The Rule of Faith and the Apostles’ Creed

While Gnostics such as Valentinus sought to deny the true humanity of Christ and Marcion sought to destroy the unity between the God of creation and the God of redemption, biblically sound Christian teachers found these synthesized assertions helpful in exposing the faulty steps of heresy. They focused on the unity of Scripture, the unity of God, the truth and necessity of the incarnation, the reality of Christ’s fully redemptive death and resurrection accomplished in his human nature in indivisible unity with his eternal sonship. The presence of the Holy Spirit, the unity of the church, the resurrection of the just and the unjust, and the reality of eternal states of each gave biblical symmetry to the whole of the truths confessed. 

This article is part 8 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7).

Parts of this post were published on this site in 2016.

What we find on the pages of the New Testament concerning the true humanity of Christ and the concerns stated by the Apostles concerning those that deny it continued into the second and third centuries in a variety of forms of Gnosticism. Among other problems presented by Gnosticism, two embrace all the others. One, salvation comes through intuitive knowledge resident within certain spiritual persons. Two, the world of matter is intrinsically evil and was generated by an inferior deity. Implications include a denial of the final authority of the written word of the apostles and a denial of the full humanity of Christ, particularly the redemptive work accomplished in his flesh. In short, they denied all that Paul included in his admonition to “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, of a seed of David, according to my gospel” (2 Timothy 2:8).

In response to the insidious influence of this dualistic mysticism, the post-apostolic church developed the “rule of faith.” The various recensions of the rule of faith eventually were synthesized into a statement that most succinctly, clearly, and economically expressed universally received Christian truth known as the Apostle’s Creed. The finalized text of the Apostles’ Creed appeared in the work of Pirminius (d ca. 753) in A. D. 750. Pirminius used the succinct outline of biblical assertions to give instructions in Christian doctrine and morals to recently baptized Christians. Its twelve articles, according to pious legend, were given in order by the twelve apostles beginning with Peter and ending with Matthias. The creed is trinitarian. 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and 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 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 flesh, the life eternal. Amen.

One can see the immediate significance, in light of the claims of Gnosticism, of phrases such as “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh.” What claims our energy presently are those early numbered 3 through 8, beginning “And in Jesus Christ,” and ending with “judge the living and dead.” Its affirmative sentences give a simple reflection of the facts of redemptive history as presented in biblical revelation. One can see in the focus on Christ’s incarnation and redemptive labors in the human nature as of central concern. As we found it in its incipient stage in the New Testament, Gnosticism in its denial of the true humanity of Christ had come to full flower.

Likewise, in the letters of Ignatius at the end of the first decade of the second century, we find a deep and clear commitment to Trinitarian doctrine, the real humanity as well as true divine sonship of Jesus Christ, the efficacy of his true bodily suffering and resurrection, the person of the Holy Spirit, and the necessity of unity of doctrine in the church. He warned the church at Trallia, to “partake only of Christian food, and keep away from every strange plant, which is heresy.” “There is only one physician,” Ignatius insisted, “who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.” [ Holmes, 88.]. Again, focused on the false teachers that presented Christ as a phantom-like creature, Ignatius proclaimed, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.” [Holmes, 92] In writing to the Trallians, Ignatius gives evidence of a confessional formula similar to this creed. His language shows that he understood the trickery of the verbal circumlocutions used by heretics in seeming to exalt Christ while in truth they denied both his true humanity and his eternal deity. Note how Ignatius seeks to cut through their façade. “Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary, who really was born, who both ate and drank, who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified, and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up, who—his Father, that is, in the same way will likewise raise us up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life.” [Holmes, 100]. 

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