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Pondering the Creed with William Perkins

by Matthew Hartline on December 19, 2019

Pondering the Creed with William Perkins

According to William Perkins, the church possesses two kinds of writings. (1) Divine writings are “the books of the Old and New Testament, penned either by prophets or apostles … set down by the immediate inspiration of the Holy Ghost.”[1] (2) Ecclesiastical writings “all other ordinary writings of the church … so far forth as their matter or substance is consenting with the written Word of God.”[2]

In Perkins’s estimation, one of the most important of these ecclesiastical writings is the Apostles’ Creed.[3] It is, says he, “most ancient and principal” and “dispersed over the whole world.”[4] Perkins is committed to the Creed for two chief reasons. First, it is “the very pith and substance of Christian religion, taught by the apostles, embraced by the ancient fathers, sealed by the blood of martyrs.” Second, it is “a sum of things to be believed concerning God and concerning the church, gathered forth of the Scriptures.”[5] As such, the Apostles’ Creed is a “badge” that distinguishes a Christian “from all Jews, Turks, atheists, and false professors.”[6]

In 1595, Perkins produced An Exposition of the Symbol (or Creed) of the Apostles. He dedicates his exposition to Edward Russell,[7] praying that it would serve as an instrument by which he might grow “in grace and favor with God and men.”[8] Perkins believes it is the “duty of a Christian man to make profession of his faith,” and that the Apostles’ Creed contains the “right order and form” for making such a profession.[9]

Perkins’s exposition is divided into two main categories. The first is the action of faith. Here, he explains what it means to profess – to say the words: “I believe.” The second category is the object of faith. Here, he explains what it means to believe in the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and the Church.

Perkins approaches each article of the Creed by expounding its (1) meaning, (2) duties, and (3) consolations. According to Ryan Hurd, this exposition is “arguably the closest Perkins ever came to writing a systematics proper.”[10]

Given the important role the Apostles’ Creed plays in the believer’s life, it is my purpose (in a series of posts) to walk you through Perkins’s exposition. My prayer is that, as a result, we might be “better enabled to judge of the truth and to discern the same from falsehood.”[11]


* Matthew Hartline is a PhD student in biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.


[1] William Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbol, or Creed of the Apostles, in The Works of William Perkins, vol 5, ed. Ryan Hurd (Grand Rapids: MI, Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 7.

[2] Exposition of the Symbol, 7.

[3] For a history of the Apostles’ Creed, see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Third Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).

[4] Exposition of the Symbol, 7–8.

[5] Exposition of the Symbol, 6.

[6] Exposition of the Symbol, 5.

[7] Earl of Bedford (1572–1627).

[8] Exposition of the Symbol, 4.

[9] Exposition of the Symbol, 17. A “confession of faith” is when a man “in speech and outward profession does make manifest his faith for these two causes: (1) that with his mouth outwardly he may glorify God and do Him service both in body and soul; (2) that by the confession of his faith he may sever himself from all false Christians, from atheists, hypocrites, and all false seducers whatsoever.” Exposition of the Symbol, 17.

[10] Ryan Hurd, preface, The Works of William Perkins, vol 5, xi.

[11] Exposition of the Symbol, 6.

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