In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:1-28), he reminds the congregation that he had delivered to them what he himself had received and that this message was of “first importance.” He tells them: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” and that he appeared to many, including Paul. Paul’s message of first importance is that Christ died and rose in accordance with the Scriptures. The Scriptures that Paul is referring to are the Old Testament Scriptures; Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of these Scriptures, because God had promised his coming.
Paul travelled throughout the Roman world proclaiming this message of first importance: that Jesus died and rose in accordance with the Scriptures. And the other apostles did the same. Every place they went and founded congregations of the universal Church they proclaimed the Christ who came in fulfillment of God’s promises and who died and rose.
In the early Church, the apostles’ teachings gave rise to what was called the “rule of faith.” This was a standard by which other doctrine was judged. This standard was based on the apostolic teaching. Each local congregation had its rule of faith which was a summary of what the apostles taught. Although each congregation had its own rule of faith, they were all basically the same, just expanded somewhat to combat whatever heresy was prevalent in the area. However, each rule of faith talked about the Father who created all things, the Son Jesus Christ who died and rose to restore all things, and the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets.
St. Irenaeus includes a rule of faith in his book called “Against the Heresies.” Irenaeus was the bishop of what is now Lyons, France in the 2nd Century AD. I’ll cite below what he wrote about the Christian faith, but one thing to know is that the word “Economies” in the context of the faith means the way that God has ordered salvation.
So, Irenaeus wrote:
The Church, indeed, though disseminated throughout the world, even to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them;
and in the one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was enfleshed for our salvation;
and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets preached the Economies, the coming, the birth from a Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, and His coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things, and to raise up all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord and God, Savior and King, according to the invisible Father’s good pleasure, ‘Every knee should bow of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess Him…
Irenaeus then goes on to talk about the judgment awaiting those who rejected Christ contrasted with the everlasting life and glory awaiting those who received Christ’s grace. So, Irenaeus, through this rule of faith, summarized the Christian faith.
Then Irenaeus says:
The Church … though disseminated throughout the whole world, carefully guards this preaching and this faith which she had received, as if she dwelt in one house. She likewise believes these things as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; she preaches, teaches, and hands them down harmoniously, as if she possessed but one mouth.
Irenaeus then goes on to explain that the churches in Germany, Spain, Gaul, Libya, and throughout the world all proclaim the same faith that was handed down to them by the apostles. A “message of first importance” which came from Jesus Christ, given to the apostles, and entrusted to the Church, wherever she may be found.
Justin Martyr, who also lived in the second century, in his letter to the Roman emperor also spoke the faith of the Church. He wrote about the promise of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting and said:
Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who was also born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea in the time of Tiberius Caesar; and we will show that we worship him rationally, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third rank.
Justin Martyr then spends the rest of his book explaining this mystery that was handed down to him from the apostles.
And we too in our own time have been handed down this faith. For, this apostolic faith has been passed down from the time of Christ until now. The Church has continued to proclaim the message of first importance, that Christ died and rose in accordance with the Scriptures.
So, what we call the Apostles’ Creed comes from the teachings of the apostles. It’s a version of what’s called the Old Roman Creed, which was basically the version of the rule of faith in the city of Rome. It is derived from apostolic teaching and has been handed down to us to safeguard and pass on to subsequent generations so that they too may know what the message of first importance really is.
So, we confess in this Creed that we believe in God the Father Almighty who created all things; and in Jesus Christ His Son who was born of a virgin and who suffered, died, was buried, and rose again and who then ascended into heaven to take his seat at the right hand of the Father; and we believe that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. We also confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit who bestows upon us the forgiveness of sins and who calls together the holy Christian Church of Christ. We also confess that our Christian hope rests in the return of Christ when he will raise us up, body and soul, to live with him forever.
This faith that we confess is the same faith that the people in Irenaeus’ congregation in Lyons confessed in the second century, the same faith of Justin Martyr, the same faith that the congregation of Rome confessed, and the same faith that Paul confessed to the Corinthians. It’s the same faith given to the apostles by Jesus Christ himself. We are all connected together and united in this faith.
And one day we will all be raised up to live together in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, when Christ returns. On that day, the Church that has come before will be united with the Church that is; the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant will then be the Church at rest. And we will all rejoice together in the grace and mercy that we have received from our Lord through our savior Jesus Christ.
(Image is of an illumination from a 13th-century manuscript depicting the apostles writing the Creed, receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit. From Wikimedia Commons: by Laurent – http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_54180_fs001r, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32734700 )