The Apostles’ Creed, a creed of the ancient Church

The Apostles’ Creed, a creed of the ancient Church

The Apostles’ Creed, a confession of faith of the Ancient Church

The Apostles’ Creed  has been recited for centuries. It is still proclaimed in catholic churches and churches of the protestant Reformation, and also in some evangelical churches. Was the Apostolic symbol drafted jointly by the apostles of Jesus Christ during the 1st Jerusalem Council? No, that is a pious legend !

What is the “Apostles’ Creed”?

It is a confession of faith written in Latin. It contains the truths necessary to the public declaration of faith of new converts on the day of their baptism.

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchIt was first written at the end of the 4th century by Rufinus of Aquileia in the north of Italy, near Venice.
Then it was completed in the eight century after a few intermediates steps, by Pirmin of Reichenau, near Konstanz.
Finally it was ” canonized”, officially recorded in the 9th century by Charlemagne for the use of the whole latin west Mediterranean church. In the eastern part,  the language of the church was Greek.

Comment on the terms of the Apostles’ Creed

A comment on the terms of “Apostles’ Creed” with its amendments and additions can help to understand how the Christian doctrine was built in the early centuries of the Church. It will be noted that the doctrinal truths were often stated as a reflection in opposition to the  heretic currents.

In form of “ a series to follow”, we will specify each asserted latin heading of this confession of faith, but don’t worry, it will be translated.

Credo in Deum Patrem Omnipotentem / I believe in God the Father Allmighty

A personal confession of faith

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchAs in all Latin and Greek texts, the first word (incipit) gives the title and theme of the following text which is a confession of faith:  “I believe”.
Unlike other collective creeds expressed in the plural as the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (in Greek) and that of Athanasius (in Latin), the “Apostles’ Creed” was a personal confession of faith at baptism, therefore in the first person singular.
Other religions of the time, including the Jewish religion, were related to one’s nationality or ethnicity. They were generally accepted without requiring a personal membership. The Roman citizen, too, did not need to express his personal agreement with the traditional Roman religion inherited from his ancestors.

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient Church

The Christian Church was officially recognized by the Emperor Theodosius in 380 after several centuries of persecution. Then the paganism was banned and all Roman citizens were forced to adhere to the Christian faith. However, the distinction has always continued to be maintained between secular citizenship and religious commitment expressed by baptism, although this difference was diluted later in some countries.



A creed of monotheism

Credo in Deum / I believe in God

The monotheism, belief in one God, a cultural revolution

Atheism today consists in rejecting the existence of the biblical God. In Greco-Roman antiquity, one was accused of atheism when one refused to worship the national gods and/or the emperor.

The monotheism (belief in one God)with the notion of a personal God who created the universe and continues to take care of it (Ps 104. 24-30) represents  in that time a cultural revolution.

Patrem Omnipotentem / Father Almighty

Divine fatherhood in Jewish and Christian context

God is first defined as well as Father, source of life, which implies a personal relationship, and as the Almighty. In the Bible, the two concepts are distinct.

The issue of divine paternity separated Christians from Jews: the latter reproached Jesus calling God his Father (John 5:18).

Omnipotence of God

But the omnipotence (all-powerfullness) of God, the clear evidence of the superiority of Israel’s God over all other gods, was an essential element of faith: Elijah gives a scathing evidence to the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18.20-40).

Divine fatherhood in a pagan context

Polytheism and conflicts of power between rival divinities

In contrast, for the pagan community, the divine fatherhood is a part of the cultural and religious heritage. Like humans, the Greek and Roman mythological deities have ancestors and descendants, for example Jupiter, son of Saturn, has a large offspring …
At the same time, the fact of sharing the spiritual power between a large number of gods makes omnipotence impossible. This obviously leads to polytheism with an inevitable conflict between rival clans of gods. One feels obliged to include all conceivable gods in order to displease none of them (unknown god Acts 17) and to be protected against all of them, wherever one can be (1 Kings 20:23)

We could conveniently explain the mystery of evil by a conflict between rival deities, as in dualism, opposing the spiritual world of light (= good) and the physical, material world (= bad).

Christian faith and trust in God Almighty

But the Christian prefers to place his trust in God almighty, superior to all other obedient or rebellious spiritual forces, which are anyway subject to him (Isaiah 45.23, Philippians 2:10). The Almighty God is perfectly sufficient to protect the one who loves him.

Baptism in the Ancient Church

In the ancient church that followed the New Testament church, any person seeking baptism must first be taught two or three years and provide evidence of his loyalty to the true Christian faith. We find a testimony to it in the Didache, or “doctrine of the Lord sent to the nations by the twelve apostles.” This is a very old catechism based on the teachings of Christ, especially useful in that time, when all the books of the New Testament had not yet been collected.

Not a text to be recited, a confession of faith to live

The Apostles Creed is not a text to recite by heart, as a formula, but a true confession: it shows that people understand the main points of the biblical truth and were warned against paganism and his heretical deviations.

Thus, on Easter, before the assembled church, the person called to be baptised declares that God the creator of the universe is his father and also his protector and no foreign power is able to touch or to harm him against the divine will.

God creator ex nihilo, from nothing, by his word

Creatorem Coeli and Terrae / Creator of Heaven and Earth

This qualification is not new, no one in the Church of that time disputes that God Almighty created the heavens and the earth. But it provides some details.

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchCreation without pre-existing material

When God created heavens and  earth, he created them by his word, from scratch. He did not use material that already existed, as the potter shapes vases from clay or the painter who expresses his art on a canvas with colors. Preexisting material would require an earlier creative power, according the dualistic theory.

Heaven and earth, physical realities and spiritual symbols

Heaven and earth are physical realities but also spiritual symbols: the abode of God and the world in rebellion against him. But there is a risk to emphasize the contrast between a good spiritual world and an evil material one . Linking the creative power of God with his omnipotence excludes that a lesser God (demiurge) would have created the material things which are declared bad (Gnostic or Manichean dualism).

“Creator, heaven and earth”, complementarity between spiritual and material,

To put together in the same phrase “creator” and “heaven and earth” expresses the complementarity between spiritual and material, visible and invisible: both were created by the same God. The spiritual is not necessarily good and the material necessarly bad. The conflict between good and evil takes first place in the spiritual spheres before they affect the material world.
Divine perfection can manifest itself in the material sphere, so the incarnation of the Son of God is conceivable.

A creed on Jesus Christ and the trinity

And In Jesum Christum Filium Ejus Unicum Dominum Nostrum
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord

Jesus Christ, Lord, of essence (being) identical with God in the Trinity

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchJesus Christ, the only Son of God the Father has a special status as heir of all. It is the only possible way leading to God.

Lord DOMINUM, which translates YHWH, the proper name of God in the Old Testament, confers to Jesus an essence (being) identical to that of God in the Trinity. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior, can not be separated from obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Exclusion of two heresies: adoptianism and arianism

This excludes two heresies of the first centuries :

•   Adoptianism, which pretends that Jesus was a man approved by God as a son at his baptism or resurrection, and would have so acquired a heavenly status
•    Arianism, which denied him a deity equal to the deity of the Father ton the pretext that the begetting by the Father gives him a second position.

Distinction between the conception by the Holy Spirit and the Birth by Mary

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchRufin says

Qui Natus est de Spiritu Sancto et Maria Virgine
That was born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary

Firmin, later, amends and supplements Rufin:

Qui Conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, Natus ex Maria Virgine,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary,

Separating more clearly the conception by the Holy Spirit and the birth by Mary, it provides fundamental information.
The Holy Spirit is not the partner of Mary in a kind of spiritual union that would have resulted in the miraculous, virginal conception of Jesus’ body.

A creed on the “outgoing work” of the Trinity

The “outgoing” work, common to the three persons,

This is the result of the “outgoing” work of the Trinity, common to the three persons,

The Father has the power to create – ‘You prepared a body for me’, The Son has the power of organizing The Holy Spirit has the power to make perfect ”

This is what declared Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Christian Reformed theologian of the 19th century in his book” The work of the Holy Spirit

Divinity of the son by the whole Trinity in three person

It is not only the Spirit who gives his divinity to the Son, but the whole Trinity in three persons.

Humanity by Mary

For its humanity, Jesus depends on Mary. He takes from her his human nature united to his divine nature in one person who is at the same time fully divine and fully human.

Human nature tainted by original sin

But the human nature, as everybody knows, is tainted by sin from the beginning, as a congenital stain on the soul, inherited at the conception and transmitted to succeeding generations?
Originally, man as he was created by God was good, of course ; if he had continued not to sin, if he had not succumbed to the temptation, he would naturally have remained the son of God. He lost this good nature because of original sin, which is not a congenital defect but the breakdown of the relationship established by God at creation.

Jesus without a human father, therefore without sin

Jesus never sinned, because the chain of transmission has been broken: the legacy of sin coming through the father, but Jesus had no human father.

Trying to resolve the issue of cleansing from sin in Mary led to the idea of a pre-purification at the conception of Jesus and the relatively late dogma of “immaculate conception” of Mary herself, in 1854 .

A creed on the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus-Christ

Rufinus :

Qui sub Pontio Pilato crucifixus et sepultus est – Who under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, and buried;

Pirmin :

Qui passus Sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortus et sepultus est- Who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;

Pontius Pilate is the only pagan named in a Christian confession of faith

A proof of the existence of Pilate

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchArchaeological excavations in 1961 uncovered a stone with four lines partially scratched out with the inclusion of his name : ” Tiberium ( emperor of the time ) … … Pontius Pilate Prefect of Judea .”

The events of the crucifixion are rooted in a historical context outside of the church , which confirms the fact. The text of Pirmin adds clarification to the older text of Rufinus : Jesus “suffered , was crucified , died and was buried .”

Jesus-Christ was a real man (against Docetism)

It is obvious that Jesus died because death is the inevitable consequence of a crucifixion. But it was not accepted by all.

For docetism, Jesus a celestial being under the aspect of a man

From the earliest days of the Church, Docetism (from the Greek dokeo ” look or sound “), denied that Jesus came to earth as a real man. According to this heresy , it was a heavenly being who had taken the appearance of a man , his incarnation and crucifixion was a mere façade. This is the heresy that John was already fighting against, when he said:

Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has truly become a man comes from God. Every spirit, however, who does not recognize this Jesus, does not come from God. 1 John 4.3. A few centuries later, Islam has claimed that at the time of crucifixion, the persons have been mixed up and it was not Jesus, but another who died on the cross.

Through his suffering an death, identification with humanity

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchThese details are also given in order to show that through his suffering, Jesus obeyed the Father’s will and in his death, he achieved a total identification with  man. Jesus Christ not only paid the debt of sin, like the Good Samaritan paid the debt for the care of the man he had rescued. Becoming sin itself by substitution, he completely removed by his death the debt of the sin.

The classic text adds

Descendit ad inferno / He descended into hell

No second chance for salvation but the proclamation of Christ’s victory over Satan

This precision, absent in Rufinus, tries to interpret  a difficult verse, 1 Peter 3:18-20,which says, that Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah”

Literally, this preaching in the hell concerns only those who died until the time of Noah , but not those who died later on and this could be seen as an injustice.

This verse has been used to reassure Christians in the civilizations of the Near East, where ancestor worship had  a strong influence. They could not consider  that a deceased parent could  be lost without having had the opportunity to hear during his life the preaching of the Gospel.

But this verse also could create a precedent. Would Jesus have preached after their death to people who during their lifetime did not have opportunity to hear the Gospel, then there could be a second chance for salvation after death , as claimed by some sects .

There is no guarantee that the message “in the hell ” is a message announcing salvation: it could  be a proclamation of victory over Satan.  It is not sure either that the persons concerned have accepted this message of salvation, if it was one That Jesus came down to hell means defeat for Satan, finally defeated on his own territory. The Son of God  identified himself with humanity , he chose to take on himself until the end the human destiny, even to pass through hell from where he was rescued.

A true resurrection after a real death


Tertia die ressurrexit a mortuis, ascendit in caelos sedet ad dexteram Patris – The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father

Pirmin states:

Dei Patris Omnipotentis – God The Father Almighty

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchAll the power of God in the resurrection and the session of the Son to the right of the Father

Pirmin emphasizes the omnipotence of God the Father; this omnipotence related to the divine authorship of the creation of the world and the begetting of the Son is here again manifested for the resurrection and the presence in heaven of the raised Son on the right hand of God the Father.

No apparent death

The real resurrection after a real death of three days, but not longer, so that the body is not likely to disappear, closes the mouths of those who claim that the death of Jesus would only have been a prolonged fainting, an apparent death.

Ascension: the heavenly ministry of intercession and judgment of Christ


recalls the words of Jesus to the high priest when he appeared before the Jewish High Council : “In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.

The elevation of Christ into heaven on Ascension is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7.13-14.

Jesus Christ at the right hand of God: ministry of intercession and rules over the universe until the Last Judgment

The work of Christ paying for the sins of humanity does not end at the cross. It takes its full meaning at the time of the Ascension, when the Son brought to his Father the sacrifice that allows the forgiven sinner to enter into the presence of God. The Son sits on the Father’s right to exercise his heavenly ministry of intercession ( Romans 8:34 ) and to rule over the whole world until doomsday ” when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father ” (1 Corinthians 15.24)

Any judgment given to the Son

Unde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos – From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

It is Christ who comes to judge : The Father judges no one , but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.John 5.22.
This judgment applies to all humans, living as well as dead.  At the last trumpet … the dead will be raised , imperishable and we  (the living) …  will be changed(1 Corinthers 15.51-52), then all will be judged and will be saved  in God’s presence or lost far away from him.

The affirmation of the doctrines on the Holy Spirit and the Trinity

Credo in  Spiritum Sanctum / I believe in the Holy Spirit

By repeating “Credo / I believe”,  the person to be baptized emphasizes the affirmation of  his belief in the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Trinity icon

The Trinity is illustrated by the so-called icon of the Trinity of Andrei Rublev. These are the three men who appeared to Abraham in the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18). Roublev, following the Fathers of the Church, interprets it as a figure of the mystery of the indivisible Trinity.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit

The doctrine of the Spirit is asserted from the beginning of the Church, but it will be developed in the 4th century. According to Gregory of Nyssa, an early Church theologian, “it took time to resolve the issue of the Son before addressing the question of the Spirit, first explaining who is the Son and  then who is the Spirit, because the Spirit is the “ambassador of the Father and of the Son.”

The doctrine of “filioque” (and the Son)
The Holy Sprit proceeds from the Father and from the Son

Apostles' creed, confession of faith, Ancient ChurchThe assertion of Gregory – “Ambassador of the Father and of the Son” announces the doctrine of “Flioque” (“and the Son”).This will be added in the 6th century to the Western version of the Nicene Constantinople Creed. It is a profession of faith written in Greek, common to the three major Christian denominations, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism :

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and from the Son. With the Father and the Son he is equally worshiped and glorified, he has spoken through the prophets”.

The doctrine of “filioque”, a double procession of the Spirit, who comes from both the Father and the Son, was accepted by the Latin (and Protestant) Church, but was rejected by the Eastern Church which says that the Spirit proceeds (comes) from the Father alone. This refusal is a cause of the Great Schism of 1054 between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church

Believing in the Holy Spirit also means believing in his work

In catholicism, through the magisterium of the church

In catholicism, the Spirit works  objectively through the magisterium of the church, even without the conscious participation or without the approval of the person concerned. Thus, baptism administered to an infant would make him a christian, and a non-believer participating in the Eucharist, receives the body and blood of Christ through the transformation of bread and wine brought about by the words of consecration.

For protestantism, in the transformation of the heart

For protestantism, the work of the Spirit is not in an outward acts but in the transformation of the heart.

This work is interpreted differently by protestants  and various denominations. For some, it is manifested by powerful works or extraordinary spiritual gifts,  for others by conduct and faithfulness  worthy of the Word of God, even without special glamour.

The catholicity of the Church

The universal faith “practiced everywhere, by everyone at all times.”

Sanctam ecclesiam / The holy church

Remissionem peccatorum / The forgiveness of sins

Pirmin adds an important theological development

Sanctam ecclesiam  catholicam / The holy  universal  church

Sanctorum communionem / The communion of  saints

Catholic = universal, not Roman catholic

In the context of this confession completed in the 8th century, “Catholic” does not mean Roman Catholic. It is a common Greek word which means “universal.”

The catholicity of the Church is defined in the 5th century by Vincent of Lerins as the universal faith “practiced everywhere, by everyone at all times.”

It manifests itself in space, time, and history.

– In space

Converted christians of all countries, whether or not assembled in local communities, including Christians isolated in countries where persecution is raging, are spiritually united by their faith in the same Lord. They participate in the communion of the saints of the visible and invisible universal Church.

– In history

The doctrine of faith is based on Jesus Christ, the cornerstone which establishes the faith and unites the believers. The life of the Church is built on the basis of the apostles’ and prophets’ teaching (Ephesians 2:20). It’s without adding dogmas or systems particular to sects or diversions of the truth. This could be harmful for the reason or the sensitivity of the modern man, such as the replacement of the hell conceived as eternal separation from God by the destruction of the condemned souls.

– In time

The Bible whose writing was completed in the early centuries of our era is still relevant today. In its principles and truths illustrated by examples. It meets the universal questions of man about his origin and his destiny. Who I am, from where I come, what is my destiny?

The forgiveness of sins, central to the Christian life

Remissionem peccatorum / The Forgiveness of sins

Any new birth, which is the beginning of the Christian life, must go through this step. To recognize that we are sinners, including thought and intention (the angry words that “kill”), and that this deserves the death that Jesus suffered for us. He not only paid the legal debt of sin, to satisfy the divine justice. But God has reconciled those humans who acknowledge  that they are sinners and ask forgiveness and reconciliation of him (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)..
The message of forgiveness is to be proclaimed in the Church, especially to those who believe they have committed the unforgivable sin or whom the death of parents has deprived of the opportunity to clear the conflicts.

The resurrection of the body : that of bodies in the celestial kingdom

Carnis resurrectionem and vitam aeternam / The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting

This is the resurrection in the celestial kingdom of the body made of matter. It is not the body as such, corruptible, unable to inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 15.50) but the body mysteriously transformed and empowered to enter and stay in the eternal life (2 Corinthians 3:18).

C. Streng

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