The Apostles Creed, its origin and history

A formula containing in brief statements, or “articles,” the fundamental tenets of Christian belief, and having for its authors, according to tradition, the Twelve Apostles.

Throughout the middle ages it was generally believed that the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, while still under the direct inspiration of the Holy Ghost composed our present Creed between them, each of the Apostles contributing one of the twelve articles. This legend dates back to the sixth century, and it is foreshadowed still earlier in a sermon attributed to St. Ambrose which takes notice that the Creed was “pieced together by twelve separate workmen”. About the same date (c. 400) Rufinus gives a detailed account of the composition of the Creed, which account he professes to have received from earlier ages (tradunt majores nostri). Although he does not explicitly assign each article to the authorship of a separate Apostle, he states that it was the joint work of all, and implies that the deliberation took place on the day of Pentecost.. Moreover, he declares that “they for many just reasons decided that this rule of faith should be called the Symbol”, which Greek word he explains to mean both a token or password by which Christians might recognize each other, and collatio, that is to say an offering made up of separate contributions. A few years before this (c. 390, [c. meaning the year 309] ), the letter addressed to Pope Siricius by the Council of Milan (Migne, P.L., XVI, [year] 1213) supplies the earliest known instance of the combination Symbolum Apostolorum (“Creed of the Apostles”) in these striking words: “If you credit not the teachings of the priests . . . let credit at least be given to the Symbol of the Apostles which the Roman Church always preserves and maintains inviolate.” The word Symbolum in this sense, standing alone, meets us first about the middle of the third century in the correspondence of St. Cyprian and St. Firmilia, the latter in particular speaking of the Creed as the “Symbol of the Trinity”, and recognizing it as an integral part of the rite of baptism. It should be added, moreover, that Kattenbusch believes that the same use of the words can be traced as far back as Tertullian. Still, in the first two centuries after Christ, though we often find mention of the Creed under other designations (e.g. regula fidei, doctrina, traditio), the name symbolum does not occur. Rufinus was therefore wrong when he declared that the Apostles themselves had “for many just reasons” selected this very term. This fact, joined with the intrinsic improbability of the story, and the surprising silence of the New Testament and of the Ante-Nicene priority leaves us no choice but to regard the circumstantial narrative of Rufinus as unhistorical.

Among recent critics, some have assigned to the Creed an origin much later than the Apostolic Age. Harnack, e.g., asserts that in its present form it represents only the baptismal confession of the Church of Southern priority, dating at earliest from the second half of the fifth century. Strictly construed, the terms of this statement are accurate enough; though it seems probable that it was not in Gaul, but in Rome, that the Creed really assumed its final shape (see Burn in the “Journal of Theol. Studies”, July, 1902). But the stress laid by Harnack on the lateness of our received text (T) is, to say the least, somewhat misleading. It is certain, as Harnack allows, that another and older form of the Creed (R) had come into existence, in Rome itself, before the middle of the second century. Moreover, as we shall see, the differences between R and T are not very important and it is also probable that R, if not itself drawn up by the Apostles, is at least based upon an outline which dates back to the Apostolic age. Thus, taking the document as a whole, we may say confidently, in the words of a modern Protestant authority, that “in and with our Creed we confess that which since the days of the Apostles has been the faith of united Christendom”. The question of the apostolicity of the Creed ought not to be dismissed without due attention being paid to the following five considerations:

(1) There are very suggestive traces in the New Testament of the recognition of a certain “form of doctrine” (typos didaches, Romans 6:17) which moulded, as it were, the faith of new converts to Christ’s law, and which involved not only the word of faith believed in the heart, but “with the mouth confession made unto salvation” (Romans 10:8-10). In close connection with this we must recall the profession of faith in Jesus Christ exacted of the eunuch (Acts 8:37) as a preliminary to baptism) and the formula of baptism itself in the name of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity (Matthew 28:19; and cf. the Didache 7:2, and 9:5). Moreover, as soon as we begin to obtain any sort of detailed description of the ceremonial of baptism we find that, as a preliminary to the actual immersion, a profession of faith was exacted of the convert, which exhibits from the earliest times a clearly divided and separate confession of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, corresponding to the Divine Persons invoked in the formula of baptism. As we do not find in any earlier document the full form of the profession of faith, we cannot be sure that it is identical with our Creed, but, on the other hand, it is certain that nothing has yet been discovered which is inconsistent with such a supposition.

(2) Whatever difficulties may be raised regarding the existence of the Disciplina Arcani in early times, there can be no question that in Cyril of Jerusalem, Hilary, Augustine, Leo l, the Gelasian Sacramentary and many other sources of the fourth and fifth centuries the idea is greatly insisted upon; that according to ancient tradition the Creed was to be learned by heart, and never to be consigned to writing. This undoubtedly provides a plausible explanation of the fact that in the case of no primitive creed is the text preserved to us complete or in a continuous form. What we know of these formulae in their earliest state is derived from what we can piece together from the quotations, more or less scattered, which are found in such writers, for example, as Irenaeus and Tertullian.

(3) Though no uniform type of Creed can be surely recognized among the earlier Eastern writers before the Council of Nicaea, an argument which has been considered by many to disprove the existence of any Apostolic formula, it is a striking fact that the Eastern Churches in the fourth century are found in possession of a Creed which reproduces with variations the old Roman type. This fact is full admitted by such Protestant authorities as Harnack and Kattenbusch. It is obvious that these data would harmonize very well with the theory that a primitive Creed had been delivered to the Christian community of Rome, either by Sts. Peter and Paul themselves or by their immediate successors, and in the course of time had spread throughout the world.

(4) Furthermore note that towards the end of the second century we can extract from the writings of St. Irenæus in southern Gaul and of Tertullian in far-off Africa two almost complete Creeds agreeing closely both with the old Roman Creed (R), as we know it from Rufinus, and with one another. It will be useful to translate from Burn (Introduction to the Creeds, pp. 50, 51) his tabular presentation of the evidence in the case of Tertullian. (Cf. MacDonald in “Ecclesiastical Review”, February, 1903):

Such a table serves admirably to show how incomplete is the evidence provided by mere quotations of the Creed, and how cautiously it must be dealt with. Had we possessed only the “De Virginibus Velandis”, we might have said that the article concerning the Holy Ghost did not form part of Tertullian’s Creed. Had the “De Virginibus Velandis” been destroyed, we should have declared that Tertullian knew nothing of the clause “suffered under Pontius Pilate”. And so forth.

(5) It must not be forgotten that while no explicit statement of the composition of a formula of faith by the Apostles is forthcoming before the close of the fourth century, earlier Fathers such as Tertullian and St. Irenæus insist in a very emphatic way that the “rule of faith” is part of the apostolic tradition. Tertullian in particular in his “De Praescriptione”, after showing that by this rule (regula doctrinoe) he understands something practically identical with our Creed, insists that the rule was instituted by Christ and delivered to us (tradita) as from Christ by the Apostles. As a conclusion from this evidence the present writer, agreeing on the whole with such authorities as Semeria and Batiffol that we cannot safely affirm the Apostolic composition of the Creed, considers at the same time that to deny the possibility of such origin is to go further than our data at present warrant.

The old Roman creed
The Catechism of the Council of Trent apparently assumes the Apostolic origin of our existing Creed, but such a pronouncement has no dogmatic force and leaves opinion free. Modern apologists, in defending the claim to apostolicity, extend it only to the old Roman form (R), and are somewhat hampered by the objection that if R had been really held to be the inspired utterance of the Apostles, it would not have been modified at pleasure by various local churches (Rufinus, for example, testifies to such expansion in the case of the Church of Aquileia), and in particular would never have been entirely supplanted by T, our existing form. The difference between the two will best be seen by printing them side by side (Creeds R and T):

Click here for illustration: Old Roman Code Tertullian
R. and T.

Neglecting minor points of difference, which indeed for their adequate discussion would require a study of the Latin text, we may note that R does not contain the clauses “Creator of heaven and earth”, “descended into hell”, “the communion of saints”, life everlasting”, nor the words “conceived”, “suffered”, “died”, and “Catholic”. Many of these additions, but not quite all, were probably known to St. Jerome in Palestine and about the same date to the Dalmatian, Niceta. Further additions appear in the creeds of southern Gaul at the beginning of the next century, but T probably assumed its final shape in Rome itself some time before A.D. 700. We know nothing certain as to the reasons which led to the adoption of T in preference to R.

Articles of the creed
Although T really contains more than twelve articles, it has always been customary to maintain the twelvefold division which originated with, and more strictly applies to, R. A few of the more debated items call for some brief comment. The first article of R presents a difficulty. From the language of Tertullian it is contended that R originally omitted the word Father and added the word one; thus, “I believe in one God Almighty”. Hence Zahn infers an underlying Greek original still partly surviving in the Nicene Creed, and holds that the first article of the Creed suffered modification to counteract the teachings of the Monarchian heresy. It must suffice to say here that although the original language of R may possibly be Greek, Zahn’s premises regarding the wording of the first article are not accepted by such authorities as Kattenbusch and Harnack.
Another textual difficulty turns upon the inclusion of the word only in the second article; but a more serious question is raised by Harnack’s refusal to recognize, either in the first or second article of R, any acknowledgment of a pre-existent or eternal relation of Sonship and Fatherhood of the Divine Persons. The Trinitarian theology of later ages, he declares, has read into the text a meaning which it did not possess for its framers. And he says, again, with regard to the ninth article, that the writer of the Creed did not conceive the Holy Ghost as a Person, but as a power and gift. “No proof can be shown that about the middle of the second century the Holy Ghost was believed in as a Person.” It is impossible to do more here than direct the reader to such Catholic answers as those of Baumer and Blume; and among Anglicans to the very convenient volume of Swete. To quote but one illustration of early patristic teaching, St. Ignatius at the end of the first century repeatedly refers to a Sonship which lies beyond the limits of time: “Jesus Christ . . . came forth from one Father”, “was with the Father before the world was”. While, with regard to the Holy Ghost, St. Clement of Rome at a still earlier date writes: “As God lives, and the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit, the faith and hope of the elect” (cap. lviii). This and other like passages clearly indicate the consciousness of a distinction between God and the Spirit of God analogous to that recognized to exist between God and the Logos. A similar appeal to early writers must be made in connection with the third article, that affirming the Virgin Birth. Harnack admits that the words “conceived of the Holy Ghost” (T), really add nothing to the “born of the Holy Ghost” (R). He admits consequently that “at the beginning of the second century the belief in the miraculous conception had become an established part of Church tradition. But he denies that the doctrine formed part of the earliest Gospel preaching, and he thinks it consequently impossible that the article could have been formulated in the first century. We can only answer here that the burden of proof rests with him, and that the teaching of the Apostolic Fathers, as quoted by Swete and others, points to a very different conclusion.

Rufinus (c. 400) explicitly states that the words descended into hell were not in the Roman Creed, but existed in that of Aquileia. They are also in some Greek Creeds and in that of St. Jerome, lately recovered by Morin. It was no doubt a remembrance of 1 Peter 3:19, as interpreted by Irenaeus and others, which caused their insertion. The clause, “communion of saints”, which appears first in Niceta and St. Jerome, should unquestionably be regarded as a mere expansion of the article “holy Church”. Saints, as used here, originally meant no more than the living members of the Church. For the rest we can only note that the word “Catholic”, which appears first in Niceta, is dealt with separately; and that “forgiveness of sins” is probably to be understood primarily of baptism and should be compared with the “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” of the Nicene Creed.

Use and authority of the creed
As already indicated, we must turn to the ritual of Baptism for the most primitive and important use of the Apostles’ Creed. It is highly probable that the Creed was originally nothing else than a profession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of the baptismal formula. The fully developed ceremonial which we find in the seventh Roman Ordo, and the Gelasian Sacramentary, and which probably represented the practice of the fifth century, assigns a special day of “scrutiny”, for the imparting of the Creed (traditio symboli), and another, immediately before the actual administration of the Sacrament, for the redditio symboli, when the neophyte gave proof of his proficiency by reciting the Creed aloud. An imposing address accompanied the traditio and in an important article, Dom de Puniet has recently shown that this address is almost certainly the composition of St. Leo the Great. Further, three questions (interrogationes) were put to the candidate in the very act of baptism, which questions are themselves only a summary of the oldest form of the Creed. Both the recitation of the Creed and the questions are still retained in the Ordo baptizandi of our actual Roman ritual; while the Creed in an interrogative form appears also in the Baptismal Service of the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer”. Outside of the administration of baptism the Apostles’ Creed is recited daily in the Church, not only at the beginning of Matins and Prime and the end of Compline, but also ferially in the course of Prime and Compline. Many medieval synods enjoin that it must be learnt by all the faithful, and there is a great deal of evidence to show that, even in such countries as England and France, it was formerly learnt in Latin. As a result of this intimate association with the liturgy and teaching of the Church, the Apostles’ Creed has always been held to have the authority of an ex cathedra utterance.

It is commonly taught that all points of doctrine contained in it are part of the Catholic Faith, and cannot be called in question under pain of heresy (St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, II-II:1:9). Hence Catholics have generally been content to accept the Creed in the form, and in the sense, in which it has been authoritatively expounded by the living voice of the Church. For the Protestants who accept it only in so far as it represents the evangelical teaching of the Apostolic Age, it became a matter of supreme importance to investigate its original form and meaning. This explains the preponderating amount of research devoted to this subject by Protestant scholars as compared with the contributions of their Catholic rivals.

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