The Theology of the Ancient Creeds Part 2: The Apostles' Creed
Christianity, History, and Matter
As Christianity is a religion of words, it is also a religion of history and matter. Scripture begins with the creation of the temporal, material universe: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). God created man to function within that material and temporal environment (Gen. 1:26ff; 2:7, 15).
Yet God pronounced His creation "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Creation was not flawed because it was composed of matter or because it moved and changed in time. Man was not sinful because he was human or because his body was flesh. Sin began in man's heart when he chose to reject God's word and disobey His commandment (Gen. 3:1-7). Sin comes from the heart, not the body, from man's inner being, not from his environment (Mark 7:14-23).
For Christianity, then, salvation is redemption from sin and its effects: its goal is "the restitution of all things" ( Acts 3:21; cf. Rom. 8:18-23). Every other religion1 invites man to step out of history and creation into something else — pure spirit, non-existence, godhood; the Christian religion says that God has stepped into history to redeem and restore His creation.
The Bible not only begins with history; it is itself a book of history. It describes God's covenant acts in history from creation to the coming of Christ. It gives us genealogies and chronologies. It talks about real geography and calendar dates. It comes as biography and autobiography. Even the apostles' doctrinal letters were written to historical churches to meet actual and specific needs, and those letters at every point assume a historical Christ. In fact, when Paul summarized the gospel message, he wrote about the Christ of history:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once . . . (1 Cor. 15:3-6a).
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory (1 Tim. 3:16).
A Historical, Trinitarian Confession
"God was manifest in the flesh." The Christ of history is also the eternal Son of God. The Christian faith is Trinitarian as well as historical, and any confession of Christ must be both, at least implicitly. Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize believers "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19). It was natural enough, then, for officers of the early church to ask candidates for baptism such questions as: "Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?" We actually have one such set of questions from about AD 215:
Do you believe in God the Father All Governing?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was begotten by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died (and was buried) and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church, and (in the resurrection of the dead)?2
At this early date, the Trinitarian questions had already become more detailed, particularly the second. And the material that was added consisted of the very historical details that Paul and the other Apostles placed at the heart of the gospel: the incarnation, the crucifixion, the burial, the resurrection, and the ascension.
The Rule of Faith
Even earlier, however, the Church Fathers spoke of a Rule of Faith, a summary of those things that Christians must certainly believe. The Fathers followed in the Apostles' steps, recognizing that certain historical events were at the heart of Biblical Christianity. The words of the Rule were not yet fixed, but the content was fairly consistent from writer to writer. Ignatius of Antioch anticipates the Rule, writing about AD 107:
Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.3
About AD 180, the presbyters of Smyrna spoke of "what has been handed down."
We also know in truth one God, we know Christ, we know the Son, suffering as he suffered, dying as he died, and risen on the third day, and abiding at the right hand of the Father, and coming to judge the living and the dead. And in saying this we say what has been handed down to us.4
Irenaeus (c. AD 180) formulated the Rule of Faith in three different ways. Here is second.
To this order many nations of barbarians give assent . . . believing in one God, Maker of heaven and earth, and all that in them is, through Christ Jesus the Son of God; Who, for his astounding love towards his creatures, sustained the birth of the Virgin, himself uniting his manhood to God, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rose again, and was received in glory, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the judge of those who are judged; and sending into eternal fire the perverters of the truth and the despisers of his Father and his advent.5
Tertullian (c. AD 200) likewise records three forms of the Rule. This is the first.
The Rule of Faith is altogether one, sole, immovable, and irreformable-namely, to believe in one God Almighty, the Maker of the world; and His Son, Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the third day raised again from the dead, received in the heavens, sitting now at the right hand of the Father, coming to judge the quick and the dead, also through the resurrection of the flesh.6
The third form of Irenaeus's Rule includes a "firm persuasion also in the Spirit of God." Tertullian's second and third forms both speak of Christ sending the Holy Ghost. So despite the particular emphasis on Person and work of Christ in the Rule of Faith, the Trinitarian form remained.
By AD 340, what we know as the Apostles' Creed was finally beginning to take shape. Marcellus of Ancyra gives us this form:
I believe in God, All Governing;
And in Christ Jesus His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried, who rose from the dead on the third day, ascending to the heavens and taking his seat at the Father's right hand, whence He shall come to judge both living and dead;
And in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting.7
In its current form, the Apostles' Creed dates from the late 6th or 7th Centuries:
I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only (begotten) Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell [Hades]; the third day he rose 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 Ghost; the holy catholic8 Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body [flesh]; and the life everlasting. Amen.
The creeds and confessions of other religions give us abstract ideas or claims about ultimate reality. The Apostles' Creed gives us history. God the Father is the Creator and Ruler of history. Jesus Christ entered history to save His church. The Holy Spirit is at work within history, calling out and sanctifying that church. History will culminate in the Resurrection and the Last Judgment.
That the church should confess its faith in terms of God's great acts in history was inevitable given the nature of Christianity. That the church should confess the things she did when she did reflected her interaction and conflict with another religion, an anti-historical religion, called Gnosticism.
The Gnostic Error
After the Judaizing heresy that occupied so much of Paul's attention, the next significant religious enemy the early church faced was Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a hodgepodge religion rather than a Christian heresy, though some Christian heretics borrowed from it extensively.9 Paul and John both addressed such Gnostic-infected heresies.10
According to Gnosticism, there is a hierarchy of gods and god-like beings. The greatest of these is good and loving but completely detached from the world of time and matter. The actual creator of the world is a lesser being, the Demiurge. Because of this, matter is low and morally suspect. The human soul is a spark of divinity imprisoned in the sphere of matter, and man's salvation is the escape of his soul from its material prison back into the sphere of divinity. Esoteric knowledge — gnosis — provides the key.
Gnosticism made much of the magical and mystical, but it ignored the ethical. For Gnosticism, sin lay in matter itself: salvation involved an ascetic or, according to some, a licentious contempt for the body. In either case, God's law for His creation was irrelevant. What could the "spiritual" soul have to do with marriage, property, or children? Law was the province of the vengeful Demiurge.11 Within such a theology, atonement and forgiveness were meaningless concepts, and the Incarnation was unthinkable.
The church, too, had no place in Gnostic theology. Each man had to apprehend God on his own. Others were irrelevant, except those precious few with magical secrets to teach. Gnosticism reveled in its spiritual elitism. It was, after all, in the most Biblical sense, a religion of the "flesh" (cf. Gal. 5:19-21).
The Anti-Gnostic Creed
The Apostles' Creed protests against Gnosticism at every point. It insists that the divine Father is also the Maker of the material universe. It tells us that the eternal Son took to Himself a true human nature in the womb of the Virgin; that in that nature He suffered and died; that He rose again in the flesh and ascended into the heavens where He sits today at God's right hand.
The Creed recognizes the covenantal and communal dimensions of salvation: it confesses "the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints." The Creed acknowledges both the reality of sin and the reality of judicial forgiveness. The Creed speaks of an end to redemptive history, and it speaks of the resurrection of the body — "of the flesh the again-rising," as one ancient English version has it.12 The Creed defines the faith in terms of history, matter, covenant, law, and divine sovereignty.
We live in an age full of religious mysticism, much of it Gnostic in character. We are part of a church that no longer thinks in terms of matter or history or creeds. The first condition is in large measure the result of the second. If we are to answer the spirit of our age, we will have to go back to first principles. We need to see creation, history, and salvation as God sees them. The creeds of the church and the doctrines they contain have never been more relevant.
1. Excepting, of course, secular religions like Marxism. But even here man is invited to transcend the ordinary flow of history and assume a place of lordship over history.
2. "The Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus" in John H. Leith, Creeds of the Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 23.
3. "The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians" (shorter version) in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 reprint), 69.
4. "The Profession of the Presbyters of Smyrna" in Leith, 18.
5. "The Rule of Faith" of Irenaeus (2nd Form) in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990 reprint), 13.
6. "The Rule of Faith" of Tertullian (1st form) in Schaff, 17.
7. "The Creed of Marcellus" in Leith, 23.
8. "Catholic," of course, means "universal"; there is no reference here to Roman "Catholicism."
9. Docetism and Marcionism, for example.
10. See, for example, Paul's letter to the Colossians, especially ch. 2, and John's first and second epistles.
11. Marcion saw the whole Old Testament as the work of this vengeful, graceless God.
12. Quoted in Rousas J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (N.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1972), 4.
Topics: Church History, Church, The, Creeds, Theology