The Nicene Creed(s)
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and 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;
and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life;
who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;
who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
How long is your party line?
(This version includes the ‘filioque’ clause, added in a later century)
The council at Nicaea in 325AD was first in a series of ‘ecumenical councils’ convened under the emperor’s authority, to find a conciliar unity among all the bishops, and to assert one ‘orthodoxy’ against the various available ‘heresies’. The key change was the power of the empire, available to the winners, and the power of the united religion, in service of the empire.
The form of our Nicene Creed is result of more than one council. The first paragraph denies the heresies of demi-urges, or competing Gods making things. The Christological heresies are denied in the next two paragraphs, and the next returns to Trinitarian concerns. Finally issues of order, catholicity, and apocalyptic are closed.
Constantine converted to Christianity, and one faction gets to be ‘orthodox’, coercing others they called ‘heretics’. Roman emperors provide coercive power, in exchange for political allies and support. Any fantasy of a golden age of innocence is over. If this is the official religion of the empire, the stakes are higher for who names ‘us’ and ‘them’. Abuse of the new power was inevitable – but even now, neither the upstart emperor nor his favoured heretics had monopolies of power, like the medieval church.
Christology, doctrines about the person and work of Jesus, and Trinity, relationship between God creator, redeemer, and spirit, had generated factions and passions. The adoption of the faith by the imperial power put a premium on reaching unity, discouraging speculation by divergent and competing sects.
The ‘ecumenical church councils’ convened through this century and the next, at Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon, gave us ‘conciliar’ authority, the legitimacy of a lot of people at one table, not just bishops and books and crude creeds. Political legitimacy came at the price of intrigues and manipulations. Read these creeds as brokered compromises as if from a political convention or a minority government appeasing other parties.
The Nicene Creed opens this week. Look how many words were added, to counter various heresies. Our generation of the United Church found too many people choking on too many phrases – mark ones that offend you, then ask yourself why they offend heretics like us.