Dr. Swete's book defending the historical and biblical underpinnings of the Apostles' Creed grew out of a particular controversy at the end of the 19th century. Yet it remains an invaluable work that is still referenced in much of the literature on the Apostles' Creed today. Swete traces the origin of each of the doctrines concerned, showing where it's found in Scripture, how it was developed in the early church and how and why it was included in the Creed.
Anyone with an interest in the Christian creeds or desiring to know more about where the creeds came from will find here ample information showing that the creeds were developed in response to specific challenges to orthodoxy and draw heavily upon the authority of Scripture.
Creeds may or may not be part of your church's tradition, but they have certainly played a central role in shaping the beliefs and practices of the Christian church at large. The Apostles' Creed is an early confession of faith widely used in Western Christianity since the third century AD. The Apostles' Creed was initially used in the context of baptism, as a profession of faith required prior to baptism. Later, the creed found a place in Protestant churches, as both Luther and Calvin approved of it as a concise and accurate summary statement of faith. In many churches today, the congregation recites the Apostles' Creed on a regular basis.
The Apostles' Creed: Its Relation to Primitive Christianity was developed from a series of lectures given in 1894 by H. B. Swete, then a professor of divinity at Cambridge. The rhetorical context of the lectures was a major debate over the Apostles' Creed that began a few years earlier. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915 Edition) ,
In Germany...quite a fierce controversy broke out in 1892 over the refusal of a Lutheran pastor, named Schrempf, to use the creed in the administration of baptism. He did not believe in its articles about the virgin-birth of Christ, the resurrection of the flesh, etc. The offender was deposed, but a great battle ensued, giving rise to an enormous literature.
Schrempf was joined by Professor Harnack of Berlin and others, who gave voice to a number of concerns about the creed and how it was being used in churches of the day. According to the ISBE article, these men denied that the creed was true to apostolic doctrine and argued that contemporary interpretation of the words in the creed differed from the meaning intended by the original framers.
The Apostles' Creed: Its Relation to Primitive Christianity is Dr. Swete's response to Harnack and Schrempf. Since so many of the articles in the creed were under attack, Swete's defense remains a valuable reference work as it sets out the biblical and historical underpinnings of each article in detail.
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The first known mention of the Apostles' Creed was a reference to symbolum apostolorum found in documents that came out of the Synod of Milan in 390 AD, thought to have been written by Ambrose. The Apostles' Creed is strikingly similar to the older Symbolum Romanum or Old Roman Creed, which was somewhat shorter in form and probably in use as early as the middle of the second century. The text as we now have it comes from an 8th-century tract by Priminius, abbot of the Reichenau monastary.
The Encyclopedia of Christianity relates a legend surrounding the origin of the creed, "According to an ancient tradition, its text arose from an attempt by the apostles to formulate a common rule of faith, with each apostle contributing a statement. This story, told by T. Rufinus (?ca.? 345–411), is merely a legend, but it does illustrate the high esteem in which the text was held."
Philip Schaff, in his Creeds of Christendom, writes of the Apostles’ Creed,
“As the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue is the Law of laws, so the Apostles’ Creed is the Creed of creeds. It contains all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith necessary to salvation, in the form of facts, in simple Scripture language, and in the most natural order—the order of revelation—from God and the creation down to the resurrection and life everlasting.”
SWETE, HENRY BARCLAY (1835–1917)
New Testament and patristics scholar
Swete was born in Bristol, England, the only son of an Anglican clergyman. He received his education at Bishop’s College, Bristol; King’s College, London; and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1858. He was ordained and for the next several years served as an assistant to his father at Blagdon, Somerset. In 1865 he returned to his college in Cambridge, where he served as dean, tutor, and theological lecturer. In 1877 he took a parish job at Ashdon, Essex. From 1882 to 1890 he was professor of pastoral theology at King’s College, London.
In 1890 he succeeded B. F. Westcott in the prestigious Regius Professorship of Divinity at Cambridge University. His appointment was a controversial one because many did not think he was of the stature of his predecessor. But he served the professorship brilliantly over the twenty–five years he held the post. He managed successfully to combine theological scholarship of the highest quality with a deep, pastoral concern for students preparing for the ministry. He became the most popular lecturer in the divinity faculty at Cambridge.
Swete published several important essays on the Holy Spirit (1909), and he prepared critical editions of the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament and the commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Minor Epistles of St. Paul (1912). He edited Greek texts of Mark and Revelation, as well as the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (1893). He was the editor of the influential Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry (published in 1918). He helped to found the Journal of Theological Studies (1899) and established series of publications in liturgical studies and texts of early Christian writers. He began the massive project that led to the publication, over a half–century later, of the Patristic Greek Lexicon (1961–1969).