I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s 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. On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will 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 body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
There is quite a bit of history as well as theology to consider here.
In 390 Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan wrote to Pope Siricius in the context of a council in Milan. In the letter we read
But if they will not believe the doctrines of the Clergy, let them believe the oracles of Christ, let them believe the admonitions of Angels who say, For with God nothing shall be impossible. Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled. Mary heard the voice of the Angel, and she who before had said How shall this be? not asking from want of faith in the mode of generation, afterwards replied, Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word. This is the virgin who conceived, this the virgin who brought forth a Son. For thus it is written, Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son; declaring not only that she should conceive as a virgin, but also that she bring forth as a virgin.
This Creed of the Apostles is the creed that we take as ‘The Apostles Creed’. It may strike you as unusual that less than ten years after the Great Oecumenical Council of Constantinople established the Nicene Creed as the symbol of the Churches unity, that this Council is discussing and promoting a different statement of faith. In think we need to take it that the Nicene Creed was still in that sense in its infancy, and there are reasons why in Milan at that stage it may still have been controversial.
The Nicene Creed from Constantinople was the Creed of the 1st Council of Nicaea with some significant refinements. Those refinements including a shoring up of the Christological part of the creed, to affirm absolutely the divinity and humanity of Jesus and to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This intended to address the heresies of Arianism and Pneumatomachi.
There was an earlier creed statement, called the roman symbol.
I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh (the life everlasting).
The Apostles Creed can in some sense been seen to build upon this foundation, yet without adopting the complex theological thought of the Nicene Creed, with the strength of its position on the Holy Trinity.
In order to understand some of this it is important to understand something of both Ambrose and Milan in terms of how they got to this point.
Ambrose’s predecessor as Bishop of Milan was Auxentius who was a leading Arian Theologian and gather a significant Arian following in Milan. He died in 374 and at that stage there was deep division within the Church in Milan. Ambrose was governor in a Northern Italian province, and he attended the council charged with electing a new Bishop. He was known to support of the Nicene position, however was widely popular and had shown great charity to the Arians. In the midst of the deadlock a chant broke out calling for the election of Ambrose. At that stage Ambrose was not trained in theology, nor even baptised. One wonders if it is not reasonable to conclude Ambrose supporting or promoting the Apostles Creed, after the 1st Council of Constantinople is not a continuance for such charity of disposition toward the Arians and a desire to find the common and open path. The Apostles Creed as such is a statement of Faith that an Arian could manage to say, which clearly the Nicene Creed is not.
Ultimately the Apostles Creed has become the Baptismal Symbol of the Western Church (The Orthodox, and the Eastern Churches in general have never accepted or used it as they only accept the Nicene Creed as the Symbol of Faith). Most Western Churches, Catholic and Reformed embrace the Apostle Creed, and most of them will also embrace the Nicene Creed. The two Creed’s are not contradictory, I simply mean that Nicene Creed makes a more definite statement about the divinity of Jesus and the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle’s Creed as such is of no interest to the Eastern Church. It is probably true to say that Arianism was a bigger problem in the East and in the Byzantine Empire than in the West, or perhaps we might realise that it was more readily identified in the East.
By way of Explanation
Arianism is a Christian belief (heterodox) that asserts that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was created by God the Father at a point in time, is distinct from the Father and is therefore subordinate to the Father. Arian teachings were first attributed to Arius (c. AD 250–336), a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. The teachings of Arius and his supporters were opposed to the prevailing theological views held by proto-orthodox Christians, regarding the nature of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist but was created by God the Father.
Orthodox Christian belief asserts that Jesus Christ is the pre-existent word of God and therefore not a created being, and threfore equal in every respect to the Father.
Pnematomachi taught that the Holy Spirit was a creation of the Son, and therefore not divine but part of the Created Order.
Orthodox Christian belief asserts that the Holy Spirit is also pre-existent, and moved on the face of the waters at creation, and therefore not a created being, and therefore equal in every respect to the father and the Son.
So despite my fondness for Ambrose, who said many things well, and despite everything that is nice about the Apostles Creed, I have come to the conclusion that it is not the sufficient test for correct Christian Belief that the Nicene Creed represents.