Sunday, September 6, 2015

How the Nicene Creed came about

The creed we know as Nicene should really be called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed—a mouthful. The two councils that approved the text commonly used today took place at Nicea in 325 and Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 381.

Both councils were pivotal meetings. They involved some of the brighter lights of the day, including emperors Constantine (Nicea) and Theodosius (Constantinople), who funded the travel and housing while also hosting their meals.

The actual records of the meetings no longer exist, but there are several accounts and summaries. The original manuscripts of the decrees and creeds are lost. Later manuscripts of the creeds survive, but the 20 to 24 decrees of Constantinople are all reconstructions from various unofficial accounts.

From those documents, we can surmise that each council was attended by up to 318 bishops from all over the known world (the Roman Empire)—which is why they were called “ecumenical” (worldwide). Each bishop was entitled to bring at public cost two presbyters (priests) and three deacons, yielding total conference attendance of potentially some 1,900 church clerics—1,500 is the most commonly agreed figure for each council, probably a lower number for Nicea.

Nicea occurred in that first bloom of public Christianity, when the faith was first legally tolerated. Constantinople was a state-sponsored event in the first year after the faith had been legally proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. These two circumstances distinguish the environment of the meetings, both from the early apostolic and patristic Church and from each other.

Why Creeds?

Constantine was happy to oblige bishops who felt a need to steer the federation of local Christian communities toward some uniformity in essentials, and to defend the content of received faith from newfangled ideas.

In contrast, Theodosius—a Spanish general elevated to the emperor’s chair and the last emperor to preside over both the western and eastern halves of the rapidly dividing Roman Empire—was himself a declared Nicene Christian who saw heresies and regional styles of worship as divisive; he was personally invested in seeing the creed of Nicea amended to make sure its particular flavor of orthodoxy stuck.

Here is where I must reiterate that the bishops and saints who, throughout history, authored all-encompassing statements of faith known as creeds were not attempting to introduce new ideas. Rather, they were seeking to preserve what they believed was the received teachings of faith from the apostles.

In Constantinople more than Nicea, the bishops made certain that whichever text adopted was of such precision that it excluded heresies—this is what is meant when Christian doctrine is said to have developed through the via negativa, not by adding but by negating.

Difficulties of “God Talk”

Of course, developing a statement about matters that are not merely nonempirical—Christians agree that no one has seen God the Father but the Son (John 1:18 and 6:46)—but about which God has not telephoned or faxed humans the precise details is, to say the least, difficult.

Take the trinity. At some point between the time the woodworker Jesus talked to his close fishermen friends about these things and the day, probably 20 years after Jesus’ execution, on which the last verses of the gospel of Matthew were written, there had arisen the idea that Jesus’ followers would baptize “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). Matthew did not explain what this meant, which tells us that he, and/or his scribe, felt that his readers already knew.

Those followers of about the year 50, probably in the city of Antioch, were at best tradespeople, not Greek philosophers; surely they had not considered nor much cared whether the Father and the Son were of the same “substance” or “essence,” nor how precisely the paternity and filial relationship had come about. Jesus said it, the apostles taught it; it must be true. Period. The End.

It’s only when Christianity hits the big time and begins to attract educated people from the academies, which were like universities, that the church fathers of a generation or two later begin to discuss God in terms that might make even the long-dead Aristotle cross-eyed. They were the first to write theology.

From such speculations, mixed with the mythological and philosophical bazaar of the Greco-Roman world, emerge the heresies: Jesus was not really God, or he was God but just pretending to be human, or the Father and the Son were of a similar essence not of the same substance, on and on and on.

Back to Earth

I would venture to say, who cares? Can’t we all wait until the afterlife to find out? Well, some people couldn’t and fought about it and wrote tirades against each other over this and many other details. In the end, it was a mess that someone had to straighten out. Or so thought the bishops and Theodosius.

Actually, there were other people who thought the same. Some had composed what is known as the Apostle’s Creed, an older statement of faith of actually unknown origin. The AC was probably not authored by the apostles themselves, but composed in the spirit of what they would have said. It is reliably known to have been in circulation among Christians before Nicea.

A final caution before we take up the creed in detail. Although in most of the major Christian traditions it is recited as part of the Eucharist service, the creed was not specifically devised to be used in this way. We shall deal with that later.

In the next few posts, I will begin to go through the Nicene Creed and what it says.


Candace Saint said...

Thanks for the explanation. After 12 years of Sunday School, I never knew.

Candace Saint said...

Thanks for the explanation. After 12 years of Sunday School, I never knew.