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September 2021 Credo

“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
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living 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. Amen.”

Bequeathed and cherished within our tradition; recited at least once a month in most of our churches, the Apostles’ Creed has stood the test of time to serve as one of the most basic and important ecumenical confessions of our Christian faith.

Although the present text of the Apostles’ Creed finds similarity with the baptismal creed used in the Roman church only in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and was only recognized as the official statement of faith of the entire Catholic church in the West when Innocent III was pope (1198–1216), the roots of the Creed go way back to what was called the “Rule of Faith” by the early Church and Patristic Fathers.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120/140–200/203), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) and Tertullian (c. 155–220) are three examples of the Fathers who made reference to the Rule of Faith. Not only did all three maintain that the Rule of Faith serves as a summary of what the Scriptures and Apostolic tradition say, they also saw the Rule of Faith as an invaluable guide in discerning right from wrong readings of Scripture.

Irenaeus, for example, saw the Rule of Faith as indispensable in relating the parts of Scripture to the whole, and anyone (especially his opponents) who did not read Scripture according to the Rule of Faith ended up making the “beautiful image of a king” into the “form of a fox.” Tertullian upheld the Rule of Faith to such a degree that he could affirm that wherever the Rule of Faith was manifested, true Scriptural exposition would be likewise shown. In other words, the early Fathers saw that the contents of Scripture and the Rule of Faith coincided and were coterminous with each other.

I wish to highlight six features of the Apostles’ Creed as we have it in its present form today.

First, the Apostles’ Creed is narratival in shape. Spelt out within the Apostles’ Creed is a grand narrative covering all three epochs of world history: Creation, Redemption (presupposes the Fall), and Consummation. In the two or three minutes that we take to recite the Apostles’ Creed, we are brought through the entire sweep of human time and history that the triune God has committed himself to be involved in, as he carries out his purposes of creating, redeeming his fallen creation, and perfecting or bringing that creation to its consummation. And because any individual or church who confesses the Apostles’ Creed still find themselves located in this space-time continuum of creation and redemption heading towards consummation, every confession of the Apostles’ Creed is a vivid reminder that we are covered under the active purposes of our triune God.

Second, the Apostles’ Creed is trinitarian in substance. In a cursory articulation of the Apostles’ Creed, one could be excused for failing to see immediately the trinitarian overtones in the threefold repeated “I believe” statements: “I believe in God the Father Almighty … I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord … I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Afterall, the three statements on their own could easily be misread as a proclamation of three different deities.

This is where the background of the Apostles’ Creed is important. In the predecessor document the Rule of Faith, such triadic formulations were already common. They were seen merely as further and natural developments of the two-membered formulations already found within the Apostolic tradition, most notably and as early as the “one God, the Father … one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8:16) mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his writings. The two-membered formula, in turn, was seen as a Christological shaping of “the one LORD and God” formula of the Shema (Deut 6:4). What this means is that the actions all the way from a Christological shaping of the Shema to the triadic expansion of the two-membered formula were carried out in a context parallel to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in early church history, so much so that by the time the triadic statements are used in the Rule of Faith and carried over to the Apostles’ Creed, they were recognized as being spoken of within a trinitarian rather than a tritheistic (three gods) background.

Third, the Apostles’ Creed is biblical-theological in scope. By “biblical-theological,” I am referring to the unity amidst the diversity of holy Scripture. I am referring to the one unified word or message that God wants to speak to us in and through the two testaments and sixty-six books. I am speaking of how the parts relate to the whole as the parts are carried by Scripture’s own plotline and driven by its “inner impulse” towards the whole, as the whole in turn illuminates each part and situates it in its proper canonical context.

Clearly, with the definition above, the place of Israel in the storyline plays a crucial role. In this regard, the references to “God, the Father,” “Almighty” and “creator of heaven and earth”serve to remind us of God’s workings in the Old Testament story. As Old Testament scholar Patrick Miller (1935–2020) reminded us, God the Father is named in reference to his creative activity (Deut 32:6; Isa 64:8; Mal 2:10); his redemption of Israel (Isa 63:16; Hos 11:1), as well as to his compassion (Ps 68:5). The reference to “Almighty” also bears reference to the Old Testament term “Sabaoth” in the epithet “Lord of Hosts” and occasionally to “El Shaddai.” The term “Almighty” used in the Apostles’ Creed hence echoes probably more of the Old Testament than the New.

Nevertheless, the attention given to Israel in the Apostle’s Creed is at best implicit and assumed, rather than explicit. In this regard, I am attracted by Miller’s proposal that the additional statement should have been added such that the first article becomes: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage.” The addition of this clause would more than suffice to cover the aspect of God’s relationship with Israel, which is a crucial element pertaining to the biblical theology of the entire Scriptures — the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, God’s work in Israel signals God’s work in the world, which reaches its climax in what the second article of the Creed goes on to state as the revelation of God in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Afterall, as theologian Robert Jenson (1930–2017) was known for saying: The God Jesus addressed as Father and who raised him from the dead is the same God and Father who raised Israel from Egypt.

Fourth, the Apostles’ Creed is doctrinal in formation. The major “non-negotiable” tenets of each locus of theology is spelt out in the Apostles’ Creed.

In terms of the doctrine of revelation and Scripture, the very reason why we have the Apostles’ Creed — itself derived from Scripture and serving in turn as a summary of Scripture — bears testimony to the fact that God has revealed and spoken in his holy Word.

In terms of the doctrine of God, the Trinity is stated, and as Karl Barth reminded us, it is the doctrine of the Trinity that basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian.

In terms of the doctrine of creation, it upholds God as creator, reminding us that we were never self-existent to begin with, but our dependence is on him who is the giver and sustainer of life.

In terms of the doctrine of Christ our Lord, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary” reminds us of Christ Jesus alone who is truly God and truly man. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate … judge the living and the dead” informs us of our Lord’s work in his humiliation (incarnation, suffering, death, burial, descent into Hades) and exaltation (resurrection, ascension, session and his return).

In terms of the doctrine of salvation, the very mention of the third article of the Creed straightaway following the person and work of Christ indicates to us that the key work of the Spirit is in bringing or connecting the benefits of Christ’s work to us. “The forgiveness of sins” tells us that, at its core, salvation has to do with the forgiveness of sins.

In terms of the doctrine of church, the very mention of “church” shows that it is not an accidental spinoff or outcome, but is a crucial element within God’s salvific purposes. In fact, a careful reading of the Apostles’ Creed reveals that there is no explicit mention of the individual, but the individual is subsumed first and foremost under the corporate identity of the church. A reference to the holiness of the church indicates not only that the church has been set apart by God (“positional sanctification”) but also to her calling to live out her identity as a holy people (“progressive sanctification”). “Communion of saints” refers not only to the communion and fellowship we have with one another, but first and foremost to the communion that we, the “catholic” (universal) church, have with the triune God.

In terms of doctrine of eschatology, the Apostles’ Creed affirms what is central to our future and final destinies as a creation and people loved by God: embodied eternal life.

Each time we recite and confess the Apostles’ Creed together, the major “non-negotiable” tenets of each area of our doctrines are reinforced and impressed within us, leading to our doctrinal formation as part of our larger spiritual formation. This confirms our identity, allowing us to echo: “This is us (as the people of the triune God)!”

Fifth, the Apostles’ Creed is confessional-existentialist in practice. As Miller shows us, even though the Creed is an ancient document, its authority, force and claims are fully contemporary. In the act of reciting and affirming the creed, the affirmation does not merely remain locked in the historical past, but it becomes an assertion of the moment. Here, I tap on the category of speech-acts and see that whenever we recite the creed, we are not merely saying something, but doing something at the same time — asserting, confessing, affirming and assuring ourselves of our identity in Christ, and promising that we will live our lives in accordance with our identity.

Sixth (and finally), the Apostles’ Creed is fixed and yet variegated in its development potential. “Fixed” in the sense that the boundary markers of any further discussion and exploration have been established, and one cannot argue for a case of doctrinal development that either surrenders or changes any of the statements encapsulated in the Creed without landing on the side of unorthodoxy. Yet, the development is also “variegated” in the sense that the statements remain to be expounded and further developed according to one’s peculiar denominational emphases. Each denomination with its own distinctives will place different emphasis upon the different claims rendered in the Apostles’ Creed, resulting in each denomination’s own second-tier confessional documents.

For churches that regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed, may a consideration of these six features lead to a deeper appreciation and worship of the one triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and what he has done, is doing, and will do for his beloved people, the “holy catholic Church.”

Rev Dr Edmund Fong is a lecturer in Theology, Hermeneutics and Presbyterianism at Trinity Theological College, and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.