The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest and most beloved creeds of the Christian church. A Creed (Latin for ”symbol”) is a simple, memorable statement that quickly details the central tenets of a faith. The early church adopted many creeds (some scholars suggest that Phil. 2:6-11 is an early one!) to help communicate the central truths of Scripture to each other as well as to those who were interested in learning about Christianity. It was common in the early church to assign authoritative titles to certain writings to gain widespread approval – hence, assigning the title of “Apostles” to this creed.
The earliest mention of the creed is in a letter to Pope Siricius (390AD) as a statement that the true faith of Christianity is one that contains the beliefs of the creed of the Apostles. A lot of scholars believe that the statement that we have today is based off a 2nd century baptism creed called the Old Roman Creed (or Symbol). This means that the earliest believers saw creeds as a central part of their worship experience!
The creed itself is full of true statements of God the father, the person and work of Jesus, as well as the activity of the Holy Spirit. However, there are three lines within the Apostles’ Creed that give the most cause for confusion: (1) The line that Jesus “descended into hell”, (2) the line “I believe…in the holy catholic church”, and (3) “the communion of saints”.
1. In I Peter 3:19-20, Peter describes Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison” (ESV) after he died on the cross and before he was raised from the dead three days later. This passage exists amidst Peter’s larger discussion on suffering. His over-arching point in this passage is to teach that Jesus suffered and died just like many believers were currently doing (and still doing today!). The early church took this to mean that Jesus descended into the land of the dead (or Sheol in the bible; old English translated it as hell, but not the place of the damned) since he was 100% human and brought the message of salvation to those who had passed away before he lived. It is simply a statement that means that Jesus died for all those who believed in the Christian God, even those who lived and died before Jesus died – pretty cool!
2. In John 17:23, Jesus prays that the disciples (and by extension all believers) are to be one in unity in the same way that the Trinity is one in unity – a HUGE prayer given Jesus knows us inside and out! The word “catholic” is a Latin word that means “universal” and the line should be read that “I believe…in the holy universal church” – meaning, we believe that God is best experienced and worshiped in the context of community.
3. For some who come from a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox tradition, the idea of communing with saints might be understood that believers are actually talking with those who have gone before us. It could be read that way, but it does not have to be read that way. Saints is a term that is used over 50 times in the New Testament and used frequently by Paul to describe believers. As the line appears right after the idea that we are all a part of a physical church of God, you can read this passage to mean that we are also spiritually linked to each other as well (see Rom 12 and Paul’s teaching of believers being built up into the house of God).
Overall, the creeds of the church like the Apostles’ Creed have a strong place within the worship of the church. They teach the truths of the faith (or doctrine) to young and old alike, and when spoken together by believers, focus us on what unites us rather than those items that make each of us unique.
Would love to hear your thoughts and impressions of the Apostles’ Creed and maybe begin a fruitful dialogue!