church. However, the word as originally included in the Creed was simply intended to refer to the universal Church.
Neither the phrase “He descended into hades” (wrongly translated in some English versions as hell rather than hades) nor the phrase “the communion of saints” was included in early forms of the Creed, and I think it best that we not include them either.
IV. An Argument for Retaining the Earlier Form of the Creed
A. An Argument for Excluding the Phrase “He descended into Hades”:
First, as was noted above, this phrase was not a part of the earliest versions of the Creed, as Wayne Grudem correctly points out:
It is surprising to find that the phrase ‘he descended into hell’ was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed (in the versions used in Rome, in the rest of Italy, and in Africa) until it appeared in one of two versions from Rufinus in A.D. 390. Then it was not included in any version of the Creed until A.D. 650. Moreover, Rufinus, the only person who included it before A.D. 650, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell, but understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ was ‘buried.’ In other words, he took it to mean that Christ ‘descended into the grave.’ (The Greek form was hades, which can mean just ‘grave,’ not gehenna, ‘hell, place of punishment.’)” (Systematic Theology, p. 586)
Second, it does not seem wise to me to include such a questionable doctrine in a creed designed to set forth only some of the most basic and essential doctrines of the faith. For example, I and many other Christians do not think that the view that Christ descended into hades can be established with certainty from Scripture. This can be demonstrated by a closer examination of the primary texts often cited as a basis for the doctrine.
a) 1 Peter 3:18-20:
NKJ 1 Peter 3:18-20 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”
In my view, Peter is referring to Christ’s having preached through Noah to those who had been alive while Noah was building the ark, but who are now “spirits in prison.”
Observe that Peter tells us that Jesus was made alive by the Spirit and that it is also by the Spirit that He “went and preached” (past tense) to the spirits “in prison,” which indicates their present status, but does not have to mean that they were “spirits in prison” at the time the preaching was done. Peter has previously spoken of the way in which the “Spirit of Christ” had been testifying through the Old Testament prophets and foretelling the coming sufferings of Jesus:
NKJ 1 Peter 1:10-11 “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.”
So, it would not be strange if Peter were to speak of Jesus’ having spoken also through Noah, as he prepared the ark, to those who are now “spirits in prison.” As a matter of fact, Peter elsewhere speaks of Noah’s having been a “preacher of righteousness”:
NKJ 2 Peter 2:4-5 “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; 5 and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly….”
The Greek word Peter uses to refer to Noah as a “preacher” is kerux, which is the noun form of the same word used to refer to Jesus’ having “preached” (kerusso) to the spirits now in prison.
In my opinion, all of this supports my interpretation of the text, an interpretation that has been around for quite some time, having been proposed, for example, by Augustine.
b) Acts 2:27:
NKJ Acts 2:27 “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”
Here Peter is quoting Psalm 16:10 with reference to Jesus, which in the Hebrew refers to God’s not allowing Him to remain in sheol, and which in this verse refers to the grave (not to Hades as a reference to the place of the intermediate state). That this interpretation is best is demonstrated by the reference in the latter part of the verse to “corruption.” Unfortunately, the NKJV that I have quoted simply transliterates the Greek word hades (which is itself the Greek translation of the Hebrew sheol) and the KJV has “hell” (which is not a good translation of either the Hebrew sheol or the Greek hades).
c) Ephesians 4:8-10:
NKJ Ephesians 4:8-10 “Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’ 9 (Now this, ‘He ascended’– what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)”
The phrase “descended into the lower parts of the earth” is sometimes taken to refer to a descent into Hades, but the text certainly doesn’t say this, nor does it need to be understood this way. The NIV, for example, brings out what is most likely the intent by translating the phrase, “he also descended to the lower, earthly regions.” That is, Paul is referring to Christ’s incarnation.
B. An Argument for Excluding the Phrase “the communion of the saints”:
As noted above, this phrase was not a part of the earliest versions of the Creed. It also suggests a later, improper understanding of our relationship to the saints in Heaven. Philip Schaff has observed:
The article ‘Commumionem sanctorum,’ unknown to Augustine (Enchir. c. 64, and Serm. 213), appears first in the 115th and 118th Sermons De Tempore, falsely attributed to him. It is not found in any of the Greek or earlier Latin creeds. See the note of Pearson On the Creed, Art. IX. sub ‘The Communion of Saints’ (p. 525, ed. Dobson). Heurtley, p. 146, brings it down to the close of the eighth century, since it is wanting in the Creed of Etherius, 785. The oldest commentators understood it of the communion with the saints in heaven, but afterwards it assumed a wider meaning: the fellowship of all true believers, living and departed. (Creeds of Christendom, Vol.1 “The History of the Creeds,” CCEL)
The discerning Evangelical Christian will quickly recognize the problem with this phrase, which is the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox overtones of praying to the saints, a practice rightly rejected by the Reformers and all who follow in their footsteps as incongruent with Scripture.
V. The Value of the Apostles’ Creed for Contemporary Christians
I would suggest a number of benefits of using the Apostles’ Creed in contemporary worship.
First, use of the Creed reminds us of our heritage as Christians and of God’s past work in preserving the Church from error. It thus leads us to praise Him for His faithfulness to past generations and to be encouraged that He will be faithful to us also.
Second, through its simplicity the Creed reminds us of the child-like faith with which we must all come before God.
Third, through its Trinitarian structure, the Creed reminds us of the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity to the Christian faith.
Fourth, it reminds us of the importance of maintaining our faith in our sovereign God as Creator. This is especially true in light of the modern error of evolution.
Fifth, through its emphasis upon the historical fact of Christ’s birth and crucifixion (note, e.g., the references to Mary and Pontius Pilate), it reminds us of the great importance of the historicity of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. This is especially important in the light of so much modern criticism of the Bible in which the account of Jesus is viewed merely as myth.
VI. The Inadequacy of the Apostles’ Creed as a Primary Statement of Faith for Contemporary Christians
Although beneficial to Christians as a reminder of some crucial doctrines of the faith and beautiful in its simplicity, the Creed is nevertheless insufficient to provide a complete summary of essential doctrines. Philip Schaff wisely observes:
[The Apostles’ Creed] is by far the best popular summary of the Christian faith ever made within so brief a space. It still surpasses all later symbols for catechetical and liturgical purposes, especially as a profession of candidates for baptism and church membership. It is not a logical statement of abstract doctrines, but a profession of living facts and saving truths. It is a liturgical poem and an act of worship. Like the Lord’s Prayer, it loses none of its charm and effect by frequent use, although, by vain and thoughtless repetition, it may be made a martyr and an empty form of words. It is intelligible and edifying to a child, and fresh and rich to the profoundest Christian scholar, who, as he advances in age, delights to go back to primitive foundations and first principles. It has the fragrance of antiquity and the inestimable weight of universal consent. It is a bond of union between all ages and sections of Christendom. It can never be superseded for popular use in church and school.
At the same time, it must be admitted that the very simplicity and brevity of this Creed, which so admirably adapt it for all classes of Christians and for public worship, make it insufficient as a regulator of public doctrine for a more advanced stage of theological knowledge. As it is confined to the fundamental articles, and expresses them in plain Scripture terms, it admits of an indefinite expansion by the scientific mind of the Church. Thus the Nicene Creed gives clearer and stronger expression to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity against the Arians, the Athanasian Creed to the whole doctrine of the Trinity and of Christ’s person against the various heresies of the post-Nicene age. The Reformation Creeds are more explicit on the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures and the doctrines of sin and grace, which are either passed by or merely implied in the Apostles’ Creed. (Creeds of Christendom, Vol.1 “The History of the Creeds,” CCEL)
VII. Summary Concerning the Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed as originally developed and used by the Church should be cherished by contemporary Christians as a valuable and helpful part of our Christian heritage. It should not be dismissed so easily and glibly as is often done by modern Baptists in particular. However, we should use it with a proper awareness of the later additions to the Creed, not assuming that these later additions truly reflect the ancient consensus of the Church. And we should be careful not to use it as though it provides a complete statement of faith for the contemporary Church, for we have been obliged to make more explicit many crucial doctrines as they have later come under attack.