The president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary reveals how understanding and living out of the oldest summary of Christian belief leads to a confident, bold, joy-filled existence in a world of confusion and uncertainty.
The Apostles' Creed has shaped and guided Christian faith for almost two thousand years. Few documents in the history of the church have similar influence on the life of ordinary believers. Shared by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the Apostles' Creed is perhaps the most compelling and formidable statement of Christian doctrine the world has ever known. But do we know what it really means—and how it applies to us today?
In The Apostles' Creed, renowned theologian and pastor R. Albert Mohler Jr. works line-by-line and phrase-by-phrase through each section of the Creed, explaining in clear terms what it means and how it equips Christians to live faithfully in a post-Christian culture. From understanding the nature of the Trinity and the miracle of the Incarnation to the world-shaking truth of the resurrection and the hope of Christ's return, the theological heritage contained in this ancient statement has the power to shape us for vibrant and steadfast living today. The Apostles' Creed shows us how.
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About the Author
R. Albert Mohler Jr. has been called "one of America's most influential evangelicals" (Economist) and the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement" (Time.com). The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he writes a popular blog and a regular commentary, available at AlbertMohler.com, and hosts two podcasts: The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of many books, including We Cannot Be Silent and The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and on programs such as NBC's Today, ABC's Good Morning America, and PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He and his wife, Mary, live in Louisville, Kentucky.
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GOD, THE FATHER ALMIGHTY
How do we even begin to speak of God, and by what right can we call him our Father? The audacity of claiming to speak of God seems massive enough, but then we go on to dare to call the almighty God our Father? This is exactly what Christians do and are taught by Jesus to do. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Our Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 6:9 NASB).
Modern theologians have had a big problem with the God of the Bible. When I was a freshly minted seminary student, I was assigned a book by Harvard University theologian Gordon Kaufman entitled God the Problem. Kaufman wrote his book just a few years after Time magazine had scandalized the nation with its cover story from April 8, 1966, "Is God Dead?" The cover story reported that many academic theologians and liberal professors no longer believed in God. Kaufman argued that modern theologians needed to invent an entirely new language for speaking about God. The language found in the Bible, he believed, was out-of-date and unworthy of modern thinkers.
Kaufman went on to argue that theologians must find a new way to argue that the word God is still meaningful. The God who existed in older theology no longer exists, and so existing theologians, he argued, must find a new way of speaking of God as real. But Kaufman was uncomfortable with speaking of God as real in any sense. His book was, in the end, a kind of argument for employing theologians at schools like Harvard University when their theologians no longer believed in God.
A few days into class, an anonymous student drew a satirical cartoon on the class chalkboard of a book entitled Gordon Kaufman the Problem by God. The whole class got the point immediately. If there is a theological problem, it is not God. The problem is us.
Contrary to Kaufman and the "God is dead" theologians, we do know how to speak about God, and we do know who God is. The reason we know these things is because God has spoken. God has revealed himself in both nature and Scripture, and what separates modern theology from biblical Christianity is the modern lack of respect for Scripture and for the authority of God. Instead of relying on God's self-revelation in Scripture, so many modern theologies choose speculation and conjecture as their theological method. Much of this filters down into a form of postmodern pop spirituality, which has little to do with historic Christianity and biblical teaching.
Pop spirituality pervades self-help conferences, bestselling books, and television talk shows. These fools speak about the "supernatural," the "sacred," the "numinous," the "holy," the "divine," the "unconditional," or the "ground of being." But no vague, nondescript, ambiguous deity can save — only God can save. These evasive and generalized idols of God amount to little more than flimsy little idolatries. None of these can substitute for the self-revelation of God in the Bible. What Christians desperately need at this time is to return to historic Christianity, the Christianity that emerged from the rich doctrinal commitments and evangelistic fervor of the apostles.
Our Self-Revealing God
A. W. Tozer brilliantly summarized the entirety of Christian discipleship when he said, "What comes into our minds when we think of God is the most important thing about us." What the church means when it says the word God reveals everything about our worship and theological integrity. If we begin with a wrong conception of God, we will misconstrue the entirety of the Christian faith. This fact is why heretics and false teachers so often begin by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. If we can reject God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, then we can and will reject everything else.
From the time of the apostles onward, the church has taken its stand on the phrase, Credo in Deum Patrem Omnipotentem: I believe in God, the Father Almighty. Notice, the Apostles' Creed does not begin merely with the words: "I believe in God." Rather, it goes beyond that simple phrase to describe the identity and character of God. The Christian faith is not established on some abstract deity or on "some god." We do not confess, "I believe in the numinous. We are here in the name of the supernatural, the sacred, and the divine." We do not call ourselves together in the name of the "thrice unconditioned," or some other form of speculation.
According to Scripture, everyone knows that God exists even if they claim to reject that knowledge. As Paul wrote, God's "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature," are "clearly perceived" (Rom. 1:20). The problem is that humanity rejects that revelation and suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). The consequences of this truth suppression are abysmal confusion, fatal and futile speculation. Instead of turning to the God who has revealed himself in creation, men make idols for themselves or deny God's very existence — a conviction the Bible condemns as complete foolishness (Ps. 14:1).
Without God's revelation of himself, we would be utterly lost. We are not sufficiently intelligent, clever, or perceptive enough to come to a true knowledge of the true God on our own. This fact is why God's revelation of himself is so gracious. As evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry so beautifully explained, God loves us so much that "He forfeits His own personal privacy that His creatures might know Him." If God had not denied himself his personal privacy, if he had not revealed himself to us, then we would be lost and locked in the same patterns of speculation, confusion, and futility that affects those who have not believed the Holy Scriptures. Only Scripture clearly exposes who God is and who we are.
Our hearts are corrupted to such a degree that we are ignorant without God's self-revelation. Calvin described the human heart in its fallen state as a "perpetual factory of idols," constantly producing and processing new idols of the imagination. Sometimes these idols take material form, but in our day, idols usually take philosophical and ideological forms.
This fact was demonstrated several decades ago when sociologists in Great Britain conducted a massive study on the religious convictions of British people — specifically of their belief in God. What the survey revealed is that even many who believe in a god do not believe that he is personal, intervenes in human history, or has anything to do with the person and work of Christ. One responder to the survey summarized this view of god quite succinctly. When asked, "How would you describe the god in whom you believe?" he said, "Oh, just an ordinary god."
Many people we interact with in our neighborhoods and work places believe only in an "ordinary god." Far more hauntingly, even many people who sit next to us in worship believe in "just an ordinary god." This ordinary god is not the God of the Bible. Our concern with the first article of the creed is not with just an ordinary god or with the god of the philosophers but with the holy God who has revealed himself in Scripture.
The Christian identity is marked by the confession of God, the Father Almighty. The content of the Christian faith begins with the affirmation of the God who is, who spoke, and who revealed himself. When the Apostles' Creed begins with these words: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty," it immediately gets to the essential content of our faith — God's Trinitarian nature. Without this affirmation Christianity is incoherent — it does not hold together.
Our Father: A personal God
The creed, like Scripture, indicates that the first person of the Trinity has revealed himself to us as "Father." In other words, this is not some distant, unknowable deity but a God with whom we have a personal relationship. God is not a force or a principle or a "higher power." He has instead revealed himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3).
The revelation of God as "Father" has roots in the Old Testament, where God is described as the Father of Israel (Deut. 32:6). The fatherly love of God is also present throughout the Old Testament. The prophet Hosea spoke of God as a Father carrying Israel as a child (Hos. 11:1–4), and David described God as a "Father of the fatherless" (Ps. 68:5).
The complete revelation of God as Father comes with the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus, as "the Son," had a unique relationship with the Father. On one occasion, Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). Another time he asserted, "I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38). The union between the Father and the Son transcends human associations and is part of the mystery of the Trinity — that God is one, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God.
If properly understood, this Trinitarian relationship — unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity — will inspire and teach us how to relate to the God of Scripture, who is both personal and transcendent. In fact, Jesus was the one who taught us that we could call God "our Father" when he instructed his disciples to pray with these words: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (Matt. 6:9). These words imply that Jesus' disciples are not only allowed to pray to God, but we are specifically instructed to pray to God as "Father."
Understanding the Trinitarian relationship and the role of the Father is not just a matter of theory but a central pillar in the life of every Christian. As Helmut Thielicke reminded us, the parable of the prodigal son is perhaps better understood as the "Parable of the Waiting Father," because in this passage we see a picture of God's personal, saving, and lavish care for those who repent and turn to him. By union with Christ the true Son, we also become sons of God. And as Paul reminded us, if we are sons then we are also heirs of the kingdom of God (Gal. 4:7).
Regrettably, many theologians have used the doctrine of the fatherhood of God to misrepresent his character and promote heretical teaching regarding both God and his redemptive work. Nineteenth-century liberals were particularly guilty of this error, arguing that God's fatherly love could be claimed by anyone, even those outside of Christ. As many historians have noted, many nineteenth-century liberals had only two principal doctrines: "The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man."
In one sense we must indeed affirm that God is "fatherly" toward all his creation and exercises a providential care over all humanity. The fact that any human being anywhere exists and lives and breathes is a testimony to a paternal and benevolent relationship between the Creator and his creation. But this does not mean that God is "Father" in a personal and saving way to everybody. Scripture clearly affirms that we become sons of God only as we are united to Christ and thereby adopted into God's family (Gal. 4:4–5; Eph. 1:4–5).
The Baptist Faith and Message summarizes these points helpfully when it affirms:
God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace. He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise. God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.
The fact that humans have a world to live in along with the gift of food and natural resources is evidence that God sustains humanity as in a fatherly way. Without God's daily provision all life would rapidly perish. For, "in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Life itself is a gift.
At the same time, recognizing God as the source and sustainer of humanity does not entail any form of universalism. It is one thing to assert that the Father "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). It is quite another to affirm that God is obligated to save all because he is Father. In the Bible the path to truly knowing God as Father in a saving sense is through the Son, and only through the Son. As Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), for "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). Only through the Son do we come to know the Father.
God, Our Mother?
Besides universalism, some theologians have also attacked the notion of God as Father on another front. Feminist theologians, for example, reject naming God as Father. Feminists see the title "Father" as evidence of ancient and repressive patriarchalism. Mary Daly most famously said, "If God is male, then the male is God." That statement, however, is problematic at virtually every level. To say that God is Father is not to say that God has a gender. We simply speak as the Bible speaks. We affirm God is Father, Son, and Spirit. That affirmation does not imply that God has a gender in the same way as his human creatures. As Carl Henry stated:
The God of the Bible is a sexless God. When Scripture speaks of God as "he" the pronoun is primarily personal (generic) rather than masculine (specific); it emphasizes God's personality — and, in turn, that of the Father, Son and Spirit as Trinitarian distinctions — in contrast to impersonal entities.
This masculine language is not only written within the warp and woof of Scripture. It is necessary to the understanding of the reality of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To tamper with this is not merely to be creative in worship; it is to create a false god. We have no right to petition for a change.
Yet, in the last forty years, certain theologians and Bible translators have demanded that we change Scripture's "masculine" language about God. In that time several denominations have issued new hymn books and liturgies brimming with revisionist and feminist reimaginings of God's identity. In 2006 the Presbyterian Church USA adopted a report that allowed members of the denomination to experiment with new Trinitarian titles — titles they asserted would not replace Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but would instead supplement them. The report suggests that in addition to the traditional Trinitarian formula we could now speak in triads such as "Rainbow, Arch, and Dove," "Rock, Cornerstone, and Temple," and even "Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides, and Storm that Melts Mountains." The most explicitly feminist of these formulas was: "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, Life-giving Womb." That "trinity," as well as the others, is decidedly not the God of the Bible; it is an idol.
Additionally, others have objected to calling God "Father" because they believe that for many people this term evokes abusive or absent fathers. In light of that sad fact, they argue, this term should be jettisoned. Although it is truly a tragedy that many children have grown up without invested, loving, grace-filled fathers, this fact does not grant us the right to assume that our own negative perceptions of fathers can be mapped onto the fatherhood of God. Rather, we are to see God's self-disclosure of his own character and his own being in Scripture as the ideal fatherhood. It is God the Father who defines what a human father must be like, not the other way around. The very fact that we know what human fathers ought to be like demonstrates that we know an ideal father does indeed exist. As a result, we will never recover family life and a true understanding of fatherhood until we can affirm without hesitation or mental reservation, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty."
The Father Almighty
The Apostles' Creed does not merely affirm, "I believe in God the Father," but it adds, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty." Just as God is personal, he is also all-powerful. God is imminent, but he is also transcendent. As Scripture indicates, God is El Shaddai, the God who is all-powerful (Gen. 17:1 CEV). This affirmation of God's absolute sovereignty drives all that follows in the creed. God is the one who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ruling creation. Even king Nebuchadnezzar confessed, "He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'" (Dan. 4:35).
In the Apostles' Creed the word Almighty is a collective that is meant to represent all God's attributes, the fullness of God's perfections. All God's attributes — omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, self-existence, and immutability — are summed up in this one word, Almighty. Only the God who possesses the fullness of perfection and infinite majesty can truly be almighty and sovereign over creation.
Regrettably, the "God, the Father Almighty" affirmed in the creed is rarely discussed in many churches. Shallow descriptions of God and sloganeering are substituted for Christianity's rich confessional heritage. Regrettably, many pulpits proclaim a truncated and distorted vision of God. Many preachers fail to open up Scripture's rich teaching on God's holiness, righteousness, glory, and majesty and merely proclaim "just an ordinary god." The God of Christianity is not just an ordinary god. He is the Father Almighty; the Father who can do anything; the Father who possesses all power, the one who created by the power of his word and who rules forever.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Apostles' Creed"
Copyright © 2019 Fidelitas Corporation, R. Albert Mohler Jr., LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 God, the Father Almighty, 1,
Chapter 2 Maker of Heaven and Earth, 13,
Chapter 3 Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord, 27,
Chapter 4 Conceived of the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, 41,
Chapter 5 Suffered Under Pontius Pilate, 55,
Chapter 6 Was Crucified, Dead, and Buried, 71,
Chapter 7 He Descended into Hell, 89,
Chapter 8 The Third Day He Arose Again from the Dead, 93,
Chapter 9 He Ascended into Heaven and Sits at the Right Hand of God, 103,
Chapter 10 Whence He Shall Come to Judge the Quick and the Dead, 121,
Chapter 11 The Holy Spirit, 133,
Chapter 12 The Holy Catholic Church and the Communion of Saints, 149,
Chapter 13 The Forgiveness of Sins, 167,
Chapter 14 Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting, 183,
About the Author, 209,