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Apostles Creed: The Apostles & the Creed

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Feb. 08, 2012

According to Dr. Ludwig Ott, “the oldest authoritative doctrinal formulation of the Church’s belief in the Trinity is the Apostle’s Creed.”  The Apostle’s Creed, called “the oldest Roman catechism,” is so named because it is “rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the Apostles’ faith” (CCC 194).  Exactly how that summary came about is an exciting journey through history and legend. 

A fourth century church historian Rufinus of Aquileia in his book “Exposition of the Creed,” captures the legend that surrounds the origins of this ancient creed as being rooted in Pentecost and literally formulated by the Apostles:    

“Our forefathers have handed down to us the tradition, that, after the Lord’s ascension, when, through the coming of the Holy Ghost, tongues of flame had settled upon each of the Apostles, that they might speak diverse languages, so that no race however foreign, no tongue however barbarous, might be inaccessible to them and beyond their reach, they were commanded by the Lord to go severally to the several nations to preach the word of God. Being on the eve therefore of departing from one another, they first mutually agreed upon a standard of their future preaching, lest haply, when separated, they might in any instance vary in the statements which they should make to those whom they should invite to believe in Christ. Being all therefore met together, and being filled with the Holy Ghost, they composed, as we have said, this brief formulary of their future preaching, each contributing his several sentence to one common summary: and they ordained that the rule thus framed should be given to those who believe.”

However, despite that legend’s longstanding belief in medieval times, it is possible that the Creed developed gradually from the Apostles’ charge to baptize the nations “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).  Indeed, one of the oldest canonized creeds on record is a Roman baptismal creed that reads:

“I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty;

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,

And in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, the resurrection of the flesh.”

It is likely that this widely excepted baptismal formula was added to throughout later centuries as more and more controversies were unfolding in the Early Church—especially surrounding the Person of Jesus Christ.  As more Christological doctrines are debated and articulated, it is not surprising that the second article of this primitive baptismal creed would require more specifics, and ultimately grow into the shape of the Apostle’s Creed.

Regardless of exactly how the Creed formed, it is unchallenged that what the Apostle’s Creed contains are “crystallizations of the primitive apostolic doctrine” (Kelly, 44).  Whether the Apostles actually wrote it, means very little, because it is assuredly what they transmitted by their teaching, regardless of whether it was transcribed by their hand.  Further, while it is unclear exactly when and where it was formulated, it is quite clear that this creed developed in antiquity and draws its authority from the apostles.  Its articulation and adherence would have likely been taking place before and contemporaneously with the organization of the Bible.  It remains not only the touchstone by which the Catholic Church teaches the Faith by Her organization of the Catechism, but also serves as the model upon which most subsequent creeds depend and expound—a trend we will discover in the Nicene Creed.