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  Where Did the Apostle's Creed Come From?

This week we look at a pair of questions from Debbie L. She writes, “I was brought up Lutheran. The Apostle’s Creed states that Jesus descended into hell before rising to heaven…. Where did Jesus [really go] those three days and where did the Apostle’s Creed come from?”

Two interesting, yet rather different questions. We’ll deal with the Apostle’s Creed this week, and next week look at the Jesus visits hell question. 

A creed is a crystallization of beliefs into an abbreviated form, and the Apostle’s Creed is the most famous and most quoted of all the creeds. It is often touted to be the oldest of the Christian creeds; however, this is only supported by tradition and not the facts themselves.

The earliest creeds are found buried within scripture itself. Scholars believe that one of the earliest creeds is contained in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6.4 reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This, it is widely believed, is one of the earliest distillations of the ancient Israelite faith. Indeed, today these words form the beginning of what is surely the most quoted passage in the Old Testament by the Jewish faith: the opening words of the shema.

There are a number of shortened creedal sayings in the New Testament as well. Peter’s great confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16.16) reflects an early church statement of faith. And there are several other creedal statements found in the epistles of Paul (cf., 1 Corinthians 15.3-8; Romans 1.3-6). 

Traditionally, the Apostle’s Creed is said to have been written by the apostle’s themselves. In fact, one tradition suggests, since the creed can be divided into 12 beliefs, that each apostle added their own statement to the creed. Although an interesting notion, there is little to support it. On the other hand, there is a grain of truth to the belief that the apostles had a hand in writing the creed. It was, of course the apostles and Paul, who designated himself an apostle, who are said to have written the bulk of the New Testament. However, the Apostle’s Creed, as we have it today—and even in it’s most ancient forms—were certainly not penned by the original followers of Jesus. Indeed, the first records we have of anything like the Apostle’s Creed we have today is found in the middle of the second century (ca. 140).

Although not titled the Apostle’s Creed, the early church developed a catechism (rote teaching) formula for baptismal candidates that was called the “rule of faith.” Scholars call this “rule” the Old Roman Form of the Apostle’s Creed and it is thought to be one of the first fully distilled statements of the Christian faith.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty. And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary; crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried; the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father, from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost; the holy Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body”

There is a later and longer version of the Apostle’s Creed that adds a number of beliefs to the Old Roman Form. This longer form includes the belief that: God is the maker of heaven and earth; Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate; Jesus died; he descended into hell; the church is catholic (not Roman Catholic, but catholic as in “one, universal church”); there is a communion of saints (the ability to commune, or communicate with the saints who have died and gone on to heaven); there is life everlasting.

The earliest record we have of this longer form, was recorded by Rufinus who wrote a treatise on this form in about 309. Most scholars, however, believe that the final and longer form of the Apostle’s Creed, called the Received Form, was set sometime in the fifth century.

Today, the Apostle’s Creed is recited regularly in many churches including the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and others, although the exact form of the Creed (Old Roman Form vs. Received Form) varies from denomination to denomination. On the other hand, some churches have rejected this and every creed, arguing that the Bible is sufficient for faith and that allegiance to a man-made creed rather than to scripture sets a dangerous precedent. 

Next week we’ll look specifically at the second part of Debbie’s question: The descent of Jesus into hell.

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