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LOVING THE QUESTIONS
An Exploration of the Nicene Creed
By Marianne H. Micks
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 Marianne H. Micks
All rights reserved.
ASKING THE QUESTIONS
We believe ...
Every Sunday thousands of Christians rise to their feet in churches around the world to say or sing that simple phrase. In the original Greek it is one word (pisteuõmen), as it was also for centuries in the West when Latin was the language of the liturgy. What kind of declaration is this? What did the three paragraphs this phrase introduces mean when they were written, and what do they mean today?
The Nicene Creed is a statement of Christian faith adopted by what is called the first great ecumenical council in 325 and expanded at a later conference in Constantinople in 38L Gradually it found its way into the eucharistic liturgy, first in the East and later in the West. By 1014 the creed was a regular part of the Roman Mass on Sundays and festivals. Now it is recited by the congregation directly after the sermon, which follows the reading of the gospel for the day.
The words "we believe" that introduce the Nicene Creed are of immense importance. We are making a statement about the nature of the faith of the Christian church; it is more of a community statement than a personal statement. We are describing in summary form the One in whom Christians put their trust. In the process we are using a language hallowed by some seventeen hundred years of use—hallowed and also handicapped by that history.
Because it was framed in another age, using the categories of thought that are no longer ours, the Nicene Creed seems out of date to many of us now. It raises a number of questions for today's believer. Unlike the Apostles' Creed, which was written in the first-person singular and used at baptisms, the Nicene Creed was originally intended to rule out certain heretical ways of thinking, especially about the person of Jesus Christ. Although it is seldom used today as a test for orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed is still accepted as a normative statement of what the Christian church believes. In the Chicago–Lambeth Quadrilateral, which sets forth the fundamental bases for Christian unity, the Nicene Creed is called "the sufficient statement of Christian faith."
Many modern Christians have, I think, one of three chief reactions to reciting the creed. Some resign themselves to meaningless, indeed "vain" repetition. We don't know what it means, but it is given in the inherited form of worship, so we will assume it serves some ritualistic purpose, perhaps that of a powerful mantra or incantation. Alternatively, others privately decide to recite just as much of it as they can without sacrificing intellectual integrity: sure, I believe in one God, but I don't like the sexist metaphor Father. Or, I am willing to say I believe Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, if you mean by that only that she was a young girl, not biologically a virgin. All of us would want to make private provisos of this sort from time to time if we were in fact stating our individual belief.
The third reaction is equally widespread, and it involves looking for a denomination that doesn't use ancient creeds in worship. Many of these churches have produced statements of faith in modern English that are appealing to modern sensibilities. One such recent credo, for example, adds a healthy concern for social justice to its expression of common faith and emphasizes the ministry of the man Jesus and the quality of his life, which is totally ignored by the inherited text. Of Jesus it says, "We trust in Jesus Christ, God with us in human flesh, who proclaimed the reign of God: he preached good news to the poor and release to the captives; he healed the sick and ate with outcasts; he forgave sinners and called all people to repent and believe." When speaking of trust in God the Holy Spirit, it says, "In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us power to witness to Christ as Lord and Savior, to work for justice, freedom and peace, to smash the idols of church and culture, and to claim all life for Christ." This new emphasis makes great sense.
All three of these personal reactions, however, ignore the fact that the Nicene Creed is a statement rooted in history, binding generation to generation at all times and in all places. Better, it is a synopsis of the Christian story, a recitation of the mighty acts of God as Christians understand them. Granted that it was forged in controversy, the creed's primary purpose today is not to root out the heretics from our midst. It is to celebrate the fact that God has raised up for us a mighty salvation. We have cause to rejoice.
Are we meant to shelve all our doubts and uncertainties as we recite the ancient words, then? By no means. Worshiping God does not mean turning off our minds. Quite the contrary. Within the context of faith all sorts of questions arise, and they should. A faith unventilated by doubt is as stuffy as a closed room. Doubt, as Geddes MacGregor argued in his book Christian Doubt, is an implicate of faith. As someone else once wisely said, "I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education."
The late Bernard Lonergan, a well-known Roman Catholic theologian, implied much the same thing when he wrote, "When an animal has nothing to do, it goes to sleep. When [a human being] has nothing to do, [he or she] may ask questions.... The first moment is an awakening to one's intelligence. It is release from the dominance of biological drive and from the routine of everyday living. It is the effective emergence of wonder, of the desire to understand."
Theologians as different as Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, and Charles Schulz of "Peanuts" fame have long celebrated the necessity of asking questions in the search for truth. In contrast to Tertullian, another North African theologian, who said that he believed Christianity because it was absurd (that is, simply did not accord with everyday common sense), Augustine as well as Anselm embraced the idea of faith seeking understanding. Augustine said he believed in order to understand. He started his justly famous Confessions with a whole string of questions to and about God. In the very second paragraph, for example, Augustine addresses six questions directly to God:
But how can I call unto my God, my God and Lord? For in calling unto Him, I am calling Him to me: and what room is there in me for my God, the God who made heaven and earth? Is there anything in me, O God, that can contain You? ... And if You are already in me, since otherwise I should not be, why do I cry to You to enter into me? ... Where do I call You to come to, since I am in You? Or where else are You that You can come to me?
Charles Schulz once pictured Peppermint Patti making a report to her class in school. In four successive frames of the comic strip Patti says, "My topic today is the purpose of theology. When discussing theology we must always keep our purpose in mind. Our purpose as students is understandably selfish. There is nothing better than being in a class where no one knows the answer."
Patti is right. Parroting the correct answer is not what being a thinking Christian is about. It is about asking questions, polishing the questions, honing them until they are a sharp expression of what you wonder about. It is about loving the questions. That is the advice the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once gave a young poet. "I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves."
Have you ever noticed how many questions Jesus asks in the gospels? Questioning appears to be a favorite mode of teaching for him, a way to start people thinking. The hymnodist William Chatterton Dix is one hundred percent wrong in the second verse of his familiar "Alleluia, sing to Jesus," which says, "Alleluia, he is near us, faith believes, nor questions how."
To imagine how important theological controversy was in the fourth century, at the time the Nicene Creed was being written, we need to watch television coverage of a pro-choice or pro-life rally, perhaps, or a protest over the issue of police brutality. As far as we know, the creed did not lead to rioting in the street, but feelings were equally intense over questions like "Was the incarnate Word of God fully God or some lesser being?" Men made up songs on the subject of the Incarnation and sang them to bawdy tunes in the barber shops. Women chatted about theology in their boudoirs, according to one ancient male theologian. The general unrest caused the emperor Constantine to call a conference of bishops in 325. He had a political crisis on his hands; the peace of the empire was threatened by dissension in the church.
The conference was held at the site of the emperor's summer palace, the Camp David of its day. The invitation to the conference has survived. He decided on Nicaea, Constantine said, "both because the bishops from Italy and the rest of the countries of Europe are coming, and because of the excellent temperature of the air, and in order that I may be present as a spectator and participator in those things which will be done." The Bishop of Rome was not himself present, but he sent two representatives, and it is believed that two bishops came from as far away as Britain.
An eyewitness account of the proceedings has also come down to us from Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. It is in the form of a letter written to his diocese defending his own actions at the synod, and contains our earliest extant text of the Nicene Creed. It is a statement of faith designed to rule out the position of Arius, a North African priest and theologian who claimed that the Word of God was not fully God, coeternal with the Father. Arius was worried that the unity of God was somehow in danger if God's Word, or Logos, was with God from the beginning, as John's gospel claims. His opponents thought that only someone fully God had the power to save humanity. Eusebius tried to convince his flock that the creed already in use in their own diocese was the basis of the new ecumenical statement of faith, although modern historians question this claim.
In any case, Eusebius makes it clear that he was not enthusiastic about the use of the crucial term about the Word of God, homoousios, which we now translate "one in Being" with the Father. What this means we will look at again when we discuss the question "Who is the Christ?" For the present, we should note that according to Eusebius, the emperor himself took an active part in the discussion of theological fine points (he was probably under the guidance of his theological adviser, Hosius, a Spanish bishop), and that the emperor did endorse the inclusion of the decisive term, even though it was a word not found in the Bible. Most of the bishops did not think that a Christian needed to believe anything not said in the Holy Scriptures.
Dorothy L. Sayers has written a delightful play about the council called The Emperor Constantine. She presents a very convincing reconstruction of the ecclesiastical politics that fueled the conflict, which really began in Alexandria in Egypt with a quarrel between Bishop Alexander of that city and Arius, who was one of his presbyters. Sayers's portrayal of the council leaves one wondering if the bishop might have been jealous of Arius's popularity as a preacher. Other interpreters see the conflict rooted in different theological teaching in the University of Antioch and the University of Alexandria, similar to the different theological emphases of universities and seminaries today.
Whatever the causes of the Arian controversy, it was by no means ended by the Council of Nicaea. A schism developed in the church immediately after the council ended, and Arian Christians feuded with Catholic Christians until the end of the fifth century. At one time much of Europe was in Arian hands.
We should note that the Creed of Nicaea originally ended abruptly with the words, "and in the Holy Spirit." The third paragraph of the creed was expanded by the Council of Constantinople in 381 in order to say more about the Holy Spirit. Properly speaking, therefore, the creed should be called the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed, although it is virtually impossible to wrap one's tongue around that title.
Appended to the original document is a long list of opinions about the Son of God which, in the language of the time, "the catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes." Included were the opinions about Christ, the Word of God, attributed to Arius—statements such as "There was when he was not" or that he is "of another substance or essence" than God, or that he was created, changeable, and alterable. Clearly this creed was not written as a hymn of praise to the Triune God, but as a way to define orthodox faith and to exclude heretics. Over the centuries, however, the recitation of the creed became a regular part of the eucharistic liturgy.
Gradually, therefore, the creed came to serve a doxological as well as a "recapitulatory" function in worship. It was primarily a way of praising God and of reinforcing the faith. In one rite it is introduced with the bidding "Let us say with our lips the faith we believe in our heart." A contemporary writer expresses the same idea when he likens recitation of the creed to re-pounding the nails that work loose in the clapboards of his New Hampshire home. (My own Vermont house knows the same phenomenon in response to extremes of temperature.) "One of the great joys of repeating the Christian creed is that it gives us an opportunity to reaffirm the central truths of God's revelation," Gordon MacDonald writes. "As we say, 'I believe' ... we begin to hammer back the nails of our convictions and commitments."
Unfortunately the creed that was intended by the first great ecumenical council to bring peace to the church has succeeded in having some very divisive effects. Quite apart from the prolonged Arian controversy that created a centuries-long schism in the church, the language of the creed led to a further rift caused by the unilateral action of the western church in adding one word, filioque, to the third paragraph. This Latin word, asserting that God the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, was probably added by the Council of Toledo in 589. The reason for the addition is obscure. It came gradually to be included more widely in churches of the West, as liturgical manuscripts were copied, but it was never accepted in the Eastern Orthodox churches. During Charlemagne's reign the filioque became a source of intense controversy between the Franks and the Byzantines, and it has remained a stumbling block to Christian unity ever since. Many presentday ecumenists think it should be removed from the creed on historical grounds, if for no other reason, and we will explore the theological issues in a later chapter.
Finally, something must be said in this introductory chapter about the language of the creed. The current translation was agreed upon by the International Consultation on English Texts, an international and ecumenical group. Such common texts mean that throughout the English-speaking world Christians who use the Nicene Creed will be saying the same words in their worship, an important contribution toward ecumenical understanding. Apart from this kind of unity in the language, however, we need to be aware of the considerable diversity in the kinds of language used in these three short paragraphs. We have the language of fact and the language of metaphor. To say that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried is clearly a historical fact. There is no ambiguity here. We are affirming an event that can be dated fairly precisely from extrabiblical sources. One word, homoousios or "one in Being," to which we have already referred, is a technical philosophical term in Greek ontology and still intelligible as such to metaphysical thinkers. Most of the rest of the creed is metaphorical.
All theological language is borrowed language, of course. We use words borrowed from everyday human experience to talk about God. We can say what God is not, and we have a whole string of inherited words that attempt just that. Theologians have a technical vocabulary, just as meteorologists or engineers or chemists or specialists do in any branch of human knowledge. As Thomas Aquinas, another great question-raiser of the past, put it, "For what He is not is clearer than what He is. Therefore similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him."
Excerpted from LOVING THE QUESTIONS by Marianne H. Micks. Copyright © 2005 Marianne H. Micks. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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