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.
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!
Labels: Liberalism, Theology