Christianity did not begin when we were born. Nor did our generation invent Christian thought… Today’s Christianity is directly affected by what earlier Christians chose to do and to believe. —Justin Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils
Let’s investigate this question by traveling 1600 years into the past, to the year AD 414. We’ll ask a Christian to share the core beliefs of Christianity.
In the marketplace of ancient Rome, we meet a young Christian named Martina. Armed with an English-to-Latin phrasebook, we explain our quest and she gladly agrees to recite the Apostles’ Creed.
“Why the Apostles’ Creed?” we ask. “What is that? Quid est hoc?”
“It summarizes the teachings of Christ’s Apostles,” explains Martina. “The bishop recited it over me when I was baptized, as a summary of the faith into which I was reborn. It has been the same for many Christians, perhaps since AD 140.”
If you’re an evangelical Christian, I think you’ll be surprised at how similar your beliefs are to those of Martina’s. But you may also find some surprises in the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried; He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and [sits] on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
I bet two things caught your eye: “He descended into hell,” and “the holy catholic church.”
We thank Martina for her recitation, and she asks us if we believe in what the Apostles’ Creed affirms.
“Mostly,” we say. “Perhaps with two exceptions.” Let’s consider them further.
Surprise #1: “He descended into hell.”
Did Jesus descend into hell? The New Testament does not claim this explicitly (though some may speculate about 1 Peter 3:18-20). Instead of emphasizing what Jesus did between the death and resurrection, the New Testament focuses on what Christ achieves through his death and resurrection: he triumphs over death, evil and sin.
According to Justin Holcomb (@JustinHolcomb), author of the new book Know the Creeds and Councils, the Apostles’ Creed borrows its “descent into hell” language from the Old Testament. Numerous OT verses mention descending to sheol — which is variously translated as the pit, the grave, or the realm of the dead. (Here are a few Old Testament examples.) When all of the OT verses are considered, this “descend to the realm of the dead” idea seems to be a generic description of death. Or to quote the Teacher, whether we’re foolish or wise, we still die (Ecclesiastes 2:16).
[See our blogpost, Why Creeds are Still a Big Deal: An Interview with Justin Holcomb]
Furthermore, it’s interesting that the Latin translations of the creed don’t agree on how to phrase the “descent” line; the version that Martina quoted said ad inferna (“into hell”), but as Holcomb notes, some versions of the Apostles’ Creed have that Jesus descended ad inferos (“to the dead”). In fact, John Calvin was persuaded that the Apostles’ Creed intends the meaning of “to the dead.”
So if Martina is saying that Jesus died and was fully dead, like other human beings die, we agree. If Martina from AD 414 really means “descended into hell,” we may have to agree to disagree. There’s much we agree on besides.
Surprise #2: “The holy catholic church.”
Evangelical Christians may wonder about a scriptural basis for “the holy catholic church.” I think this phrase is really interesting. As Holcomb explains,
The word “catholic” is actually a way to refer to the whole church of Jesus Christ, deriving from two Greek words, kata and holos, which together mean “according to the whole.” The term is usually translated in Protestant churches as “universal,” but this does not quite do justice to its richness. “Catholic” means that the church exists in every nation where the gospel has spread. Second-century church father Ignatius of Antioch wrote that “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” [Epistle to the Smyrneans 8. Emphasis mine.]
I like it!
It’s interesting to think we have so many beliefs in common with Christians who lived so many centuries ago. Is this partly because the Apostles’ Creed shaped other creeds and Christian thought for centuries to come? I don’t know yet, so I look forward to reading more of Holcomb’s Know the Creeds and Councils. (By the way, many churches today still recite the Apostles’ Creed during baptism.)
Did you notice anything important that isn’t mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed?
Here’s one thing: the Trinity.
Read more about the Apostles’ Creed in a preview of Justin Holcomb’s new book Know the Creeds and Councils. (As a bonus, you’ll find a quick sketch of the life and ideas of Arius, a provocative theologian who caused some major controversy in the church. That’s selected from Know the Heretics, Holcomb’s other new book.) READ PREVIEW
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