A Creed for the Second Century. . . and beyond

The Apostles’ Creed, like all creeds, is a statement of belief (from the Latin credo, to believe). Every creed is a document for its time and expresses the fundamental beliefs with which the church of its day was preoccupied. Critics of the creeds of early Christianity often start with the vocabulary of the creeds themselves, perhaps noting “unscriptural” language and failing to take into account the context in which each creed was written. Creeds are not meant to replace Scripture, but to outline what the church understands about key doctrines. Because differences of opinion have always been supported by a “verse by verse” volleying between opposing sides, it was often expedient to deliberately use different vocabulary and phrasing from the biblical text to explain what that text meant. Provided the explanation, or the creed itself is not taken to hold a higher place than the Scriptures on which it comments, that is perfectly valid. Bodies such as the Christadelphians use their own “Statements of the Faith” for precisely the same purpose, even though some aspects of vocabulary quickly become dated and some issues change in prominence over time.
The Apostles’ Creed was composed, not by the apostles themselves, but in the tradition of apostolic teaching, around 150 AD. This is within a generation or two of the twelve apostles’ own lifetimes. It was originally known as the “Symbol of the Faith” and was a means of distinguishing truth from the prominent heresies of the day. Most probably it was used as a baptismal confession, which is why it has a triadic structure, in keeping with the command to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Later creeds continued this triadic pattern and it was also popular in the earliest post-New Testament writings, the extant documents collectively known as the Apostolic Fathers (for example, 1 Clement, written AD 95-97).
To understand the Apostles’ Creed, we need to place ourselves in the sandals of second century Christians. With what was the church preoccupied in these very early days? The Apostolic Fathers’ writings take the divinity and humanity of Christ as a given (for example, check out the letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, c. 98-117AD, which can be found at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-ephesians-lightfoot.html). This is well before the Arian and Christological controversies of later centuries and as a rule, if something isn’t controversial, you don’t write a creed about it. This is why we don’t see the details of the unity and triune nature of God or the two natures of Christ in the Apostles’ Creed, but they are the focus of the later Nicene and Athanasian creeds. Ignatius and other second century writers were, however, very concerned with contemporary heresies in the church, which primarily centred on the person and status of Christ.

The big issues, then, were challenges from within the church which denied the humanity of Jesus, such as Docetism and Gnosticism, or the divinity of Jesus, such as Judaizing and Ebionism, and the challenge from outside the church of the polytheistic Roman and eastern religions, superimposed on which was the increasingly prominent worship of the emperor.
The Greeks had a dualist view of the world; “matter” was regarded as inherently evil, “spirit” as divine and good. The two were as oil and water and most certainly did not mix. Hence one’s ultimate destiny was to become pure spirit, freed from the contamination of matter, and the idea that the ultimate Deity would dirty his hands to create the physical world was anathema. From this dualist philosophy grew the two major challenges to the humanity of Christ. Docetists (from the Greek dokeo, to seem) taught that Christ only seemed human. He was a divine being and so could not possibly exist in a material body. Deity is impassible, claimed the Greeks, and could not be mingled with impure flesh. Therefore Christ’s humanity and suffering were an illusion. We can see evidence of this heresy as early as the first century New Testament writings (eg., 1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7) Ignatius rails against those who “declare that Jesus Christ did not come in flesh but only as spirit, and exhibited an appearance of flesh” (eg., Trallians 9-10; Smyrnaeans 1-3)

Gnosticism was not a single religion but a philosophy that permeated many religions. At its heart was the idea that redemption consisted of the liberation of the divine element in humanity from its matter entrapment. This was accomplished by the bestowal of special knowledge, gnosis, by the heavenly redeemer figure. In the “Christian” versions of Gnosticism this figure is the invisible and impassible Christ, who joined himself to a lower Christ, himself of necessity not real flesh and blood.
At the other end of the heretical spectrum was Ebionism, an offshoot of Jewish Christianity, that denied the divinity of Christ altogether. Not only were they cast in the mould of the Judaizers who would have imposed the law of Moses on Gentile believers, but beyond that rejected the teaching that Jesus was the Son of God. To Ebionites, he was the natural son of Joseph and Mary. Later Gentile heretics such as Theodotus taught adoptionism, that Jesus was a mere man adopted by God and designated “Christ” at his baptism.

In addition to battling these internal wolves among the flock, second century Christians were decidedly at odds with the culture in which they lived. Graeco-Roman culture was a polytheistic, syncretistic culture, reminiscent of today’s postmodern apparent tolerance of any and every style of religious thought — but only up to a point. You could worship any gods you wanted provided you acknowledged that Caesar was Lord. Such an acknowledgement was a formality; a pinch of incense, a pronouncement, and need in no way detract from your personal religious devotions or daily life. Unless, of course you were a Christian, who held that Jesus is Lord. By not acknowledging the Graeco-Roman pantheon, Christians were regarded at best as obscurely antisocial and at worst as child-eating “atheists.” By not acknowledging Caesar as Lord, they were traitors and a disruption to the fragile unity of the Empire. Persecution began in the late first century — Ignatius was martyred in the reign of Trajan — and continued intermittently and with increasing terror and violence until the fourth century when Constantine decided to unite the empire under Christianity instead. So second century Christian writings were also very concerned with defending the faith against the accusations and rumours levelled against it by polytheists. As Paul had explained to the incredulous Athenians, the God unknown to them was actually both the one supreme God and the creator of heaven and earth — a preposterous and illogical alignment to the Greek mind.

And so we come to the Apostles’ Creed, which can be found at https://www.ccel.org/creeds/apostles.creed.html

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 Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried:
The third day he rose again 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 quick and the dead:
I believe in the Holy Ghost:
I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.

The creed is arranged in a triadic formula; God the Father, Jesus Christ our Lord, Holy Spirit, with some additional articles following. The section on Jesus stands out as more detailed than the rest of this otherwise brief and simple creed. This is because the statements chosen specifically counter the heresies of the day; Docetism, Gnosticism, Ebionism and the lordship of Caesar. The first statement, God the Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, is a stark refutation of Greek dualism. The Almighty Father-God is actually the Creator of matter! What a concept!
The next article is directed at those who would deny the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, a virgin birth. These are things the Ebionites denied. As Ignatius affirms, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.” (Ephesians 18:2)
The virgin birth is viewed with scepticism in some quarters today by those who deny the miraculous. But to second century Greeks it wasn’t the miraculous that was the problem, it was that the heavenly redeemer would be actually born. Not only that, but he suffered, was crucified, dead and buried! These are things that only happen to real, fleshly human beings. Docetists and Gnostics denied that Jesus had these earthy experiences, he only seemed human, and they explained away his apparent death by substituting others on the cross or by other tenuous proposals. But even more astounding was the claim that, having been released from his earthly existence, he was resurrected to take up a bodily form again! This was the last thing a dualist Greek thinker would imagine for the afterlife, no wonder the preaching of the cross was foolishness to them. Not only that, but he will return bodily to raise the dead! This redeemer figure has not imparted a special knowledge to free men’s souls from entrapment to matter, but to reunite souls with perfected bodies. Inconceivable!
Christ ascended after his resurrection and sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty in heaven. This is the ultimate throne, the highest place, reinforcing the Christian claim that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2:9–10, but notice the similarity of this part of the creed to the whole passage Phil 2:6–11). And if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar definitely is not.

The Holy Spirit is included in a simple affirmation of faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, according to the New Testament pattern favoured by many early Christian writers.
“For as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit, who are the faith and the hope of the elect. . .” (1 Clement 58.2)
The “holy catholic church” here is no reference to Roman Catholicism. “Catholic,” Greek kata holos, simply means according to the whole, or universal. The universal church is the communion of saints, the sanctified ones, both Jew and Greek. Forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body are the Christian’s hope, not some future ethereal existence or works-based struggle for approval. Resurrection is the gateway to life everlasting.
In a few simple statements this creed demolishes polytheism, Gnosticism, Docetism, Judaising and the emperor cult, defining the essentials of faith in the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, affirming the true humanity and deity of Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. As Paul states succinctly in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The early Christian believers, poised for baptism into the three-fold Name, proclaimed their personal conviction of the essentials of this belief, in continuity with the communion of saints from New Testament times to today, expressing the hope of eternal life which neither persecution nor distress or any peril imposed by the antagonists of this world can extinguish.

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