A Patristic Root In Reformed Theology Part 2: The Division Of The Creed

For Christians like me who grew up outside of liturgical and Reformed traditions, the first year of saying the Apostles’ Creed in worship can raise many questions and spur the need for study. One of those instances is the descent clause: “He descended into Hell,” which we will eventually examine in next and final part of this series.

In this installment, we will reflect on another curious section. What does it mean to believe “the Church?” Does this advance a Roman Catholic understanding of implicit faith in the teaching of the magisterium? How you understand this section of the creed may be influenced by how the creed is presented to you. In the URCNA and many other Protestant contexts, the structure is explicitly Trinitarian. Presented in this manner, only the persons of the Trinity are preceded by the preposition in. Thus, we only say we believe in The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Other versions, however, may place an in before the holy catholic Church. They might place paragraph indents to create additional headings. Considering the theological implications, it is no surprise to find teaching on the division of the creed during the time of the Reformation. The discussion may have taken place in Heidelberg at the time of the writing of the catechism as well.

Ursinus writes on the creed’s arrangement, as does Caspar Olevianus. They do not agree, however. In his consideration of the question, Ursinus aligns with Rufinus of Aquileia, whom we know he consulted elsewhere in his section on the creed (see part 1).

The Discussion in Heidelberg

Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) was the superintendent of the churches of the Palatinate at the time of the catechism’s publication. He has been ascribed an authorial role, though the extent of that role is a topic of debate.1 Where Olevianus’ later work on the creed disagrees with the catechism will be examined below.

Casper Olevianus’ Exposition of the Creed was published in 1576 after the Reformed were exiled from Heidelberg. This was thirteen years after the catechism’s publication. Yet in this later work, Olevianus differs from the catechism and divides the creed into four sections: the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the church. To understand the substance and history of this disagreement, we will look at the Heidelberg Catechism, the treatment in Ursinus’ commentary, Olevianus, and lastly at Rufinus.

The Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism addresses the question of the division of the creed in Question and Answer 24:

Q. How are these articles divided?
A. Into three parts:
God the Father and our creation;
God the Son and our deliverance;
and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.

The catechism understands the creed as tripartite and reflecting the Trinity.2 The following question is about the Trinity itself. This leaves open two possibilities: either the section on the division of the creed was authored primarily by Ursinus, or in the thirteen years following the catechism’s publication Olevianus had changed his mind.

Ursinus’ Commentary

One piece of evidence in favor of identifying this section with Ursinus comes from his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. This commentary was based on the lecture notes of David Pareus (1548–1622), who was a student of Ursinus in the late 1560s.3

Ursinus maintains that the creed is tripartite and defends both inseparable operations and divine appropriations in the context of the creed’s division. While each person of the Trinity acts inseparable in every act of God, some works are associated with certain persons—for instance, redemption is associated with the Son, though it is a work of all the persons of the Trinity. Ursinus writes,

Redemption is attributed to the Son, not exclusively, nor to him alone, but because the Son is that person who immediately performs the work of redemption; for the Son alone was made a ransom for our sins. It was the Son, and not the Father, or the Holy Spirit, that purchased us by his death upon the cross.4

The catechism also subtly reflects this conviction: “the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life” (HC 54). Jesus through the Spirit gathers the church. The treatment of the Trinity at the outset of the exposition of the creed is a strong indicator.

Ursinus too wrote in his smaller and larger catechism,

  1. How many parts does this creed have?
  2. Three. The first has to do with the eternal Father and our creation; the second with the Son and our redemption; and the third with the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.5

Ursinus embodies the broader Protestant conception of the creed as Trinitarian in structure. It is at this point in the catechism and his commentary that he treats the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet this view and division of the creed was not ultimately shared by his co-worker Olevianus.

Olevianus on the Creed

Olevianus demurs from viewing the division of the creed as Trinitarian, favoring a quadripartite division (separating the Spirit and the church). He writes,

There are four main parts to the creed. The first contains what we believe about God the Father, who out of sheer mercy chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1[:4]). What is set forth in this first part of the creed, therefore, is, as it were, the first fountain of the covenant or reconciliation, as well as what we ought to believe about the creation of all things.

The second part contains what we believe about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This part covers the whole summary of the covenant and reconciliation.

The third part contains what we believe about the Holy Spirit, who makes us covenant partners with God by engrafting us into Christ through faith, applying to us the mercy of the Father and the redemption of the Son.

The fourth part is about the people with whom God makes this covenant, that is, the church. This section contains the effects of all the preceding parts and the fruit of our faith, both that which we enjoy in this life and that which we shall experience in eternity, when we are fully joined in body and soul to Christ our Head.6

This is, in comparison with the catechisms of the early Reformation, a minority report. When he arrives at the treatment of the fourth part, Olevianus’ focus is less on the church as an institution and more on the application of the first three parts of the creed to the church. He writes,

The fourth part contains the effect of all that has gone before. For unless we want to say that in vain the Father sent the Son, in vain the Son suffered and rose again, and in vain the Holy Spirit was promised and sent, we must believe the effect of all these things, namely, that in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit the Father builds for Himself a new people.7

It is an open question whether he developed this view after his time in Heidelberg. Had he pressed for a quadripartite division, it seems Ursinus would have resisted.

Rufinus’ Commentary

Part one of this series noted two instances where Ursinus was indebted to Rufinus in his section on the creed. His views of the division of the creed appear to be another instance where his consultation of Rufinus’ Expositio Symboli strengthens his position.8

Rufinus is concerned with viewing the creed as Trinitarian, and thus emphasizes the distinction between belief in the persons of the Trinity from belief in the church. He begins with identifying the creed as Trinitarian:

In order to bring out the distinction of Persons, you see, we employ separate terms expressive of relationship. Thus, He is to be taken as Father from whom are all things, and who Himself has no Father. The Second Person is to be regarded as Son, in virtue of His being born from the Father. The Third is the Holy Spirit, inasmuch as He proceeds from the mouth of God and sanctifies all things. At the same time, to emphasize the unity and identity of the Godhead in the Trinity, just as we say we believe IN GOD THE FATHER, prefixing the preposition IN, so we use the form IN CHRIST, HIS SON, and also IN THE HOLY SPIRIT.9

He makes a grammatical distinction to undergird a theological point. Thus, he views the material about Christ in the incarnate state as “intervening allusions.”

He applies this observation specifically to the understanding of the articles which follow,

The creed does not say: IN THE HOLY CHURCH, or IN THE REMISSION OF SINS, or IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE FLESH. Had the preposition IN been inserted, the force of these articles would have been identical with that of their predecessors. As it is, in the clauses in which our faith in the Godhead is laid down, we use the form, IN GOD THE FATHER, IN JESUS CHRIST HIS SON, and IN THE HOLY SPIRIT. In the other clauses, where the theme is not the Godhead but created beings and saving mysteries, the preposition IN is not interpolated. Hence we are not told to believe IN THE HOLY CHURCH, but that the Holy Church exists, speaking of it not as God, but as a Church gathered together for God. So Christians believe, not IN THE REMISSION OF SINS, but that there is a remission of sins, and not IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE FLESH, but that there is a resurrection of the flesh. Thus the effect of this monosyllabic preposition is to distinguish the Creator from His creatures, and to draw a boundary line between things divine and things human.10

If taken purely as a grammatical point, Rufinus is easily dismissed. One could easily make the reverse point that we “believe God,” and we believe in other things. This is better understood as a theological point with a grammatical application. For Rufinus, belief in the uncreated Trinitarian God is different than belief in the existence of created things like the church, or the acts of the Trinitarian persons, or “saving mysteries.” This differentiation is realized by the omission of the preposition in.


At the time of the Heidelberg Catechism, there was strong precedent for a tripartite division of the creed, including that set by Rufinus of Aquileia. Ursinus embodies this same tradition. At some point before 1576, however, Caspar Olevianus developed a quadripartite view of the creed, with the church having its own section.

Nonetheless, Ursinus not only had contemporary precedent; he also had reliable patristic sources which made a theological case for a tripartite reading. From his commentary, Ursinus shares with Rufinus the concern for the unity of God and the divine appropriations.

As a rule of faith and part of our worship, it matters how the creed is presented in our churches. And this reminds us that the church is the community called together by God and where his Spirit works through the means of grace. Olevianus is right that the latter parts of the creed “contains the effect of all that has gone before,” but it is the Spirit who applies these effects to the believer. In our final installment, we will look at another question that arises in the creed: What is the descent into hell?


  1. See R. Scott Clark, “Caspar Olevianus and An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed,” in Caspar Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Lyle Bierma, Classic Reformed Theology vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2009), xi–xxix.
  2. The Heidelberg Catechism is hardly alone in this. The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer included a similar question and answer in its catechism for confirmation. The church is considered under the Spirit, “Thirdly, in God the holy goste, who sanctifyeth me and all the electe people of God.” See also Luther’s Small Catechism, which divides the creed in three articles.
  3. See Julius Ney, “Pareus, David,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson and Loetscher, Lefferts Augustine (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977).
  4. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Grand Rapids: Netherlands Reformed Book & Publishing 2015), 120.
  5. On the identification of these catechisms with Ursinus see: Lyle D. Bierma, Gunnoe, Charles D., Karin Maag, Paul W. Fields, and Zacharias Ursinus. An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology: With a Translation of the Smaller and Larger Catechisms of Zacharias Ursinus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) SC 15, LC 40.
  6. Caspar Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Lyle Bierma, Classic Reformed Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2009), 18.
  7. Olevianus, An Exposition, 129
  8. 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).
  9. Rufinus, Exposito Symboli, §35. Caps original.
  10. Rufinus, §36.

©Luke Gossett. All Rights Reserved.

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Posted by Luke Gossett | Tuesday, March 5, 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. Wow ! What an insightful article. I never considered that saying I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church was acknowledging that it is saying the church is more that just the means to believing but that it had as much to do with our salvation as the Trinity alone.
    I’ll stick with the tripartite view.

  2. Regarding the use or non-use of the word “in” —

    I do not know Latin and do not claim linguistic competence in Latin grammar or how Latin changed from the classical period through late antiquity and into the early and late medieval periods. Those are important questions, and it is entirely possible that grammar may have shifted during a period of well over a millennium and a half, so the answer that would be given by classicists who study secular Latin authors may not necessarily reflect the “church Latin” that would have been used by both secular and clerical scholars in the universities of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation era.

    The distinction between “believing” and “believing in” may have little relevance in English, as Rev. Gossett correctly notes, and it’s not necessarily a settled question whether the distinction was present when the Apostles’ Creed was composed.

    However, the commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism is not raising a new issue. This very issue was brought up during the days of Peter Waldo in the late 1100s before the Waldensian movement had been fully driven out of the Roman Catholic fold. Some of the Waldensian preachers, who were accused by the Catholic priests of being ignorant and therefore unsuited to teach or preach, were examined as to what they believed. When asked if they believed in God, they responded, correctly, that they did. But they were then asked if they believed in the Holy Catholic Church, and when they answered “yes,” they discovered they had walked into a trap, were ridiculed for ignorance, and had it pointed out to them that we believe “in” God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not “in” the church or any other creation of God.

    That is reflected in Q&A 30 of the Waldensian Catechism:

    Q.30: Dost thou believe in the holy church?
    Answer: No, for it is a creature; but I believe that there is one.

    (Believing “in” God is reflected in Q&A 9, 12, 13, and 21 of the Waldensian Catechism. Side point: the Waldensian Catechism happens to have 52 questions, so it could be preached or taught each Lord’s Day. Wonder where the Heidelberg faculty might have gotten that idea? 😉 )

    I raise this issue, not out of Italian pride (after all, the Waldensians wrote that item in their catechism because their leaders had been rebuked for ignorance and they wanted to make sure the mistake would not be repeated) but rather to point out that the use or non-use of the word “in” was known, at the time of the Reformation, to have been an important issue that needed to be handled correctly to avoid Protestants being accused of teaching false doctrine due to ignorance of the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed.


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