Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Nicene Creed

My home Bible-study group asked if I could present something on the Nicene Creed, and what it might mean for us today.

I tried to keep it brief, but failed spectacularly. To cut it down to digestible size, I split my study into three parts ...

The Nicene Creed with commentary
The Nicene Creed - a brief history
The Nicene Creed - reflections

The Nicene Creed - Reflections

Contrary to popular myth, and the perspectives offered by such movements as the Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses, Constantine did not use the Council of Nicea to impose Trinitarianism on the Empire in AD325. Indeed, it was Arianism that was coerced by the State under the political machinations of Constantius II in the following decades, but it ultimately failed because of the dogged faithfulness of Athanasius to New Testament scripture.

The language of God
The linguistic formulations of the Nicene Creed mark something of a watershed in the development of Christian theology. In previous centuries, the authors of the Bible expressed their theology by story and type, whereas Nicea expressed its theology in the language of categories, relationships and prepositions. This perspective of Nicea persists as the lingua franca of Christian theology. This is no bad thing, provided the Christian understands that the intent of the Councils and their Creeds was to point the believer to Christ, and to the scriptures that faithfully describe Him. I consider myself a Creedal Christian, but I do not consider the Creeds to be the canonical expression of Christianity. The canonial expression of Christianity is, uniquely, Jesus Christ. The Creeds, I believe, do a good job of explaining who He is and in guarding against the more dangerous misrepresentations of my Lord and God.

What makes heresy dangerous?
When I started my exploration of theology many years ago, I, like many others, wondered why it could be considered even remotely important. Surely, the important thing was how I lived my life. Surely, if I continued in my devotions, God would look after me. The Councils, I thought, were preoccupied with irrelevant minutiae, like how many angels could stand on a pin-head.
Like many others, I viewed the theological debates and creeds as an exercise in boundary-marking; if you could affirm such-and-such a formulation of words, you were in, but if you couldn’t, you were out. They were arbitrary rules designed to exclude undesirable factions from church membership, or so I thought.
However, the more I look at theology, the more importance I see in it. Fundamentally, theology shapes our understanding of what it means to be human, and I can think of nothing in the human experience more profound than that, be it expressed in a religious context or not.
The theology of Christ goes to straight the heart of the matter. Jesus Christ is not just the canonical expression of Christianity, as I noted previously, He is also the canonical expression of humanity. Whilst showing us what it means to be truly and wholly God, he also shows us what it is to be truly and wholly human.
By “canonical expression”, I mean the prototype, or the archetype; the true “thing” against which one measures all other expressions of that “thing”. For the Christian, this means following Christ. What we see Christ do, we aspire to do; what we see Christ being, we aspire to become. We do not do what we do not see Christ doing, and thus we use Him as the measuring rod of what we should do and what we should be. In this context, then, it is paramount that we have a clear picture of who Christ is, and of our relationship to Him.
It is not enough, though, to simply use Christ as the measuring rod for what we are and what we do because, as the scriptures say, He is also our saviour and judge. This understanding of Christ as our exemplar, creator, saviour and judge is intimately bound with the understanding of His nature as both fully human and fully divine. These are the issues that the Bishops took to the Councils, and they transcend denominational, or even religious boundaries. Athanasius and his colleagues strenuously argued to preserve the highest regard for both the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ, and that they were not in conflict.
If Christ’s divinity were diminished, by Arianism for example, then our humanity is diminished because something less than God had entered into and engaged our human existence. Under such a theology, human life loses it’s value because God has deemed it to be something not worth engaging in and suffering for. God would only interact with us by simulation or by proxy. God would not be giving us Himself, undermining the claim that He is love.
If Christ’s humanity were diminished, by Docetism for example, then God would remain distant, unknowable and inaccessible. We would have to become something other than human to make that vital connection to God. We would have to dismiss human experience, with all its joys and frustrations, as irrelevant or meaningless in our attempts to make ourselves into worthy superhumans. God would not be glorified in the mundanity of human existence.
It is no coincidence that Arianism typically tends towards a program-oriented religion. In it, Christ might have shown the way, but he did not become the way, which means that it remains for us to follow some religious program in an attempt to catch up to him. The Christian understanding of grace is undermined by the attempt to ascend to heaven. As is apparent in the mid 4th Century, Arianism usually degenerates into an undignified free-for-all as various voices promote their favourite routes up the mountain, to the exclusion of all others. Christ as God answers this by emphatically stating that God has already come to us – the reality of heaven has already come down to earth, and our perspective and actions need to change accordingly.
Theology matters, because it answer’s Christ’s enduring question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15, Mark 8:27, Luke 9:20). The answer to that question also holds the answer to the concomitant question; “But who do we say that we are?”. These are the questions that are well worth asking in our quest to understand our existence and place in God’s good creation.

See also 

The Nicene Creed – A brief history

The Creed is a statement of faith that uses particular formulations of words to define what the believer believes, thus excluding what is considered to be dangerous heresy.

Biblical roots
Proto-creeds, or creed-like formulations can be found within the Bible
  • Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!
  • Matthew 28:19: … the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit …
  • 1 Corinthians 8:6: … yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

Early baptismal liturgy
By AD200, the Baptismal liturgy in Rome (as recorded by Apollinaris Claudius) had developed into a now-familiar pattern by asking the baptismal candidate the following questions:
  • Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
  • Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended in to heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
  • Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?
The baptismal candidate would then affirm his or her faith by answering “Credo”, or “I believe”.

The Council of Nicea (AD325)
The Council of Nicea was called by the Emporer Constantine in AD325 after his conversion to Christianity at the Battle of Milvan Bridge (AD312). His Edict of Milan in AD313 made the empire officially neutral in regard to religious worship, and it ended the state’s hostilities to the Christian church. It was not until AD380 that Christianity was made the official state religion under the Edict of Thessalonica.
Among other issues, the Council was called to answer to Arius, who threatened to split the church with his teaching that “there was a time when the Son was not.” Constantine recognized that a schism in the Christian church would be just one more destabilizing factor in his empire, and he moved to solve the problem by calling for the Council. The location of Nicea is the modern-day town of Iznik about 90 km south-east of Istanbul in Turkey.
The Council was attended by a couple of hundred bishops (the traditional figure of 318 may be an over-estimation). The vast majority were from the East with less than a dozen from the rest of the Empire. They were divided into three groups;
  • the Arians who believed that Christ was of a different substance to God - heteroousios;
  • the Orthodox, who believed that Christ was of the same substance as God – homoousios;
  • the Eusebians (after Eusebius of Ceasarea), who believed that Christ was of a similar substance as God – homoiousios.
Incidentally, we are mainly reliant on Eusebius’ accounts for the historical record. Eusebius would later turn on key players in the Orthodox camp, notably Athanasius of Alexandria, who attended Nicea as a young clerk.
There is no question that Constantine wanted a unified church after the Council of Nicea, but he did not really care about how it might be achieved; he left that to the Bishops. The Othordox group prevailed and won over the Eusebians and dismissed the Arian position, formulating the Nicene Creed in such a way to unambiguously anathematize it. The Council thus affirmed the view prominent Church fathers prior to Nicea; that Jesus Christ is fully and wholly divine and deserving of our worship and obedience as to God alone. Arius was banished, but not silenced.

The Council of Constantinople (AD381)
In the decades that followed Nicea, Arianism experienced many victories, and there were periods when the Arian Bishops constituted the majority of the visible ecclesiastical hierarchy. When Constantine died in AD337, he was succeeded by his second son, Constantius II, who supported the Arian faction. Constantius II promoted his semi-Arian agenda through the Councils of Rimini (AD358) and Seleucia (AD359), however the theologians he supported were ultimately discredited and the malcontents he opposed (Athanasius and others) emerged victorious. Constantius II is not remembered as a restorer of unity, but as a heretic who arbitrarily imposed his will on the church.
Athanasius, who had been removed from his see five times (once by a force of 5,000 soldiers), continued in his outspoken opposition to Arianism. The Arian faction finally collapsed amid political infighting and in AD 381 the Council of Constantinople, under the influence of Athanasius, met and reaffirmed, without hesitation, the Nicene faith, complete with the homoousious clause and its Trinitarian formulations. The Athanasian Creed, although attributed to Athanasius, was probably written some time after his death.

See also
In response to Mormonism “Those abominable creeds” by Ron Huggins

The Nicene Creed with commentary

Nicence Creed (1)
I believe …
Often rendered “We believe” to harmonize with the plural of 12. However, the singular is appropriate here because it is the statement of an individual in the context of a congregation to affirm identification with the Christian faith-community.
Contrary to atheism and post-modernism, Christianity asserts that what a person believes makes a difference. This is true in a practical sense because we do what we do because of what we believe. We also tend to believe what we believe to justify what we do, but Christianity has a particular regard for belief because it orients the individual’s perspective toward an objective, external truth.
Further, the fact of believing is not enough. The important thing is what we believe in. Importantly, the Nicene Creed does not say “I believe in my self, my abilities, my potential”, but points the believer beyond himself to belief in God.
Luke opens his Gospel by stating that he has written it so that the reader (Theophilus) may know the truth of what he believes (Luke 1:1-4).
… in one God …
Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe in only One God. This is an important prelude to the following statements concerning the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The creed states the assumption of the ancient Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4).
… the Father Almighty,
Jesus calls God the “Father” and teaches us to do the same in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9 etc). Like all words, “Father” cannot fully describe God, but it does convey the sense of some of God’s attributes, particularly the progenitor, protector, provider and ultimate authority on all that exists.
Maker of heaven and earth,
And of all things visible and invisible:
Includes the entire cosmos, even the things we cannot detect or comprehend (Genesis 1:1). Orthodox Christianity has always discriminated between God and His creation. Importantly, God is not bound by the laws and principles that govern creation; He is the One who sustains these laws.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, …
The Creed applies the title “LORD” to Jesus Christ, which was applied to YHWH in the Old Testament (see “LORD God’ in Genesis 2:4 etc). There is only One LORD, not three. Many NT authors freely apply this appellation to the Son (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:3, John 4:1 etc., Acts 1:21, Acts 2:36 etc., Romans 1:4, James 1:1, Jude 1:4, Revelation 22:20-21)
the only-begotten Son of God,
The Son is in a unique relationship with the Father. While others were sons of God in a generic or derivative sense (see Psalm 2), Jesus is the archetypical, or original Son of God by nature.
The true (canonical) image of God is given to us in the only-begotten Son, per John 1:18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (NASB)
Begotten of his Father before all worlds,
Difficult to translate, and sometimes rendered “Eternally begotten of the Father”. The Son was not “created” in time, but was brought forth from the Father in eternity, beyond and outside time. Our prepositional language uses “before”, but the phrase “before time” is a nonsensical construction. In contrast to the Arian Heresy, the Son was not begotten in time before the creation of everything else. As He was begotten beyond time, he truly shares the divine nature of God.
God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God,
The Arians believed that Jesus could be called god but not true God. In other words, they believed the Logos (the "Word", a popular title for Jesus in early Christian literature) was the first creation of God, necessary to mediate between the unknowable distant God (a concept borrowed from Platonic thought) and creation(2). As a reaction against Arianism, the Nicene Creed strenuously affirms the true and full divinity of the Son, whilst maintaining the distinctiveness of the persons of the Father and the Son.
The crucial inference is that (the true) God is not distant and unknowable, but has been made known to us in the flesh in the person of His Son. God is fully visible, accessible and glorified in the Person of His Son.
Begotten, not made,
The creed tells us that just as when a woman gives birth she does not create a child out of nothing, being begotten of God, the Son is not created out of nothing. Since the Son's birth from the Father occurred before time was created, begotten refers to a permanent relationship as opposed to an event within time, hence the qualifier that the Son was “begotten”, not “made”.(2)
Being of one substance with the Father,
Homoousia: God the Father and God the Son are equally divine, united in substance and will. Father and Son share the same substance or essence of divinity. That is, the Father and Son both share the qualities and essential nature of God. However, sharing the same substance does not mean they share identity of person(2).
By whom all things were made;
The Bible tells us that through The Son, as Word of God, all things have been created. As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation. (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16).
Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven,
See John 3:16. Sometimes rendered “for all”, but “for all” has been criticized for implying Universalism. The “us men” refers to the people (male and female) who are reciting the Creed in faith.
The prepositional language is not intended to describe a physical downward journey, like the descent of an elevator, but the putting off of the lofty status and privileges of heaven. Philippians 2:7 describes is as God “emptying” Himself in order to enter human existence.
And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man,
Incarnate means, literally, “in flesh”. The Creed recognizes the vital role of Mary, and emphasizes the absence of a human father. God truly became truly and fully human. Contrary to early heresies such as Docetism, God did not simply don an “earth-suit” to do some sight-seeing, but fully entered into all the constraints and frustrations of human existence. (John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11)
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.
See Matthew 27:11-55 etc. “Under Pontius Pilate” places Jesus in the real stream of human history – Christianity is more than metaphysical speculation.
He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again …
Jesus truly suffered and died. He didn’t “dodge the bullet” by swapping places with some unfortunate proxy (per the Qur’an), nor did he slip off his earth-suit at the critical moment. Jesus’ resurrection is many things, including triumph over the last enemy, death itself. Ultimately, the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28:1-10) is the vindication of God and His unstoppable commitment to human life.
… according to the Scriptures,
The “Scriptures” here refers primarily to the New Testament and enjoins believers to believe its content.
And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.
Christianity does not teach that heaven is physically “above” the dome of the sky, but the prepositional language best describes Jesus’ return to the unseen realm of the divine, in contrast to His descent in 12. Likewise, he is not now literally sitting next to the Father, but shares his authority and honour, as implied in our phrase “right-hand man”.
And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead:
Affirms the belief in the return of the King, who will judge every person who has or will ever live. All creation is answerable to its creator, and will affirm that God is just and true in His judgements. (Matthew 25:31-33 etc.)
Whose kingdom shall have no end.
Despite the efforts of all His enemies, God’s Kingdom is unassailable. (Psalm 145:13 etc)
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life,
The Hebrew concept of “spirit” is “life-breath”, and it refers to the essential living being of a person that dwells deep within. God’s essential “life-breath” breaths life to us all in more ways than one. The Holy Spirit is also called “Lord”. As the Creed has already affirmed One Lord (2, 5), it also affirms that the Holy Spirit also shares in the divine nature of God. (Gen 2:7)
Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son,
The addition of the words “… and the Son” (filioque) caused the Great Schism between the Western (Roman) and Eastern Churches. Rendering it “from the Father through the Son” may resolve the controversy, because it retains the monarchy of the Father in the Holy Trinity.
Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified,
The Holy Spirit is God, as are the Father and the Son, and worthy of the same worship due to the Father and the Son. He is given the same name (singular) as the Father and the Son in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. At the other end of the behavioral scale, sin against the Holy Spirit is regarded as being worse than sin committed against the Father and the Son (Matthew 12:31), which was tragically demonstrated in the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11.
Who spake by the Prophets.
The Holy Spirit inspired the Prophets and the Bible. The role of the Prophet is to speak the Word of God. Prophesy is much more than predicting future events with the benefit of divinely inspired foresight; it is about making sense of the immediate situation in the light of the Word of God (Jeremiah 1:11, 13).
And I believe one Catholick and Apostolick Church.
There is one Church, not many churches. It is “Catholick” because it is universal, and “Apostolic” because it is founded on the witness of the apostles. Other renditions include “Holy”, meaning that the Church is the peculiar possession of God.
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
Not several, different Baptisms for different purposes, and not requiring repetition after sin. God’s cancellation of my debt of sin encompasses all my sin – past, present and future. (Acts 2:38)
And I look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Christian hope does not look forward to being relieved of the burden of existence, but the joyous, continued and unending celebration of life, when the cosmos is fully reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. (Revelation 22:17)
I tell the truth. I agree. So be it. Make it so.
(1)   This version from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer