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‘No one can believe less’

A conversation with R. Albert Mohler Jr. about his new book, ‘The Apostles’ Creed’

Throughout Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed stands in an unparalleled position. No document, aside from the actual Scriptures, holds the level of doctrinal authority as the Creed. Yet for 21st century Christians, the value of the creed — and perhaps creeds and confessions in general — isn’t always apparent beyond historical and doctrinal status. That’s at least partly why R. Albert Mohler Jr. has written a new book: To demonstrate freshly the importance and usefulness of the fourth-century Apostles’ Creed for this century and for the generations to come.

The book, The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits (Nelson Books), is out today, available from major booksellers throughout the country. Mohler, who is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary sat down with Towers editor Andrew J.W. Smith to discuss his new book and the place of Apostles’ Creed in contemporary church life.

You set out to write a trilogy about Christian instruction. You wanted to write about the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and now the Apostles’ Creed. Why was it important to you to cover each of these three things?

In the history of the Christian church, going back to the earliest centuries, there has been a tripod of sorts of Christian teaching. What you find commonly wherever the Christian church is found, and those three have been the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed. If you are looking at the instruction of the early church, going all the way through the present day, you will find a dependence upon those three very important documents or text.

There has been a pattern also throughout church history of theologians grappling with those three crucial texts.

Where did the Apostles’ Creed come from?

The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest of the creeds known to Christendom. It emerges out of Scripture. It is the church’s earliest attempt, that has survived to this day, to summarize the Christian faith as revealed in the Bible, and whether we recognize it or not, every single Christian requires this kind of biblical summary. If for nothing else, just consider what it means to sit next to someone on an airplane and tell them about Christ, and to explain what Christians believe. You’re going to have to use sentences very much like this: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost.”

One of the most amazing things about the Apostles’ Creed is the economy of words. It’s very much like the Lord’s Prayer. There aren’t that many words in it. It can be read aloud quickly. But the entire superstructure of the Christian faith revealed in Scripture is there.

What does a centuries-old document have to offer the 21st-century church?

We all need a summary of the Christian faith, and the fact that this summary has been used throughout two millennia of Christian history is really humbling. It makes me very grateful. You’ll notice that the reformers pick right up on the use of the Apostles’ Creed. The same thing is true throughout historic Protestant churches, wherever they are found.

And where there is an aversion to creeds, it’s almost always rooted in the fear that some creed is going to replace the authority of Scripture. But even those who would, on that basis, reject a creed have to turn around and create one of their own simply to summarize what the gospel is, who Christ is, what the Bible teaches. I think there is a lot of danger in devising one of our own, and there’s a great deal of security in using the word the Christian church has used throughout the centuries, wherever it has been found.

What might that look like?

Every generation of the Christian faith has to be absolutely certain that we are not saying something new. That we are not inventing, developing, evolving, negotiating a new gospel, a new theological structure. Paul told Timothy that one of his main responsibilities was to maintain the pattern of sound words. Now, the most important way we do that is by latching ourselves to the Word of God. In so doing, we have to summarize what the Bible teaches.

In the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, when Southern Baptists were recovering their institutions, it was the liberals who said, “No creed but the Bible.” I was in one meeting where a very liberal professor said, “I won’t sign any confession of faith. I’ll just sign at the end of the bible my name.” To some people in the room, that sounded very noble, until I simply turned to him and I asked, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead?” And he began to backtrack. It’s not enough just to sign the last page of the Bible.

Perhaps the most talk-about parts of the Apostles’ Creed is the line that talks about Jesus descending into Hell. What are we to make of that?

What I make of it is that it is true and it is an expression of biblical truth. It means that Jesus genuinely died: The Creed is not talking about Hell as a place of everlasting punishment; it is talking about the state of the dead. The Bible is as clear about the reality of his death as it is about the reality of his crucifixion and the reality of his bodily resurrection from the dead.

In medieval Christianity, there accrued all kinds of speculative doctrines about what it meant for Christ to descend into Hell and no shortage of less-than-helpful scriptural engagements. But that shouldn’t give us any reticence from including it in the creed. And I know there are some churches today that pull it out of the creed. I think that is very dangerous.

I think it is very difficult to say, “We want to say exactly what the Christian church has said for centuries except for those words, which have been taken out of context and used wrongly elsewhere.” If we’re going to maintain the pattern of sound words, then we need to say all the words. We need to say them carefully and explain what we mean.

I do not back off of that affirmation of the creed. I did make a statement by the fact that this section makes up by far the shortest chapter in the book. And I acknowledge that saying that is because our task is to affirm what the scripture says on that question and go no further. And in that sense, I think the Apostles’ Creed is a good example of what we might call doctrinal economy: We say everything the Scripture tells us to say, and then we refrain from making up more.

A lot of people are talking about ecumenism, the differences in denominations, and being Christians together. One of the things you write about in the book is how the Apostles’ Creed can build true Christian unity on the foundations and the fundamentals of the faith. How can it drive unity among Christians?

The true unity of the church is in Christ. I stand opposed to all efforts at an artificial ecumenical unity. The efforts to try to create a structural unity of the church and the ecumenical movement led to theological disaster because it leads to a theological and doctrinal minimalism that pretty quickly evaporates into nothing. I’m not at all about trying to create an ecumenical moment or some kind of institutional unity of the church. I believe Christ will do that when he comes.

Not only that, but I’m a capital B Baptist. I believe much more than is affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed. So do Presbyterians, so do Anglicans, so do Lutherans.

Here is perhaps the most important function of the Apostles’ Creed: All Christians believe more than the Apostles’ Creed, no one can believe less than the Apostles’ Creed and be a Christian.

You dedicated the book to your new grandson. Is that indicative of your desire, for not only your grandson, but the next generation to rediscover the vitality of the Apostles’ Creed?

Absolutely. Everything I do in life and in ministry, as president of a seminary and college, and preaching the Word is to do everything possible to equip coming generations to be firm in the faith, steadfast, joyous in Christ, and doctrinally and theologically faithful.

Being a grandfather has only made that more urgent and tangible and infinitely more sweet. I dedicated my book on the Lord’s Prayer to our first grandson, Benjamin, and now this book on the Apostles’ Creed to Henry. I spoke first in the dedication of our joy in him, but then I concluded, “May you know even a taste of the joy you have brought to us, and above all, may you come to know Christ so that one glorious day, you will say in the faith of the apostles and the communion of Christ’s saints throughout the ages, ‘I believe’.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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