On Sunday we will be celebrating Pentecost, the feast commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit, sent to all the faithful to make possible a whole new way of being in the world. Today, I’m going to start a new series about the Creed, that ancient, much argued over, sometimes derided, often forgotten, statement of faith that has, for better or worse, defined the boundaries of Christian belief for over 1600 years. You may very well be thinking this pairing of the mighty power of God falling upon the faithful with words on a page argued over by ancient bishops, sounds like mixing Heaven and Earth (if not Hell). But, the two are actually strongly connected. For it was questions over the identity of Jesus that spurred the Creed’s writing, and questions over the nature of the Holy Spirit that led to its final form. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the Nicene Creed, composed at the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE and amended per the First Council of Constantinople of 381 CE. I’ll go through some of its history, and certainly its theology, but I’d like the focus to be primarily on the spirituality of the Creed, because I think this aspect has been sorely neglected in recent centuries. It’s been seen as something to be argued over and defended, rather than as something to be lived. And, for me at least, this seems like missing the point.
But before we get into all of that, first, let’s get the basic history out of the way. The official Christianization of the Roman Empire — which was, sadly and with impacts lasting in some parts of the Church to this day, equally the Imperialization of Christianity — was a gradual process that occurred throughout the fourth century. It started in 311 with the legalization of Christianity and was complete by around 380, when Christianity became the official state religion. It’s easy from our vantage point today and see all the bad fruit this relationship between Church and State bore. But, as always, things are more complicated than the easy narratives suggest. It was neither the triumph of Christianity nor its captivity, but something a lot more nuanced and, well, messy. The story of the great council of 325 is a great example of this nuance. The fourth century was a time of great and often violent division within Christianity, known as the Arian Controversy, which centered around the question of Christ’s divinity. Wanting to lend imperial support to a resolution of this struggle — likely motivated more by concerns of law and order than orthodoxy — the Emperor convened a council of Christian bishops to hash things out. But it would be wrong to think that the Emperor’s whims decided the outcome of the council; in fact, Constantine, it would seem, was partial to the Arian side of the debate, which ended up losing the day to the theology of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. This pattern would recur throughout history; far more often than not, whenever an Emperor would try to insert himself into a religious debate, his side would lose. At any rate, as so often happens, the decisions of the Council of Nicea only served to stoke the controversy. The question kept bouncing around with different sides seeming to come out on top at various other councils along the way. When the status of the Holy Spirit was called into question later in the fourth century, the council now known as First Constantinople reaffirmed the Nicene teaching about Jesus and added the wording we know today about the Holy Spirit, based on the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers, and particularly St. Basil of Caesarea. There would be further controversies and other statements of faith would be produced throughout the centuries, but the wording of the Creed that followed the findings of the 381 council has remained (more or less — more on that later in the series!) intact as the primary statement of what it is Christians believe. It has been used as a baptismal formula, as the basis for catechism, and in weekly worship. And, over the past two centuries, has formed a basis for dialogue and discussions among different Christian groups.
What this very broad-strokes history hides is the fact that the theological issues around which the Creed was formulated were not being debated primarily out of concerns about political or ecclesiastical (i.e., churchy) power or philosophical correctness. They were felt to be important spiritually. The Church Fathers and their theological adversaries were convinced that it was not just a matter of idle speculation whether Jesus was homoousios, ‘of the same being’ or homoiousios ‘of a similar being’ to the Father; they considered this to have tremendous implications for our salvation and the life we are to live in light of it. And it’s this aspect of the Creed — as a witness of Christians spirituality — that I’d like to highlight throughout this series, alongside the core theological content.
I hope and trust this has piqued your interest enough for you to join me on this journey.
2 thoughts on “We Believe… : The Spirituality of the Nicene Creed”
It still weirds me out that thousands of purported Christians don’t care about the Creed because it “isn’t in the Bible”. It’s as weird to me as I’m sure cradle-atheists think being a Christian is altogether.
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