The Apostles Creed is a document of the early Church outlining core Christian beliefs. To a modern ear some of the language and symbols can sound strange, even quaint and outdated, a relic of a more naïve mythic past. As a recent 'convert' to Christianity, I must admit that it once sounded that way to me too. However, times change, and after carefully reading several theologians and Christian contemplatives on what the deeper meaning and teachings of the Creed are, I’ve gladly come to know it as a very rich spiritual document.
Here’s my interpretation of the Apostles Creed, based on those readings and my class work this semester at the Vancouver School of Theology. I want to make special mention of Brother David Steindl-Rast and his 2010 book Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed. I doubt the following could've been written without that text and the kind of life that led to the depth and wisdom found there.
Before I begin my interpretation, here's the Creed in full:
The Apostles Creed
I believe in God,
the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ
God’s only Son
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
and was buried,
He descended into hell.
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
thence He shall 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.
I believe in God the Father Almighty. The creed starts by saying I believe, and we must first understand what is meant by this word believe. It doesn’t mean I believe in the modern rational sense, whereby we hold a proposition to be true or false with our minds. This belief is a heart based one; it’s a surrender into unconditional trust with a power greater than ourselves. It’s more like saying “I do” in marriage, it’s a symbol of our trust in, and relationship with, God. God represents here the Source of all, the mystery from which we came, the longing in our hearts. That God is our Father we know from Jesus who affectionately referred to his Abba (father), the Source and origin of his true identity (1). God’s almightiness is not an ‘all-powerfulness’ as we might think; God, our Father, is almighty in his ability to be an unending and unchanging source of love. No matter how much we’re suffering, that love is always embracing us.
the Creator of heaven and earth. To call God the Creator is to say that all that exists- heaven and earth- emanates out of this loving source we call the Father. God is “the Origin behind which nothing more can be sought” (2). And as the Origin is ultimately unwavering love, it means creation is fundamentally holy. “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
and in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Christians believe in Jesus Christ as one in whom the Father was fully present. If God as love were only simply One, then his love would only be self-love. But the triune God pours out his love, and Jesus Christ fully opened himself in surrender to that love, and in so doing became the Divine in human form. The Hebrew phrase ‘Son of God’ refers “to likeness, not descent” (3). Thus Jesus is someone in whom people came to encounter the likeness of the Divine; in Jesus God had become flesh. To call Jesus Lord is to say that he has ultimate authority. And the authority he has, and to which we put our faith, is the authority of the Love that he embodied in this world. This lordship of love, peace and justice will inevitably clash with other forms of dominant power and authority in the world. This clash is a distinct danger when we become disciples of love, as we shall see.
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. The Eternal Christ in Jesus of Nazareth was born of the Divine spark that flows through all. Jesus, the Son, “permits in full consciousness and with full consent to the divine plan for redemption, [for] himself to be used as the Father wishes” (4). By surrendering and becoming receptive to his Source, his Abba, God as Holy Spirit breathed a new kind of life into our Lord Jesus Christ. That he was born of the Virgin Mary is to signal that something new and important has taken place. We’ve entered into a new era, a new cosmos, with the birth of Christ. Also, with the Annunciation scene in Luke, Mary saying yes to housing the Spirit within her doubles up on the theme of our becoming a human receptacle for the Holy Spirit. A new era of Divine-human relations has begun.
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. The mention of suffering under Pontius Pilate is not simply to point out a historical fact. It’s to highlight that Jesus’ radical path of love and justice will bring the wrath of those in positions of power and domination in our world. This is the risk of love (5). Jesus also suffered the pains and afflictions of the world, unto the cross. In faithfulness to God, he bore witness to the immense suffering in the world, with an open heart overflowing with the Divine love. The mention that he was crucified for this is also more than historical. Its depth is discovered if we remember that it’s God who has become flesh in the Son. Thus, even in the midst of this horrific event, brought on by Jesus’ ministry of love, God is willfully present. God is unwaveringly present with all those who suffer. To emphasize that Jesus “died and was buried” is to indicate that a real, fully human body actually died and was lowered into the ground. It’s also to emphasize that Jesus was eradicated by the power structures he chose to stand up to, once again stressing the dangerous nature of walking this path of God. (*)
He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. To mention that he descended into hell is again to emphasize that he was truly dead. Furthermore, Jesus Christ died for the work of Divine love, and thus his literal, sacrificial death becomes a source of spirit and life to the living. The fact that he actually died and descended into the underworld- Hades or the Hebrew Sheol- also sets up the next statement regarding his resurrection. Not even the prison bars of hell could contain the One in whom the Holy had become flesh; Jesus is even depicted as preaching the good news to the dead (1 Peter 3:19). The Resurrection of Jesus indicates not that he has come back to life, a la Lazarus, but that he still lives, is still a force in the universe. Moreover, it shows that God has vindicated Jesus’ life and ministry by “raising him up” in this way. The death and resurrection of Jesus also works on another level, as an example of how we ourselves can be saved. For us fellow mortals “who have fallen captive to decay because of having turned away from God, [we] are presented, through the calling back of the One into eternal life, with the hope, indeed, the certainty, of following after him (1 Cor 15: 21-22)” (6).
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. To say that Jesus ascended to heaven is to indicate that he is once again in union with his Source, he has “returned to the starting point of his mission” (7). The Bible says that Christ, risen and with God, has become “hidden…in God” (Colossians 3:3). Yet his power to influence the world and move in our hearts remains, and “if we really participate in Christ’s resurrection, we even now rise again in newness of life to serve God and live in holiness, according to his will” (8). To say that he sits at the right hand of the Father is an image that Jesus is the most exalted one; God has divinely sanctioned him. It’s also meant to indicate the transfiguration of a human life into one that fully participates in the Father’s majesty and glory. And when it makes a point of calling the Father “Almighty”, it’s talking about the almighty power of love that is God’s nature (John 4:8).
thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. This passage of the Creed can be interpreted in a couple of different ways, one more literal and one more symbolic. The more literal interpretation is that Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead when he returns for the Second Coming. However, a more symbolic reading suggests that “on the deepest level…only those whose lives are attuned to divine justice are truly alive; the others are more dead than living” (9). To awaken from the dead, is to awaken to a life lived in Christ and the Lord who loves us.
I believe in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God alive within the world. In both the Old and New Testaments we get the same idea “of God’s Spirit pervading, brooding over everything, exercising divine influence over the whole of created beings” (10). The Holy Spirit is the life-breath energy within us that- if contacted and surrendered to- lets us commune with Thy Will. As Karl Barth writes, “God’s mercies dwell first in God, and not in our hearts. But they change place: they pass from God into us. Here is the new creature, here is the revelation of man” (11). If we open to this life force within we will be directed toward acts of love, justice and service for others; the Holy Spirit animates us to be God’s verbs in the creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints. The Church is where those who are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are faithful to God come together in sacred community. The Church is ‘catholic’ because it is all-embracing; it’s not “an enclave within a profane godless world, but rather the movement, initiated by God, to communicate perfect salvation to all nations” (12) It is ‘holy’ when it is infused and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The early Church called all of its members “saints”; they were “made holy by belonging to a holy community in the Holy Spirit” (13). There is also reference here to the ultimate form of Christian communion, the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we share in the body of Christ, just as in a Church community we share a life with one another.
the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. To be in sin is to be in a state of alienation, it’s to be separated from our true nature in God. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is to believe that, just like the father of the prodigal son, God will always be there to embrace us when we return. God’s love always flows into our heart; if we open to that love, and become that love, we are ‘forgiven’. We’ll have come home out of exile and into reconciliation and healing. The resurrection of the body refers to the resurrection and sanctification of all of creation by God. Because Jesus allowed himself to be a house for the Holy Spirit, his death was not final. He still lives in us and in the Church. With the coming reign of God, “the materiality of nature will not dissipate into Spirit but rather will take on a new form beyond the reach of decay” (14). The resurrection of the body speaks to the coming transformation of all of creation. Life everlasting does not refer to a realm of eternal life once we are dead, but rather to a faith in the eternal source of life that is Spirit. It does not speak of the afterlife, but of a life “lived in fullness” here on this Earth (John 10:10). Access to eternal life is not found in some other dimension, but is found when we surrender ourselves to the “great Now that dissolves time”, and to our Father who gives of himself eternally (15).
Amen. The root meaning of the word Amen is “faithfulness and reliability”. Thus the last word of the Creed circles around and creates a unity with the first- I believe. I have faith in the trustworthiness of God. Amen.
(*) It's worth noting that one of the things the Creed misses or leaves out is Jesus' ministry, his work and teachings in the world. Instead it moves straight from birth to death. The Liberation Theologians made a substantial point of this omission, because in their view it leaves out the most radical and powerful components of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, which has considerable (political) relevance for the poor and marginalized today, as well as how we understand what discipleship entails.
“The only way to get to know Jesus is to follow after him in one’s own life; to try to identify oneself with his own historical concerns; and to try to fashion his kingdom in our midst. In other words, only through Christian praxis is it possible for us to draw close to Jesus. Following Jesus is the precondition for knowing Jesus”. Sobrino, Jon. Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach. New York, Orbis Books, 1978. p.xiii.
And: “To enter into society with the true God is to risk a costly adventure. It is to take the risks that he has taken, even death. It is to accept the proposition of not simply living alone, for yourself, but rather of transforming the world through love and fire”. Bonino, Jose Miguez. Room to Be People: An Interpretation of the Message of the Bible for Today’s World. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1979. p.21
(1) "Jesus’ favorite way of expressing his faith was by calling God “Abba”, a term of endearment that expresses a child’s trust in a father’s love…Calling God the Father implies that we can experience the Ulimate Source of all as personally and caringly related to us”. Steindl-Rast, Brother David. Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed. New York: Image Books, 2010. p.31-32.
Also: “Heaven in this clause of the Creed does not refer to a place of eternal bliss, but rather to the fountainhead of God’s creative action, which is the word’s original meaning in the Hebrew Bible”. Steindl-Rast, Brother David. Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed. New York: Image Books, 2010. p.42.
(5) "This passage of the Creed forms a unit with the two preceding ones. Together they spell out what life as God’s children demands from us: to be led by God’s Holy Spirit, to give birth to Christ in our world, and to bear the terrifying yet glorious consequences”. Steindl-Rast, Brother David. Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed. New York: Image Books, 2010. p.42
(6)Urs von Balthasar, Hans. Credo: Meditations on the Apostles Creed. New York, Crossroads, 1990. p.59. Also: “The essential message of Christ’s Resurrection is that the life, work, and message of Jesus, although rejected by the authorities who executed him, were approved by God”. Steindl-Rast, Brother David. Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed. New York: Image Books, 2010. p.109.