What Is the Apostles' Creed?

What Is the Apostles' Creed?

The Apostles' Creed is basically a summary of Christian beliefs. What does it say?

Even some of the best students will admit they have used CliffsNotes before. Those little yellow booklets provide a sometimes-much-needed list of characters and an overview that provides readers with the gist of even the densest novels. They aren’t just a shortcut for procrastinators; they are handy tools for navigating complex, multilayered stories.

Essential to many Christian traditions is the Apostles’ Creed, a CliffsNotes-style summary of what the Christian Church believes. Some churches, such as the Catholic Church, consider their creeds to be official and binding. Others, such as various Reformed, Lutheran, and Presbyterian denominations, find it useful as a tool of reaffirmation during worship and special occasions like baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Free churches—such as Baptist, Mennonite, and modern nondenominational churches—don’t necessarily embrace the creeds as part of their religious practice, but they would likely affirm that the creeds are an accurate summary of what they believe.1

The Apostles’ Creed reads:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the quick and
the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

How the Church Got the Apostles’ Creed

Tradition says that Jesus’ twelve apostles formed the Creed in the early days of the Church.3 While scholars doubt the veracity of this story, the need for a concise set of Christian beliefs may indeed go back that far.4

Paul, the first Christian missionary and the author of many of the books in the New Testament, mentions in a letter to one of the first churches that what he “passed on” to them in his teachings and writings was what had been passed to him.5 He then outlines the foundation of Christian belief, what he says is of “first importance”: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”6

Early church leaders living in the first generation after the apostles also made concise statements of faith. Ideas and terminology used by writers such as Ignatius (writing around approximately 105 CE) and Irenaus (180 CE) correspond to what eventually became the Apostles’ Creed. Tertullian (197 CE) even called it “the rule of faith.”7 A letter written by a council of churches in Milan to an early church leader named Syricius refers to such a creed by name.8 Most closely related is the “Old Roman Creed.” This was series of questions asked of individuals who wished to be baptized. It likely dates back to 200 CE and uses language similar to that of the Apostles’ Creed.9

The first verifiable statement of the modern text of the Apostles’ Creed can be dated back to the notes of a monk named Priminius in 753. Around the same time, Charlemagne used the Creed to unify the teachings in churches across his empire.10

Not everyone embraces the Apostles’ Creed. Some churches have argued against it or ignored it. Some believe that it is missing key elements of the Christian faith. Others are not willing to embrace any documents that claim to be formative outside of the Bible.

Over the centuries, churches have continued to write new statements of faith. These use updated language, respond to new questions, and provide additional details. However, the Apostles’ Creed remains valuable as it is often used as the basis for such documents.11

What the Apostles’ Creed Teaches

All systems of belief strive to explain the nature of reality. The Apostles’ Creed does this by using three “I believe” statements to explain who God is and what he is doing in the world.

“I believe in God . . .”

Fundamental to the Christian faith is a belief in God. The Creed begins by calling God “Father.” He is a parent, with all the loving, nurturing, and teaching capabilities that the role requires.

The Creed then goes on to refer to God as “creator of heaven and earth.” Calling God creator likens him to an artist or inventor who thoughtfully and innovatively makes new things. This also separates Christianity from other belief systems that teach that the creator and the universe are one and the same. Within Christianity, as creator, God the Father is separate, above, and in control of all he has made. This is what makes God “almighty.”

“I believe in Jesus Christ . . .”

The bulk of the Apostles’ Creed focuses on Jesus. Part of Jesus’ role is to rule along with God the Father. He has a unique identity as God who came in the flesh into human history; he is fully human and fully divine. He is Lord, a position that commands more respect than that given to bosses, leaders, or governments.

Jesus’ story begins with a miracle: a virgin birth, made possible by the Holy Spirit. His life ended in crucifixion, a torturous execution at the hands of Pilate, a Roman governor. But—and this is the Creed’s key claim about Jesus—unlike all who die, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, ascended to heaven, and now reigns with God the Father. Yet this is not all: Jesus will imminently return as the judge of “the quick and the dead.”

“I believe in the Holy Spirit . . .”

The Holy Spirit appears twice in the Apostles’ Creed, first as the power behind the virgin conception and then as the subject of the Creed’s third “I believe” statement.  Interestingly, rather than go into detail about who the Spirit is, the Creed describes the nature and destiny of the Church. It seems to be saying that the Church is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work in people.

The Spirit is the power behind the catholic Church. The word “catholic” here—with a lowercase c—means universal; that is, the Creed is saying that there is one universal Church. The Spirit enables individuals to live together in “communion,” an open sharing of one’s heart, possessions, and daily life. The Spirit also delivers the forgiveness of sin (the rebellious wrongdoing responsible for the brokenness of the world). Finally, the creed affirms that the Spirit has the power to provide resurrection bodies that will never die.

Can I Get an Amen?

The Apostles’ Creed ends with a simple “amen.” The word is an affirmation. When a person says amen, they are agreeing with a statement made.

For Christ-followers, the Creed provides both comfort and challenge. It is encouraging to see oneself as another believer in a centuries-long line of men and women who affirmed the same tenets. But the Creed also challenges believers to ask themselves whether or not they are living lives consistent with what they are saying.

For those who are exploring God, the Creed acts as a guide to what Christians believe. The Creed does not replace the Bible, being a part of a local community of Christ-followers, or living by the power of the Holy Spirit, but it is a helpful and well-worn tool for beginning this journey.

The Apostles’ Creed begs the question: Can you read it and say amen?

  1. B. A. Gerrish, “Creeds: Christian Creeds,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. vol. 3 (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2005), 2054–2062.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed is cited by many Christian denominations, sometimes with slight variation in wording for the purpose of clarity. The one we are using here is from the Church of England. “The Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed,” The Church of England website, http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/daily2/lordsprayercreed.aspx, accessed September 16, 2013.
  3. Herbert Thuston, “The Apostles’ Creed,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01629a.htm, accessed September 16, 2013.
  4. Gerrish, 2056.
  5. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 1 Corinthians 15:3.
  6. Ibid., 1 Corinthians 15:3–4.
  7. “Creeds, Early,” in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 1998), 181–183.
  8. “Apostles’ Creed,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 3rd ed. vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 109–110.
  9. Gerrish, 2056.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Gerrish, 2057–2061.
  12. Photo Credit: Roman Sigaev / Shutterstock.com.