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Apostles’ Creed

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Apostles’ Creed, 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.

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 (c. 380.—See Morin in Revue Benedictine, January, 1904) and about the same date to the Dalmatian, Niceta (Burn, Niceta of Remesiana, 1905). 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 (Burn, Introduction, 239; and Journal of Theol. Studies, July, 1902). We know nothing certain as to the reasons which led to the adoption of T in preference to R.


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 preexistent 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” (Magn., 6 and 7). While, with regard to the Holy Ghost, St. Clement of Rome at a still earlier date writer.: “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” (It). He admits consequently that “at the beginning of the second century this 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 this 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 I Peter, iii, 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 (see the article by Morin in Revue d’histoire et de litterature ecclesiastique, May, 1904, and the monograph of J. P. Kirsch, Die Lehre von der Gemeinschaft der Heiligen, 1900). 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.


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 represents the practice of the fifth century, assigns a special day of “scrutiny”, for the imparting of the Creed (traditio symbolz). 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 (Revue d’Histoire Ecclesiastique, October, 1904) has recently shown that this address is almost certainly the composition of St. Leo the Great. Further, three questions (interrogations) 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 Cornpline, 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, Q. i, art. 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 those 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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