“The gospel which I preached, which also you received”
Some New Testament Texts: Acts 10:36-43; Romans 1:3f.; 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11; I Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Ephesians 4:4-6.
II.1HERMAS, SHEPHERD: First of all believe that God is one, who created, fashioned, and made all things to exist out of nothing and who contains all things and is himself alone uncontained. Believe then in him and reverence him. (Mandate 1.1-2=26. 1-2)
2IGNATIUS: For our God Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit,who was born and was baptized in order that he might purify the water by his passion. (Ephesians 18.2)
3Be deaf whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the race of David, who was from Mary, who was truly born, both ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, with beings heavenly, earthly, and under the earth looking on, who also was truly raised from the dead, his Father raising him. (Trallians 9)
4JUSTIN: In the books of the prophets we found proclaimed beforehand that Jesus our Christ would come, would be born through the virgin, become man and heal every sickness and disease, raise the dead, be hated and unrecognized, be crucified, die, and be raised again, and ascend into heaven, who is and is called the Son of God, and that certain men would be sent by him to every race of men to preach these things. (Apology I, 31.7)
5In the water there is named over the one who chooses to be born again and who repents of his sins the name of God the Lord and Father of all, he who leads the one being washed to the water using only this description of God . . . . The one who is enlightened is washed also in the name of Jesus Christ who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and in the name of the Holy Spirit who through the prophets foretold everything concerning Jesus. (Apology I, 61.10,13)
6IRENAEUS: And this is the drawing-up of our faith, the foundation of the building, and the consolidation of a way of life. God, the Father, uncreated, beyond grasp, invisible, one God the maker of all; this is the first and foremost article of our faith. But the second article is the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was shown forth by the prophets according to the design of their prophecy and according to the manner in which the Father disposed; and through Him were made all things whatsoever. He also, in the end of times, for the recapitulation of all things, is become a man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and bring to light life, and bring about the communion of God and man. And the third article is the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs were taught about God and the just were led in the path of justice, and who in the end of times has been poured forth in a new manner upon humanity over all the earth renewing man to God. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 6)1
7For the church, although dispersed throughout the whole world as far as the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, who has made the heaven, the earth, the seas, and all things in them; and in one Christ Jesus the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who has proclaimed through the prophets the plans of God and the comings of Christ, both the birth from the virgin, the passion, the rising from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord, and the manifestation in the glory of the Father for the summing up of all things and the raising in the flesh of all humanity, . . . in order that he might make a just judgment on all, that he might send the spiritual hosts of wickedness, the angels who transgressed and went into apostasy, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemers among human beings into the eternal fire, but might grant incorruptible life and eternal glory to those who are righteous, holy, and keep his commandments, and who persevere in his love either from the beginning or by repentance. (Against Heresies 1.10.1)
8EPISTLE OF THE APOSTLES: They [the five loaves] are a picture of our faith concerning the great Christianity; and that is in the Father, the ruler of the entire world, and in Jesus Christ our Saviour, and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, and in the holy Church and in the forgiveness of sins. (5)2
9DER BALYZEH PAPYRUS: One confesses the faith thus: I believe in one God the Father Almighty and in his only Son our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit and in the resurrection of the flesh and the holy catholic church.3
10PRESBYTERS OF SMYRNA: We also truly know one God; we know the Christ; we know the Son who suffered as he [the Christ] suffered, died as he died, and rose again on the third day, and is on the Father’s right hand, and will come to judge the living and the dead. (Quoted by Hippolytus, Against Noetus 1)
11TERTULLIAN: The rule of faith which is believed: there is but one God, and he alone is the creator of the world, who by the sending forth of his Word in the beginning brought the universe into being out of nothing; and this Word, called his Son, was seen in various ways in the name of God by the patriarchs, was heard always in the prophets, and last of all was brought down into the virgin Mary by the spirit and power of God the Father, was made flesh in her womb and was born from her as Jesus Christ; thereafter he proclaimed a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles, was nailed to the cross, was resurrected on the third day, was taken up to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand and to send in his place the power of the Holy Spirit to guide believers, and will come again in glory to take the saints into the enjoyment of life eternal and the heavenly promises, and to condemn the impious to everlasting fire, both parties being raised from the dead and having their flesh restored. (Prescription of Heretics 13)
12HIPPOLYTUS: And when he who is to be baptised goes down to the water, let him who baptises lay hand on him saying thus:
Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty?
And he who is being baptised shall say: I believe.
Let him forthwith baptise him once, having his hand laid upon his head.
And after this let him say:
Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, [and was buried,] and rose the third day living from the dead and ascended in the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
And when he says: I believe, let him baptise him the second time.
And again let him say:
Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, [and the resurrection of the flesh]?
And he who is being baptised shall say: I believe. And so let him baptize him the third time. (Apostolic Tradition 21.12-18)4
13OLD ROMAN SYMBOL:5 I believe in God [the Father] Almighty; and in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord, who was born from the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried and on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, whence he is coming to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, life eternal.
The above excerpts represent the efforts of early Christians to formulate the essentials of their faith. Numerous other, but very similar, quotations could be added. The impression given is one of a fidelity to the biblical facts of the Gospel, a “history of salvation” view. The Christian faith centered in Christ and what God did through him. But this was prepared for in the Old Testament revelation. The statements quoted show how second-century Christians tried to state the central core of the biblical faith.
The early Christians have left us little about the subjective side of faith, but they said much about the objective content of their faith. The above quoted passages give some of their summaries of belief, some of their confessions of faith. As in the New Testament, there was no fixed formulation of the faith, but a multiplicity of ways of stating the “one faith,” “once for all delivered.” There was no “creed,” in the sense of a formal or official statement which was used as a test of fellowship. (There were certainly doctrinal truths which had to be affirmed in order to remain in the fellowship of the church-e.g., the incarnation in 1 John 4:2-6-but these were not reduced to a fixed wording.) This was no less true of the second century than of the first. But the church did have a clearly defined set of beliefs which it preached and confessed from its beginning. “Creeds,” in the sense of confessions of faith, are abundant in the New Testament and in later Christian literature. We have cited some examples from this abundance of confessional material. Although there is no fixity of wording, the quotations are striking for their similarities. A common faith, in continuity with the New Testament proclamation, is testified to.
The New Testament contains summaries of the faith consisting of one-member (about Christ–1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Romans 1:3-4; 1 Peter 3:18-22), two members, (about God and Christ–1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 6:13-14), or three members (about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit–Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13). Creedal or creed-like statements constructed on the same patterns continue to appear in the second century.
Examples of one-member Christ proclamations are given in selections II.2, 3, and 4.6 Declarations about Christ are the most fully developed elements in the confessional statements of the early church. Affirmations about Christ are also the most frequently occurring form of confessional statement in the second century. Selection II.1 is exceptional in that it is about God, as would be typical of Jewish statements; the author is probably referring to a traditional sequence (“first”) which he then does not continue.
There are a few two-membered statements, as selection II.10.7 This was a confession used by the presbyters at Smyrna about 190 when they examined Noetus, who carried the faith in one God to a denial of the distinction between the Father and the Son (Modalism). The result was to make the one who suffered on the cross the same as the Father, or else to say that only the humanity suffered. His opponents stressed that it is the divine Son who suffered.
Three-membered or Trinitarian declarations become more common in the second century, as the selections we have quoted go to show. The baptismal “formula” of Matthew 28:19 was of decisive influence here, and many of the passages are in a baptismal context (as II.5 and 12; see further ch. III). But the pattern of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was rather deeply implanted in the structure of Christian faith and in the early church’s worship life (chs. XII and XIII).
The currently accepted explanation is that the later expanded confessional statements (II.6, 11, 12, 13) arose from combining longer Christological proclamations (the facts about Christ, such as II.4) with shorter, balanced Trinitarian statements (such as II.5). This combination was made in order to give a fuller statement of Christian belief and perhaps in order to make explicit the church’s rejection of certain heretical doctrines. There were various ways of including the items which were thought to be essential to a summary of Christian doctrine. The facts about Christ might be added to the third article as part of the Spirit’s predictions through the prophets (II.7). It was more customary, however, to expand the second section about Christ (II.6, 11).8 Some items might simply be added on at the end (II.8, 9), although there is good reason to see these additions (church, forgiveness of sins, resurrection) as related to the work of the Spirit. The end result (II.12, 13) was to upset the neat Trinitarian balance with the enlarged second article and with other items loosely strung on at the end after the mention of the Spirit.
The earliest detailed descriptions of baptism show the candidate confessing his or her faith in response to questions (II.12). It has, indeed, been argued that this is what was meant by “baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” No “formula” was pronounced by the administrator. He asked the questions, and baptism “in the name” was baptism administered at the candidate’s response (confession) to the interrogation about the name. This might be confirmed by the fact that the earliest known baptismal creed (as a fixed wording which was confessed at baptism) is the interrogatory creed of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (II.12). Declaratory creeds, in which the candidate repeated a set formula, first appear in the baptismal liturgy of the fourth century. (Voluntary professions by the candidate may be distinguished, for Acts 8:37 is as old as the second century, if not original.) Whether all the statements about baptism in the triune name (see Ch. III) can be explained in this way is another matter. Be that as it may, the Trinitarian interrogations at baptism provided a suitable outline for framing summaries of essential Christian belief, especially in the instruction of those preparing for baptism.
Baptism and instruction for baptism were not the only occasions for the use of confessional material. Among other circumstances where we find creedal summaries are worship (especially benedictions), correspondence, and exorcism (the casting out of demons “in the name of Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate”).9 Naturally, what was believed and confessed was what had been preached. In preaching, especially in polemics against false doctrine, appeal was made to summaries of the faith (II.6, 7, 11).
When Christians opposed false teaching, they pointed to the facts of the preaching as it had come down to them. Ignatius (II.3) opposed the Docetists who denied the bodily reality of the coming of Christ. He reinforced the traditional summary of Christian teaching which he cites by the insertion of “truly.”
Irenaeus and Tertullian, in opposing heretical teaching, call their summaries of Christian teaching the “canon of truth,” or “rule of faith.”10 Formerly, it was thought that by these terms they were referring to creeds, which they then paraphrased. Others have seen the terms as a reference to a body of tradition coming down from the apostles alongside the Scriptures. It now seems clear that, for Irenaeus in particular, the “canon of truth” is the truth itself, the main content of the Scriptures.11 For Tertullian the “rule” more nearly approximates a set form of words, but for him too the reference is to a summary of apostolic teaching.
The summaries which these writers give under the heading of the rule of truth or of faith closely resemble the kerygma, or preaching, which modern scholars find in the proclamations of the gospel in the Acts and Epistles of the New Testament.12 The wording was variable, but of course the basic facts and convictions were consistent, and these writers were talking about the central affirmations of Christianity.
The relationship between the rules of faith (II.6, 7, 11) and the creeds (II.12, 13) was that the former were summaries of the preaching and teaching (hence the fluidity in wording but similar content) and the latter were the confessions made in response to the preaching when it was received and believed (and so tended toward fixity of wording). Obviously there was a correlation between the teaching given and the faith professed, but the context for each differed. Rules of faith were summaries of the teaching given to new converts and then could be used to oppose false teaching; confessions of faith were made principally at baptism, but confessional statements occurred in other settings as well.
From the end of the second century the fluidity which characterized the external expressions of Christian faith and worship began to be replaced by a greater standardization of forms. The Roman church appears to have been the pioneer in the production of crystallized, creedal forms, as it was in other like developments. Its tendency was to reduce the area of allowable variety. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition provides set forms of written prayers in the worship, but expressly provides that these exact words need not be used but that each may pray according to his ability provided his prayer is orthodox (VIII.5). But the tendency was there.
The confession known as the “Old Roman Symbol,” or Creed, likely goes back to Hippolytus’ time, with whose baptismal interrogations it has striking similarities. Indeed, the Old Roman Symbol is achieved, with few modifications, simply by turning Hippolytus’ questions into statements. This creed was the declaratory baptismal confession in Rome in the fourth century. It was delivered to the candidates during their preparation for baptism, and they recited it verbatim before their baptism. Whether it was contemporary with or (but this is unlikely) even older than Hippolytus, or derived from the interrogations he records, the Old Roman Symbol is the first known creedal form to achieve relative fixity of wording and official sanction. One of its descendants is known as the “Apostles’ Creed” and is still recited in many churches today. The name was in use in the fourth century, as was the legend that it had been delivered to the churches by the apostles personally. One form of the legend attributed the composition of each section of the creed to a separate apostle. The present form of the “Apostles’ Creed” is first found in a manuscript of the eighth century, but the variations from the Old Roman Symbol are not major, and there is a direct line of descent. But the creed, and the legend about it, was unknown in the Greek churches of the East, and so its popularity in Western Christendom is due to Rome’s influence and is not representative of the whole of Christendom.
Creeds were commonly called “symbols” in the ancient church. The reason is not altogether clear. The meaning may be a “pact” or “covenant.” Or, if the basic meaning of the word is adhered to, the creed was a token or sign, pointing to the reality of the faith which was confessed by the words.
The Der Balyzeh Papyrus, dating from the sixth-seventh century, has sometimes been claimed as containing a creed as old as the second century (II.9). Hence, it is included here, and there is nothing in it that could not come from that early date. But the latest critical edition posits a baptismal setting for the creed, and unless Egyptian usage (which the liturgy in the rest of the papyrus reflects) differed from what is known elsewhere, such a declaratory creed is unlikely at this early date.
The Epistle of the Apostles is one second-century document with what appears to be a positive creed (II.8). Its community clearly had a set confession of five points, so that an allegorical significance could be seen in the five loaves of the Gospel miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. The setting in which the confession was used unfortunately is not known, and the details of the wording vary considerably in the existing (Ethiopic) manuscripts.
All of these early confessional formulas and creedal forms lack the philosophical or metaphysical concerns of the later (fourth century, especially Eastern) creeds. The concern is with history, with the primitive proclamation about Christ. That provides a clear point of continuity between the New Testament and the second-century church. It is interesting that the confessions from the New Testament are largely in settings that originally have to do with Christian experience rather than theology-acceptance of preaching, baptism, benedictions, hymns. The second century confessions are becoming more doctrinal but are still functional rather than ontological in their content. The conviction was that God who made all things had entered the world and history in the person of Jesus Christ and the effects of that visitation remained in the Holy Spirit, the church, and forgiveness of sins. The situation was not the same, but the faith was still essentially the same.
The items appended to the end of the confessional formulas after the Holy Spirit are probably not to be thought of as separate objects of faith. Perhaps what is confessed is the Holy Spirit (or all three divine Persons) in the church and the other items, or the working of the Holy Spirit in these ways. Since the confessions are so often connected with baptism, the items mentioned (membership in the church, remission of sins, and resurrection) may originally have gained admission to the confessional statements as gifts conferred in baptism. The description of the church as “catholic” is to be understood in the early sense of the word as “universal.” The catholicity of the church, in contrast to local assemblies, was stressed increasingly during the second century in opposition to the heresies which arose later and were geographically more limited than the great church.
Barr, O. S. From the Apostles’ Faith to the Apostles’ Creed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Crehan, Joseph. Early Christian Baptism and the Creed. London: Burns Oates & Washboume, 1950.
Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Creeds. Third edition. London: Longmans, 1972.
Sider, Robert D. The Gospel and its Proclamation. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983.
Young, Frances. The Making of the Creeds. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.
1 Quoted from the translation of the Armenian by Joseph P. Smith, St. Irenaeus Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 16 (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1952), p. 51. (Used by permission.) For a close parallel cf. Against Heresies 4.33.7.
2 Quoted from New Testament Apocrypha, Volume One, edited by Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher. English translation edited by R. McL.Wilson. Published in the U.S.A. by the Westminster Press, 1963. Copyright © 1959, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck),Tübingen. English translation © 1963, Lutterworth Press. Used by permission. The same translation is in the revised edition, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), Vol. I, p. 253.
3 Translated from the text in C. H. Roberts and B. Capelle, An Early Euchologium: The Der Balyzeh Papyrus Enlarged and Reedited (Louvain, 1949). An English translation is also in P. F. Palmer, Sources of Christian Theology, Vol. 1: Sacraments and Worship (Westminster, Maryland: Newman, 1955), pp. 46f.
4 Quoted from Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome (Reissued with Corrections; London: S.P.C.K., 1968), pp. 36f. I have consulted the edition of Dom Bernard Botte, La tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte: Essai de reconstitution, “Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen,” 39 (Muenster, 1963). The first passage marked with brackets is bracketed by Botte, because it occurs in only one witness to the text. The second passage in brackets is omitted by Botte as an interpolation. Geoffrey J. Cuming, Hippolytus: A Text for Students (Bramcote: Grove, 1976), p. 19 omits the first bracketed phrase but includes the second.
On the triple immersions, see Chapter III.
5 There are two fourth-century witnesses to the text, the Greek of Marcellus of Ancyra’s profession of faith to bishop Julius of Rome (preserved by Epiphanius, Panarion 72.3) and the Latin of Rufinus’ Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed. I translate from the Greek, italicizing what is not represented by the Latin and adding in brackets what is in the Latin but wanting in the Greek.
6 Justin offers numerous examples: Apology I, 21.1; 42.4; 46.5; Dialogue 63.1; 85.2; 126.1; 132.1. See also Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 1 and Aristides, Apology 2 (Syriac) 15 (Greek); Melito, On The Passover 104-105.
7 Other examples are Polycarp, Philippians 2; Acts of Justin 2; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.4.2.
8 Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins 1 expands the facts about Christ after a reference to faith in the Father; Against Praxeas 2 does so within a Trinitarian confession of faith.
9 Justin, Apology II, 6; Dialogue 85.2.
10 Similar language in Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 6.15.124, 125.
11 Valdemar Ammundsen, “The Rule of Truth in Irenaeus,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 13 (1912), pp. 574-80.
12 C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (New York: Harper, 1944). For other summaries of apostolic preaching cf. 3 Corinthians and Acts of Paul, frg. 10, about the preaching of Paul, and Eusebius, Church History 1.13.20-21, about the preaching of Thaddaeus to Abgar in Edessa.