Book Review: The Apostles’ Creed for Today

The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez

The tone of this book begins markedly different than the previous two I’ve read and reviewed, and while that tone diminishes somewhat through the book, it still is an underlying assumption throughout.

First off, this book is fantastic for the depth of history it provides. Given that Gonzalez was the youngest recipient of Yale’s Ph.D in historical theology, this should come as no surprise. He does a good job of tracing the history of the Creed back as far as textual sources will allow – the middle 2nd century and a baptismal creedal formula in use in Rome very similar to what we know as the Apostles’ Creed, though not exactly the same. Thus Gonzalez also effectively denies apostolic authorship of the Creed, at least in the way referenced by Augustine in the 4th century and later writers. But Gonzalez’ work clearly demonstrates a strong assertion that the Creed is old, very old, and may well be rooted in the words of the Apostles’ themselves and the first century Church.

Gonzalez also provides helpful distinctions in the difference in use of the Apostles’ Creed in the West and the Nicene Creed in the East, while also casting some aspersions on the former as perhaps a later political and theological tool, a claim to an older Creedal formulae than the Nicene Creed. However the scholarship Gonzalez refers to in this short book clearly refutes such an interpretation. The Apostles’ Creed is likely older, but was not developed to bulwark claims of greater legitimacy by the Western Church.

Finally Gonzalez goes to great pains to distinguish how the Apostles’ Creed would likely be interpreted by early Christians as opposed to today’s Church. Sometimes this is very helpful, sometimes it is speculative to the point of being unhelpful. While we definitely have an overly-emotionalized spiritual climate in much of the Church today, this does not mean there were no emotional elements in the early Church. And the glaringly political overtones of some of the Creed should not be lost on the Church today, particularly in America where political affiliations now increasingly divide and shatter congregations.

However Gonzalez does not presume what Dr. Mohler asserts in his book, that the Creed represents the bare minimum of belief for someone to call themselves a Christian in any meaningful or definable way. Gonzalez states on p.7 …it would be helpful to think of the Creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church be the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. Gonzalez seems wary of challenging or catechizing readers who may not accept certain statements in the Creed, and more interested in helping them to understand what it says. While understanding is important, this single statement on p.7 perpetuates an underlying theme of permissiveness throughout the book. You may or may not believe any one (or more) of the particular statements in the Creed. That’s the beauty of the Church – it can encompass many different theological stances, Gonzalez asserts later on. Given Gonzalez’ emphasis on ecumenism this isn’t surprising, but denying any of the statements in the Creed is a direct assault on the Bible itself. While Gonzalez never goes this far overtly, it seems clear he would rather agree to disagree while undermining the authority of Scripture. What is left is a vacuum devoid of any authority, and therefore devoid of any meaningful way of either agreeing or disagreeing. This is the crux of conflict in modern Christianity in Europe and America. If the Bible is not authoritative, there is no authority left other than personal opinion.

Gonzalez displays typical modern sensitivity to matters of gender and race, and it is clear that his theology is strongly influenced by concepts of social justice as foundational Biblical mandates. He is openly supportive of alternative, non-gender specific references to both God the Father and God the Son that once again undermine Biblical authority by ignoring what the Bible actually says in favor of something more personally appealing.

Finally, as evidence of Gonzalez’ suspicion of Biblical authority, he quotes it very rarely, referring far more often to the writings of Church Fathers. Again this isn’t surprising given his doctoral emphasis, but it does display less of a concern for the Bible as the source of the Creed. It isn’t that Gonzalez never refers to Scripture in this book, it’s just that often he rationalizes from other sources and causes. For example, on his discussion of the final statement of the Creed regarding the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Gonzalez cites two reasons why these statements are important. The first is his assertion the early Church wanted to emphasize the ongoing work of God’s creative powers in Christian hope, and the second was as an affirmation of the innate goodness of the material, contra prevailing philosophical theories of the day which denigrated anything physical and glorified spirit as our true nature imprisoned in our decaying flesh.

Both of these may well be true, but there’s the other glaring reason these assertions are in the Creed – it’s what God has told us in his Word! The opening verses of John 14 should be reason enough to include statements regarding resurrection and eternal life, let alone Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff!

This is a good book overall, particularly if you desire a bit more historical background on the Creed. But it should also be read cautiously. The Creed depends upon and is drawn from the Word of God. As such, what the Creed asserts should not be juggled so lightly. Those who sincerely question and are seeking greater faith should be encouraged towards such, not told that they are free to accept or reject aspects of the Creed – and therefore the Bible – based on their own personal opinions. This is not a means of unifying the Church but undermining it.

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