December 09, 2007

Is the Nicene Creed Biblical?

I was recently dialoging with a liberal Christian who wanted to justify his theological autonomy by pointing out that even conservatives cannot seem to agree with each other. My response was to claim that before one can enter the debate over the fringes and essentials of orthodoxy with Christians of good will, that one must first attend to what they hold in common. I suggested the Nicene Creed as a basic framework of beliefs that was early, broadly affirmed, and is still respected by the most diverse denominations of Christianity. We must start somewhere when attempting to define Christianity. If you cannot put any stakes in the ground, then Christianity is essentially anything you want it to be, which is to say, it is nothing in particular.

As expected, this fellow took exception with the creed and posted his reaction to it on his own blog. I thought it might be worth copying my subsequent response here. The following includes only slight edits of my original reply.

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The first observation I'd make is that this creed seems completely foreign to you. Perhaps it is not, but it should not be alien to any Christian and is actually recited quite often in the liturgies of many denominations, along with the Apostles' Creed and others. Whether one agrees with its content or not, it is a milestone in the theological and liturgical self-understanding of the church. Respect for this creedal statement is still found in the Orthodox Church (Eastern, Russian, American) and the Roman Catholic Church; and even the Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) did not take real exception with this creed (or many other things which all share in common).

The council that formulated this creed was the result of a challenge from Arius and his followers, who took Jesus to be a separately created being, like the angels. The Jehovah's Witnesses could be said to be the modern bearers of the Arian position, though not by unbroken succession. This council was the first world church council (other than, perhaps, the Jerusalem council), being attended by the leaders from all the major regions around the empire. To say that it was not representative of mainstream Christianity is to say that something like Gnosticism is the true expression of Christianity. And contrary to what Dan Brown says in The Da Vinci Code, the vote on the divinity of Christ was not "close," nor was it "first proposed" here. All but two of the more than three hundred attendees voted that the Trinitarian view best captured what Scripture and tradition had revealed about the nature of God.

The center of the second line bothers me: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God". That phrase sounds very formal, almost poetic or like a ritual statement. The problem is that I can't find anything even remotely like it in the Bible. Is this a translation error? Or are these simply non-Biblical statements that have crept into the creed?

The language of the creed is designed to express the consensus understanding while also serving as a refutation of the Arian view. So, it is intent to make clear that Jesus is of the same essence/substance as the Father (and Spirit) while also preserving the biblical truth that Jesus proceeds (is eternally begotten) from the Father in some way.

Certainly these words are not lifted from Scripture, but neither are words like monotheism, syncretism, soteriology, and nihilism; yet certain content within Scripture can be rightly described by way of such words. The question is not whether this text is found directly in Scripture; the question is whether or not it follows from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. And the case has well been made that Jesus is described as deity in Scripture: He is ascribed all the attributes of the Father, He exercised all of the Father's prerogatives, and He shares titles which the Father reserved for Himself.

Here and here are some quick Scriptural references for verses making this case for the full deity of Christ, and for a good single verse I would suggest John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

There are a bunch more statements that I can't really quibble with on Biblical grounds, until we get to "one holy catholic and apostolic Church". Is there actually any place in the New Testament which refers to a "catholic" Church?

I am not Roman "Catholic," so you know I would resist their tendency to make this word play to their favor. The Roman "Catholic" Church, as it came to be known, did not even exist at the time of this council. The word "catholic," as we now denote with a small "c", is best interpreted as "general," "universal," or "pertaining to the whole." In the creed it is a recognition that the church was and will be a dispersed and diverse body bound together by a common theology (some of which is captured in this creed). It is a rejection of sectarian, if not cultic, thinking, which was a problem then as it is today.

If the normal designation in the New Testament for the "whole Church" was "holos ekklēsia" why did the writers of the creed choose to used "catholic" instead?

In effect, they did just that. Catholic is from the two root words "kata," meaning pertaining to, or about, and the word "holos," meaning the whole. It is merely done for grammatical purposes I suppose, otherwise it would say, "One Holy whole and apostolic Church."

One final thing worth mentioning is that although the creed refers to "the Scriptures" and to the Holy Spirit speaking via the prophets, at no place does it specify that the canon of Scriptures is complete and infallible. Isn't that a little odd considering that Paul Pruett was trying to argue that this creed should be the litmus test for whether the squishy liberals or the ramrod conservatives were right?

This creed does not mention many things. You cannot take from it that if it does not mention it then they did not believe it. It was primarily designed to address some of the major concerns relating to the nature of God and what He has done for us. Yet, it was from somewhere that they grounded the beliefs contained in this creed: Scripture. And to be so dogmatic as to produce this creed (and its related anathemas) one would expect that this Source would be held in high esteem. It may or may not be true that words like "infallible" are recent inventions, but it should be noted that the early church did not suffer from the same kind of modern skepticism and redaction of the Scriptures which necessitates the naming and declaration of such a doctrine.

When the authors of this creed mention Scripture, they mean something in particular. It is true that the canon was formally declared after the Council of Nicea, but it is not as though the idea of an authoritative list of books was foreign to them at this time. Indeed, as far back as we have approvingly quoted books from the Church Father's pens and explicit lists of inspired writings we can see the outline of the canon as it would come to be known.

The only real contenders for a modified canon were the Gnostics (who are in a whole other camp); yet even they, other than Marcion, agreed to most of the standard books; they simply wanted to add their own unique works into the mix and considered the mainstream canon to be the revelation for the common man, or at least the literal understanding of it to be.

As far as whether the cannon was "complete," the very methodology behind identifying a N.T. book as Scripture precludes such a thing as new books, since inspiration and authority only applied to Jesus and His apostles. A book (beyond the O.T.) was only considered for canon if it had a solid pedigree of apostolic authority. So, for example, a book like Mark could only be justified as Scripture insofar as it could be traced to the oversight of Peter and/or Paul and reliable tradition proved that it had early authorship.

If anything, more books were ultimately included into the canon than what some had argued for. And since this chapter of God's divine plan appears to be settled (as Scripture itself claims), then no further special revelation is expected until Christ comes to claim His church. God's plan has come to fruition in Christ; we are in the Church Age spreading the Good News, a bride awaiting its bridegroom. Any revelation forthcoming can only affirm what has been accomplished or inaugurate the new age to come.

The text of the creed does mention sins, but only in the context of "remission of sins". It does mention judgment, but only in the context of the Last Judgment.

Remission of sin and final judgment certainly implies that there is such a thing as sin to remit or judge. Of course, what qualifies as sin and what we fellow sinners ought to do about the sin in the world is another matter, but Scripture is most emphatic that we should not ignore it or lull the world into a false sense of security regarding it.

It doesn't mention "love" at all. Perhaps the composers of the creed weren't familiar with John 3:16.

Since even most reasonable atheists agree that we should be loving, and that if there is a God that he/she/it would surely be loving, then this idea is not really a controversial doctrine on which the framers thought to make a stand. (If you want a creed with more "love" mentioned in it, here is a more recent one that most of the church would probably give the nod.)

Of course, the word "love" must be defined. Saying that we must love one another and that God loves the world needs an explanation. When John says that "God so loved the world" he spends many chapters explaining just how it is that God expressed that love. The Nicene Creed captures some of that explanation in saying the following:

"Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father."

God does not simply have warm feelings for humanity and look upon our apathy toward Him and His will with a blind eye. He loved us enough to come down among us and make a road home for His fallen creatures. May God grant that we travel it and lead others to do the same!

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39 Comments:

At 12/09/2007 5:58 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

The history of the Creed is not pretty. If you saw how it was crafted, you'd recognize the sausage-like quality of the craftsmanship. It would embarrass you. You'd suddenly have the Eureka! experience of realizing that the Nicene god was made in the image of second-rate philosophers.

Also, consider its use in politics. It served as a bludgeon to attack enemies of the State. Not a pretty sight to anyone's eyes.

If that's "Christianity", then you can keep it all to yourself. I'm not buying into that garbage.

 
At 12/09/2007 8:07 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sophia,

Thanks for commenting, and that's a lovely name, real or alias.

I am certain there was much debate and laboring over the precise wording of this creed, but it has remained in good standing among biblical Christians for a reason. I do not give it the nod primarily because of authority or tradition, but because it comports well with my reading of Scripture. And my initial reading of Scripture was largely in a theological vacuum, without being guided by creeds and a fundamentalist upbringing.

The question is not whether it is a brilliant work of philosophy or a literary masterpiece; the question is whether it best expresses revelation and the apostolic teachings, which, in retrospect, we must appeal to Scripture in order to arbitrate. But if one has a diminished view of the authority and reliability of Scripture, or just what the canon really ought to contain, then a debate over the theological fidelity of this creed is a moot point.

Additionally, how some may make use of creeds has no bearing on the truth of those creeds. I wonder if you propose that it is these beliefs which led to the abuses that you have in mind or if it is the idea that Christians should make a stand on any beliefs at all.

 
At 12/10/2007 5:14 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

Your observation on differences in the interpretation of sacred texts is right on the money. In fact, it was exactly just such a difference in theological discipline which led to the split between those who promoted the Creed and those who knew the truth.

How the Creed was used subsequently was in conformance to the techniques that were employed in its establishment. It wasn't something good which was abused for purposes of political domination. It was originally crafted to be an instrument of hellish governance.

 
At 12/10/2007 5:37 PM, Anonymous roo said...

Sophia,

Those certainly are some interesting assertions you are making. What arguments can you provide to buttress such assertions?

thanks

 
At 12/10/2007 11:02 PM, Blogger Paul said...

"...the split between those who promoted the Creed and those who knew the truth."

Truth? An alternate truth which is certain enough to be put into creedal form and affirmed by all on the other side of the "split?"

How would you ever establish a contrary truth when the documents and apostolic heritage upon which this creed is grounded (whether right or wrong) have far better pedigree than their competitors, even by the standards of many scholars who do not have a horse in this race? It seems to me that if you choose to doubt the classical Christian position, then there is even greater room for doubt regarding such alternatives as Gnosticism. I think an alternate view prevails only by dint of raw preference.

But again, if you reject even the general spiritual authority of Jesus and His students, then debating over which wing of his self-proclaimed followers best represents orthodoxy is a moot point. I do not know quite how far you go in your skepticism.

"[The creed] was originally crafted to be an instrument of hellish governance."

Whether that is true or not (which I don't need to argue at this point), it is the case that this creed comports well with biblical Christianity. If you like, I could change the focus of my argument to the Apostles' Creed, with which I'm sure you have similar theological, if not political, issues.

 
At 12/11/2007 5:47 AM, Anonymous Duane said...

Hi Paul,

This question may take many turns depending on the information you can help me with. So I'll just take it one step at a time.

Given my understanding that the Nicene Creed came about to provide a formal response to Arianism and state the official position of the church - correct? - were there any other formal "creeds" that - while in clear opposition to the Nicene Creed - claimed the Bible as the source for their creedal framework as the Nicene Creed does?

Hope that makes sense?

 
At 12/11/2007 5:23 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

The Apostles' Creed doesn't have the despotic baggage that the Nicene Creed carries. I don't have any theological objections to it for use at the elementary level. Unlike the Nicene Creed, it doesn't attack people.

BTW, I noticed that the Nicene Creed on the reformed site doesn't include the anathemas. I suppose it is a reformed Nicene Creed.

 
At 12/11/2007 6:15 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Duane,

Yes to the first question and no to the second question. As far as I know, the only creeds or "rules of faith" proposed come from the camp that we now (rightly I would argue) think of as orthodox.

The Apostles Creed is a very early formulation (just how early is debated), and there are numerous proto-creeds. I'll list some of them here for possible future reference. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies, since I have not done my due diligence in confirming all the following (mostly) plagiarized references (the "presbyters of Smyrna" is actual new to me and begs further investigation):

Paul, to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3-7):

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Ignatius of Antioch, to the Trallians, writing about AD 107:

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.

The presbyters of Smyrna, about AD 180:

We also know in truth one God, we know Christ, we know the Son, suffering as he suffered, dying as he died, and risen on the third day, and abiding at the right hand of the Father, and coming to judge the living and the dead. And in saying this we say what has been handed down to us.

Irenaeus (c. AD 180) formulated a Rule of Faith in three different ways. Here is second:

To this order many nations of barbarians give assent . . . believing in one God, Maker of heaven and earth, and all that in them is, through Christ Jesus the Son of God; Who, for his astounding love towards his creatures, sustained the birth of the Virgin, himself uniting his manhood to God, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rose again, and was received in glory, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the judge of those who are judged; and sending into eternal fire the perverters of the truth and the despisers of his Father and his advent.

Tertullian (c. AD 200) likewise records three forms of the Rule. This is the first:

The Rule of Faith is altogether one, sole, immovable, and irreformable-namely, to believe in one God Almighty, the Maker of the world; and His Son, Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the third day raised again from the dead, received in the heavens, sitting now at the right hand of the Father, coming to judge the quick and the dead, also through the resurrection of the flesh.

Hippolytus's account of the baptismal service (c. AD 215):

When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: "Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?" And the person being baptized shall say: "I believe." Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him once.

And then he shall say: "Do you believe in Christ Jesus, 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 into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?" And when he says: "I believe," he is baptized again. And again he shall say: "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and the resurrection of the body?" The person being baptized shall say: "I believe," and then he is baptized a third time.

 
At 12/11/2007 7:25 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sophia,

I don't support "despotic" behavior towards unbelievers and heretics, but that is irrelevant to whether or not I believe that the Nicene Fathers got this right. I would think it an ad hominem argument to reject the content of the creed on the grounds of personal distaste for events and persons which may have connection to it. Indeed they included an anathema with it, but they also did not make it a matter of doctrine what must be done to its objectors, and so this is not a theological issue with which I must wrestle.

As to your comfort with the Apostles' Creed, I think I know what you mean by its use at the "elementary level." You would probably take certain terms in an esoteric or symbolic way, though I think you would have to strain yourself to do so and certainly step outside of the context of what the confessing community meant when they recited things like, "Creator of heaven and earth," "His only Son," "judge the living and the dead," "forgiveness of sins," and "resurrection of the body." The wording of this reeks of orthodoxy and canon verbiage, not of the kinds of professions that I would imagine that those who you favor would include were they crafting their own creed from scratch.

 
At 12/12/2007 9:32 AM, Anonymous Duane said...

Thanks Paul,

So people such as Arius, Marcion, etc., didn't have creeds as such? But they did have a view of Christ - and by necessity, God - that was based on what... Gnostic writings?

I am trying to establish the authority for what we would today consider to be unorthodox views of God. If it was only the Christians that had formalised creeds (and these were based on the words of the Apostles and Christ Himself) and the heretics (is that an appropriate word for them?) had no creeds - or atleast none based on the bible - what were they using for their authority on who Christ is?

 
At 12/12/2007 1:14 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

Paul,

You may personally believe in the Nicene statement of substance, but simply asserting that one believes it does not confer understanding of what it actually means and the context in which it was incorporated into the Creed by the Nicene bishops. Believing that something is true and correct is a far cry from it actually being true and correct.

Your suspicions of whether those outside of your circle of orthodoxy would craft a creed the same way as was the Apostle's Creed are to the point. Once one has transcended the errors of the apostles, one would not come up with the same narrow notions as have their progeny. It is a manifestation of apostle-worship.

 
At 12/12/2007 1:27 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Duane,

As I see it, there are essentially two general classes of alternate Christianities.

The first consists of those who exist in, and work through, the mainstream church. These accept the canon documents but simply take issue with some of the conclusions reached by appeal to them. Arius, Eutyches, Nestorius, and Appolonarius would probably fit into this class. Most of the councils and creeds were in response to challenges from such "insiders." Challenges from my second class provoked apologetic responses, but were generally not thought credible enough to warrant ecumenical debate.

The second class consists of those who take issue with portions of the canon and/or add their own writings on top of it. For this reason, their doctrines were either incomplete, by orthodox standards, or were radically altered by the additional writings that were used to correct or illuminate the canon documents. Gnosticism, in its various flavors, would be the primary example of this. Simon Magus, Valentinius, Marcion, and Basilides would fit into this category. Apologetics against these groups often pointed out the lack of apostolic succession, the discontinuity with the accepted Gospels, and the later dates of their writing. Many would argue that most of those in the second class would represent distinct religions rather than being merely candidates for the term "heretic."

 
At 12/12/2007 1:55 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Sophia,

The allegations of "hellish governance" and "despotism" against the Fathers of the Church who established the creed, is more than a little hard to swallow. These creeds were approved by an overwhelming majority vote of the authorised representatives of the churches throughout the Christian world. On democratic principles alone, regardless of any spiritual considerations concerning the authority of the Church as a body, decisions made by majority vote are the exact opposite of despotism. If there was some overzealousness in the subsequent implementation, this does not overturn the fundamentally legitmacy of the decision-making process itself. It appears that the early Church councils had the right to decide as they saw fit. Indeed any organisation has the right to decide for itself on its own "constitutional" issues, and it is not for outsiders to call them "despotic" merely for making up their own minds on their own affairs.

(Paul, for once I'm almost entirely in agreement with your position!)

 
At 12/12/2007 9:08 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sophia,

"Once one has transcended the errors of the apostles, one would not come up with the same narrow notions as have their progeny. It is a manifestation of apostle-worship."

So, we come to the heart of the matter. If the apostles were in error, then it follows that anything that bears their influence may be in error as well. So, even if we trace a book directly to Peter or John, and we can insure that it has seen no corruption, then it still is not enough to insure that it is free of theological error. I think if you are disinclined toward orthodoxy then you are forced to question apostolic authority, since the historical trail between the two bears very incriminating footprints.

It is not that Christians worship the apostles — indeed, it is a matter of Judeo-Christian dogma that no man or angel be worshipped; it is that we worship the divine Jesus, but have only the testimony of the apostles and their students upon which to rely for historical witness to the life and teachings of our Lord. If Jesus had any spiritual authority and competence as a teacher, then we should expect that even the most idle speculations of His hand-picked, hand-trained students should be superior to the best philosophical gymnastics of we historically impaired moderns (not that we believe it to be idle speculation or that they claimed it as such). And if His apostles could not be relied upon to transmit the truth about Jesus, then it seems to me that we have little hope of either knowing the truth about Him or thinking that He had the kind of power over this world to see that we would.

All this leaves me entirely unclear on where you would look for your source of confidence that we knew anything at all about this Jesus. But again, perhaps your skepticism runs all the way to the root of Christianity, i.e., that Jesus is not really the ultimate authority on spiritual matters. In that case, I would think it a futile exercise for you to instruct us on just what it is that constitutes authentic Christianity.

 
At 12/12/2007 9:10 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

What a pleasant surprise to find you on my side here. But I know that as a fellow theist we should have much in common, even if our differences are defining.

In defense of Sophia, I think she might respond by saying that it may be true for an organization or religion to have the freedom to define itself, but in this case that organization also had some influence over non-voluntary membership. A response could certainly be made on this particular issue, but I have learned two things about such historical questions: The charges made by skeptics seldom measure up to the extremes with which they are depicted, and the role of "Christians" in any such events is never as pretty as one would like to believe. I prefer to stick to a defense of theologically warranted beliefs and behaviors, not what may or may not have happened in this or that time in history.

 
At 12/13/2007 5:22 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

John,

You said, "decisions made by majority vote are the exact opposite of despotism." Apparently you are not familiar with the tyranny of the majority. The worst sort of despotism is that which the majority imposes on the minority. On top of that, the Nicene Council was far from an exemplar of republican representation.

Paul,

I would never in a million years expect the orthodox to pay any attention to the opinions of heretics. My personal observation is that Christians can be identified throughout history as being those who thoroughly hate one another. By that hatred, Christians can be recognized as such.

 
At 12/14/2007 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sophia,

By that hatred, Christians can be recognized as such.

Is this in contrast to non-Christians who are overwhelmed with feelings of love for non-Christians and Christians alike?

The worst sort of despotism is that which the majority imposes on the minority.

Actually, a worse form of despotism is where the minority imposes on the majority, and the majority just eats it out of political correctness. Not wanting to be smeared as being "intolerant", "bigoted", "racist", "narrow minded", "hate filled", "homo-phobic", etc. as liberals in our society just love to do.

 
At 12/14/2007 12:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sophia,

It appears that we have exhausted our theological discussion, but I am game to respond to what you have offered.

"The worst sort of despotism is that which the majority imposes on the minority."

Digressing from our main conversation ... I would think the worst sort of "despotism" is that in which the one in absolute power imposes his will upon the rest. In fact, this word is generally used in that very sense. The despotism that you decry might also be defined as "democracy." It does not become more or less democratic based upon the level of displeasure (or suffering) of the minority, only more or less moral. But I wonder by what standard you would measure morality. You must be a moral realist, since you have certainly ruled out social consensus from the equation.

"I would never in a million years expect the orthodox to pay any attention to the opinions of heretics."

I'm entertaining your opinions now, and not unreasonably, I think. However, it is not entirely clear whether you would even consider yourself to be part of the Christian camp rather than of an entirely separate religious tradition. I think a heretic would be one who has gotten the theology of Jesus and His apostles wrong. I get the impression that you believe that they have gotten their own theology wrong.

"My personal observation is that Christians can be identified throughout history as being those who thoroughly hate one another. By that hatred, Christians can be recognized as such."

And my own "personal observation" is the inverse, though I'm not confident that either of us could claim to have "personally" observed history. We must make due with the historical highlights that we have inherited, and depending upon one's preferred (or imposed) literary diet, history can take on very distinctive flavors.

It sounds very much like you are saying that the defining characteristic of Christians is that they hate other Christians. How odd. By your measure, I must judge my own church as non-Christian seeing as how we all get along so swimmingly; and the Christian organization for which I work, and which employs many denominations of supposed Christians, must be judged similarly. I must also judge the philosophers, apologists, and theologians that I enjoy reading to be non-Christians, since they neither preach nor practice the hatred that you describe.

It's easy to portray a group as hateful when you control the definition of who is in the group, the places and events on which to focus, and what you will qualify as "hate." I am at an advantage in that I believe that Christianity is something in particular, which is defined and guided by authoritative writings. Consequently, I have some hope (however imperfect) of identifying who is a Christian and when they are acting consistently with that faith; in my view one could say that certain behavior was un-Christ-like.

 
At 12/14/2007 12:54 PM, Blogger Paul said...

"Actually, a worse form of despotism is where the minority imposes on the majority, and the majority just eats it out of political correctness."

That really is a curious modern twist on democracy, isn't it? I find that many of the minority positions that we are tolerating are held by moral relativists, who believe there is really no morality beyond what individuals and societies define. But being in the minority would seem a rather precarious position, and so it may be that the appeal to "tolerance" has become their chief battle cry. If one is not comfortable with someone else's moral view or lifestyle, he may at least affirm the need to be a tolerant individual.

 
At 12/14/2007 10:28 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Sophia,

Somewhat echoing comments made by others, worse than tyranny of the majority over a minority is rule by a minority over the majority, viz apartheid-era South Africa. And worse than either of these is anarchy, a free-for-all situation that makes all human progress virtually impossible. It is necessary for any society, community or organisation to have means for deciding on questions that fundamentally affect the future of the whole group. When it goes down to the wire, and a decision of some sort just has to be made, there is no fairer principle to apply than majority rule. A decent society will also make provision for the protection of minority rights, but this should not be done at the expense of the fundamental rights of the majority. Most societies of the past and present have unfortunately had major failings in their treatment of minorities, but this is no justification for asserting that minority rule would be better.

By the way, I happen to live in a country that is constitutionally a monarchy, so I don't equate "democracy" with "republican representation"! :-) (OK, in fact I understand what you mean. This last is not meant to be taken seriously.)

Paul,

It appears to me that there are theological principles involved in this aspect of the discussion, even though it seems historical in nature. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, I don't have the opportunity to elaborate. Suffice it to say at this point, that what got me going was Sophia's allegation that the Nicene Creed was "originally crafted to be an instrument of hellish governance." This statement attacks the validity of the activity that the Nicene Council was engaged in, at its very root. I am not offended by robust intellectual discussion, but this kind of defamatory allegation, couched in strident language, is distasteful to me to such an extent that I admit to reacting emotionally as well as intellectually. (Sophia, perhaps if I met you I would find you a likable person, but regrettably I find the mode of some of your statements above, rather extreme and inappropriate in a hopefully rational discussion. Sorry if I'm over-reacting.)

Maybe if I have time later I will comment further.

 
At 12/16/2007 5:21 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

John,

The Nicene Council was originally chartered with reconciling differences between different theological traditions. Instead of accomplishing that mission, the Council did the exact opposite by exacerbating those differences. The Council took the position that only one set of theological traditions would be recognized by the Empire. All other were outlawed with declarations of anathema. This led to acts of property transference, political execution, and book burning. In addition to the intolerant atrocities committed against Pagan traditions, atrocities were committed against other apostolic traditions and traditions that claimed authority above the apostolic level. Such actions were all done in the name of the anathemas of the Nicene Creed. Yes, the Creed is Biblical, but not in the positive sense of the word.

I understand that your worship of the Council and the god that it crafted has tinted your view of history. Such is the nature of the Beast.

 
At 12/16/2007 10:21 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John, . . . I understand that your worship of the Council and the god that it crafted has tinted your view of history.

You're barking up the wrong tree, Sophia. John isn't even a Christian; he's Baha'i.

The Council took the position that only one set of theological traditions would be recognized by the Empire.

If you're sorting out what you believe to be the truth, then only one will tend to prevail. Truth is funny that way, unless you believe that 2+2 can equal 4 and fish. Pluralistic ecumenical councils are a rather modern invention, sponsored by those who haven't the confidence or justification to believe that their own perspective is correct or consequential.

atrocities were committed against other apostolic traditions and traditions that claimed authority above the apostolic level. Such actions were all done in the name of the anathemas of the Nicene Creed. Yes, the Creed is Biblical, but not in the positive sense of the word.

Since this creed is biblical, as you say, and the biblical books are those with the most solid apostolic credentials, then we are left with your statements like "authority above the apostolic level" and "the errors of the apostles" to make sense of a rejection of biblical standards in the formulation of our creeds. I would be curious as to what it is that you believe to stand above apostolic authority as commissioned through Christ, and what grounds you have for thinking you are correct.

 
At 12/16/2007 11:52 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Sophia,

Thank you for explaining more. Your first paragraph seems overall like a fairly reasonable statement of a point of view regarding certain historical events. I don't mean I agree with it, but it is couched in specifics that make your meaning clear, and it would not be out of place as part of a responsible discussion of the history of that period. However, the final two sentences of your post indicate something entirely different going on. It goes beyond recounting the facts or even a sober opinion based on the facts. Suddenly an over-the-top judgment is presented in highly emotive language indicative of a desire to demonise those who disagree with you. I have to wonder what the agenda is that you are trying to advance. If there is an alternative form of spirituality that you believe is preferable to the religious beliefs that you are opposed to, it would be good to hear of it. It would be interesting and uplifting to know what positive alternative you have to offer. The readers would then be in a better position to evaluate whether you have something worthwhile to offer.

Paul,

While obviously I don't think the the Nicene Creed is "the last word", yet I have a profound respect for what Constantine and the Bishops he called together were engaged in by way of working to distinguish truth from falsehood in order to lay a foundation for the unity of the Church. Sophia would be right to conclude that I respect the Nicene Council, but of course neither you nor I worship it. Respect is in a different category from worship.

 
At 12/17/2007 12:58 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks John. You are adding much value in this discussion, and your tone is characteristically gracious.

Sophia is not doing her cause any favors by repeatedly making knee-jerk responses, like I "worship" the apostles and the Nicene council. I would hope to have a more principled theological discussion over just what it is that the Nicene (and Apostolic) Father's believed to be the proper object of our worship and why they might have been mistaken.

 
At 12/17/2007 5:45 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

John,

I didn't intend to demonize you. I made an observation based on your reaction to my opinions on the hellish governance that surrounds the Creed and its application. It is my way of coming to an understanding of how someone could see the actions of the post-Nicene Church as anything other than atrocious.

As you can see, we disagree on the Council as a "truth" oriented body. My impressions are that it was a political body with more concern for dominance than with truth.

 
At 12/18/2007 1:57 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul,

Thank you for your kind remarks.

Sophia,

I acknowledge that your statements are not aimed at me personally and thank you for that assurance.

******

To my regret I'm currently unable to add further comment due to suffering neck pain brought on by too much keyboard work...

Best wishes.

 
At 12/18/2007 12:05 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Sophia,

The main purpose of my engaging with you is to make an appeal for a more moderate, reasoned, and positive approach in the presentation of your ideas. If you are wishing to defend alternatives to Christian orthodoxy, then a more moderate and positive approach would be more effective, as well as being more intellectually sound.

Anyone who has read a little bit of history is well aware that power has often been abused and overused by those in possession of it. It would be surprising if the Emperor Constantine and the leaders of the Church in his day were completely immune from such human failings. But unless one can show that Constantine was a despot of Stalin-like wickedness, and the Nicene Bishops a united conclave of evil conspirators, then the kind of statements you make about them raise the stakes far too high. For example, returning to your original statement about the creed:

"It was originally crafted to be an instrument of hellish governance."

This sentence contains the significant terms "crafted", "instrument", and "hellish governance". For the allegation to be true, requires imputing extreme motives and extraordinarily devious procedures to Constantine and the approximately 300 Bishops who took part in the deliberations of the Council. To make your case, you really should endeavour to show what methods were used for "crafting" the creed in such a manner and who performed this amazing feat; why it is appropriate to describe it as an "instrument" as opposed to a theological statement; and justification for the aim being "hellish governance" rather than resolution of a controversy in the Church. The word "hellish" particularly requires justification, for it implies that the framers of the creed had diabolical intentions and had no other motive than to impose evil on their fellow man. By any measure this is an extreme allegation, and nothing I have read about the history of the creed has indicated that such a level of depravity came into play.

However, the need for justification of such "high stakes" negative statements is not my main point. Rather, I want to emphasize the duty of contributing something positive. Any belief system that consists solely of opposition to another belief system lacks any value, and I hope that your belief system is not such. Now supposing that we accept that in the era of Constantine certain beliefs were unjustly suppressed, there is on the other hand a very high degree of freedom in modern democracies for everyone to believe what they like and to set about attempting to convince others of their beliefs. Please therefore tell us what you believe that is superior to Christian orthodoxy, and show why it is superior, in a positive spirit. And if it resembles beliefs that were "suppressed" in former times, then by putting forward the views that they were prevented from advancing, you will thereby be able to vindicate your spiritual "ancestors" by winning an audience for the cogency of their views. This would be a positive contribution. By contrast, essentially ad-hominem attacks on the Church fathers do nothing to advance your cause.

It so happens that I have had a number of vigorous exchanges with Paul in this forum because I too champion a different vision from that of the (present day) Christian orthodoxy that Paul adheres to. However (forgive me for using myself as an example), I think Paul will agree that although I have directly criticized his beliefs on occasion, the main thrust of most of my comments has been to present an alternative positive viewpoint. A more positive approach on your part, I humbly suggest, will not only win you more respect in forums such as this, but will also be more conducive to your own happiness and the upliftment of your soul. May God bless you and keep you in His loving care.

 
At 12/18/2007 11:06 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Well said, John, and you are welcome to criticize my beliefs on any occasion. I much enjoy our vigorous exchanges :)

My tack in this discussion was to avoid the historical bickering over who oppressed whom and to what degree, and to stick with the theological meat. As you point out, Sophia's use of such terms as "hellish governance" make it clear that she is riding more on emotional investments than rational objections. She may well have those, but she was sparing with them in this discussion.

If being removed from clerical duties or temporarily exiled is "hellish," then I cannot imagine what descriptions are reserved for the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. I would think that "hellish" would be a more apt description for the treatment of Christians at the hands of various pagan Emperors, right up to Diocletian (the last prior to Constantine). And as far as the oppressive and hateful behavior of Christians after they finally obtained firm standing, let me just quote Emperor Julian, who worked very hard to return the empire to pagan religion:

"Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans [Christians] devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods."

My only word of advice to you would be that it may have been imprudent to end by blessing Sophia in "His" name. My suspicion is that "She" would be the preferred pronoun in her case.

 
At 12/19/2007 5:34 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

I'm sorry that I cannot satisfy your desires for a fuller exposition of my own views. I don't think this is the appropriate venue. I also doubt that it would really be of value to either of you, nor to your readers.

The negativity of my comments is intended as a balance to the unipolar representation of the Nicene Creed by traditionalists. If you don't know that you're playing with TNT, it needs to be pointed out. Such news is usually received as rudeness on the part of the messenger. Such is life.

 
At 12/20/2007 12:25 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

It seems regrettable that you'd rather not put forward any alternative positive vision, but of course that is your prerogative. What it indicates, though, is that you find it acceptable to use strong language in criticizing the views of others (TNT being the latest example), while declining to open up your own worldview to scrutiny. Rudeness is easily put up with by anyone with broad shoulders. But remarks made in an entirely negative spirit lack an essential element for credibility. One is led to conclude that the motive behind such assertions is an oppositional tendency; more bluntly, a hatred for authority. This impression can only be overcome by offering a positive alternative. In the absence of evidence, or at least indications, for the validity of the position you are coming from, fair-minded persons will be disinclined to pay any attention to your "warnings".

 
At 12/20/2007 1:03 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul,

The importance I see in defending the Nicene Council itself (not just the creed as a theological statement) is to do with the general principle of upholding legitimate authority. You and I may disagree on aspects of the nature of the authority of Jesus and the apostles, but we are in agreement that it is God-given. The argument that has been advanced by Sophia asked to believe that after a mere 300-odd years the spiritual influence of Christ upon his followers had so severely dissipated that a gathering of the authorized representatives of the general body of His followers came to erroneous and diabolical conclusions. In fact this particular moment in history was in many respects the very opposite of such a sad situation. Having endured the rigours of persecution the Christian community had proved the measure of its faith, and had emerged from obscurity with a high reputation. It won over an Emperor to its side. Constantine had skeletons in his closet, but he proved to be a vast improvement over his predecessors. The verdict of the Baha'i writings is as follows:

"One demonstration of the excellent character of the Christians in those days was their dedication to charity and good works, and the fact that they founded hospitals and philanthropic institutions. For example, the first person to establish public clinics throughout the Roman Empire where the poor, the injured and the helpless received medical care, was the Emperor Constantine. This great king was the first Roman ruler to champion the Cause of Christ. He spared no efforts, dedicating his life to the promotion of the principles of the Gospel, and he solidly established the Roman government, which in reality had been nothing but a system of unrelieved oppression, on moderation and justice. His blessed name shines out across the dawn of history like the morning star, and his rank and fame among the world's noblest and most highly civilized is still on the tongues of Christians of all denominations.

"What a firm foundation of excellent character was laid down in those days, thanks to the training of holy souls who arose to promote the teachings of the Gospel. How many primary schools, colleges, hospitals, were established, and institutions where fatherless and indigent children received their education. How many were the individuals who sacrificed their own personal advantages and 'out of desire to please the Lord' devoted the days of their lives to teaching the masses."

(Abdu'l-Baha, "The Secret of Divine Civilization", p. 84)

Concerning Arius, though, is this:

"Consider thou, at the time of Christ and after Him, how many childish attempts have been made by different persons! What claims they have advanced and what a multitude have they gathered around themselves! Even Arius attracted to himself a million and a half followers and strove and endeavoured to sow the seeds of sedition in the Cause of Christ. But eventually the sea of Christ surged and cast out all the gathering froth and nothing was left behind..."

Arius is seen in the Baha'i teachings as a divisive figure motivated by ambition. The teachings of Arius also appear to be inconsistent with the Baha'i view of Christ, since we accept Christ as the pre-existent Word of God (made flesh), which Arius seems to have denied.

This is the background to my defence of the Nicene Council.

 
At 12/20/2007 2:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

Yes, Constantine had his issues, and it has even been debated as to whether or not he really had an authentic conversion or if he just saw political and/or superstitious advantage to Christianity. He was, as you say, a far sight better than what the Christians had previously faced. Perhaps in gratitude his biographies have been generously handled.

I think the discussions of what was done "by Christians" is complicated by the parallel acts of those with political power. Sometimes the actions of those like Constantine directly reflected the desires and theology of the Christians, sometimes it was in spite of it, and sometimes it was just the passionate and impulsive exaggeration of it.

Some have said that orthodoxy was, in fact, shaped by Constantine, but the fact that the Arians had his ear for much of his reign would seem to confound that theory. And the fact that orthodoxy managed to triumph in spite of the best efforts of other emperors, especially Julian the Apostate, proves that it was a theological victory rather than a political one.

Your Baha'i quotes are interesting. They were somewhat surprising, but upon reflection I can see why Arianism would be problematic to the Baha'i view of Jesus. If Jesus were a created being, then that would not favor the view that Jesus was a manifestation of the one true God. I think Baha'i is probably much opposed to the Trinitarian flavor of monotheism, which the Creed attempts to advance. For that reason, I would imagine that it would be sympathetic to Sabellius, who saw the Father, Son, and Spirit to be essentially one Person. Unfortunately, the early church was even less swayed by that characterization.

BTW, I'll be away through Christmas, so this may be my last communication till later next week. Merry Christmas to you and all my other friends and readers!

 
At 12/20/2007 5:25 PM, Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

John,

I see where you are coming from. The issue of genuine vs. charlatan authority is one that is near and dear to my heart. It is not that I oppose authority, but subscribe to a transcendent authority. That will always place me in apparent opposition to the absolute.

Your Baha quote is the first mention I've read about Constantine promoting public clinics that were open to the destitute. If you have any source material for that assertion, I'd appreciate it.

The Druids had a policy of providing medical attention to all comers, regardless of ability to pay. They were severely persecuted by Romans of both Pagan and Christian persuasions.

I've spend quite a few hours studying the history of the conflict between the Athanasians and the Arians. A number of authors have commented that the Romans preferred life under Arian rule. The Arian militias tended to be less corrupt than those of the Athanasian persuasion. Of course, those were observations of the popular response to Arian governance. The Church response was uniformly negative (save for some glowing comments from Augustine).

 
At 12/20/2007 5:57 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul,

Best wishes of the season to you as well!

By the way, the usual Baha'i explanation of the Trinity is that God is like the sun, the Holy Spirit is like the rays of the sun, and the Manifestation is like a perfect mirror reflecting the light of the sun. This is obviously a simple and brief analogy, and there is much more to be said for a full explanation.

Sophia,

Your latest remarks I find refreshing, as I can now begin to appreciate your point of view in a more rounded way. No time to comment further as I'm writing during my lunch break at work. Best wishes for the winter solstice!

 
At 12/22/2009 3:10 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul

I see my last comment was almost exactly two years ago.

Time again to say best wishes for Christmas and the year ahead!

John

 
At 12/25/2009 1:49 AM, Blogger Paul said...

And to you too, John.

 
At 1/21/2010 5:23 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Paul will be celebrating his five year blog anniversary next month. Isn't that exciting? I can't wait to see what he posts on his blog to celebrate. It should be riveting!

 
At 1/21/2010 8:28 PM, Blogger Paul said...

You're funny, Sam. Keep it up, I might just get that next post out yet! You'll be sorry you asked for it.

 
At 8/30/2010 8:08 AM, Anonymous Donald Moore said...

Please forgive my naiveness. In the Nicene creed the statement about one baptism for the forgiveness of sins is troubling to me. I understand that we sinners are forgiven our sins by the grace of God, only. In Ephesians Paul said we are saved by grace, not of anything we can do. How then can we be saved by one baptism?

 

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