The Apostles’ Creed is a summary of Christian doctrine used throughout the Western church. Legend has it that each of the twelve apostles wrote one of its articles; but the actual history of the creed is complicated. (A detailed study of its development can be found in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds.)
The Apostles’ Creed and similar creeds likely developed out of ancient baptismal formulas. For instance, the baptized person might have been asked: “Do you believe in God the Father? in God the Son? in God the Holy Spirit?” In the face of false teachings, more details were added to these baptismal formulas. It was obviously important to summarize who Jesus Christ is and what he did. This led to the pattern that we find in the Apostles’ Creed but also in the Nicene Creed: a Trinitarian main structure, with a Christological confession in the middle.
An important forerunner of the Apostles’ Creed is the Old Roman Creed (in Latin) from 404 AD and a similar text in Greek from about 360 AD. It is a little shorter than the Apostles’ Creed but has most of its articles. (Missing are e.g. the descent into hell, the communion of saints, and the life everlasting.) Different versions of this Old Roman Creed were used throughout the early Middles Ages.
Eventually, one specific version of the creed was adopted. This was especially due to the Charlemagne, the Frankish king who became emperor in 800 AD. He insisted that all churches and priests should know and use the same basic confession of the faith. Ever since, the Apostles’ Creed has been the primary creed of the Western churches.
The Heidelberg Catechism (q&a 22) highlights the Apostles’ Creed as the essential summary of the gospel. New converts who wished to join the church should at least know, understand, and assent to these basic facts. This was also the understanding in the Reformed churches. At public profession of faith, the question was asked: “Do you believe the doctrine of the Old and New Testament, which is summarized in the articles of the faith and taught here in the Christian church, is the true and complete doctrine of salvation?”
In 1983, the Canadian Reformed churches removed the Apostles’ Creed from this special position by altering the question to ask about the confessions in general, instead of specifically about the Apostles’ Creed. This change has been controversial and relates to an ongoing debate about “confessional membership.”
Still, the Apostles’ Creed retains a place of honour in our churches, as the best known and most recited summary of our Christian faith.
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