The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest and shortest of the Church’s formalized creeds. It is possibly also the most familiar—at least to North American Christians. In the evangelical Lutheran tradition it is a deeply cherished treasure of the church and an integral part of her catechesis. Divided into three articles, it provides a short but profound confession of faith:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, 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. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Martin Luther saw the tremendous value of it and so implored its use in both his small and large catechisms, even noting that: “For as long as we live we shall have enough here in the Creed to preach and learn” (LC, Third Article, 70).
And to be sure, what he had to say about the creed has stood the test of time. His explanation of the creed has brought meaning to lives across epochal boundaries. Originally written to engage and encourage sixteenth century sinners with the Gospel, twenty-first century sinners are no less engaged and encouraged, not only in learning the faith, but in confessing that faith to their neighbors, as well as daily living that faith as a witness to others. Robert Kolb offers this assessment:
Luther’s treatment of the Apostles’ Creed offers a program for meeting our neighbors “where they are,” for engaging their formulations regarding what human life is all about. For, like all fallen human creatures, we and our contemporaries are on a pilgrimage through this life, longing to find home, wherever and whatever it might be. Today, as in every age, our spirits are restless, and Luther’s explanations to the article of the Creed lead their hearers to find rest in God. (“ ‘That I May Be His Own’ :The Anthropology of Luther’s Explanation of the Creed.” Concordia Journal. January, 1995, 29.)
In short, Luther uses each article to describe three ways in which God’s “recreative word” has identified us as children of God. Each article takes a different starting point to unpack God’s love, goodness, and care for his human creatures. As Kolb reminds, they remain apt points to consider as we engage our neighbors in today’s world.
To Luther, the Apostles’ Creed is good news. It “brings pure grace and makes us righteous and acceptable to God” (LC, Third Article, 68). Where the 10 commandments show us God’s law, the Creed shows us God’s grace. Hence Luther ordered his small catechism in this way to contrast how the commandments “teach us what we ought to do,” while “the Creed tells us what God does for us and gives to us.” It was a design for preachers and pastors as much as it was for the head of each household. It also remains a readily available tool for us to use as we go out into our vocations and give witness to our neighbor.
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).