The Apostles’ Creed

Canon Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:

The Apostles’ Creed is one of our most important texts outwith Holy Scripture. If one prays Morning and Evening Prayer from the Scottish Prayer Book, one recites the Apostles’ Creed twice a day. If one participates in the Sacrament of Baptism in the Scottish Episcopal Church (and most Churches in Western Christianity), one affirms the Apostle’s Creed in an interrogatory form rooted in the first century AD. We say, ‘I believe’ to a plethora of Christian doctrines about our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, as well as about our present and future life in God.

The Apostles’ Creed is key to our life of prayer and, therefore, to our life of belief. It is an ancient principle in Christianity, and one particularly characteristic of Episcopalians (Anglicans), exemplified in our Prayer Books and liturgies, that what we pray mirrors what we believe. Indeed, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571) mark the prominence of the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds in Anglicanism by noting they ‘ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture’ (Art. VIII).

Why such emphasis on these three Creeds? Because creedal formulas are as old as Christianity itself. Indeed, we know no Christianity without creedal formulas of one sort or another. That is true both in the early and contemporary church—and every age in between—for if we participate in the Eucharist each Sunday, we perforce recite the Nicene Creed; and if we look to our earliest extant Christian texts, we find creedal formulas, for instance, in the Didache (The Lord’s Teaching through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations) and, of course, in the New Testament, both of which came into their own in the first century AD.

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8.26–40) is remarkable. An angel sends St Philip to Gaza where he finds a man (the eunuch) reading Isaiah 53.7–8. After Philip teaches him the good news about Jesus and identifies Jesus with Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, the man seeks to be baptised; Philip baptises him immediately. If one looks closely at the whole passage, one finds that v. 37 is contested: some manuscripts have it and some do not. Verse 37 reads, ‘And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may [be baptised].” And he [the man] replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”’ The earliest manuscript of this passage is not pertinent here; the point is that at Christianity’s birth, we find not only credal formulas (‘Jesus Christ is the Son of God’), but also affirmations thereof (‘I believe’) within sacramental/liturgical actions like Baptism.

It comes as little surprise, then, that longer creeds would develop from the earlier and shorter credal formulas of nascent Christianity and that they would find their way into liturgical settings beyond Baptism. In fact, as early as the late second century, Christians (like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian among others) speak of a ‘rule of faith’. They may be referring to the so-called Old Roman Creed, a second-century text found in Greek and Latin versions. This text is remarkably like the Apostles’ Creed, but pithier. Whilst it was once assumed they were referring to the Apostles’ Creed, scholarship has shown the Apostles’ Creed, as we have it, to be a fifth-century Latin text likely from Gaul (France). On the one hand, though the title ‘Apostles’ Creed’ is found in the late fourth century and refers to a belief at the time that each of the Twelve Apostles contributed to the Creed, it is a dubious claim. On the other hand, such a title does not demand per se that the text must date to the Twelve Apostles themselves, but only that the Creed is a faithful summary of the Apostles’ faith, hardly a shocker as the text is structured around Matthew 28.19. 

St Jude avers: ‘Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints’ (Jude 3). It is that very faith, delivered unto the saints, that we profess in the Apostles’ Creed. It behoves us not to lose this vital expression of our Christian faith and tangible link to our forebears in the faith. The Apostles’ Creed is a concise summary of Christian doctrine that illustrates our faith in the Triune God revealed in Holy Scripture. Rehearsing such doctrine again and again in a liturgical setting is just the sort of thing we Christians have always done and should continue to do as we await the return of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory.

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He became Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute in the Summer of 2023 after eight years as its Director of Studies.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.