A Patristic Root In Reformed Theology Part 1: What, Who, And Why?

Over my years of study, one essential thing I have learned is that the Reformation was a return to patristic roots not only in worship,1 but also in theology. It was not a wholesale repudiation of history; nor did it cast off the medieval and patristic writers who came before. For instance, article 9 of the Belgic Confession states,

We willingly accept the three ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—as well as what the ancient fathers decided in agreement with them.2

Those who subscribe to the Belgic Confession are confessionally rooted in the Fathers, especially the creeds they produced. But we also accept their writings, which agree with the creeds.

Following the footnotes is a great methodology to pursue if you want to understand a theologian and his work. When reading the Reformers, you regularly find them interacting with the church fathers, many of whom were rediscovered in the Renaissance and became the roots of the Reformation. We are only enriched when we, like the Reformers, return ad fontes—when we go back to the sources and interact with the Fathers.

As a church planter teaching through the Heidelberg Catechism, I was thrilled to follow the footnotes in Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism to a short patristic work on the Apostles’ Creed. In this article, we will explore the influential nature of this work on the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Texts

In Ursinus’ commentary on Lord’s Day 18 of the catechism (on the ascension), he provides the following quote attributed to Cyprian of Carthage:

The Lord ascended into heaven, not where the Word of God had not been before, because he was always in heaven, and remained in the Father; but where the Word made flesh did not sit before.3

Searching for the source of this quote, I became familiar with the church father, Rufinus of Aquileia (c. 345–411), who was a contemporary of Jerome and Augustine. He is now believed to be the author of this work which Ursinus quotes, Expositio Symboli. At the time of the Reformation, it was often misattributed to Cyprian, as Ursinus does here.4

Bolstering Rufinas’ authorship is the fact that two of his contemporaries reference a work of his by the same title, Expositio Symboli. John Cassian (360–435) in De Incarnatione Domini (7.27) even provides, along with his attribution to Rufinus, an exact quotation of this book.5 This contemporary source authenticates the identification of Rufinus with this work.

The work itself is an early fifth-century commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, specifically the creed used in Rufinus’ youth at Aquileia—at points (as will be seen below) he notes the modifications to the creed which he received in Aquileia. The contention of this series of articles is that this work at multiple points informed Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, as well as likely informed the writing of the catechism itself.

Ursinus directly references “Cyprian of Carthage” ten times, and only once is this actually from Expositio Symboli. Beyond direct quotations, the ideas from Expositio Symboli are incorporated throughout his section on the creed. In addition, the quotes of “Cyprian” elsewhere establish that Ursinus found his works helpful and would have likely consulted them as he prepared to lecture on the creed. His regular reliance on Rufinus (“Cyprian”) demonstrates that Ursinus valued him and considered his comments to be trusted and worthy of preservation in the commentary.

The Authors

Rufinus of Aquileia

Tyrannius Rufinus was a monk and a translator, “born about A.D. 345 in small North Italian town of Concordia, at the head of the Adriatic, not far to the west of Aquileia.”6 He lived during turbulent times for the church, born between the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). It was this period that saw Athanasius exiled five times for his opposition to Arianism. Rufinus was not immune from the turbulence either, as Kelly notes, “During the Arian persecution which flared up after St. Athanasius’s death in 373, [Rufinus] apparently suffered imprisonment and exile.”7

Rufinus also found himself entwined in controversy around Origen, whom he defended and translated from Greek to Latin (removing what he believed to be interpolations). This brought him into conflict with his friend Jerome, each writing apologies against the other over the matter of Origen’s theology and translation. St. Augustine wrote of the rift,

What friend, in short, may not be dreaded as a possible future foe, if the breach we now deplore could arise between Jerome and Rufinus? . . . It is a great and lamentable miracle that you two should have fallen from so fine a friendship into your present hostility. It will be an even greater miracle, and a joyful one too, if from such hostility you can be restored to your former amity.8

Rufinus is a great representation of a man of the Western Church who was versed in the writings of the Eastern Church, and who sought as a translator to make these available in Latin. He was a man of his day, and his commentary represents a fourth-century view of the creed.


Readers of this space likely need less of an introduction to Ursinus (1534–83). He was a professor at the University in Heidelberg and is regarded as the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was published in 1563, during his tenure at the University of Heidelberg from 1561–76. At that time, he and other Reformed faculty were expelled in favor of a return to Lutheranism by the new elector. Following his removal at Heidelberg, he taught at the Casimiranum at Neustadt until his death.

We know from his commentary that he interacted with and quoted Rufinus’ Expositio Symboli, misattributed to Cyprian of Carthage. Although there were other early-Renaissance editions of Expositio Symboli, the likely candidate for the source from which he derived these quotes is the 1520 Opera Omnia of Cyprian, edited by Erasmus.

The Significance

Why spend so much time on the history of Rufinus? In the Reformed tradition, the legacy of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Ursinus commentary looms large—the evening service of Reformed churches is often devoted to the teaching of the catechism. As I intend to examine further in two subsequent essays, the influence of Expositio Symboli on the catechism and its author was significant and is worthy of our thought.  

One example of its modern influence can be found in Kevin DeYoung’s book, The Good News We Almost Forgot.9 He writes on the resurrection of the body, “The Early African Churches used to say, ‘I believe in the Resurrection of this flesh.’”10 This reference to “The Early African Churches” is certainly dependent on Ursinus’ appropriation of the Fathers in his treatment of the same section of the catechism. From the endnotes, one can see DeYoung interacts with Ursinus, not directly with writers of “the Early African Churches.”

Ursinus notes that It was therefore taught in the African Churches: ‘I believe in the resurrection of this flesh.’”11 Since Ursinus has already quoted from Rufinus (under the name Cyprian), it makes it very likely that he is again dependent on this same work.

Now we turn to the relevant section of Expositio Symboli:

In expounding the faith of the Creed my church endeavours to safeguard this, adding a single adjective to the clause which elsewhere reads “resurrection of the Flesh,” and handing it down in the form “resurrection of this flesh.” The word “this,” of course, refers to the actual flesh of the Christian who recites the creed, marking his forehead with the sign of the cross.12

Ursinus read this and understood the referent to be the Church of Carthage and Cyprian—thus, he attributed it to the “African Churches.” DeYoung goes a step further and adds the word “ancient.” But the referent is actually a creed much closer to Rome, the fourth-century creed as recited in Aquileia in Northeast Italy.

Nevertheless, the overarching point stands—a fourth-century church taught and passed on the creed in a form which understood the resurrection of the body to be a resurrection of the same body that the one professing the creed possesses. It is an identical flesh.

When we read Rufinus we get a window into the church in the fourth century, as well as to a work that influenced one of the most significant catechisms of the Reformation. We do not always realize on whose shoulders we stand and can miss the benefits of studying them. Next time we will look at Ursinus (à la Rufinus) in conversation with Caspar Olevianus regarding the proper division of the Apostles’ Creed.


  1. As Hughes Oliphant Old has pointed out in his PhD dissertation, “The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship” (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1975).
  2. Emphasis added.
  3. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Grand Rapids: Netherlands Reformed Book & Publishing 2015), 244.
  4. Cyprian was from Carthage, a North African city originally a colony of Phoenicia.
  5. Rufinus, A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, ed. and trans. J. N. D. Kelly, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 20 (New York: Newman Press, 1954), 8. This is a translation by J. N. D. Kelly, with an introduction and notes on Expositio Symboli by him which are very helpful.
  6. Kelly, A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 3.
  7. Kelly, 4.
  8. Augustine, Ep. 73. 6 ff. Quoted in Kelly, p. 96 n. 7,
  9. Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 112.
  10. DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot, 112.
  11. Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, 315.
  12. Rufinus, Exposito Symboli, in A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, ed. and trans. J. N. D. Kelly, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 20 (New York: Newman Press, 1954), §43.

©Luke Gossett. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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Posted by Luke Gossett | Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Categorized Patristics, Reformed Theology | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Luke Gossett

Rev. Luke Gossett (MA Westminster Seminary California, MA and PhD Candidate, Catholic University of America) is Associate Pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Washington, DC, where he has been a member since 2017. The Council of Christ Reformed DC has begun the process of sending Luke back to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to plant a church in the URCNA. He dissertation focuses on the linguistic functions of the Hebrew word for “now.” Luke has been married to his wife, Jennifer, since 2014, and they have two wonderful children.


  1. Speaking of footnotes (i.e., footnote no. 1 above), after having been unavailable for a number of years and rarely available even used, Hughes Oliphant Olds’s The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship very recently has been made available through Wipf and Stock.


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