A Laymen’s Commentary on the Large Catechism: Introduction to the Apostles’ Creed




The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
    who eat up my people as they eat bread
    and do not call upon the Lord?

There they are in great terror,
    for God is with the generation of the righteous.
You would shame the plans of the poor,
    but the Lord is his refuge.

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
    When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
    let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

(Psalm 14)

The word Creed is derived from the word Credo which is Latin for I believe.  As such the Creeds were established both as a confession of faith and a ward against heresy.  They are also called the Symbols of the Church for they are “brief, succinct [categorical] confessions” (Summary, Rule, and Norm Epitome of the Formula of Concord 3).  The Three Ecumenical Creeds are the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

The first and the subject of the Large Catechism is the Apostles’ Creed.  Legend has it that each of the Twelve Apostles contributed a part, but this opinion was debunked by Lorenzo Valla in the 15th Century  The Apostles’ Creed as we know it first appears in a letter by St. Ambrose in AD 390.  Odds are it evolved from the Old Roman Symbol (2nd Century) prior to St. Ambrose recording it. The Apostles’ Creed is universally regarded as the oldest and simplest of all the Ecumenical Creeds.  It is also the Baptismal Creed of the Church.

The second creed that is commonly used for services with the Holy Eucharist is the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene Creed grew out of the Seven Ecumenical Councils: First Council of Nicaea (325), First Council of Constantinople (381), Council of Ephesus (431), Council of Chalcedon (451), Second Council of Constantinople (553), Third Council of Constantinople (680), and Second Council of Nicaea (787).  These councils dealt with various heresies especially ones regarding the Trinity and the person of Christ.  The Nicene Creed is traditionally attributed to the First Council of Nicaea but the modern form in the West is from the First Council of Constantinople with the filioque.

The third creed, commonly said on Trinity Sunday, is the Athanasian Creed.  It is a summary of the theology of St. Athanasius (AD 296-373) and originally attributed to him. The Creed itself originates probably in the south of Gaul in the late 5th/early 6th Century.  It was probably written by Vincent of Lerins (c.445), who was a monk in Gaul, as it resembles his writings.  Regardless of who wrote it, the Athanasian Creed contains the most precise definition of the Trinity that we have this side of heaven. It is also the most emphatic of all the Creeds.

While the three Ecumenical Creeds are accepted by the whole church there are other Creedal Statements that exist.  The Te Deum, attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in AD 387, is considered by many to be the 4th Creed of the Church.  The Augsburg Confession is considered the Symbol/Creed of the Lutheran Church.  Amongst the non-denominational evangelicals, there has been the creed of “Deeds not Creeds”, which is a ridiculous statement on its face and rejected by serious Christians.

In order to be considered a Christian one must hold to the Three Ecumenical Creeds. As the Athanasian Creed states clearly at the end “This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”  Thus to not believe the Creeds is to remove yourself from the true faith.

Several common terms should be defined at this point as well.  First is orthodox, which means right doctrine.  Second is catholic, which means universal in both time and space.  Third is ecumenical, which means that the subject applies to the whole Christian church.  These terms are important as what we confess in the Creed defines what the true ecumenical, catholic, and orthodox faith is.

We confess the Creeds in the Divine Service to show our unity of faith prior to taking Holy Communion.  We also confess the Creeds prior to Baptism to confess the faith into which we are Baptizing.  We do all this for it is the command of our Lord and He delights to hear the confession of His people (Matthew 10:26-33).  We also do so to teach the faith in a simple and clear way, as well as make a bold confession of what faith we will hold even unto death.

1] Thus far we have heard the first part of Christian doctrine, in which we have seen all that God wishes us to do or to leave undone. Now, there properly follows the Creed, which sets forth to us everything that we must expect and receive from God, and, to state it quite briefly, teaches us to know Him fully. 2] And this is intended to help us do that which according to the Ten Commandments we ought to do. For (as said above) they are set so high that all human ability is far too feeble and weak to [attain to or] keep them. Therefore it is as necessary to learn this part as the former in order that we may know how to attain thereto, whence and whereby to obtain such power. 3] For if we could by our own powers keep the Ten Commandments as they are to be kept, we would need nothing further, neither the Creed nor the Lord’s Prayer. 4] But before we explain this advantage and necessity of the Creed, it is sufficient at first for the simple-minded that they learn to comprehend and understand the Creed itself.

5] In the first place, the Creed has hitherto been divided into twelve articles, although, if all points which are written in the Scriptures and which belong to the Creed were to be distinctly set forth, there would be far more articles, nor could they all be clearly expressed in so few words. 6] But that it may be most easily and clearly understood as it is to be taught to children, we shall briefly sum up the entire Creed in three chief articles, according to the three persons in the Godhead, to whom everything that we believe is related, so that the First Article, of God the Father, explains Creation, the Second Article, of the Son, Redemption, and the Third, of the Holy Ghost, Sanctification. 7] Just as though the Creed were briefly comprehended in so many words: I believe in God the Father, who has created me; I believe in God the Son, who has redeemed me; I believe in the Holy Ghost, who sanctifies me. One God and one faith, but three persons, therefore also three articles or confessions. 8] Let us briefly run over the words.

The Creed confesses what we know about God from what He has revealed in Scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21).  While the Ten Commandments are written on men’s hearts, the Creed is God’s revelation of Himself.  As such it cannot be apprehended apart from the divine revelation. If we could keep the Ten Commandments we would not need the rest of the catechism as we would be perfect and have no sin. However, since the Law shows us our sin and failing we must cling to the Gospel revealed in the Creed.

Formerly the Apostles’ Creed had 12 parts, as noted earlier, but Luther reduces it to 3 parts and focuses on the 3 Persons of the Trinity: Father (Creation), Son (Redemption), and Holy Spirit (Sanctification).  So in the Creed, we confess the mystery of the Trinity, One God, and one faith, but three Persons.

We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man : thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.

O Lord, save thy people : and bless thine heritage.
Govern them : and lift them up for ever.
Day by day : we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name : ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord : to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us : have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us : as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted : let me never be confounded.

Te Deum (LSB 223)

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