What We Believe and Why
A Simple Explanation
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
A Simple Explanation of the Apostles’ Creed
Some knowledge of the history of the Apostles' Creed, so-called not because the Apostles wrote it but because it fairly represents the main body of their teaching, is necessary if we would understand it clearly. It is based on the ancient Baptismal Creed of the Church in Rome, which competent historians trace back to the early years of the second century. I will print the later additions in italics.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, 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, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day He rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the [1/2] 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 flesh: And the Life everlasting.
We are not concerned with small variations in the Roman Creed, such as the order, Christ Jesus, crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc. But I may point out that this early form is an exact summary of the teaching in the Gospel and Acts of St. Luke, the companion of St. Paul, written in the first instance for his friend Theophilus, a candidate for Baptism. In its simplicity and directness it is an admirable summary, to use St. Luke's words, of "the things most surely believed among us." Of the later phrases it may suffice to say that Maker of heaven and earth comes from the Creed of Niceta, Bishop of Remesiana, the probable author of the Te Deum. Suffered was used [2/3] consistently in the Eastern developed forms of Creed and became necessary when false teachers tried to explain away the reality of our Lord's Manhood. Descended into hell, in the fourth century Creed of Aquileia, defended the doctrine that the Lord had a reasoning soul as well as human flesh, and shared the condition of departed souls when His body lay in the grave. Catholic—Universal, was a necessary addition when the common mind of the Church throughout the world was expressed against the partial opinions of local sects. Communion of Saints again comes to us from Niceta who pointed his people to the uplifting ideal of a great federation of holy people throughout the ages and unbroken by death. Forgiveness of sins was introduced in the third century in Rome itself under circumstances which I shall explain later. Eternal life is found at an early date in the African Creed.
We must think of the Creed as a whole. In early days it was sometimes called [3/4] a "shortened word," as a summary of Bible teaching, and as such it follows the lessons in public worship. So we may use it in private devotion as a map of the whole region of spiritual thought which the common mind of the Church has surveyed. The initial venture of faith demands from each thoughtful man or woman, at some time in his or her life, careful exercise of reason. We must take pains to think things out, and ask: Why do I believe this or that? In such an inquiry reason is aided by emotion. The claim of Christ upon our allegiance is avowed most fully by the loyal hearts which say, "We love Him because He first loved us," and set their wills at all costs to follow Him in the way of life. But this does not for a moment imply that reason has been blindfolded. We walk by faith not by sight. Reason must take account of the facts to be explained, e.g., the supreme fact of the historical appearing of Jesus Christ. It can appeal to history to put us as far as possible in the position of eye-witnesses of the first generation of Christians. [4/5] More than that history cannot do. It is for philosophy to discuss the question whether miracles are possible or not in relation to a Personality with regard to whom on purely rational grounds philosophy can surely say that our Lord satisfies our highest conception of Divinity manifest on earth. By a miracle we mean some inexplicable cause for which we cannot account by our usual observance of the uniformity of Nature. But the effect of which it is the cause is noted by reason, and it is not unreasonable to demand that the answer which faith gives should have consideration as a working hypothesis in a world which is full of mysteries, in which as an early Apologist put it, "Reason follows faith into the things that are highest and nearest to God." But when we have made the experiment of faith we shall always find that our experience is not without support of the experience of others, and it is on the experience of many generations that we build up confidence in the power of the living Christ to fulfill His promises and aid His Church.
 We pause to reflect what a gulf separates the bare thought of a Supreme Being, whose creative energy has evolved so many types of human beings through countless centuries, from the thought that He, the Eternal, the Self-existent God, is our Father in heaven. Yet so we are led by Christ to assert of the "Maker of heaven and earth," "of whom every Fatherhood in heaven and earth is named," our Father by creation, our Father also by adoption and grace, for He has called us out of the darkness of ignorance into His kingdom of light, that in the light of truth we may call all men made in His image to grow after His likeness. Boldly in the face of the world's sorrows and sins we call Him Almighty, and by that word we mean all-ruling, for we have to acknowledge that He has Himself limited His power by the grant to us of power to choose wrongly. We are not mere machines and for that very reason we are worth more to Him, if our wishes are truly surrendered to His. [6/7] For the crown of life is love, and the perfection of love is self-sacrifice. And it is literally a commonplace of Christian experience to say as we look back over years past, "All things work together for good to them that love God." Without excusing our faults, without minimizing our disappointments, we see that His Providence has guided and guarded. And we dare to think a larger thought still as we look out into the welter of conflicting elements in human history, the chequered history of races, the rise and fall of kingdoms, and we dare to say that He is there also, all-ruling, ever bringing out of the evil of man's working that which is good.
Not less momentous is the history of a human soul in the resolve to accept Jesus as the Lord. In a measure, when a child grows up, all that he has been taught about the Lord Jesus must be thrown into the crucible of conflicting doubts and fears and hopes through which the first disciples [7/8] passed when they were led on through wonder to worship. They followed Him and it was their experience in daily Companionship, their appreciation of His goodness or of His wisdom that led them to say at last "Thou art the Christ." The tragedy of His rejection by His own people confused their minds. It seemed to have been in vain that they hoped that He would redeem Israel. But the Risen Lord was able to convince them that He was their Saviour (Jesus), by His death for their sins, and a greater Messiah (Christ) for all mankind than they had hoped in all that He would enable them to do for Him in the world. Then and not till then did they come truly to believe in Him as "the Son of God." The Creed in this section is an expression of the double phrase His only Son our Lord.
The first part is taken up in the assertion of the mystery of His holy Incarnation, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary. This is a hard saying and [8/9] many turn away from it. It is of course true that in the first generation many believed on Him without knowing anything about it. It was only when scandals were spread abroad about the Blessed Virgin (cp. St. John viii: 41, "We be not born of fornication") that the secret knowledge of the most intimate circle was made common property. But it is to the average man that it is most welcome news. Bishop Talbot of Pretoria in his recent book, The Returning Tide of Faith, speaks none too strongly when he says (p. 181) : "There was desperate need of a new start not least in the vital matter of sex.... And men know in their hearts that there is need of penitence as regards any man's love for a true woman. If so, that is a powerful witness to the need of a new creation."
The second part is concerned with the history of the Manhood in which form our Lord humbled Himself even to the death upon the Cross that He might be exalted in due time. Only through suffering is the way to real glory. [9/10] His crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is mentioned as a note of time linking up His life on earth with the history of the great world of the Roman Empire in which Pilate was an official. Pilate's was not the greater sin in that grim tragedy, but his moral cowardice may often be a warning to us lest we like him lose the vision of truth.
Dead and buried, the common lot of all men. He descended into hell (Hades) means no more, as the words stand, than passed into the unseen world. It is not the place of punishment that is described but the condition of departed souls. If His own words assure us that He welcomed the penitent thief into a Paradise of peace and blessedness, it is not less to be believed that He did not forget the impenitent thief, in separated loneliness as of a prison. For St. Peter speaks (I Peter iii :17) of His preaching good news to the spirits in prison, naming a typical generation of sinners cut off by the flood in their sins, prisoners of hope, [10/11] no longer of despair, if as long lost they would turn to Him.
The women coming to His tomb on Easter Day found the stone rolled away. To St. Peter, Mary Magdalene, the other women, the two disciples going to Emmaus, and finally the ten Apostles, without St. Thomas, He appeared in the mystery of His risen Body. Their incredulity is an aid to our faith. Never were men less likely to imagine such a miracle, broken spirited, without a leader. At intervals through forty days He met them again and taught them to be witnesses to His Resurrection. Then as He blessed them on the holy mount He was finally parted from them, again disappearing into the unseen world, in which they in a metaphor believed Him to have ascended to the right hand of the majesty on high.
The Holy Spirit
On the day of Pentecost the Apostles believed with an intense conviction that they had received the promised gift of the Spirit [11/12] of God. The result was a wonderful manifestation of the spirit of fellowship. Day by day they prayed for wisdom as well as courage to confess Christ before men. They relied on the power from on high and claimed it for all the baptized. Thus Peter and John in Samaria prayed for Philip's converts and laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts viii: 17.)
It is impossible in a short paper to give details but it is important to note that neither the doctrine of the Holy Spirit nor the conception of the Church came ready made into the minds of believers. As Dr. Illingworth has said, "We live first and think afterwards." We have only to compare the teaching of St. Paul in Romans and I Corinthians with the Epistle of St. James to see that the acute mind of St. Paul, enlarged by the experience of missionary work, led him to see much further into the mystery of the Person of the Holy Spirit, than the limited outlook of St. James permitted. [12/13] Yet "the Epistle of St. James which is singularly reticent on Christian topics contains one reference (iv: 4f) to the Holy Spirit." (Swete.)
For St. Paul's teaching I may select one passage. In I Cor. ii: 10 he writes: "The spirit searcheth all things, yea the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him. Even so the things of God knoweth no man but the spirit of God." Here a profound analogy is drawn between human personality and the Divine Personality of which it is a far off copy. The spirit of man reflects on the work of the past day, on his actions, his moods, his words. He seems almost to himself like a double personality, and yet he is conscious in his self-consciousness that he is one. Yet man's personality is finite, incomplete; he was not made to dwell alone. The family is the true unit of human life. Man needs and seeks society, and finds therein the satisfaction of his deepest need, love: loving and [13/14] beloved, his spirit bears witness in his self-consciousness that this is the fulness of his life. It has been beautifully said, "To love is the perfect of the verb to live." The sundered lives of men image dimly as in a mirror the supreme truth of the undivided life of God, whose Son finds perfect satisfaction within not without the Divine Personality revealed to us as Triune, the Spirit of the Divine self-consciousness finding in the Son the express image of the Father's substance, and by His fellowship uniting Father and Son in the eternal perfection of Divine love. All human words fail to express such a mystery. They are thrown out, as it were, at an object too vast for them to measure. But the words of St. Paul seem to lead directly to such speculation. (The Apostles' Creed, A. E. Burn, p. 86.) In the benediction of II Cor. xiii: 14, this mystery of the Divine Life is clearly expressed (cp. I Cor. xii: 4-6), and in Romans viii the work of the Spirit as Guide (v. 14), and as Intercessor (v. 16), is clearly set forth.
 The difficulty of one sentence in which St. Paul appears to identify the Son and the Spirit (II Cor. iii: 17), "The Lord is the Spirit," has been well met by Dr. Anderson Scott: "'The Lord is the Spirit,'" wrote the Apostle in a sentence of profound significance. The epoch-making discovery was due to the observed identity in the working of the Spirit with the recorded influence of Jesus. It was a discovery as important in its bearing on the conception of the Spirit as on the conception of Christ. If Jesus, who was the Christ, is now thought of in terms of 'the Spirit,' the Spirit is now understood in terms of Christ. Previous to Pentecost it had been regarded as the divine energy in its operation especially upon men, invisible, potent, somewhat unaccountable. Henceforward, through being discovered to have character, the Spirit is conceived as 'personal'."
The Holy Catholic Church. It is important to note that the phrases which follow are all concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. [15/16] We can supply such words as: Who dwells in the Holy Church, Who makes me share in the Communion of Saints, Who makes me sure of the forgiveness of sins, etc. The holy Church is, broadly speaking, the whole body of the baptized, a society which from the day of Pentecost has taken firm root in human life and spread all over the world. (cp. The Spirit, Macmillan, p.148) It did not start with a ready made constitution, though in the Apostolate it possessed the germ of all subsequent ministry. We read (Acts ii: 42) "They were steadfastly adhering to the teaching of the Apostles and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." As Dr. Anderson Scott says, "(The Fellowship) was a new name for a new thing, community of spirit issuing in community of life; that was the primary result of the coming of the Spirit." (The Spirit, p. 137). For some time they hoped that the whole nation might be swept into the movement, and when they were ejected from the synagogue [16/17] they still claimed to be the new Israel, heirs of the old promises.
The word Church (ecclesia) comes in later, linked up by memory with the Lord's promise to St. Peter, as the natural word to express assemblies of Christians in a private house, or wherever they could meet, e.g., the school of Tyrannus (Acts xix: 9), and was extended to describe the whole network of communities from Jerusalem to Antioch and throughout the world.
The epithet holy contains two ideas, the idea of separation from all that is unclean, and the idea of concentration on righteousness in thought and word and deed. It represents love raised to its highest power. The failure of Churchmen in any generation is no proof of the failure of Christ's ideal. All the way through the history of a single soul there is the same reaching out to a standard too high for attainment by human frailty. The greatest saints are the lowliest penitents. Our true personality is in becoming, not being. [17/18] The paradox of St. Augustine is justified, "God looks at us not as we are but as we are about to be." He sees that at the moment when with surrendered will we are justified by faith and seek peace through Jesus Christ we have the potentiality of a higher range of vision and a stronger effort of self-sacrifice which raise us to real holiness in service.
The word catholic means universal. It was attached to the Church throughout the world at first with the simple meaning of extension and afterwards with the added meaning of loyalty to the faith delivered to the saints.
The communion of saints can be explained very simply as the friendship of saints in life which is unbroken by death. We have seen what a glow of brotherly love inspired the first fellowship. In all times of danger and difficulty the same glow brought forgiveness to the hearts of the faithful. As the years passed and martyrdoms increased there was a sense of the glory [18/19] of the fellowship to be possessed with the spirits of just men made perfect. (Hebrews xi: 40.)
Recent research has proved that the phrase, the forgiveness of sins, did not come into the Roman creed till the third century. Hippolytus clung to the old rigorist view that repentance and baptism effected the remission of sins done before baptism, helping a man to start with a clean record, after which he might look for judgment, not forgiveness. Callistus, Bishop of Rome, (A. D. 217-222) relaxed this disciplinary rigor. He offered to receive back into the Church after repentance all offenders except murderers and apostates. This is one of the cases in which, to use a fine phrase of Archbishop Benson, "Life corrects the error of thought." The common mind of the Church, appealing to the forgiving love of God won through, despite the frailty of leaders on both sides in a great controversy. There is no more precious thought in the Creed.
 The resurrection of the flesh. The wording of the old Roman Creed found also in the Jerusalem Creed of Cyril as in the first Creed of Antioch (A. D. 341) was deliberately changed by Cyril into resurrection of the dead, in his revised Creed which, according to Dr. Hort's theory, was accepted at Constantinople and became our Nicene Creed. The reason is not far to seek. It is a reaction against a crude materialistic idea of the resurrection of the natural body, without which to many Christians a future life seemed impossible. The question had been hotly debated against Gnostic teachers who held that the redemption of the flesh was impossible since in the flesh was the root of all evil. We trace sin to its source in an evil will. We acknowledge that the flesh can be corrupted, that heredity may play its part in the weakening of will power. But we pray that here and now "our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body." We go back to the teaching of St. Paul (I Cor. xv) and pray that [20/21] the natural body may be transformed into a spiritual body. We sow not in the grave that body that shall be. As Bishop Westcott puts it, "The flesh of which we speak as destined to a resurrection is not the substance which we can see and handle, measured by properties of sense. It represents, as far as we can see, ourselves in our actual weakness, but essentially ourselves. We in our whole being, this is our belief, shall rise again. And we are not these changing bodies that we bear. They alter as we know with every step we take and every breath we draw. We make them, if I may so speak, make them naturally, necessarily, under the law of our present existence. . . . When therefore the laws of our existence are hereafter modified, then we, because we are unchanged, shall find some other expression, truly 'the same' in relation to the new order, because it is not the same as that to which it corresponds in this." (Historic Faith, Macmillan, p. 137f.)
 And the life everlasting. This thought found entrance into the African Creed in the third century. It carries our thoughts on to the final destiny of the soul purified by the Vision of God for the service of heaven.