We Rejected The Nicene Creed And That’s A Good Thing
I have a short, thick volume in my library. It’s entitled Creeds of the Churches. Editor John Leith went about the monumental task of gathering statements of faith, expressions of belief, and affirmations of communal confession throughout Christian history, from the Scriptures through the formation of the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council. Apart from the content of the work, which is invaluable when trying to figure out what, exactly, are the differences between the Reformed tradition and the Evangelical (Lutheran) tradition, or what the Assumption of Mary actually means (I made that up; that’s not in the book, although the declaration of Papal infallibility from the First Vatican Council is in there), by its sheer mass the book shows us the futility of settling on any single human statement of faith as full and sufficient for expressing the human faith in the God of Jesus Christ. Each and all, from the Scriptures to the present, are little more than snapshots in time of what particular bodies of Christians sought to affirm about the God they encountered in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Which is why I’m so glad I’m a member of a non-creedal tradition. That doesn’t mean we can’t and don’t read creeds, because of course we do. We United Methodists are non-creedal because we recognize there is no single, simple formula that captures the depth of the human experience of the Divine. Our Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Notes On The Old and New Testaments, and John Wesley’s Sermons lie at the heart of our faith because, let’s face it: How is it possible that any creed could express the fullness of our belief?
One of the things I like about our United Methodist system is that just ordinary folks can submit petitions for considerations by various legislative committees. A FB friend of mine, Joel Watts, submitted a petition that would have added the Nicene Creed to our Articles of Religion. Now, on the surface, this seems both uncontroversial and perhaps even beneficial. After all, the statement that emerged from the series of Councils at Nicaea and Constantinople in the 4th-5th centuries are the heart of our Trinitarian faith (albeit a tad weak in pneumatology, but I digress). The first such statement, printed above in its original Greek, was forged in a fight between two bishops over the metaphysical status of the Incarnate Son of God. Unable to win the fight “in the pews” as people might say today – the vast majority of Christians, including the Emperor Constantine’s mother were followers of Arius, who taught that, while certainly central to the faith of the believer, and whose sacrifice was necessary for the salvation of humanity, Jesus Christ was not Divine – Athanasius had the Emperor call a Council, making sure there would be sufficient numbers of Bishops present at the resort city of Nicaea to overwhelm any Arian bishops (and that all of it would take place before Arius could arrive).
I’m not saying this rather overwrought history means I’m not Trinitarian. On the contrary, the Trinity is perhaps the single most important religious and philosophical innovation in the West in 2000 years of church history. It violated everything people thought they knew about Divinity, Humanity, and their relations. It encapsulates the whole of what German scholars used to call Heilsgeschichte. Honestly, I believe took the dirty, underhanded politicking of that Imperial suck-up Athanasius and used it to further our understanding of who God is and how God loves us.
As I said, however, the creed we call The Nicene Creed is actually an amalgam of statements from several council over a couple centuries, demonstrating it is neither as simple or clear as it might seem. The Creed we read is in English, a language not even imagined when those Bishops gathered at the hot springs in Anatolia 1700 years ago. Most importantly, woven throughout the text are notions rooted in a mixture of neo-Platonic and Aristotelean thought that, quite rightly, is largely unintelligible to our contemporary ears. Affirming that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, after a few moments thought, seems rather odd to us. It was of vital importance to those Bishops who first gathered, however. Matters of physics and metaphysics were central to an understanding of the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. To say that the fully human Jesus of Nazareth was also fully divine – of the same substance – was to make a metaphysical claim that was absurd. Even with the floor packed with those who followed him, Athanasius only managed to pull off inserting a single word, homoousious, into their final statement by the skin of his teeth.
To ask of United Methodists to make the Nicene Creed a test of our faithfulness, then, involves much more than reciting some word. It asks of us to adhere to an outmoded philosophical system, a set of ideas on the nature of reality that have no meaning at all except to specialists. It is to make a measure of our faith a statement that existed long before John Wesley; long before Coke and Asbury; long before our Uniting Conference in 1968. Adding the Nicene Creed actually invalidates our Articles of Religion because they are rooted in a very different metaphysics, very different ideas about the nature of being and reality.
Words mean things. The meaning of the words in the Nicene Creed run deeper than matters of theology. Those words hold meanings that no one, really, can affirm say anything about the makeup of the Universe, or human beings, of what it means to exist as a created being as opposed to a Divine being. Adding the Nicene Creed as a test of faith strips it of its substantive meaning precisely because, translated from a long-dead language filled with its own baggage to a modern language unburdened by all that rigomarole about substances and essences and accidents, the real importance of the Nicene Creed is stripped away, leaving a husk of words that serve no purpose other than to make clear who is in and who is out.
Not just substantive meaning, however; inserting the Nicene Creed into our Book of Discipline robs it of its historic importance. In the 1964 Hymnal, on which I grew up, recitation of this creed was prefaced with the words, And now let us join in this historic expression of the Christian faith. That preface summarizes precisely what the Nicene Creed, and all formal creedal statements, are: historic expressions of the Christian faith. Moments captured in time, vitally necessary to the story of our faith yet not at all the end-all and be-all of our Christian confession. Our faith, like our God, is a living thing. We should always be ready and able to confess our faith as the Body of Christ. We should never claim that our confession at any one time is the sole and sufficient rule, containing all that is necessary to understand the lived experience of the Church. By refusing to allow the Nicene Creed to become some kind of test of fiath, we have staked our claim on the future as the hope of our faith. We have allowed the Nicene Creed to live on as it is, rather than killing it and stuffing it and shoving it in a museum called The Book of Discipline where it would sit while people walked by without seeing it. We have kept our faith alive, and kept the Nicene Creed alive in all its historic importance, precisely by rejecting it as some contemporary ruler to smack the hands of recalcitrant Christians.
Thanks be to God.