Background Notes and Other Neat Info
Why bother – a preamble
One of our home churches includes the Apostles’ Creed in every worship service.
But it’s the first church I’ve belonged to that does so. I’m in my 40s, have always gone to church in the
reform tradition, and have never been streamed into memorizing it.
So how are our kids supposed to commit it to memory? Why should they bother?
Usually I feel that if it’s not Bible text per se, they probably don’t need to clutter their heads with it. There
are some interpretations of the creed that border on the kind of literalism that I am usually not comfortable with.
And in the main, I don’t support having kids memorize and express words and sentiments that they haven’t explored
and don’t know how they feel about yet.
So again, why bother.
Ok, it’s a tradition, and it took a lot of work way back when for them that’s still in the pews to commit to memory.
So what?! The downside of this practice is that it can be off-putting to newcomers and new to church people, and to youth,
putting them in the position of having to recite something they have no clue about.
This unit, then, has been written to provide big and little kids with an easy way to commit the creed to memory, so they aren’t
at risk of being alienated from church life before they even get a chance to find out how they feel about what they are professing.
It will look at a little of the history behind the creed, and attempt to show why, buried between the lines of the creed,
there’s something worth bothering about. Enjoy!
What is The Apostles’ Creed?
* Although not written by apostles, the Apostles' Creed reflects the theological formulations of the first century church.
The creed's structure may be based on Jesus' command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
What is a creed?
In a time when most Christians were illiterate, oral repetition of the Apostles' Creed, along with the Lord's Prayer and the
Ten Commandments, helped preserve and transmit the faith of the western churches.
How has this creed been utilized in the ancient past?
Around A.D.180, Roman Christians developed an early form of the Apostles' Creed…. They affirmed that the God of creation
is the Father of Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was buried and raised
from the dead, and ascended into heaven, where he rules with the Father. They also affirmed belief in the Holy Spirit, the
church, and the resurrection of the body.
Candidates for membership in the church, having undergone a lengthy period of moral and doctrinal instruction, were asked
at baptism to state what they believed. They responded in the words of this creed.
The Apostles' Creed underwent further development. In response to the question of readmitting those who had denied the faith
during the persecutions of the second and third centuries, the church added, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." In the
fourth and fifth centuries, North African Christians debated the question of whether the church was an exclusive sect composed
of the heroic few or an inclusive church of all who confessed Jesus Christ, leading to the addition of "holy" (belonging to
God) and "catholic" (universal). In Gaul, in the fifth century, the phrase "he descended into hell" came into the creed. By
the eighth century, the creed had attained its present form.
*Notes to here taken from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I, Book of Confessions; Geneva Press,
Louisville, KY. Copyright ©1996 by the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
>>>I would say that the third last paragraph indicates the main reason why the Apostles’ Creed is still recited. Once
retained, it gives a person a ready reply to the question, “What do you believe?” Note, however, the same paragraph
refers to a time of doctrinal instruction. How many churches do that any more?
What’s the difference between the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed?
The Apostles' Creed, drawn up in the first or second century, emphasizes the true Humanity, including the material body, of
Jesus, since that is the point that the heretics of the time (Gnostics, Marcionites, and later Manicheans) denied.
The Nicene Creed, drawn up in the fourth century, is emphatic in affirming the Deity of Christ, since it is directed against
the Arians, who denied that Christ was fully God.
Why do we still use it today?
There’s a reference to the Creed on the website for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, under Our Faith> What We Believe.
Go to this page to see how the Creed fits into the faith tenets of this denomination.
Essentially, the Creed is represented in the regular gathering for worship that’s central to the denomination as an
affirmation of faith, a way of expressing “in a nutshell,” so to speak, what the main points are of our commonly
Time for a sidebar on the harrowing of hell.
It was Marcus Borg’s book, The Last Week (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), especially the chapter on Holy
Saturday, that started me on taking another look at this.
On page 166, Borg notes that neither the Gospel of Mark nor the Nicene Creed mention anything about Holy Saturday:
“The event – ‘he descended into hell” – mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed but omitted in
the Nicene Creed is known as the “descent into hell” or the “harrowing of hell.” “Harrowing”
is an Old English word for “robbing” and “hell” is not the later Christian place of eternal punishment,
but the Jewish Sheol or Greek Hades, the afterlife of nonexistence. Think of it as the Grave writ large.”
On page 173, the writer pulls the pieces closer together for us:
“When God’s Great Cleanup of the world happened – and it might well be very soon – the first order
of business was the general resurrection. Since God’s purpose was to establish a just and nonviolent earth, it had
to start with the past before it could deal with the future. There was already a great backlog of injustice that had
to be redeemed, a great crowd of martyrs who had to be vindicated.
“If you believed, as Jesus said and Mark wrote, that the kingdom of God was already here upon the earth, then you were
claiming that God’s Great Cleanup had already started. And if you believed that the first act of God’s Great Cleanup
of the earth was the general bodily resurrection and the vindication of all the persecuted and righteous ones, then for Christian
Jews, the general resurrection could indeed begin with Jesus, but Jesus’s resurrection would only be along with
and at the head of those other Jews who had died unjustly or at least righteously ahead of him. And that is what Jesus’s
“descent into hell” or “harrowing of hell” was all about – that’s what Jesus had to do
on Holy Saturday.”
Borg leaves us with a nice summary of the harrowing of Holy Saturday in the final paragraph of this chapter:
“There was for Jesus, for earliest Christianity, and for Mark, one equally stunning and necessarily concomitant claim
for that basic one about the already present kingdom of God, Son of Man and the general resurrection. If God’s
Great Cleanup, God’s Eastertide Spring Cleaning of the world, had already begun, then it was as a collaborative effort.
It was not, as it might have been imagined, an instantaneous flash of divine light, but an interactive process between divinity
and humanity, a joint operation between God and ourselves. It is not us without God, or God without us. It is not that we
wait for God, but that God waits for us. That is why, from one end of Mark to the other, Jesus does not travel alone, but
always, always with those companions who represent us all, the named ones who fail him and the unnamed ones who do not.”
So why doesn’t Mark mention this Harrowing?
Borg seems to contend that the harrowing episode is too mythological and doesn’t fit stylistically with the down to
earth emphasis of Mark’s narrative. Matthew, however, includes more references to the harrowing in his adaptation of
Did someone say myth?
That’s right. Canadian writer and scholar Northrop Frye provides some helpful detail on how the harrowing of hell fits
In The Great Code, “Myth II,” Frye expands on the symbolism of the sea monster. He writes:
“But what is true of Israel in Egypt is typologically true of the human situation generally. All of us are born, and
live our natural lives, within the leviathan’s belly…. Cosmologically, the leviathan is the element of chaos within
creation: that is, it is creation as we see it now, the world of time and space that extends away from us indefinitely,
the limitless expanse that is the most secure and impregnable of all prisons….
“Descending a monster’s throat reminds us of Jonah, who is told to prophesy against Nineveh, and, having no taste
for martyrdom, sets off in a ship in the opposite direction. The ship is nearly wrecked in a storm: the sailors, discovering
by lot that Jonah is responsible, throw him overboard and he is swallowed by a great fish, who eventually disgorges him on
dry land. We should have enough training in metaphorical thinking by now to realize that the sea, the sea monster, and the
foreign island he lands on are all the same place and mean the same thing. Jesus accepted the Jonah story as a type of his
own Passion (Matthew 12:40), and in medieval paintings of the descent into hell he is shown walking into the throat of a large
toothy monster representing hell. Again, metaphorically, his redemption (“harrowing”) of the subterranean world
is identical with his redemption of the world above it, the latter being symbolically subterranean as well. The heroine, or
Andromeda, of the gospel story is the “bride” Jerusalem, the total body of redeemed souls who are symbolically
a single female.”
The next quotation is from Frye’s book Words with Power, from the chapter “Third Variation: the Cave.”
It provides a little more context for understanding the connection between the harrowing of hell, which is represented to
us now primarily through the arts, and the Resurrection. Frye writes:
“The next step is to examine what he [Jesus] brings up with him. In the traditional Harrowing of Hell, the rising community
consists only of those who are mentioned in roughly favourable contexts in the Old Testament (plus John the Baptist). But
a glance at the larger pattern of Biblical imagery shows a more comprehensive outlook. We mentioned the significance of Ruth’s
Moabite ancestry and of God’s concern for Nineveh in the Book of Jonah, and in the New Testament much is said about
the welcoming of the lame, the halt and the blind, of calling sinners more urgently than the righteous, of prodigal sons returning,
of Jesus’ friendship with publicans and sinners, of Zealots (political extremists) among his disciples. A disciple is
expressly ordered to journey into the desert to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), and Paul speaks of obliterating all
differences of social, sexual or religious status (Galatians 3:28). It looks as though a fair-sized proletariat is included
as well as the conventional pre-Christian heroes: so large a body, in fact, as to suggest that the Resurrection represents
the release of everything that has been unjustly or needlessly repressed, whether in society or in the human mind.”
And one more point of clarification from Frye on this body of folk that has been rescued (mainly because it has taken me a
long time to located it again!). This is from Biblical and Classical Myths: the Mythological Framework of Western Culture
(Toronto: U of T Press, 2004), in the chapter, “Pastoral and Agricultural Imagery:”
“As for the urban life, the Israelites are represented first of all as apparently desert dwellers like the Bedouin.
Yet their leaders, Abraham and Moses, are described as having come from the cities, one from Mesopotamia and the other from
Egypt. There even seems to be some evidence that the word “Hebrew,” which used to be a somewhat pejorative term
when used by outsiders, originally meant something more like ”proletariat” than the conventional name for a people.
And certainly that is the role in which they appear in Egypt.”
How about this stained glass window. It’s from 1631 by Flemish stained glass artist Abraham van Linge, and found at Lincoln College, Oxford. It’s
one of two Jonah windows by van Linge. (For more about the other Jonah window, read this essay.) A classic example of the toothy monster of tradition that Frye writes about.
In fact this page on the Lincoln College website where the chapel with its Jonah window is found is worth a read. This Jonah window is one
of a typological set, in which the upper of six windows depict a scene from the life of Christ, and a corresponding lower
window depicts a scene from the Old Testament. This Jonah window corresponds to Christ’s body being removed from the
There are a couple of less well-wrought sets of windows in the same chapel. One set shows 12 prophets. The other shows 12
apostles. The base of each apostle window is inscribed with the article from the Apostles’ Creed that tradition attributes
to the given apostle. Interesting, huh!?!
That’s a lot to process, what’s the bottom line?
If the Apostles’ Creed keeps us connected to the image of Christ emerging from the maw of the toothy monster with all
the saints in tow, that’s a significant contribution.
The Creed’s framers, beginning in the 2nd century, wanted to emphasize the human aspect of Christ, hammer home the fact
that he really died, went to the big Grave.
That’s the point of all the gory detail in the crucifixion. No one who’s ever been injured, enslaved or disenfranchised
could ever believe in a God that died peacefully in his sleep. This God allowed his son to suffer and experience the frailties
of the human form in a way that few of us ever will, and does walk the walk with Creation.
As long as we explain all that well to the kids (and other students), the Apostles’ Creed continues to be worth studying
for two main reasons: it gives persons of faith an “in-a-nutshell” articulation of “what we believe.”
And it keeps us connected to an important part of the Resurrection story that seems to have been preserved mainly in the arts.
Questions for Discussion
1. Why bother learning the Apostles' Creed anyway?
2. What component of a worship service is it [looking for affirmation of faith]?
3. What general question do the Creed's statements give us the answer to?
4. What is meant by the harrowing of hell?
5. In the arts, stained glass windows, etc, what image is usually associated with the harrowing of hell?
6. What is the importance of being reminded that Jesus was the son of God?
7. What is the importance of being reminded that Jesus lived a very human life and died a very human death?
8. Does the Resurrection mean only that Jesus rose again? Who else is generally thought of as resurrected?
Please find below suggested workshops for this unit. For each one, when you are in real time with the children:
1. Quickly review or recap the story with them before starting activity. Each week, see how much more detail each group of
kids can supply on the story they've been studying.
2. Link or explain your activity to the current story.
Arts – poster.
Why: creating a bedroom door sized poster of the Creed will help the children commit the creed to memory.
Materials: large white poster board, felt tip pens, water, paint brushes, glue stick. For older children, permanent marker.
For younger children, you may want to type up the Creed on computer and give each youngster a print out to glue in the centre
of the poster. Old children would benefit from writing out the Creed by hand. Use a permanent marker for writing the Creed,
so it doesn’t get smeared by the water which will be used for the poster border painting.
Read the Creed with the children. Remind them these words have been used for centuries so people can remind themselves of
the main things they believe in as a follower of Jesus. Today you are going to make a poster.
Brainstorm with the children some images that the Creed suggests. With older children, you could brainstorm as well scenes
of people interacting to illustrate the points of the Creed.
The words of the Creed will go in the centre of the poster. They will be drawing the images they choose around the edge for
a border. (You may wish to have them place an 8.5 x 11 paper in the centre and trace lightly around it in pencil, so that
they can draw and paint the border first, then glue the words down.)
Sketch border drawing in pencil if they wish. Then fill out with washable markers. Using a paintbrush dipped in water they
will brush water on top of the marker work to create bigger bolder bursts of colour. I would say to suggest leaving the finer
Then glue down the printout of the creed. Older children may choose to type in on computer, or write it out by hand on a
separate 8.5 x 11 page.
**See more detail on this art idea on the site for the children's show, Art Attack, the first entry for "Felt tip paintings."
Kitchen – bread pudding.
Why: making this classic soul food will remind the kids that the Creed is a kind of comfort food for the soul.
[Interesting sidebar. Internet source say soul food became associated with African American kitchen with the soul movement
of the 1960s. There was no waste in the African American kitchen. As slaves, African Americans had to make do with ingredients
at hand. Hence, stale bread became bread pudding.]
Here’s a recipe for bread pudding. Try making small puddings in muffin tins for shorter cooking times.
INGREDIENTS: 6 slices day-old bread, 2 tablespoons butter, melted, 1/2 cup raisins (optional), 4 eggs beaten, 2 cups milk,
3/4 cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). 2. Break bread into small pieces into an 8 inch square baking pan. Drizzle
melted butter or margarine over bread. If desired, sprinkle with raisins. 3. In a medium mixing bowl, combine eggs, milk,
sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Beat until well mixed. Pour over bread, and lightly push down with a fork until bread is covered
and soaking up the egg mixture. 4. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until the top springs back when lightly tapped.
Music - teach a song to help memorize the Creed.
There are lots of tunes out there – classic hymns, and some contemporary pieces you can hear on the internet.
There’s ‘Lord you give the great commission. The words to this also go with a tune by FJ Hadyn, ‘Glorious
things of thee are spoken. Here’s a helpful link.
Then if you google Apostles’ Creed songs on YouTube, you can find a nice one by Rich Mullins called ‘Credo.’
But it might be worthwhile to adapt the exact words of the creed to a familiar song to help with the memorizing process.
Let’s try breaking it out to go with a classic children’s hymn like ‘Saviour like a shepherd lead us:’
The Apostles’ Creed (to the tune of, Saviour like a shepherd lead us)
I believe, I believe in God
The Father Almighty
Maker of heaven
And of the earth
And in Jesus, Jesus Christ,
His only Son our Lord.
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
And born of the Virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified, dead and buried
He descended, he descended
He descended into hell
And then on the third day He
Rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven
And sits on the right hand
Of God the Father Almighty
To judge the quick and the dead
I believe in the Holy Ghost
And the holy catholic church
The communion of the saints
The forgiveness of sins
The resurrection of the body
And life that never ends.
Egads, I think that works. You just have to wiggle your mouth the right way to get the words on each line to fit the notes.
I broke my own rule and changed the words for the last line. Rhythmically they fit better, and if as an adult you get to the
end and when you sing back what you learned as a kid, and it mostly fits, you won’t care.
Drama – charades. Mainly for youth or older children.
Discuss the creed and brainstorm some situations where it might be helpful to know the creed by heart. Suggestions: if someone
asks you why you go church and is a bit sarcastic. When going thru a tough time (peer pressure, death in the family, some
type of major personal disappointment).
Computer – Cal and Marty; Jesus in Space (Sunday Software).
Cal and Marty is a memory game that already has an Apostles’ Creed unit programmed into it.
And as I draft this unit, the good folk at Sunday Software have just release the absolutely dynamite Jesus in Space CD. The
premise of the CD is to explain the message of Christ to aliens. JiS doesn’t deal specifically with the Creed, but deals
with the nature of discipleship thru stories of the road to Emmaus, Last Supper and Baptism of Jesus. There’s a lot
of overlap with the Easter element of the Creed and the Last Supper segment. The CD has some great games, quizzes and fill
in the blank with fish words. (I’m oversimplifying here, it’s completely interactive with moving icons, etc.)
Mainly I think the spirit of this CD is the same as memorizing the Creed – practicing articulating what the message
of Jesus is, to ourselves and to others. Get this CD. You will use it often!
*** Find more detail on Jesus in Space on the website for Sunday Software. (Jesus in Space 2 is in the works, covering the cross and resurrection. Can't wait!)