As the earliest extra-biblical Christian confessional document, the Apostles’ Creed has stood the test of time as the preeminent testament to creedal orthodoxy. This is for good reason, even apart from its primacy. The creed attributed to the earliest missionary followers of Jesus distills the basic outline of what it means to be a Christian into a short summation that belies the depth and richness of what it proclaims. It is quite possible that in years of rote recitation, the creed has appeared dry to us and flat. But let’s look at it again, perhaps with fresh eyes.
Here is the text I will be working from during this series:
We believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and 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, dead, and buried;
(He descended into hell.)*
On the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father;
from which he will come to judge the living and the dead.
We 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.
It’s possible that we have become so familiar with the creed that we’ve become blind to some of its unique qualities. First, notice that the creed is not merely a catalog of doctrines but is phrased as a confession. “We believe” it urges us to say. Sincere recitation of the creed requires faith in the God who has accomplished these great things and belief that these great things were accomplished. In this way, the Apostles’ Creed is not just theology, but doxology, and as it is so often included in the liturgy of Christian worship services, it is meant to be recited together, as a body of believers, as an act of worship.
The Apostles’ Creed is not simply textbook theology; it is hymnbook theology! It is the song of a liberated heart, similar to the biblical confessions and doxologies, the eruption of personal confession that is faithful profession. The creed is a confession in the truest sense of the word: Christians confess with the creed that these are things they must believe to be saved.
When G.K. Chesterton wrote of confessional orthodoxy, he made an important point in proclaiming, “I did not make it. It is making me,” (a line Rich Mullins made sure to include in the chorus of his sung version of the creed on his album “A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band”). Why is this an important point? Because it asserts that the Apostles’ Creed is not the invention of theologians, just as it was not the invention of the apostles. It was formulated by them, of course, but it came from what really happened in history and what really happened in their hearts and lives as a result of what really happened in history.
At our best, apart from God’s intervention, we would not have created a philosophy that confessed God’s supremacy and glory. Our creed would have asserted (not confessed) the accomplishments of ourselves. It would include the phrases “We think” and “We feel.” But the supernatural saving power of the gospel at the center of the Apostles’ Creed is the shaper of the lives who confess it. It “makes” the confession “We believe.”
Secondly, speaking of the gospel, notice the narrative shape of the creed. It tells the gospel story! Beginning with the one true God—who is self-sufficient and needful of nothing—creating the universe. It then goes on to detail the incarnation of God in flesh, giving us the historical detail of Christ’s birth and life and death. Then it moves on to the next plot point in the grand tale of redemption: the resurrection; then the ascension. And this is why the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the triune Godhead, equal in deity and one in substance with the Father and the Son, doesn’t appear until the latter portion of the creed. Confession of the Spirit coincides narratively with the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost after the ascension of Christ.
The Spirit empowers the gospel of Christ then to build the church, unite the saints in their spirits, and save the lost. Finally, the creed ends with the new beginning, the “end of days” part of the Bible’s gospel story, when the dead in Christ are raised incorruptible and the Lord’s return ushers in the eternal joy of the new heavens and the new earth. This is what “the life everlasting” corresponds to, in great keeping with the biblical forecast of Jesus’ renewing all things, not simply our receiving a ticket to heaven when we die.
When we read the creed in this way, then—as doxological confession and as proclamation of the gospel storyline of the Scriptures—we help ourselves see the powerful depth and beauty in the old familiar lines.
Jared C. Wilson is the author of Your Jesus Is Too Safe, Abide, Gospel Wakefulness, and Seven Daily Sins as well as articles and essays appearing in numerous publications. He is the pastor of Middletown Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Visit him online at www.gospeldrivenchurch.com.
* This clause does not appear in the earliest mss. of the creed but has become part of the traditional formulation.