In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in particular 1 Corinthians 15:1-28, he reminds them that he delivered to them as of first importance what he also received. 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 (1 Cor. 15:3ff).. 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. He is saying that Jesus came in fulfillment of these Scriptures.
We often preach Christ from the Old Testament, and this is exactly what Paul and the other apostles did. They all travelled throughout the Roman world proclaiming this message of first importance, that Jesus died and rose in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus the Christ came in fulfillment of God’s plans and promises. So, every place where the apostles went and founded churches they proclaimed the Christ who came and died and rose in accordance with the Scriptures.
This proclamation of the apostles gave rise to what was called the “rule of faith” in the early New Testament Church. The “rule of faith” was a standard by which other teachings and writings were judged, because this standard was based on the apostolic teaching. Each local church had its rule of faith that was a summary of what the apostles taught. However, although each local church had its own rule of faith, they were all basically the same, just altered somewhat to combat whatever heresy was prevalent in the area. They all shared a common confession of faith in 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 to promise the Christ to come.
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.
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…” (Against the Heresies Book I, Ch. 10 :1).
(One thing to know is that Irenaeus uses the word “Economies” to mean the way that God has ordered or dispensed His salvation)
That last line from Irenaeus is a quote from St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (cf. Philippians 2:9-11).
Thus, Irenaeus, through this rule of faith, summarized the Christian faith. And then he 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” (Against the Heresies Book I, Ch. 10 :1).
Irenaeus then goes on to explain that the churches in Germany, and Spain, and Gaul, and Libya, and throughout the whole world all proclaim the same faith that was handed down to them by the apostles. This is a faith that came from Jesus Christ, was given to the apostles, and entrusted to the Church, wherever, and whenever, she may be found on this earth.
Justin Martyr, who also lived in the second century, in his book sent to the Roman emperor, also spoke about the faith of the Church. He wrote about the promise of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting and said, “[o]ur 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” (Apology I 13). Justin Martyr then spends the rest of his book explaining this mystery that was handed down to him through the apostles.
And the Church in our own time has been handed down, and entrusted with, this faith. For, this apostolic faith has been passed down from the time of Christ until now. The Church is continually called 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 confess, and pass down to subsequent generations.
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, the holy Christian Church who the Spirit calls together in faith in Christ, and who bestows upon us forgiveness of sins. 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 in our own time is the same faith that the people in Irenaeus’ congregation in Lyons confessed in the second century, the same faith that Justin Martyr confessed to the Roman emperor, the same faith that the congregation in 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. We are connected with the faithful people of old and with the faithful generations yet to come in this faith in Jesus Christ. Christ is the tie that binds us all together.
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 and Savior Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us in accordance with the Scriptures. Amen.
(Picture from public domain at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detail_of_Apostles%27_Creed_from_Compost_et_calendrier_des_bergers.jpg)