I'll never forget the first time I worshiped in a Presbyterian church. I had been raised in independent Bible churches where it was a given that Christians believed the Bible, while Roman Catholics relied on tradition. We had "no creed but Christ." You can imagine how I was taken aback when the Presbyterian faithful recited the Apostles' Creed with great gusto, including the line that, at the time, I could not bring myself to repeat: "I believe…in the holy catholic church."
I soon learned that many Pro-testants still recite this ancient creed. In fact, the creed serves an important purpose in many of those churches whose roots are deeply planted in the Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism (the beloved catechism of the Reformed branch of the Christian family in which I am now a minister), even utilizes the Apostles' Creed as a basic summary of those things that every Christian must believe. If you were to ask, "What is it that defines Christianity?" the answer would be "the definition of Christianity is given us in the creed."
The articles of our "catholic, undoubted Christian faith," which question 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism introduces, are unpacked in questions and answers 23–58 of this catechism. This "unpacking" amounts to an exposition of the various doctrines set forth in the Apostles' Creed. Protestants do not believe that creeds, confessions, and catechisms are infallible — that can only be said of Scripture. But confessional Protestants do believe that creeds, confessions, and catechisms are authoritative insofar as they accurately summarize the teaching of Scripture, which is their primary purpose.
Zacharius Ursinus — the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism — tells us why the Apostles' Creed was chosen for his own distinctly Reformed catechism as the summary of what it is that Christians must believe in order to be truly Christians: "It signifies a brief and summary form of the Christian faith, which distinguishes the church and her members from the various sects" (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 117).
In other words, if you are to set out those things that differentiate Christianity from all other religions, including monotheistic ones (for example, Judaism and Islam), the Apostles' Creed would provide an excellent summary of those doctrines unique to Christianity. The creed sets forth the doctrine of the Trinity. It sets forth the basic economy of redemption — the Father is the creator of all things, Jesus is the only Savior, and the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us faith and then unites us to Christ. The creed also affirms the basic historical facts of the gospel — our Lord's virgin birth, His suffering, death, and bodily resurrection. Furthermore, the creed affirms Jesus' descent into hell (which the Reformed believe refers to Jesus' suffering the wrath of God upon the cross), His bodily resurrection, and His ascent into heaven where Jesus now rules over all until He returns at the end of the age to judge the world and raise the dead.
Next, the creed affirms the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the existence of a "holy" (those whose only hope of heaven is in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ) and "catholic" church, a reference to the universal church (the body of Christ) that will exist from the time it was founded until Jesus returns. The creed affirms the communion of saints (the fellowship of justified sinners with the risen Christ), the forgiveness of sins (Christ's work in fulfilling all righteousness and dying for the sins of His people), the resurrection of the body at the end of the age (as Jesus was raised bodily on the third day, so will we when He returns) and life everlasting (new heavens and earth).
Ursinus chose the Apostles' Creed as the skeletal structure for the section of his catechism dealing with God's grace because the creed so effectively summarizes the basics of the Christian faith that no non-Christian could possibly recite it. In this sense, the creed defines what is Christianity and what is not.
But as Ursinus expounds upon the Apostles' Creed, he also endeavors to demonstrate how Reformed Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism on such essential doctrines as justification by faith alone, the nature of the work of Christ, as well as the sacraments. So, while the creed may set forth what is essentially and uniquely Christian, Protestants contend that the Roman Church sadly defaults on these same doctrines at a number of critical points.
Because there is great need to summarize the teaching of Scripture and to identify with the faithful who have gone before, many Protestant churches still recite the Apostles' Creed. This is why the Reformed churches consider the Apostles' Creed to be the best summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, and this is why an exposition of the creed lies at the heart of the Heidelberg Catechism.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.