Sunday, September 27, 2015

God the Holy Ghost

The creed approved at Nicea ended with “and the Holy Ghost.” At Constantinople, the bishops added clarifications that would, seven centuries later, cause many headaches.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

Nicea merely named the Person. Constantinople went into the coexistence and coequality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.

The term Holy Spirit was not new, to Jews or Christians.

The Holy Spirit is implicit in Genesis 1:1, which uses Elohim, a plural, for God. Explicitly, the Holy Spirit appears in Gen. 1:2 (“the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters”) and on numerous occasions when there are references to inspiration, prophecy and wisdom. The Hebrew for “spirit” is ruach, which also means “wind”—hence the idea of divine inspiration, from the Latin inspirare, “to breathe into.”

In the New Testament the Holy Spirit appears some 90 times—but in Greek, the original language of almost all the NT: Pneuma Hagion. Let’s break that down: pneuma means—you guessed—“wind,” “breath” and figuratively “spirit”; hagion means “holy” or “sacred,” which we already know means “set apart.”

In English, we have Holy Ghost, from the Germanic Geist, and Holy Spirit, from the Latin spiritus. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, uses both interchangeably. It was only in the 20th century, when “ghost” came to refer exclusively to the dead, that translators and liturgists began to prefer Holy Spirit. There is no theological distinction; it’s just a matter of usage.

The Creed attempts a summation of the trinity, a teaching that—contrary to appearances—was not invented at either Nicea or Constantinople. The very colorful James Pike, Episcopal bishop of California in the late 1950s and half of the 60s, started prayer and services simply “In the name of God”; he argued that the apostles would not have understood the Niceo-Constantinopolitan trinitarian formula.

Although Pike had an arguable point, the kernel of the trinitarian idea is found in the gospels (particularly Matthew 28:19) and other books of the NT. Jesus, as the Son of God, conceivably spoke out of knowledge we do not possess about the Godhead, using terms that may have seemed mysterious to his puzzled followers, which they simply repeated assuming Jesus knew what he was doing—in any case the disciples did not record an explanation.

Many attempts, including the Nicene Creed in my opinion, have failed to explain the trinity. I will not try; if I am ever in the presence of God, I call dibs on asking what this is all about.

For our historical purposes, we need only note that the formula here attempts to respond to claims that the bishops judged heterodox. Note, for example, as with the Son earlier, there is an explicit reference to the Spirit as creator (“the giver of Life”) to emphasize the Third Person’s eternal coexistence with the other two.

A last point concerns, again, the grammatical gender. In Old Testament Hebrew and Jesus’ Aramaic, the word for “spirit” is feminine; in Greek it is neuter; in Latin and derivations, it is masculine. Thus, in theory and historically, the Holy Spirit has often been associated with holy wisdom, which is feminine, but also with the paternity of God as “life giver,” which is masculine.

Importantly also, the teaching of the trinity does not propose three gods, but three divine Persons in a triune God. (Don’t ask.) However, some rabbis of Jesus’ and Nicea’s time argued that Christians abandoned monotheism and, to this day, this remains at the heart of why Judaism regards Christianity as apostasy.

Most Christians experience God as a parent; as someone who understands us, adoptive children, much the way a sibling might; and, finally, as one who lifts us up to consider things far beyond our daily tribulations and worries.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

At last, here is an action of the Holy Spirit, or God’s spirit of wisdom, as an inspirer of prophetic voices in the history of faith. Consider the “small still voice” heard in 1 Kings 19:11-13:
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

What, indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

God the Son

Now we tackle the Nicene Creed on Jesus Christ.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
In Acts 2:36, Peter offers the basis for the original earliest Christian statement of faith: Jesus is Lord. This meant Jesus is in charge. The much revered verse at John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son ...”) offers one of many possible scriptural bases, for these lines. Importantly also, as we have noted before, Jesus is given the title Christ, from Kristos, the Greek word for Messiah or savior.

Then the Creed turns to belief in the divinity of Jesus, which is distinct and central to Christianity. In the pagan Roman world, Emperor Augustus had been regarded as an adoptive son of God (divus filius) and part of the demand Romans made of Christians when captured was that they worship Caesar, the emperor, as divine—which is why they refused to do so. In the creed, the Church wanted to make clear that Jesus’ divine sonship was not adoptive, but actual and unique.
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
These lines attempt to answer several heresies. Taken together they affirm that Jesus is God in every possible way.

Arius (250–336), a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, originated the idea that Christ, Son of God, did not always exist, but was created by and was distinct from God the Father. Arianism anticipated Nestorianism’s separation of Christ’s human and divine natures and Docetism’s later claim that Jesus was only divine and, as we might say, just pretending to be human.

The Christian belief is that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ or Messiah, is the living Son of God who spent roughly three decades among us as completely human.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
These lines amplify the message. The introduction to the gospel of John (1:1-18) provides a poetic account of the pre-existence of Christ (“In the beginning was the Word ...”) and his coming to live among us.

The gospel of Luke is the most explicit in describing the announcement of the incarnation (or “enfleshment,” if you will) of Jesus in his mother Myriam (Mary), a young unmarried woman (Luke 1:26-38). Mary tells the angel who brings this announcement that she is a virgin (“How will this be, since I do not know a man?”).

Luke’s and the Creed’s point in laying out the virginity of Mary was to respond to a variety of rabbinical and pagan polemics that called the mother of Jesus either a “whore” or a “loose woman”—certainly one loose enough not to know the father of her child. According to Origen of Alexandria, the Greek philosopher Celsus had argued that Jesus was conceived by a Roman soldier, a story scholars have unanimously rejected it as a fanciful invention.

Here again, the Church is crossing out false claims.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
The crucifixion is the one fact about the life of Jesus that is most widely accepted by believers and nonbelievers alike. It is also part of all four canonical gospel stories. The Church is nailing belief to history.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The resurrection and ascension, with which we dealt in the beginning of the post The Way Christians Were, is the notable set of developments that made Jesus famous. Absent these, he would have been just one of many young men in robes who preached this or that in the religious bazaar that was 1st century Palestine. The Christian faith requires assent to the claim that he rose and is with God the Father.

This is the core “good news” that ran like wild fire across the Roman Empire. An ordinary woodworker had been executed (no surprise). Then, on the third day he rose from the dead. It was the ultimate up-ending of the human order.

A humble one was vilified and executed, but in the end he defied his executors. As in the speech of Peter in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts: this man you dismissed turned out to be the Lord of all. Entire subjugated populations laboring under the Mafia-like protection system of Roman taxes suddenly saw a Power above Rome.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
The return of Jesus Christ is referred to repeatedly in the gospels and in a full literary technicolor of sorts in the book of Revelation. It was the hope that kept the Christians going in the dark era of persecution; of course, it also involved a Final Judgment.

In his own version of that judgment, Jesus said he would reward those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger gave clothes to those who lacked them, cared for the sick and visited prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46).

Sunday, September 13, 2015

God the Father

Now we turn to the Nicene Creed as adopted at Nicea and amended at Constantinople, widely held today to be the bare essentials of the Christian faith. In the next posts we shall explore the creed’s text, meaning and echoes from the Bible.
We believe
The original is plural, a statement of all the Church: all of us believe this. The Latin credo (I believe) was used later, in worship and usually referring to an earlier creed of uncertain origin known as the “Apostles’ Creed.”
in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
Monotheism is the cornerstone of Judaism. The Bible does not attempt to debate the existence of God nor is there an argument that there is only one God; instead, the recurring statement is that only the God of Abraham and Moses should be worshiped.

Jesus reaffirms Judaic monotheism when he recites the famous Hebrew prayer, the Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” (Mark 12:29), which echoes Deuteronomy 6:4.

The assignment of fatherhood to God also has Judaic origins (Isaiah 63:16, for example), but was used many times by Jesus (John 14:9-11).

The scholar Rudolf Bultmann, the father of biblical form criticism, is reputed to have declared that the only word we can safely say came directly from the mouth of Jesus is Abba (Aramaic for “father”), which is the opening of the prayer he taught his closest followers. The comment is often regarded as a humorous scholarly extreme, but it emphasizes the broad consensus concerning how Jesus addressed God.

The meaning is that God is the ultimate source, or father, to all of us. There may be an intimacy implied, such as that explored by Jewish theologian Martin Buber and addressed in his work I and Thou, but it is a “mature” relationship (see my post According to Linguists “Abba” is not “Daddy”).

To be clearer still, “father” does not assign a sex to God; the masculine gender, when used, is merely grammatical. The original proper name for the God of Abraham, YWHW (often rendered as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” to fill ancient Hebrew’s lack of written vowels) means “the existent One.” The bishops at Nicea and Constantinople, who were philosophically sophisticated, were not about to add a mandated sex or gender, other than as required by ordinary language usage. The fatherhood of God is a sexless paternity; it could be a maternity—indeed, in the most precise logic, it would be both.

Then comes the assertion that God is creator—there is ample evidence in Christian usage that the “maker” of the Nicene Creed is meant to be identical to the “creator” of the Apostles’ Creed—of the material world (Genesis 1:1) but also of the immaterial (Colossians 1:15-16). This responds to a variety of Gnostic and related claims concerning the separateness and independence of matter and spirit, sometimes to the point that God, a spirit, does not control matter.

The creed places God before and above all that exists, material or spiritual.

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.