You recite it. But do you understand it? The Apostles’ Creed has united Christians from different times, places, and traditions. In his new book, Ben Myers reintroduces the creed, showing us it’s power and meaning for us today. In this excerpt from the introduction, Myers traces the origin and purpose of the creed, giving Christians a solid framework for their faith.
It is often said that creeds are political documents, the cunning invention of bishops and councils who are trying to enforce their own understanding of orthodoxy. In the case of the Apostles’ Creed, nothing could be further from the truth. It was not created by a council. It was not part of any deliberate theological strategy. It was a grassroots confession of faith. It was an indigenous form of the ancient church’s response to the risen Christ, who commanded his apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19–20).
Later generations of believers sometimes said that each of the twelve apostles had written one line of the creed—hence the name “Apostles’ Creed.” It is a charming legend that conveys a deep truth: that the baptismal confession is rooted in the faith of the apostles, and ultimately in the word of the risen Christ himself.
This “rule of faith” had two functions. First, it was educational. It formed the basis of catechesis for new believers. In the period of preparation for baptism, new adherents to the Christian faith would memorize the creedal formula and would receive instruction in its meaning. The threefold confession of faith was to be written on the heart so that it could never be lost of forgotten. That way, all believers would have a basic guide to the interpretation of Scripture, and even illiterate believers would be able to retain the substance of the biblical story. They would see Scripture as a unified witness to one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And they would see the created world as the domain of God’s activity: God creates our world, becomes incarnate in it, and will ultimately redeem it fully in the resurrection of the dead. That is how the Christian mind was formed by the ancient catechism.
Second, the rule of faith was sacramental. It was not only used as a catechism in preparation for baptism but was also part of the baptismal rite itself. A person becomes a disciple of Jesus and a member of his community by making the threefold pledge of allegiance. Baptism is a threefold immersion into the life of God. “The baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles, granting us regeneration unto God the Father through his Son by the Holy Spirit.” The creedal words are words of power. They are words that perform: like naming a yacht, or making a bet, or speaking a marriage vow. In baptism, something is brought into being as the words are spoken. It is the words, just as much as the water, that make a baptism. By these words a person becomes a disciple of Jesus and a member of his community.
So the creed is both informative and performative, both educational and sacramental. It is a summary of Christian teaching as well as a solemn pledge of allegiance. These two functions of the creed can be distinguished but not separated. Catechesis is necessary so that we can make the baptismal declaration with understanding and with genuine commitment. And in turn the baptismal confession orders our thinking about God and the world.
Even today the creed provides a framework—strong yet surprisingly flexible—for Christian thinking and Christian commitment.