Credo: Early Christian Creeds as Apologetics

HRISTIANS have always summarized their beliefs in forms that are memorable and easy to pass on to new believers. The Christian faith is a confessional faith. This does not mean that the creeds are themselves the basis for our convictions: the Bible alone holds that authoritative position.

The creeds, however, provide an interpretative and summative function in communicating, defending, and disseminating our beliefs. In this way, the creeds also offer a helpful example of faithful apologetics. The earliest Christian creed is found in Paul’s writings. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul signals that he is disseminating the creed that he received after his conversion with the terms received and delivered:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 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 Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)

Even skeptic scholars, such as Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, and Gerd Lüdemann, an atheist scholar, concede the early development of this creed, no later than two to three years after the resurrection[1]. This creed represents what was on the lips of the early disciples after the first Easter. In other words, this creed is nearly as old as Christianity itself.

This creed in the biblical text includes the reference to eyewitnesses. Such a reference does not establish the event itself, but rather illustrates that it was indeed a real event that happened in real time and space. The statement that most of the eyewitnesses were still alive seems to be an invitation for the inquiring first-century skeptics to investigate for themselves.

In a similar way, we see later creeds including details that situate the crucifixion in a historical context. Such details can provide an apologetic resource in contemporary evangelism, particularly with those dismissive of the historical validity of the Christian faith. Consider a second creed, the Apostle’s Creed which states, “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . He suffered under Pontius Pilate . . . On the third day he rose again.”

The inclusion of a reference to a historical figure like Pilate, whose presence or absence in the creed does not add or detract from orthodox belief, could be seen as apologetic in nature. This clause situates the crucifixion event in history. Interestingly, the popular critic of the Bible and outspoken atheist, Bart Ehrman, concedes the point that scholars universally agree that Jesus was crucified under Pontus Pilate. And while many creeds or catechisms from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries do not include this particular detail regarding Pilate, they still borrow from or point back to the Apostle’s Creed as a universally accepted confession of faith[2].

The oldest documentation of this being called the Apostle’s Creed or Symbol is found in a letter from Abmrose at the end of the fourth century, making clear the creed precedes this date though its exact origin is unknown[3] . We see a strong similarity between the Apostle’s Creed and Irenaus’s “Rule of Faith” from the late second century. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the Apostle’s Creed as a longer and later development of the “Old Roman Symbol,” which is based on “Rules of Faith” used for the interrogation of baptism candidates from at least the third century[4]. Though scholars disagree on the origin and dating of the Apostle’s Creed, we need not settle this issue to recognize the similarity between it and earlier sources[5].

The Creed of Hippolytus from 214 AD and the Nicene Creed of 325 AD both include the detail that Jesus suffered under Pontus Pilate. This form of summarizing Christian faith including the historical reference to Pilate is an early development in the Christian tradition. While an orthodox summary of the second person of the Trinity need not include a reference to Pilate, it could be included for apologetic reasons. This would certainly be a plausible explanation[6].

The reference to historical details like Pontius Pilate is not unique in comparison to other events in the gospels. The Incarnation, the baptism, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension are all presented in the biblical text as historical events. The apologist should welcome and gladly use, but never depend upon, any extra-biblical historical evidence that corroborates these events [7].

Christian evangelism should not detach the gospel from its historical context and speak of it exclusively in spiritual terms. The creeds certainly did not. And these historical details are often of apologetic value in defending the claims of the gospel against allegations of its lack of historicity by modern skeptics[8].

From the biblical writers through the early church to modern day, believers have always been involved in apologetics. As Alvin J. Schmidt says, church history “indicates that defending Christianity’s biblical teaching has spanned the entire existence of the Christian church” though “many of the apologetes took different tracks”[9].

We will now turn our attention in the following posts in the series “The Reason for Hope” to consider how the contemporary apologist should navigate these “different tracks,” or apologetics methodologies.

[1]    See Gary Habermas’ works in general, as this has been his life work. A summary of this argument, and Habermas’ interaction with others using his approach, can be found in his article “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity” in the Southern Theological Review 3/1 (Summer 2012) 15-26.
[2]    To provide just a few examples, see the Heidelberg Catechism Questions 26, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism where he simply calls the Apostle’s Creed “the creed,” or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
[3]    See “Letter 42:5” of Ambrose of Milan available online at Also, I am not here arguing for the Apostles as the initial drafters of this creed, as taught by some in the early church. We simply do not know who wrote the Apostle’s Creed.
[4]    See “Old Roman Symbol” in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev. ed) Edited by E.A. Livingstone. Oxford University Press, 2006.
[5]    For one example of such scholarship see “The Earliest Text of the Old Roman Symbol: A Debate with Hans Lietzmann and J.N. D. Kelly” in Church History Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep., 1965).
[6]    See the earlier Bart Ehrman comment. Ehrman’s latest book Did Jesus Exist? is a response to critics who deny the historicity of the person of Jesus Christ. Ehrman uses this detail, among other historical evidences, to demonstrate the historical validity of Jesus. Erhamn is also a helpful example that historical evidences, in and of themselves, cannot convert. Such evidences have a limited, though useful, function in evangelism. Only the Spirit can enable someone to understand the significance of the historical details of the resurrection.
[7]    I must make it plain here that I do not think it is possible for someone to have an unbiased appraisal of such historical details. We should have a sober assessment that one’s bias will inevitably limit their ability to properly interpret such historical facts, as facts are not self-interpreting. Gary Habermas, even while promoting his minimal facts approach, has consistently predicted, documented, and responded to developments in scholarship that favor naturalistic interpretations of the historical evidence.
[8]    See Gary Habermas “The Late Twentieth-Century Resurgence of Naturalistic Responses to Jesus’ Resurrection” in the Trinity Journal / 2001 (TRINJ) 22NS (2001) 179-196). Another approach would be to challenge the historicity of the minimal facts themself, as Habermas responds to in his article “A Recent Attempt to Disprove the Resurrection of Jesus and Supernatural Beliefs” in The Journal of Theological Studies, Volume 29, Issue 1, 1 April 2018, Pages 191-197.
[9]      See Alvin J. Schmidt’s chapter “Christianity Needs More Lutheran Apologetes” in Tough Minded Christianity. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 498.