The Apostles’ Creed was originally referred to as the Old Roman Creed, and has developed with some additions to it over time.
The version of the Creed that has remained in place in the church for the last millennium is as follows:
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”
The Importance of the Creed
As I was reading further in my studies of reformation history, making my way to the writings of Martin Luther, I noticed that he had a very high regard for the Apostles’ Creed. In his Table Talk, he went so far as to say, “I believe the words of the Apostles Creed to be the work of the Holy Ghost; the Holy Spirit alone could have enunciated things so grand, in terms so precise, so expressive, so powerful. No human creature could have done it, nor all the human creatures of ten thousand worlds. This creed, then, should be the constant object of our most serious attention. For myself, I cannot too highly admire or venerate it.” Martin Luther, Table Talk.
“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed.” St Augustine, A Sermon to Catechumens
“Let them believe the creed of the Apostles which the Church of Rome keeps and guards in its entirety.” St Ambrose, Letters, 42, 5
“Nothing is to be taken away from the apostolic writings, and nothing is to be added to them; in the same way we must expunge nothing from the Creed drawn up and handed down to us by the apostles, nor must we add anything to it. This is the Creed which the Roman Church holds, where Peter, the first of the apostles, sat, and thither he brought the common decision.” St Ambrose, Explicatio Symboli ad Initiandos
Memorising the Creed
Having decided to memorise the Creed and committing it to memory allowed me to notice things about it. For example, Martin Luther suggests that Christians recite it morning and night, as do the Early Church Fathers. In a method that makes up the first three prayers of the Catholic rosary, he makes the following recommendation in his small catechism for morning and evening prayer:
1. In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say: In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
2. Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer…” Martin Luther, Shorter Catechism
1. In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say: In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
2. Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may in addition, say this little prayer…” Martin Luther, Shorter Catechism
These teachings of Martin Luther, the statements from the Fathers to recite this daily, and the fact that the Apostles’ Creed ends with an ‘Amen’, led me to realise that the Church sees this not just as a statement of belief but also as a prayer. I began therefore to recite the Creed daily, both as an instruction to myself also as a prayer. In time, I started to see it as a wonderful way to defend our beliefs when asked to give an account for the reason of the hope that is within us. But as I mediated further, I also noticed that some of the words were written down in a very specific way that was not favourable to Protestantism.
Born of the Virgin Mary
The first was on the phrase, ‘born of the Virgin Mary.’ The Complete Book of Psalms, had the word ‘Virgin’ capitalised, signifying a title. I also realised that this title appears in such a way that it could affirm the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, E.g.: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’, as opposed to ‘born of Mary whilst she was a Virgin.’
Some (but not many) Protestants are aware that one of the Catholic beliefs about Mary is her perpetual virginity; that is, that Mary was not just a virgin from the time of Christ’s conception until the birth of Christ, but rather that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. This belief can be seen through a sampling of the Church Father’s material. Here are just a few examples:
“Thou who are the only-begotten Son and Word of God, immortal; who didst submit for our salvation to become flesh of the holy Mother of God, and ever-virgin Mary” Liturgy of Saint James, circa 250 AD
“If they [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother”, as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate.” Hiliary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew, circa 350 AD
“Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh from the ever-virgin Mary.” Athanasius, Discourses against the Arians, circa 360AD
“Imitate her [Mary], holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great and example of maternal virtue; for neither have you sweeter children [than Jesus], nor did the virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son.” St Ambrose, Letters 63:111, circa 390 AD
“And I will explain how the holy Mary can be at once a mother and a virgin. A mother before she was wedded, she remained a virgin after bearing her son.” St Jerome, Letter 48:21, circa AD 395
“[Mary] remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin.” St Augustine, Sermon 186, circa 400 AD
Modern Protestants nowadays tend to disagree that Mary was perpetually a virgin. They propose three objections from scripture to this effect:
- The line, “knew her not until she gave birth to her firstborn son.” (Matthew 1:25)
- Objection: ‘until’ means she was not a virgin after
- Objection: ‘firstborn son’ means she had other sons.
- Further object: references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus in the New Testament.
St. Jerome wrote responses to all three of these objections circa 1,600 years ago, in his writings contra Helvidius, which can be found here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3007.htm
“When Matthew says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her… This babble… is without justification… he has neither noticed nor paid attention to either Scripture or to the common idiom” Martin Luther
“Christ, our Saviour, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb… This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that… Christ… was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him… I am inclined to agree with those who declare that ‘brothers’ really mean ‘cousins’ here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.” Martin Luther
“I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” Huldrych Zwingli
“I believe that He [Jesus] was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well as after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.” John Wesley
“This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be draw from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiousity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.” John Calvin
“This is no expressly declared in Scripture, but is yet piously believed with human faith from the consent of the ancient church. Thus it is probable that the womb in which our Saviour received the auspices of life (whence he entered into this world, as from a temple), was so consecrated and sanctified by so great a guest that she always remained untouched by man; nor did Joseph ever cohabit with her.
Although copulation had not taken place in that marriage, it did not cease to be true and ratified (although unconsummated) for not intercourse, but consent makes marriage. Therefore it was perfect as to form (to wit, undivided conjunction of life and unviolated faith, but not as to end, (to wit, the procreation of children, although it was not deficient as to the raising of the offspring)).” Francis Turretin
Amazingly, this doctrine is defended in the Creed by virtue of the title given to Mary, the ‘Virgin Mary’. Thus we can see that the church has historically understood the reference of the Virgin Mary in the Creed to refer to her perpetual virginity. As a protestant at the time, I could no longer affirm a position that was contrary to the position of the early church as well as the position of the early reformers.
The communion of saints
The next thing I observed was the reference to the belief ‘in the communion of saints’. Protestants believe that this refers to the communion, which Christians on earth have with one another.
The Catholic Church, in alignment with the belied of the Church Fathers, understands that the communion of saints refers to more than just the church’s communion on earth:
“194. What is the meaning of the “communion of saints”?
195. What else does “the communion of saints” mean?
I would argue that the burden of proof is on the Protestant to justify why he has changed from the traditional understanding of this communion. But for me, the words of the creed state belief in ‘the communion of saints’, not ‘belief in the communion of saints only on earth and not in heaven’ or similar.
The last observation I made was the word ‘Catholic’. The word Catholic is derived from the Greek used by Paul in the new testament, ‘Kat Holos’ (According to the whole). The meaning of the word is therefore sometimes interpreted as ‘universal’.
For protestants: If the Early church held different meanings to aspects of the Creed than you do, how can you affirm to believe the same thing?