by Al Maxey

Issue #488 ------- June 9, 2011
Wherever there is a creed, there is a
heretic round the corner or in his grave.

Alfred North Whitehead {1861-1947}

The Apostles' Creed
A Reflective Review

The English dictionary defines a "creed" as being "a brief statement of religious belief, especially one accepted as authoritative by a church." Creeds, in both written and unwritten form, can be found in every world religion, both primitive and modern, as well as in every denominational sect and schism of Christendom. Some disciples take them very seriously; others less so. Creeds have a tendency to come into being where a body of belief is embraced by members of a group who then feel the need to express their convictions, in an easily understandable way, to those around them. There is nothing inherently wrong in formulating creeds. Indeed, it can be helpful for a group to have their core beliefs stated in a compelling way. The danger, of course, is that creeds (which are statements of personal conviction) can over time come to be regarded as equivalent to divine Truth itself, thus causing those individuals or groups who do not share those core convictions to be regarded as "apostates," which, in turn, can very quickly lead to the persecution and extermination of such "godless ones." As Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) correctly stated, "Wherever there is a creed, there is a heretic round the corner or in his grave."

During the past two millennia a great many creeds and confessions have arisen among those people who have embraced the Christian faith. Some are very well-known, far and wide, and have become the doctrinal standards of various Christian groups, such as the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Westminster Confession. "The Creed of creeds," however, according to Dr. Philip Schaff, the acclaimed historian of the Christian church, is the Apostles' Creed. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote, "Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement." John Calvin (1509-1564) agreed, declaring that "it gives, in clear and succinct order, a full statement of our faith." It is perhaps the most popular creed used in worship by the Western Church, although it was never really embraced by the Eastern Church. It has been called various things -- the Symbolum Apostolorum (the Symbol of the Apostles) and the Roman Symbol, just to name a couple, but it is clearly best known to us today as the Apostles' Creed. It has also appeared in various forms (shorter and longer) over the centuries, and is shrouded in legend and mystery (with respect to its origin). Dr. H. B. Swete wrote, "It is a document of composite origin with a long and complicated history" [Apostles' Creed, p. 15].

According to the legends, this ancient creed was written by the twelve apostles during that first Pentecost in Jerusalem, with each of the apostles writing a section of the creed. "In Western churches of medieval date it is not uncommon to see portraits of the apostles, under each of which is transcribed the article of the creed thus assigned" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 807]. This legend arose sometime around the fourth century, however, and hardly any reputable theologian will assert that the apostles actually composed it, although many assert it may well reflect their early teaching. Dr. Philip Schaff correctly points out: "Had the twelve Apostles composed such a document, it would have been scrupulously handed down without alteration. The creed which bears this name is undoubtedly a gradual growth" [History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 -- Ante-Nicene Christianity, p. 531]. Thus, the creed itself "is not, of course, of apostolic origin" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 220]. This creed has quite obviously evolved over the centuries, with words and phrases being added or deleted along the way according to the theological whims of the day. Therefore, as Dr. Schaff observes, it is a work of "gradual growth," and one which certainly has "a long and complicated history."

This creed most likely made its appearance sometime during the second century, and was much shorter. Several early versions are extant in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian, Origen, Lucian, Eusebius, and Cyril (just to name a few). None of them give exactly the same reading, but they all emphasize belief in the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and in the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, which doctrines were regarded as constituting the foundational and core tenets of the church. Some make reference to the universal (catholic) church and the forgiveness of sins. NONE of them include the phrase "He descended into hell" (more about this later). The first known written reference to this creed appears within the text of a letter (believed to be written by Ambrose around 390) sent from the Council or Synod of Milan to Siricius, Bishop of Rome --- "Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled." This creed "appeared in a variety of interpretations for many centuries with many additions and refinements marking its history" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 221]. "An eighth century writer was the first one to quote the Creed exactly in its present form" [ibid], which form came to be largely accepted by the Roman Church around the 10th century. It was primarily used in connection with baptism and the Eucharist, often as a confession required for participation in these sacraments of the church.

As one may well imagine, this creed has not been without its critics ... and many find great fault with it even to this day. The doctrine of the Trinity, which is stressed in the creed, is rejected by some Christians, for example. Several object to the teaching of a resurrection of the physical body. Others do not like the addition of the word "catholic" before "church," although the term simply denotes a universal body of believers, rather than being an endorsement of Roman Catholicism. In reality, the Apostles' Creed contains "several important clauses which were wanting in the former" shorter versions of the creed [Dr. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 -- Ante-Nicene Christianity, p. 532]. Without doubt, the most controversial of these added clauses is the one that states Jesus "descended into hell," which rendering Dr. Schaff declares to be "unfortunate and misleading" [ibid]. In the ancient Latin Text of the creed (dating around 700 A.D.) it reads "descendit ad inferna." The Greek Version reads "katelthonta eis ta katotata" (which simply means to "descend to the lower regions"). It is truly unfortunate that the word "hell" is used, as this suggests Jesus was cast into the lake of fire where He experienced the torment reserved for the devil and his minions. Far more likely, and far more in keeping with the teaching of Scripture, is that the Lord descended unto the place of the dead --- which is the grave. The notion that Jesus, following His execution on the cross, was "burning in hell" is so abhorrent to many believers that they have either removed this clause from the creed, or refuse to speak it when the creed is recited.

Therefore, it's little wonder that this clause "struggled even into modern times for an established place" in this creed [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 221]. Various attempts, some quite creative, have been made over the years to show that Jesus was engaged in conscious activities during the time of His "descent into the lower regions," but it is my conviction that these all are based upon false teaching regarding the nature of man and his fate at the moment of physical death. I have dealt with this in great depth in many of my Reflections articles, which are listed in my Topical Index under the heading "The Nature of Man and Final Punishment." I would further encourage a very careful reading of The Maxey-Thrasher Debate, which deals in quite some depth with this topic. Some defenders of this clause in the Apostles' Creed point to the statement of Jesus to the thief on the cross to justify their view. I have dealt with this misunderstanding of Luke 23:43 in Reflections #28a. Others point to the statement made by the apostle Peter in 1 Pet. 3:18-20, which I refute in Reflections #83. I would especially plead with the reader to carefully and prayerfully examine Reflections #152 -- Paying the Penalty for Sin -- in which I ask the question: "Was the crucifixion of Christ on the cross total or token payment for sin?" This question, and the answer, is far more critical than you might realize! If you have not considered this before, please do so!! It will radically change your thinking in a number of key areas of belief.

I commend those Christian groups who have chosen to continue their use of the Apostles' Creed, but who have made the determination to delete this objectionable clause. The United Methodist Church, for example, chose to omit this clause from the creed in their Hymnal. In some of their versions, however, they have added it back, but have changed the wording to "He descended to the dead," which is clearly far more consistent with biblical doctrine. Prior to my vacation, I received the following from a reader in Virginia who serves as a deacon with a Baptist Church: "Brother Al, I have a question that I have not seen addressed anywhere concerning the Creed that is read in unison by some churches, such as the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that my husband prefers. Whenever I attend that church with him I refuse to read that creed aloud with the rest of the congregation, for it contains the phrase: 'He descended into hell.' I don't believe this, and therefore I will not say it. As a matter of fact, this statement was not even in the original Apostles' Creed, but was added much later, according to my research. Can you clarify this any further for me? Thank you!" Again, I commend those who stand by the Truth taught in Scripture, and who do not compromise that Truth by mindlessly repeating some misguided and poorly phrased dogma associated with a humanly crafted creed. A creed or a confession is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it can be of some benefit. However, let us examine these statements of belief carefully and in light of the Scriptures, for they may be more reflective of human tradition than divine Truth.

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Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
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One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Georgia:

Dear Brother Al, Would you please send me an autographed copy of your book Down, But Not Out (my check is enclosed). I cannot wait to receive this book!! I always enjoy your weekly Reflections, and really liked the way that you handled Osama bin Laden's death in Issue #486. On the one hand, I am thrilled that this terrorist is now gone, but, on the other hand, I'm saddened that he must face eternity having rejected Christ Jesus! I'm hoping to attend the 2012 Tulsa Workshop, and pray that I will be able to meet you there. I would love to meet you in person!!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Brother Al, After reading your book on divorce and remarriage (Down, But Not Out), I am truly at a loss for words!! All I can say is: Well-Done!! I am thankful for folks like you who are obedient to the Lord. Your book is such a blessing! Thank You!! May God bless you richly.

From a Reader in Malaysia:

Dear Brother Al Maxey, I am from Malaysia and would really appreciate it if you could send me a copy of your book Down, But Not Out. The issue of MDR has troubled the churches here, and I am hopeful that your book will be of help to us. Thank you!

From a Reader in South Dakota:

Dear Bro. Al, As I stated to you on the phone, your new book One Bread, One Body is one of the best books I have ever read!! I particularly liked the chapter "Toddlers at the Table." You make some very interesting points throughout the book, and I appreciate all the hard work that you obviously put into it. VERY good job on your second book, brother! It will have a prominent spot in my bookcase. Also, thank you for the nice inscription you wrote in the front.

From a Reader in Illinois:

Dear Brother Al, I am glad to see that you have been teaching at The Tulsa Workshop the last few years!! I have been wanting to meet you, but for one reason or another we haven't been to Tulsa for about 3 or 4 years now. However, some friends of ours, who attended the last workshop, brought me an autographed copy of your new book One Bread, One Body back from Tulsa. I am pleased to see that in many ways we think alike concerning the body of Christ. Also, I ordered the CD's of your four talks at the workshop. Thank you!

From a Reader in Michigan:

Dear Brother Al, I really enjoy your Reflections articles! May the Lord continue to give you insight, as well as the energy to keep writing!

From a New Reader in (Unknown):

Dear Bro. Al, Please add me to your Reflections subscription list. Thank you so much for all you do. Please keep it up -- your work is making a difference!!

From a One Cup Minister in California:

Dear Brother Maxey, I listened to your wonderful sermon -- Overcoming Narrow Fellowship -- on your congregation's web site, and, like the others that have responded favorably to it, I thought it was GREAT! When you come back from vacation, I would like to communicate with you regarding some comments that you made and share with you some of my own experiences. Thanks, brother!!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Bro. Al, You've been asking for many years for someone to provide you with "Scriptural proof" that we cannot use instruments in worship. Well, I have finally discovered it!! Here it is -- "You ... shall" (1 Pet. 1:16) "... not ... use" (Rom. 9:14) "... instruments" (Rom. 6:13) "... in" (John 4:24) "... worship" (Luke 4:7). There! You have it! Now, I hope we can all agree on this and get past this divisive issue!! Have a GREAT day, brother!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Maxey, I have a friend who attends a Baptist church, but sometimes comes to services with me (at a Church of Christ). He has been asking me a lot of questions as he seeks to determine what is Truth and what is Tradition. In doing some study to try and help him, I stumbled across your published dialogue with Ray Meier and David Martin (both Baptist pastors). I want to say from the bottom of my heart -- Thank You! Thank you for showing the Truth in love, not anger, as Jesus Himself did. Thank you for being an example of what it truly means to be a genuine Christian. I don't think God will be checking the signs in front of church buildings to determine who will join with Him for eternity. Instead, He will be looking into our hearts!! I appreciate and respect your response to these two Baptist pastors, but more than that I appreciate your example of Christ's love for all. It made me so sad to read the words of hatred and anger directed toward you (and all those within Churches of Christ) by both Meier and Martin -- men who claim to be Christians. Again, Thank You, dear brother! I hope to meet you some day in person!!

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