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Apostles’ Creed


The First Ecumenical Creeds (§ 1).

Present Form not Earlier than Fifth Century (§ 2).

Earliest Appearance (§ 3).

Legend of its Origin (§ 4).

Greek Text of the Roman Symbol (§ 5).

Earliest Appearance of the Legend of its Origin (§ 6).

Age of the Roman Symbol (§ 7).

Comparison of Western Symbols (§ 8).

Assumption of an Asia Minor Original of the Roman Symbol (§ 9).

Summary (§ 10).

The Old Roman Symbol Displaced (§ 11).

Interpretation of the Symbol (§ 12).

Clauses not Found in the Old Roman Symbol (§ 13).

1. The First Ecumenical Creeds.

The Apostles’ Creed or Apostolicum (i.e., apostolicum symbolum) is the briefest of the so-called ecumenical creeds (see Symbolics). With the Nicæno-Constantinopolitan and Athanasian creeds, for more than five centuries preceding the Protestant Reformation it was in use in the West and enjoyed especial authority (cf. E. Köllner, Symbolik, Hamburg, 1857, p. 5). The Eastern Church has never traced any symbol to the apostles, or designated any as apostolic in the strict sense of the word; and here and there in the West the Nicæno-Constantinopolitan creed has been called apostolic (cf. Caspari, i. 242, note 45; ii. 115, note 88; iii. 12, note 22). The three chief branches of the Church in the West, however, have the so called symbolum apostolicum in essentially the same form (textus receptus).

2. Present Form not Earlier than Fifth Century.

Apart from details the textus receptus can be traced with some degree of certainty to the beginning of the sixth or the end of the fifth century. On the other hand, it can be proved that before that time this form of the symbol was nowhere used officially in any Church whether among the interrogationes de fide or the traditio and redditio symboli; nor can any traces of it be discovered before the middle of the fifth century. Since it by no means came to the West from the East, and in the Western provincial Churches symbols were in use which differ greatly from the textus receptus of the Apostolicum, it follows that the latter could hardly have existed before the middle of the fifth century, and most likely originated about 500.

3. Earliest Appearance.

In its present form the Apostolicum is first found in a sermon of Cæsarius of Arles (d. 542; Pseudo-Augustine, 244; cf. Kattenbusch, i. 164 sqq.), with which may be compared Sermo, 240, 241 (texts in Hahn, §§ 47-49), and the symbol in the Missale Gallicanum vetus (Hahn, § 36). The immediate predecessor of Cæsarius’ and, consequently, of our “apostles’ creed” is most likely the symbol of Faustus of Riez of about 460 (Hahn, § 38; Kattenbusch, pp. 158 sqq.), but its reconstruction is difficult. On the other hand, the stage succeeding that of the old Roman symbol (see below) in the direction of our Apostolicum is represented by the highly interesting symbol discovered by Bratke in the Bern Codex n. 645 sæc. vii. (SK, lxviii., 1895, 153 sqq.), which is to be regarded as a Gallican, or rather Gallico-British, symbol belonging to the fourth century. It differs from the ancient Roman symbol only by the additions of passus, descendit ad inferos, catholicam, and vitam œternam. These four additions all tend in the direction of our Apostolicum and at the same time prove that they are the four older additions, while conceptus, etc., and communionem sanctorum are the later ones (but creatorem cœli et terrœ and mortuus are also older).

4. Legend of its Origin.

Two considerations are against a Roman origin of the Apostolicum: (1) It is not found in Rome until the Middle Ages, i.e., many centuries after its attestation by Cæsarius of Arles; (2) From the end of the fifth, or the beginning of the sixth century until the tenth the Nicæno-Constantinopolitan creed in Greek was used in Rome in the traditio symboli, and not the Apostolicum (Caspari, iii. 201-202, 226; ii. 114-115, note 88); a shorter symbol was also in use in Rome (see below), but it was not identical with the Apostolicum. With the spread of the textus receptus in western Europe during the sixth century, the legend of its wondrous origin also spread (cf. Hahn, § 46β). The fact that such a late symbol is called from the very beginning “the Apostolic,” still more, that, as concerns its origin, it is traced back to a “bringing together” (Gk. symbolē, Lat. collatio) 241 because each of the twelve apostles in a meeting before their separation is said to have contributed a sentence to it, supposes that the history of the symbol did not commence with the end of the fifth century, but that the textus receptus was preceded by another form, the attributes of which were transferred to the new text and supplanted it. This supposition which the very simple contents and the brief, precise form of the symbol suggest, is also sufficiently confirmed by history.

5. Greek Text of the Roman Symbol.

By the investigations of Ussher, and more especially by those of Caspari, it has become evident that between 250 and 460 a symbol was used in the religious service of the Roman Church, which was highly esteemed, and to which no additions were permitted; as early as the fourth century this symbol was held to be derived directly from the twelve apostles in the form in which it was used, and it was supposed to have been brought to Rome by Peter. This symbol, the older, shorter Roman (in distinction from the Apostolicum, which is sometimes called the later, longer Roman, because it owes its general authority in the West to Rome), is completely extant in a number of texts (Hahn, §§ 14-20; Caspari, ii. 48; iii. 4, 5, 28-203). In its original Greek text it runs thus:

Πιστεύω εἰς θεὸν πατέρα παντοκράτορα· καὶ εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν (τὸν) ὑιὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν, τὸν γεννηθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου, τὸν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου σταυρωθέντα καὶ ταφέντα, τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἀναστάντα ἐκ (τῶν) νεκρῶν, ἀναβάντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανους, καθήμενον ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ πατρὸς ὅθεν ἔρχεται κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρους· καὶ εἰς πνεῦμα ἅγιον, ἁγίαν ἐκκλησίαν, ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν, σαρκὸς ἀνάστασιν.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ Jesus, his only-begotten Son, our Lord, born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary, the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; on the third day he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, sitteth on the right hand of the Father from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead; and in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh."

6. Earliest Appearance of the Legend of its Origin.

The legend that this symbol was composed by the apostles, appears as early as the Explanatio symboli of Ambrose. The fact that the writer was aware of its being divided into twelve articles, perhaps indicates that the legend that each apostle had contributed one of them was already known. But Rufinus, who wrote later, knows only of a common composition of the Roman symbol by the apostles soon after Pentecost and before the separation. This legend he refers to a traditio majoram. It doubtless existed as early as the beginning of the fourth century. Both Ambrose and Rufinus testify that the wording of this symbol was most scrupulously preserved in the Roman Church. The apostolic origin of this symbol is also attested by Jerome, by the Roman bishops Celestine I. (422-431), Sixtus III. (431-440), and Leo I. (440-461), by Vigilius of Thapsus, and in the Sacramentarium Gelasianum (cf. Caspari, ii. 108-109, note 78, iii. 94-95; Hahn, § 46, note 163).

7. Age of the Roman Symbol.

The fact that Augustine in his eight expositions of the creed follows the Roman symbol, leaves no doubt that in the fourth century and in the first half of the fifth the Roman Church made extensive use in the redditio of a symbol identical with the one mentioned above, and allowed of absolutely no additions to it. Ambrose was certainly not the only one to protest against many antiheretical additions. The epistle of Marcellus to Julius shows that between the years 330 and 340 this symbol was the official one in use in Rome; but other testimonies like Novatian’s tractate De trinitate (Hahn, § 7) and the fragments from the epistles and writings of Bishop Dionysius of Rome point with certainty to the middle of the third century. That the shorter Roman symbol as represented in the Epistle of Marcellus and in the Psalterium Æthelstani (Hahn, § 16; Caspari, iii. 161-203), was already the predominant one in the Roman Church about the year 250, can by no means be doubted. But here a series of questions arises, the answers to which involve very complicated investigations and combinations: (1) How is the shorter Roman symbol related to the Western symbols which were used, between 250 and 500 (or 800), in the religious services of the provincial churches until they were superseded by the (Gallican) Symbolum apostolicum and the Nicæno-Constantinopolitan creed? (2) How is the shorter Roman symbol related to the longer (i.e., the Apostolicum as it is now known) from the time of Cæsarius, and why was it displaced by the latter? (3) When and where did the shorter symbol originate? (4) How is the shorter Roman symbol related to the Eastern, pre-Constantinopolitan symbols? (5) How is the shorter Roman symbol related to the different forms of the rule of faith which are known from the first three centuries? These five questions can be separated only in abstracto. A definite and separate answer to each of them is impossible. In what follows they will be discussed together and only a general answer attempted.

8. Comparison of Western Symbols.

In surveying the very numerous provincial and private confessions which remain from the Western Church, belonging to the period from the fourth to the sixth (seventh) century (cf. Hahn, 20-45; Caspari, ii., iii.; Kattenbusch, 59-215, 392 sqq.), six important observations may be made: (1) In the choice and arrangement of the single parts the confessions all exhibit the same fundamental type as the shorter Roman symbol. (2) The shorter a Western symbol is, the more closely it approaches the shorter Roman symbol. The shortest symbols of the provincial Churches of the West are almost, if not altogether, identical with it. (3) The later a Western symbol is, the more does it deviate by additions (hardly ever by omissions) from the shorter Roman. These additions are not of a directly polemical nature, but are to be regarded as completions and extensions held to be necessary in the interest of elucidation. Such additions by no means alter the fundamental character of the symbol, since they are not of a speculative dogmatic nature. (4) The majority of the additions which the Western symbols exhibit 242 may be regarded as a kind of intermediate step between the shorter and longer Roman symbols. This consideration, however, is not so important as the fact that during the third and fourth centuries the great provincial Churches of the West produced different types. Four such types can be readily distinguished, the Italian, African, Gallican (including the Irish), and Spanish. As for the Gallican type, which is seen in our Apostolicum, it is characterized by such historical additions as are to be found in Oriental forms of faith or symbols (viz., “maker of heaven and earth,” “suffered,” “died,” “descended into hell"; “catholic”). In its final form the Gallican type is not in every respect the richest or the longest of the Western symbols, but it is so as to its historical contents. In this important respect the final form of the Gallican type has completely preserved the distinguishing features of the old Roman symbol. It exhibits the same brief and severe style, and, nevertheless, also preserves all the significant historical features which became attached to the Symbolum Romanum in the course of its history. The Gallican Apostolicum also exhibits the same classical elaboration and ecumenical tendency as its Roman copy. (5) The less any Church was influenced by the Roman, the more did its symbol differ from the shorter Roman. The symbols of the Gallican Church differ relatively much from it. (6) In reducing all Western symbols to one archetype, without regard to the differences, the shorter Roman symbol is obtained without difficulty. From these observations it may be inferred with certainty (a) that the shorter Roman symbol was the source of all Western confessions of faith; (b) that the longer Roman symbol practically proceeded from the other, though not at Rome, and as a result received also the same attributes, which originally belonged to the shorter symbol.

The supposition is also justified that the shorter Roman symbol must have already existed before the middle of the third century, otherwise the facts that all Western Churches originally used this very symbol, and that, e.g., the African Church had already developed before the year 250 its special type on the basis of the Symbolum vetus Romanum can not be explained (cf. Cyprian in Hahn, §§ 28, 29). The Roman symbol must therefore have originated at least about the year 300; and this can be proved from the writings of Tertullian, as well as from a comparison of the shorter Roman symbol with the Eastern symbols, which are rich in additions, introductions, dogmatic remarks, etc., besides omissions. The Nicæno-Constantinopolitan creed made an end to this fluctuating state of the confession, and from about 430 superseded the other Eastern confessions, and to this day the Constantinopolitan creed has remained the symbol of the Byzantine Church.

9. Assumption of an Asia Minor Original of the Roman Symbol.

Considering the state of affairs which existed in the East till the middle of the fifth century, it is difficult to characterize the fundamental type of the Eastern symbols. But, in spite of the many deviations, there exists a certain affinity with the shorter Roman symbol, the acceptance of which was hindered by (1) the circumstance that the Christological section of the Roman symbol came into conflict with a Christological type already established; (2) by the desire to give fuller expression to the “higher” Christology in the creed. It was not till the time of the Arian controversy that fixed symbols in the East began to be formed. From an examination of the Rules of Faith, and the fragments of those rules and formula-like sentences which are now familiar as belonging to the Eastern half of the Church from the middle of the first to the middle of the third century, scholars like Caspari, Zahn, Loofs, and others have inferred that there must have existed an Eastern symbol or, to be more precise, a symbol from Asia Minor, to which the old Roman symbol was related as daughter or sister. The assumption rests principally, if not exclusively, on what is found in Clement of Alexandria, Irenæus, Justin, and Ignatius; and the inference drawn therefrom is that in the East there existed in the second century a fixed symbol, or, rather, many symbols, related to the Roman symbol but independent of it. At best the Roman symbol is contemporaneous with the Asiatic or Syrian; more probably it is later. Harnack, who formerly shared this view, is now of opinion that the fact that single sentences seem to be echoes of the symbol, or tally with it, offers no guaranty that they themselves derive from one symbol. Before any symbol existed God was “almighty"; Jesus Christ was called “the only-begotten son, our Lord"; he was proclaimed as “begotten by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,” as having “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” and as coming to “judge the quick and the dead.” Without following the argument in refutation of the testimonies derived from early Fathers in detail, it can be stated that, while the existence of a primitive typical Eastern form up to a certain point is admitted, nevertheless it is insisted that the great feat of forming the symbol, and of therewith laying the foundation of all ecclesiastical symbols, remains the glory of the community at Rome. To this Roman symbol which is unhesitatingly to be traced back to about the middle of the second century, no doubt Tertullian refers (Hær., xxxvi.). Had a symbol been established in Rome at the time of the fierce struggle with Gnosticism and Marcionitism (about 145-190), it would have run differently. On the other hand, it is not advisable to go back too far beyond the middle of the second century.

10. Summary.

To sum up: The symbol originated in Rome about the middle of the second century. It was based upon the baptismal formula and on confessional formulas of a summarizing character (such as may be identified from the New Testament and from Ignatius, Justin, and Irenæus), which had been generally handed down, including Eastern formulas (Asia Minor, Syria), and was largely under the influence of the New Testament writings. In Rome itself the symbol was never altered. It made its way into the Western provinces from the end of the second century onward, without claiming 243 to have been, in the strictest sense, composed by the apostles. This accounts for the different modifications in those provinces (whereas at Rome it was designated as apostolic in the strict sense of the word sometime between 250 and 350). Among these modifications, those became historically the most important which were derived from the primitive confessional formulas or mathēma (i.e., substance of instruction) of the East; namely, “creator of heaven and earth,” “suffered,” “died,” “descended into hell,” “life everlasting,” besides the catholicam—these are just the modifications traceable in the Gallican symbols which issue in our Apostolicum—in addition, the conceptus, which is obscure in its origin and otherwise of little importance, and, most perplexing of all, the communionem sanctorum. In this connection may rightly be borne in mind the particularly close relations existing between southern Gaul and the East.

11. The Old Roman Symbol Displaced.

That the Roman Church after the beginning of the sixth century gradually allowed itself to be separated from and finally robbed of the symbol which it had previously guarded so faithfully, is a phenomenon not yet fully explained, although Caspari (ii. 114 sqq.; iii. 201 sqq., 230 sqq.) has made some very important contributions toward a solution of the problem. What is most decisive is the fact that it was not the longer (Gallican) daughter recension which displaced the mother, but that at Rome from the beginning of the sixth century the Nicæno-Constantinopolitan symbol took the place of the shorter symbol in the traditio and redditio symboli, whereas in the baptismal questions the old Roman symbol still remained in use. The displacement of the old Roman symbol by the Constantinopolitan becomes very intelligible, when one considers the conditions of the time. The rule of the Ostrogoths in Italy brought the Church of Rome in dangerous proximity to Arianism, and, in order to emphasize its attitude with respect to this heresy, the Church felt compelled to adopt a more explicit, so to speak polemically formed, symbol. Then, again, when this necessity ceased to press on the Church, and a return to a simpler creed became possible, the old symbol had grown dim in memory; while the new Roman, which was in fact the Gallican, the Symbolum Apostolicum, recommended itself by its more complete form. The differences were overlooked, or else not regarded as considerable; and the legend which had invested the old symbol with a halo of glory awoke again around the new one, and again and for a long time became a power in the Church, till it was exploded in the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

12. Interpretation of the Symbol.

In interpreting the apostolic symbol historically, it must be remembered that those portions of the same which belonged to the old Roman confession must be explained from the theology of the later apostolic and postapostolic ages (not simply, as some claim, “according to the New Testament”). This explanation must take into consideration that the symbol is an elaborated baptismal formula and that in its primitive form it must therefore not be regarded as an expression of intrachurch polemics, but rather as a Christian confession, composed for the purpose of instructing in Christianity as distinguished from Judaism and heathenism. In the course of history the theological explanation of the symbol on the whole keeps pace with the general development of dogmatics and theology. But the distinction between theological rules of faith and a confession serving for Christian instruction remains in the consciousness of the West, and is characteristically reflected in the Explanationes symboli.

13. Clauses not Found in the Old Roman Symbol.

As concerns the expressions of the apostolic symbol which are not in the old Roman, it is necessary to ascertain when, where, and under what conditions they first appear. Of most of them it may be said that they are a natural explication of the ancient symbol, that they do not alter its character, that they contain only the common faith of the Church—even of the Church of the second century—and that at the end of the second century they were known in the West, though they had not yet found a stable place in any of the provincial symbols. Two only of the additions can not be so regarded, namely the phrases descendit ad inferos, in the second article, and sanctorum communionem in the third. But both additions, on account of their dubious meaning, must be allowed to be failures. Even in modern times they are explained quite differently by different parties in the Church (cf. Kattenbusch, i. 1 sqq.).

(A. Harnack.)

Bibliography: The general works, A. Hahn, Bibliothek der Symbole, 3d ed. by G. L. Hahn, Breslau, 1897; C. P. Caspari, Ungedruckte, unbeachtete, und wenig beachtete Quellen zur Geschichte des Taufsymbols und der Glaubensregel, 3 vols., Christiania, 1866-75; J. R. Lumby, History of the Creeds, London, 1880; Schaff, Creeds, i. 14-23, ii. 45-55. Particularly on the Apostles’ Creed are: J. Pearson, Exposition of the Creed, London, 1659, and constantly reprinted (the English classic on the subject); M. Nicolas, Le Symbole des Apôtres, Paris, 1867; J. Baron, The Greek Origin of the Apostles’ Creed, London, 1885; L. de Grenade, Le Symbole des Apôtres, Paris, 1890; A. Harnack, Das apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Berlin, 1896; idem, The Apostles’ Creed, transl. of Apostolisches Symbolum in the Protestantische Realencyklopädie, Leipsic, 1896, by S. Means, ed. T. B. Saunders, London, 1901; S. Bäumer, Das apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Mainz, 1893; C. Blume, Das apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Freiburg, 1893; J. Haussleiter, Zur Vorgeschichte des apostolischen Glaubensbekenntnises, Munich, 1893; T. Zahn, Das apostolischte Symbolum, Leipsic, 1893; F. Kattenbusch, Das apostolische Symbolum, 2 vols., ib. 1894-1900; H. B. Swete, The Apostles’ Creed and Primitive Christianity, Cambridge, 1894; C. M. Schneider, Das apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Ratisbon, 1901; A. C. McGiffert, The Apostles’ Creed, its Origin, its Purpose, and its Historical Interpretation, New York, 1902; W. R. Richards, Apostles’ Creed in Modern Worship, ib. 1906; H. C. Beeching, Apostles’ Creed, London, 1906; and see under Symbolics.

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