The Apostles Creed.

Orthodox Christianity, in a smaller nutshell.

My translation from the Latin—and as far as I can tell, the Latin’s the original.

I believe in God,
the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our master.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born from the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the afterlife.
The third day, he was resurrected from the dead.
He ascended to heaven; he sits at the almighty Father’s right hand.
From there he will come; he is judging the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins,
bodily resurrection, and eternal life. Amen.

Whenever I bring up the Apostles Creed to Christians, I tend to get one of two reactions: Positive and negative.

I tend to get the positive response from Christians who grew up in formal, liturgical churches. Most of ’em can recite the creed right along with me… though the version I memorized is the Book of Common Prayer version, and most of ’em tend to know one of the Roman Missal versions. Minor wording differences.

If they didn’t grow up in such churches, or their churches never taught it to ’em, they might still know it. ’Cause they learned it as lyrics from a Rich Mullins song. Or someone else’s cover of that song. Or John Michael Talbot’s song, though that’s lesser-known.

Third Day and Brandon Heath perform Rich Mullins’ “Creed.” YouTube

The negative reactions tend to come from anti-Catholics who get weirded out whenever I dare bring up any form of ancient Christianity that they don’t recognize from the bible. (And sometimes not even then.) They don’t see the point of creeds. Yet at the very same time, they’ll go on and on about the need for necessary fundamental doctrines… which the creeds are.

A creed’s a faith statement. But unlike the faith statements which’ve been drafted by various churches and denominations, the creeds were written before the Great Schism and denominational divisions, back when Christians considered ourselves only one church. When over-innovative preachers were trying to pass off their new theories as authentic Christianity, the leaders of the various churches gathered, discussed, checked the scriptures, and wrote creeds to reflect the orthodox point of view. Every true Christian should be able to say the creeds and mean ’em. Only heretic Christians will be tripped up by them.

Tradition has it that the Apostles Creed is the very oldest creed; that it’s called “the Apostles Creed” (sometimes with or without an apostrophe) because it was written by the apostles. I don’t know about that. It’s certainly old, and consistent with other creeds. But the oldest full copy we have of it, comes from St. Permin’s Dicta Abbatis Pirminii/“Abbot Permin’s Sayings,” written after 710.

Using the Apostles Creed.

The common Christian mistake is to imagine what makes us Christian, is what we believe. We even get a little bit of that in Rich Mullins’s song, in the chorus:

And I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am
I did not make it; no it is making me
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

True, what we believe influences who we are. But more importantly, more central to Christianity, is who we follow. What makes us Christian is we follow Jesus. When we intentionally, devoutly follow him, he makes us Christian. Not our orthodoxy—which, when we authentically follow Jesus, get sorted out as we go.

Creeds are part of that sorting-out process. Again, like Mullins wrote, we don’t make it: We don’t write faith statements based on the stuff we like and the stuff we don’t, or invent an eclectic form of Christianity which suits our prejudices best. We shouldn’t do that stuff, anyway; obviously a lot of Christians are. But if we’re truly following, instead of inventing, it’s not gonna look like us but be disguised as Jesus. It’s gonna conform to the creeds, instead of ditching them to write our own, new ’n improved versions.

So knowing the creed doesn’t prove we’re Christians, nor that we’re saved. It only proves we know what true Christians oughta believe. When we Christians do believe it, it means we’re likely to hand down the truths of the scriptures, hand down the apostles’ traditions, hand down the stuff previous Christians have always believed. We’ll believe in the trinity, in Jesus’s supernatural birth, that he really suffered and died, really rose from the dead, and is really coming back.

We’ll believe in the universal church which Jesus runs, which transcends all our little local churches and denominations. We’ll believe Christians should meet regularly, and forgive others. We’ll believe when Jesus returns, he’ll resurrect us, and we’ll live forever with him.

If we don’t, we may still be Christian—again, our relationship with God is entirely up to God—but we’ll be heretic. We’ll have incorrect beliefs about God which may, and too often do, get in the way of a saving relationship with him.

From time to time I meet people who claim they’re Christian, and orthodox… and yet they can’t conform to the Apostles Creed. They don’t really believe Jesus’ll resurrect us when he returns (or even that he’ll return). They don’t really think Jesus went to the afterlife when he died; they imagine he went back to heaven, ’cause he’s God, instead of defeating the same kind of death we all undergo. They don’t believe Jesus has a universal church; they only believe in their church, and the rest of us “so-called Christians” are suspect. Often they have mighty weird ideas about the trinity. And yet they insist they’re still orthodox—because they imagine they get to define orthodoxy.

No they don’t. Jesus does, and we follow. The creeds, notably the Apostles Creed, help us follow.