If you come from a non-creedal Christian church tradition—and there are a good number of them within Evangelicalism—you might wonder what a creed is and why other Christians include them in their worship services. Historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan defines a creed thusly: “A creed is a concise, formal, and authorized statement of important points of Christian doctrine.”1
One of the great things about the creeds of Christendom is that they introduce us to the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why theologian Alister McGrath says that the creeds “allow us to recognize and avoid inadequate or incomplete versions of Christianity.”2
In this series, we’re specifically looking at the Apostles’ Creed.
It is widely used in Western Christendom, both in the Roman Catholic Church and in various Protestant churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, among others). In fact, most evangelical churches have creedal statements that serve as something like the Apostles’ Creed. Some nondenominational churches even sing the creed in their worship services.
Take time to read through the Apostles’ Creed, and then we’ll examine some common questions about it:
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.
5 Questions about the Apostles’ Creed
Creeds have been an important part of historic Christianity from the very beginning. Christians recite creeds to confess or profess their faith publicly. The creeds serve as authoritative pronouncements that set forth in summary form the central beliefs of the Christian faith.
Let’s consider five questions that Christians commonly ask about the Apostles’ Creed:
1. Why is it that creeds are continually repeated? Confessional churches affirm that one’s deepest Christian beliefs must be confessed or publicly stated (Romans 10:9–10). Reciting creeds also helps in the catechetical (educational) process. But as theologian Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again.”3
2. Was the creed actually written by the apostles? No. This creed is called the “Apostles’ Creed” not because it was written by the apostles of Jesus themselves but because it contains a brief summary of apostolic teaching.
3. What does the phrase “he descended to hell” mean? The phrase “he descended to hell” was added late in the creed’s formation. Anglican theologian Alister McGrath says that it likely means that Christ is “among the dead” (a possible reference to hades, emphasizing Christ genuinely died). The Reformed tradition generally interprets it as a reference to Christ suffering God’s wrath (a type of hell) on the cross. So, I think a Christian can recite this somewhat controversial phrase in the creed in good conscience. However, some theologians find the phrase objectionable and suggest it be omitted from the creed.
4. The creed includes the phrase “the holy catholic church.” Isn’t this a reference to the Roman Catholic Church? While the Roman Catholic Church does use the Apostles’ Creed, Protestant versions of the creed intentionally lowercase the words “catholic church.” The word catholic means “universal,” and all of the original Protestant churches considered themselves legitimately part of the “catholic church” (or the universal church of Christ). So Protestants can affirm their commitment to catholicity (universality) without being officially part of the Roman Catholic Church.
5. Why doesn’t the creed explicitly mention such important doctrinal truths that continue to divide Christendom—like the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis tradition or the exact relationship of grace, faith, and works in salvation? It is true that the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t address all the doctrinal issues that divide the branches of Christendom (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), but it powerfully summarizes the essential doctrinal elements that they all share in common. The original branches of historic Protestantism valued the ecumenical creeds but insisted that there remained other issues that needed to be addressed, which they set forth in the longer and distinct confessions of faith.
The ecumenical creeds remain a critical part of Christendom and the devotion of millions of Christians.
Reflections: Your Turn
How have creeds been helpful to you?
- For more about the creeds of Christendom, see chapter 4 of my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.
- For more about the Apostles’ Creed, see chapter 6 of my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.