Monday, July 04, 2005

Let's talk theology: Nicene Creed

The other day, I was reading the Nicene Creed. Sometimes I pick some random book from my collection of books of which too many are unread. Anyway, this statement of faith was drafted in Constantinople in 381 AD. It is based on an earlier version of 325 AD written in Nicaea.

What percentage of the typical American churchgoers know about this document? And how many upon reading it would be able to discuss it?

I must confess that I had heard about such creeds but really never gave them much thought. I would suspect my experience is fairly typical.

Anyway, I had the chance to discuss the famed creed with a friend who studied church history in graduate school.

But first, here is the Nicene creed copy and pasted from the PCUSA web page.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


The first thing we discussed was the usage of language to describe God.

This is a real problem. If God is as great and vast as we believe God to be then how does one use finite human language to describe God?

One response is to throw up your hands and say it is a hopeless task so let's not try. Of course, if one believes in God and wants to communicate this belief then this isn't an option.

Thus, God uses language. God inspired the Bible and preserved it to this day using ordinary words. Theologians take a look at ordinary terminology and develop more technical definitions for their usage in describing God.

For instance, we have notions of what a human father is like. However, when theologians talk about God as a Father, they have very specific aspects in mind which do not include some aspects of our ordinary understanding. If you sat down and jotted down twenty ideas of what a human father is like, how many would be applicable to God? If they all fit, then God is not God. It may seem trivial to say but since God is not human we know human language can only describe aspects of God.

After discussing the usage of language in theology, we dived into the famed creed.

We talked about the begotten terminology to describe Jesus.

At that time, there was a controversy about the relationship of Jesus to God. In the cultural milieu of the time, it was very easy to make an analogy to Greek polytheism where you have these really powerful gods and you have other lesser gods. This kind of thinking was promoted by Arius. Jesus was seen as a created lesser god. This theology exists today in the form of the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses who claim Jesus was a god created by the Father.

Begotten has an ordinary meaning to us in biological terms. But in the theological context, Jesus is begotten not made which stresses the same substance of Jesus in relation to the Father but not a temporal relationship of one before the other.

Language is not perfect and the early church fathers had to wrestle with what imperfect language to use to try to describe God.

We then went on to the terminology of the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Interestingly, this phrase is one of the points that divide the Roman Catholics from the Greek Orthodox. The Greek church believed the Spirit proceeds from the Father while the Roman church believed the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son!

I'm not enough of a theologian to debate this point and for this post, I'll let that sleeping dog lay undisturbed. Maybe another post?

Anyway, we went on to discuss the proceed terminology. It is drawn from the Biblical imagery of the Holy Spirit as like the wind. It draws upon how Jesus would say, I will ask the Father to send you the Spirit.

The limit of this word choice is that it makes the Spirit seem like an inanimate thing and the temporal order of the Spirit as not exisiting previously. But in the creed, the subsequent phrases emphasize the Holy Spirit's equality with the Father and the Son. Again, we are bumping up against the limits of language.

We then discussed how the early church might have approached things differently if they didn't exist in their cultural times. For instance, if male and female equality were more a part of the culture, would the Father and Son language be utilized? One can imagine theological descriptions based on more maternal imagery. Feminist theologians are doing just that. Of course, it would face the same problems as using paternal concepts. Language has its limits.

One could go completely gender neutral and describe God in purely function terms like creator, redeemer and sustainer.

So what do you think?

How much value should we place in historic creeds?

How much value should we place in statements of faith using modern language?

I'm sure that makes for lively debates among theologians and people who bring Christianity to cultures with little to no prior Christian exposure.

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