The Apostles Creed…

I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven; And is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From there He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy catholic church; the communion of the saints; The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body; And the life everlasting. Amen.

The Bible is the Word of God to man; the Creed is man’s answer to God. 

-Philip Schaff The Creeds of Christendom vol 2

No Creed But Christ?…

There seems to be a common attitude among American evangelicals that creeds hold little or no value for modern Christians. This attitude is a problem that we personally need to remedy. Furthermore, this problem seems to be a modern one. From the very earliest Christian authors (not biblical authors), like Ignasius, throughout all of Christian history our brothers and sisters have been articulating their faith with creeds. 

I can almost hear an objection coming, “But Pastor, if I have a Bible then why would I need a creed?” Dear Christian, we are not forced to choose between the two. We do not pit ancient Christian creeds against the Bible. We ought to humbly treasure the faith of the ancient church. Ancient Christian creeds, like the Apostles creed, ought never to replace or rival the Scripture in our thinking. However, they give us invaluable insight into how our brothers and sisters have historically interpreted the Word of God.   

The term “creed” is derived from the Latin word “credo” and is translated into English as “I believe”. The Apostles Creed begins with that word “credo” and has been used by Christians throughout the centuries to declare what it is they believe in worship, before baptism, and for teaching new believers. While this creed was not likely created by the apostles themselves, it is a simple, beautiful, and logical system of faith that provides a kind of baseline for Christianity. What do you believe? If you call yourself by the name Christian, then you will surely be willing confess this Apostles Creed. What makes a Christian? Faith. What kind of faith makes a Christian? The Apostles Creed kind of faith is what makes a Christian. 

Wait, what did that say?…

There are two initial points of contention for modern protestants who read the Apostles Creed. First, why does the creed say Jesus “descended into hell”? Second, why does the creed say “the holy catholic church”?

  1. Why does the Creed say Jesus “descended into hell”? 

Let me begin by pointing out that the creed did not say that Jesus suffered flames in hell. I have met a few dear Christians who imagined that Jesus suffered in hell for the duration of time between His death and resurrection. Those few believers I have met who held this error were in fact honest and humble brothers in the Lord. They were misguided on this point, but brothers still. 

Let me give one brief argument to why the concept of Jesus suffering in Hell is an error. Consider Jesus’ own words upon the cross, “it is finished”. What was meant in those words? What did Jesus finish if not the atonement for sins? If the divine wrath against sins was completely poured out upon Jesus nailed upon the cross, then what was the origin of the sins that required the divine wrath of God to be poured out upon Jesus, a second time, in hell? This problem is unanswerable. Therefore, because the whole testimony of the New Testament declares the atonement to have taken place upon the cross then Jesus could not have suffered in hell. 

A simple answer to why the creed says “He descended into hell” is found in another reasonable translation. The word hell might as easily be translated as “the place of the dead”. Before Jesus died he promised a thief, “today you will be with me in paradise”. When Jesus gave up the ghost and died, where did he go? What Jesus called paradise is what the creed means by the word hell. 

John Calvin, commenting on this phrase in the Apostles Creed, wrote; “after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.”(1) Simply put, Jesus suffered in the sight of men but suffered more upon the cross than man could see. The descent into hell phrase may be to draw our attention to the unseen sufferings of Christ upon the cross.

2. Why does the creed say “the holy catholic church”?

This seeming difficulty for a protestant is answered in a similar way to the previous question. The word “catholic” as it is used in the creed did not actually carry all the baggage we modern protestants object to. The word “catholic” means universal. Today, we often use this term as a noun with a capital “C” and not an adjective with a lowercase “c”. Therein lies part of our problem. When the Apostles creed was being formed, there was no Roman Catholic Church as we understand it today. 

Please forgive my oversimplification here, but the Roman Catholic Church that we all know today was, at least in some way, the result of the Great Schism of 1054 AD. The Great Schism refers to the formal divide between the churches of the East led by the Bishop of Constantinople, and the churches of the West led by the Bishop of Rome. The churches of the East would eventually become known as Orthodox and the churches of the West would eventually become known as Catholic. 

That overly simplistic description of history is helpful to answering our question because the term “catholic” was in no way uniquely referencing the churches that today are identified as Catholic. Today, Catholics, Orthodox, and historically Protestant churches all confess the Apostles creed. 

The truth being confessed here in the creed means something like; “I believe in the universal Christian church”. Look at the creed’s language again, “I believe in…the holy catholic church”. “Holy” is an adjective, and “catholic” is an adjective. Those adjectives describe something true about the noun “church”. But make no mistake, “church” is the object. The church is what the confessor is united to. What kind of church does the believing Christian unite himself to? The confessing Christian proclaims his union in the “universal Christian church” with all true believers from every tradition. 

Doesn’t “universal” mean there should be no disputes or controversies about theological matters? No, there have always been differing theological opinions and controversies. The “universal” faith is the core of Christianity that all believers confess together that makes us Christ’s church. It is precisely in having this “universal” faith that we can claim to be Christian. So then, what is the stuff of that faith? What must a person at least confess to be considered Christian? The Apostles creed is the stuff of faith. It is a beautiful and ancient articulation of what a person must confess in order to be called a Christian.

1) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson publishers, 2019), 331.