Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Nicene Creed

We used the Nicene Creed in church last Sunday. We hardly ever say it at my church, and I find I dislike the thing more every time. I began to dislike it twenty years and more ago, when I found out about the filioque controversy. The Creed is supposed to unite the church, but here it was being used in a divisive way. The Western Church added 'and the son' in early medieval times, and this contributed to the Great Schism of 1054, when Eastern and Western Churches mutually excommunicated each other.

The Western Church regularly claims that the Eastern version subordinates the Son, but there's not much evidence of it in Orthodox practice. The Eastern Church, on the other hand, accuses the Western of subordinating the Spirit, and there may be something in that. Embedded in both these claims, however, is an assumption that the internal structure of God can be adequately described in a form of words. But how can language, the creation of a created being, suffice to describe the infinite? My own belief is that if we can describe or understand something, it isn't God. The danger of absolutising language is that we risk creating an idol; the form of religion is threatening to become more important than the ultimate truth it strives after.

If we go back to the original form of the Nicene Creed (the Creed we use is actually a revised version of a 'second edition' issued at Constantinople in 381), the divisive intent is clear.

We believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
and in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father,
only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God,
Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,
through whom all things were made, both in heaven and in earth;
who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered, and rose again on the third day,
ascended into heaven, and is coming to judge the living and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit.

And those who say: "There was a time when he was not",
and: "Before he was begotten he was not", and: "He came into being from nothing",
or those who pretend that the Son of God is "of another substance" [than the Father] or
"created" or "alterable" or "mutable", the catholic and apostolic church places under a curse.

(Translation stolen with great daring from

The Roman Empire was too big for one man to rule effectively, and almost collapsed during the 3rd Century. It had been divided from the establishment of the Tetrarchy in 293, until Constantine's defeat of Licinius in 324. Now Constantine was faced with the task of reuniting it, and found the church and the skills of its bishops to be a useful tool. I don't believe the oft-repeated claim that Constantine was a Christian, even a saint, but that's another story.

The church, however, was divided itself, over Christology. Constantine called 318 bishops together, in 325, to settle the issue by fiat. They met at Nicaea, in what's now western Turkey. The Arians believed that Christ was the first created being, as per Colossians 1:15, and all else was created through him. The Orthodox had a higher Christology, and held that he had existed from eternity, made of the same substance as the Father. (It feels unnatural to me calling Jesus 'Christ', but I don't think I can avoid it here. It's actually a title, 'Anointed One', but that meant nothing to Gentiles, so Paul and his successors used it like a name, and we still do so today. It's like bumping into Mrs. Windsor on one of her walkabouts: 'Good morning, Queen, how are you today'. It doesn't feel right.)

After a long debate, the Council declared that Christ was made of the same substance as the Father, co-eternal, and that all things were made through him. A letter of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, suggests that the vital term 'homoousios' ('same substance') was dictated by Constantine himself. A couple of bishops who refused to sign were excommunicated and sent into exile. Constantine subsequently changed his mind, and supported  moderate Arians, such as Eusebius, who'd developed a compromise, that Christ was made of 'similar substance' (homoiousios) with the Father.

This set the scene for a series of divisive creeds, written by one side or the other in accordance with the preference of the reigning emperor. Under Constantius II, a son of Constantine who won a civil war against his brothers, and came to be sole ruler of the empire, a series of Arian creeds was produced. The controversy even reached the coinage, with the short-lived emperor Magnentius issuing a large coin with a chi-rho reverse, carrying the letters alpha and omega.

(Image nicked from

It's an obvious reference to Revelation, where the phrase is used repeatedly. The intent seems to be to declare Magnentius' orthodoxy, in contrast to the Arianism of his enemy Constantius. Orthodoxy was finally restored, at least in the empire, by Theodosius I, the last man to rule the united Roman empire.

The end result was that the imperial heartlands in Europe were orthodox, the 'barbarians' to the north Arian, the Egyptians and others Monophysite, the North Africans divided between the orthodox and the Donatists, and the east was Nestorian. The creed could be described as 'ecumenical' only to the extent that everyone who disagreed with it had been flushed out and excommunicated. One might well speculate that the concentric pattern, with orthodoxy in the centre and 'heresy' on the periphery, might be due to political tensions underlying the theological controversies.

The Nicene Creed, then, is the product of a divided church, and it played its part in the development of that division. Not only that, it takes study to understand it properly. The modern version used by the Western Church is:

We 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 sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

How many people walking in off the street would get all that stuff about 'eternally begotten' or 'of one being with the Father'? How do we allow for the fact that the Greek can't be translated exactly, and in making a translation, we subtly alter the meaning? Do we need all that detail anyway?

Some would say that we do. But my own view is that all those dreadful 'heretics', Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians and the rest, were just Christians who happened to intellectualise their faith in somewhat different ways. Some of them are still with us; I have a liturgy belonging to the Church of the East, which contains the 'Creed of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Fathers', which, as far as I can tell - I have one in English, and the other in Greek - is identical to the creed of Nestorius, who held that Mary was the mother of Jesus' humanity, but not of his divinity, since the two natures remained separate. The Coptic Orthodox Church, which has often been called Monophysite, though they themselves deny it, is still going strong in Egypt, and twenty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the then Coptic Pope, and visiting a Coptic church in Birmingham. Faith is a matter of the heart, not formal theological statements, and I can't believe those people weren't legitimately Christian!

It could be worse, of course. Some statements of faith are horrendously prescriptive; leave out a comma and you're bound for hell. But I think it goes too far, and its history demonstrates that. I've nothing against the idea that we can use a simple summary of the Gospel, based, as the historic creeds are, on the story of Jesus. I wouldn't be comfortable with a doctrinal statement, however basic, as the Gospel isn't a doctrine. It needs, however, to be comprehensible, inclusive rather than exclusive, and expressed in everyday language. We need to be open to the possibility of change in the wording; not everyone expresses themselves in the same way, and why should they?


  1. Thanks for this clearing thing up!
    I totally agree. By heart :-)

  2. I think the creed shouldn't be about the substance of Christ but about his radical teaching, like the Sermon on the Mount. I would find much more edification in reciting the Beatitudes each week, than what I feel is basically a pledge of allegiance.