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Ancient Paths: The Nicene Creed

Ancient Paths: The Nicene Creed

Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, which most believe emerged organically in the life of the early church over several decades, the Nicene Creed was the product of a very specific action item, at a very extraordinary conference. You see, early in the 4th century AD, the church has significant internal conflict. (Can you imagine that? The early church … in conflict? I thought that was just for us contemporary, divisive people!)

 

The Conflict

See the source imageSpecifically, there was debate about the person of Jesus. The Apostle’s Creed had made statements about the historical person of Jesus: His conception, passion, crucifixion, ascension and return. It told us what He did, but didn’t tell us Who He was. A debate raged over whether Jesus was, in fact, God in the flesh. One group, whose chief spokesman was a winsome, brilliant pastor from Egypt named Arius, believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, and therefore less than God (called Arians, and Arianism). On the other side were those who believed that Jesus was wholly God – as God as the Father is God.

Each side turned to the Bible for their proofs. Both had articulate spokesmen. Heels were dug in deeply. You might ask, “why don’t they just let each other believe what they want?” But it’s not that easy. They certainly couldn’t worship together, because they couldn’t ascribe to Jesus the same things. Beyond that, if Jesus is less than God, it’s blasphemy to call Him fully God. But, if Jesus is fully God, it’s blasphemy to say He’s not! Both sides saw the other as not only a different opinion, but a heresy.

The Political Solution

Meanwhile, Constantine had become the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and had chosen to see Christianity tolerated in His realm. He saw the value in the people being united by a shared faith – but quickly learned that the Christians were not united among themselves. He decided to get the Arianism issue resolved. So it was Constantine who called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, only eight months after becoming the sole Roman Emperor (this was obviously a high priority item in his administration!). It’s a shame the church couldn’t get it together on its own, but we can still be glad that the government forced the church to make important conclusions about what it believes.

The Conclusions of the Council: The Nicene Creed

Many issues were discussed at Nicaea, but nothing as important as the person of Jesus. The conclusions hammered out at the Council are contained in what we now call the Nicene Creed. It is a thicker, meatier version of the Apostles’ Creed, which they seem to have used as their foundation for their new statements. Here are the key items they layered upon the Apostles’ Creed that have become what we today call “orthodoxy” (right belief):

  • Jesus is begotten of the Father, but “eternally begotten” – in other words, there was never a time when Jesus was not. He is eternal. Like God (because He is God).
  • This begetting does not make Jesus less than the Father. Rather, Jesus is God (from God), true God (from true God), very God (from very God). God!
  • The Father and Jesus constitute a single “being”, a single “substance”. Jesus is as God as the Father is God.
  • Both the Father and Jesus were behind the creation of all things. Again, this was to affirm that Jesus was in no way less than God.
  • The Holy Spirit is also God: “Lord”, “giver of life”, and to be worshiped and glorified (which only God should receive).

Does this really matter?

See the source imageYES!!!!! As the early church father Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) famously said in the days after the formulation of the Nicene Creed, “What is not assumed, is not redeemed.” In short, Jesus had to be God, because only God can redeem man. And Jesus had to be man in order to be the “first-born from the dead” (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:4). Creator had to become creation to save creation, but had to remain God to remain the perfect sacrifice. As soon as you say Jesus is less than God, his sacrifice for our sin isn’t enough. As soon as you say Jesus is less than man, then He no longer represents us … He is no longer the “second Adam” (Rom. 5:12-19, 1 Cor. 15:45), but is some sort of hybrid human. Jesus saves what He becomes while remaining Who He is. Otherwise, all is lost.

(By the way, modern day Arianism is propagated and practiced by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientology, and some Pentecostal groups. Most liberal mainline denominations, including United Methodists, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Episcopalians, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Lutherans don’t believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, sinlessness, miracles, resurrection and ascension … so Jesus’ “divinity” may be considered, but it has nothing to do with redemption.)

So, despite the good, hard work done in Nicaea 1,693 years ago, the battle over the truth of Who Jesus was and is rages on. In our Lutheran tradition, on every Communion Sunday, we proclaim the Nicene Creed, anchoring our souls to this indispensable, pivotal, redeeming truth. God became man – my only hope of being reconciled to God!

A few words about the Athanasian Creed, coming soon.

– EO

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Ancient Paths: Apostles’ Creed

Just a few thoughts today about the content of the Ancient Path that is the Apostles’ Creed. What are the indispensable truths that all true Christians believe?

Let’s try this: Let’s look at the creed as a set of replies to a some of the beliefs held by many in our world today…

Apostles' CreedThere is no God. No, there is one. And only one.

“God” is just a universal force. No, He is personal.

God is not ultimately powerful. No, He is almighty.

There may be a God, but our world is the product of a cosmic accident. No, God made everything.

Jesus was just a good man. No, He is divine.

Jesus is one of many really good, spiritual men. No, He is qualitatively different … the only Son of God.

Jesus is just a good example for us. No, He intends and expects to be our ruler and master.

Jesus was born like any other man. No, He was conceived miraculously, as is befitting, even necessary, for an incarnation of God on the planet.

Jesus didn’t really exist in history. No, He did – in a real family, in a real place, in real political life.

Jesus’ “death on the cross” was a sham. No, He was really crucified, really died, and was really buried.

Since Jesus lived at a certain time in history, he is irrelevant to those who lived before his time. No, the truth of His life and message has been made known to all who have died in the past.

Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Oh, but He did.

Jesus is dead and gone, and his remains are somewhere here on earth. No, He went to heaven directly after being resurrected.

Jesus led a nice life, but can’t be active in our lives now. No, He remains alive, in the presence of God His Father, hears our prayers, and acts on our behalf.

Jesus’ time in history is over.  No, He is involved now, and has promised to return.

Because of Jesus, everyone goes to heaven. No, Jesus is going to come and judge us, and not all will be found innocent.

When we die, we just vanish into nothing. No, both the believing and the unbelieving dead are going to be raised, and judged. Life is everlasting, with or without God.

The presence of God cannot be found or experienced on earth. No, God Himself, the Holy Spirit, is living and active through His people, the church.

I believe in God, but don’t think the church is important. No, the church is God’s idea, Jesus is it’s head, and every believer is a part of it.

Christianity is just for westerners – leave other cultures alone! No, Christianity is “catholic”,* meaning it’s for everybody in history, in every place, for every nation, and for every ethnicity.

Christians aren’t any different than anybody else. No, we have been “sanctified”, made holy, made “saints” – both those who have died as Christians, and those who live as Christians.

I don’t believe I’m a sinner. No, you are. All are. All need to be forgiven by God for our violations of His laws. And that forgiveness is made available by God, through Christ, by the Spirit, as proclaimed by the church.

That is a lot of truth in a concise creed! It truly is good news. So good to believe, so good to know, so good to use.

– EO

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod substitutes the word “Christian” for “catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed. Since the Roman Catholic Church uses the term “catholic” in its branding, using it in the creed led to confusion, and ultimately to the change. But, the word “Christian” simply isn’t the same as “catholic”. Some have encouraged the word “universal” as a synonym, but this limits the idea to geography. This Lutheran would be pleased to see our denomination reclaim the word “catholic” for our usage, because there’s nothing wrong with it, and there is no word like it – it’s the right word that our ancient forefathers selected and codified.

 

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Ancient Paths: The Creeds

I became a Christian in a church that didn’t make use of ancient creeds, and then I didn’t recite a creed in worship for the first 25 years of my faith. I was led to understand that the Bible, not creeds, is what we should know and recite (though we didn’t really do either). The old creeds, I was told, are like everything else from the historical tradition of Christianity: extra-Biblical formalism that breeds hypocrisy, mindlessness and boring worship programming.

apostles-creed-session-two-i-believe-in-4-728(Meanwhile, I was encouraged to write acrostic missions statements, paste them on banners, etch them into glass windows, and have my congregations commit them to memory. This wasn’t extra-Biblical, hypocritical or mindless … this was cutting edge church leadership! But I digress…)

I have “graduated” to a wholehearted embrace of creedal Christianity. Specifically, my adopted faith tradition embraces three ancient creeds: The Apostles’ Creed (c. 180 AD), the Nicene Creed (325 AD), and the Athanasian Creed (c. 440 AD). Today, a few words about the Apostles’ Creed, which is truly an “ancient path” that has been traveled by millions of believers over two millennia.

I think of the Apostles’ Creed as the swiss-army-knife of the church: A concise creed with multiple uses!

  1. Personal Faith: Like it did from its organic inception during the first two centuries AD, it provides a means by which we determine who is and isn’t a Christian. It’s a great litmus test for every individual to see if her beliefs line up with classical Christianity.
  2. Teaching: It also provides an ideal outline for discipleship. Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, says of the Creed, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” Both at church and in the home, it functions as our syllabus for ongoing instruction.
  3. Evangelism: It is a great tool for proclaiming the gospel. It answers the question, “what must I believe to be saved?” Christians who have the points of the Apostles’ Creed memorized have at their disposal all of the necessary talking points for sharing the central tenets of the our faith.
  4. Worship: The Creed provides for a beautiful act of worship when read corporately. As the Psalmist says, “One generation will declare your works to the next and will proclaim your mighty acts” (Ps. 145:4). When we together in an intergenerational gathering of worship proclaim the Apostles’ Creed – creation, incarnation, sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection, ascension, judgment and heaven – our faith is refined, we transmit our beliefs to everyone in the service (believers or not), and are encouraged by the shared testimony of others.
  5. Contextualization: The Creed is brilliant for use in places where the church isn’t so literate. We can take for granted in our well-educated Western society that truth is “most true” when it’s in writing. But many through history, including many today, must understand their faith in manageable, memorable ways.

Again, I grew up without the Apostles’ Creed. So, my litmus test for belief changed with each new church community I attended (most of which felt compelled to write their own doctrinal statements). My discipleship and evangelism training regularly shifted to whatever the latest popular Christian book had to say. Most of my fellow believers in churches have felt hopelessly ill-equipped to evangelize their family and neighbors, much less their friends, and keep trying to come up with an effective resource and training program for outreach. And, because of a wholesale rejection of classical, formal worship elements (including creeds), my faith was enslaved to the always-shifting spontaneous utterings of my pastors.

Life is better with creeds. A bit on the content of the Apostles’ Creed tomorrow.

– EO

(Some good historical information about the Ecumenical Creeds can be found here.)

 

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“Ask For the Ancient Paths”

“Ask For the Ancient Paths”

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand by the roadways and look. Ask about the ancient paths, “Which is the way to what is good?” Then take it and find rest for yourselves.‘” (Jeremiah 6:16).

My own personal journey has led me down ancient paths. Over 30 years ago, I was gripped by a love and desire for the experience of the ancient, early church. I have always wanted to be a part of a contemporary Christian tradition that has beaten a consistent path from the first century to the present … and would most fully connect me to the early church, both in word and practice. The journey has led me to the classical Christianity ensconced in Lutheranism (particularly in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod). I have chosen to take this path … and have found rest for myself. I recommend it without reservation.

This week our church* is beginning a 9-week preaching series called Ask For the Ancient Paths. It is a study of the six chief parts of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism: the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Confession/Absolution. This series provides an ideal time for me to share some of my journey as it relates to the foundational teachings of classical Christianity as put forth in the Lutheran Catechism.

Feel free to engage with your questions, comments and critiques. “One who listens to life-giving rebukes will be at home among the wise. Anyone who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever listens to correction acquires good sense” (Prov. 15:31-32). Good sense, wise company, life! My journey continues. I hope yours will, too.

So, grab your hat, your sun-screen, your walking stick … let’s explore this ancient path together.

– EO

* Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (LCMS), Gilbert, AZ

 

 

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The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

I was reminded today that … well, the fastest growing churches in our land are producing guilt-ridden workaholics rather than a community of men and women who believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of [their] faith, the salvation of [their] souls!” (1 Pet. 1:9). Rather than the celebration of peace with God, I fear we promote a spiritual anxiety in people who feel like, if they are following God the way they should, their lives should be fixed by now. 

LCoachI was reminded of this tension as I read this Facebook post today. It’s from an old friend, talking about his church’s upcoming weekend services. Needless to say, the names are fictitious:

Tomorrow is going to be an epic day at our Midtown Campus! John Doe, Jim Doe and Josh Doe combining on a message about Lazarus. Jessie Doe narrating. Jen Doe communicating. Jeremy Doe leading music. Our bulletins to take notes on… they are toe tags that read: Deceased: Lazarus. Physician: Jesus. Funeral Director: Martha. Case #: John 11. We’ll be looking at overcoming obstacles, trusting for miracles, and removing entanglements. I’m so excited for how God is going to use this in my life and in the lives of others.

It sounds like quite a production. There was a day when I would have been proud to be a part of such an “epic day”.

Now, there are a few things about this enterprise that make me squirm a bit, but aren’t that big a deal. All of the terminology is strikingly not-church (campus, communicating, leading music, bulletins). Jesus being termed as “physician” (only?). Playing into our culture’s CSI-enflamed media passion for crime dramas. It’s obvious that this service has been designed with seekers in mind … so the gathering seems produced to capture the fancy of non-Christians, more than to engage its own membership in the Biblically-prescribed worship of God through Christ.

LAZWhat I find most disheartening, though, is the hermeneutic of the “message”. The story of Lazarus is a narrative story that speaks of the grandness and glory of God, the power of resurrection, and the beauty-for-ashes reality of salvation! It’s about how great God is, and how we should praise Him, be assured by Him, and believe in Him. That’s why “these things were written” (John 20:31).

But, in true contemporary Evangelical fashion (and I say this with great warmth, since I, too, have been an Evangelical for so many decades), they’ve taken this glorious story, and turned it into a self-help seminar. Jesus is the one who can help us overcome obstacles and remove entanglements … perhaps even perform a miracle if we trust in Him correctly. The “gospel” behind this version of the story is: Incorporate Jesus into your life, and He will make it run more smoothly. Your life is what matters, and Jesus is here to help.

Again, I have to admit that I would probably have taken the same tack on this passage a few years ago. That’s before I was introduced to the classical hermeneutic of “law and gospel”. Preaching the law (telling people what they should do to be pleasing to God) is a painful-yet-necessary word for those who aren’t Christians. They need to know why they should repent of their sins, and seek to be forgiven by God. But, for the truly repentant, broken soul – the Christian – what’s needed is not the law, the but comforting assuranceget to work of the gospel: God’s love overwhelms your sin, so that you are at absolute peace with God. This gospel also serves as the greatest motivator to righteous conduct.

John 11 is, as much as any passage in the New Testament, a celebration of the completed work of Jesus – the gospel! To turn this around and use this text to instruct people how they should do their faith (appropriate the life-helps offered by Jesus … not in this passage, but perhaps elsewhere) lays burdens on the lives of believers from which Jesus came to alleviate! And, as we baptize our services in the trappings of contemporary culture, affirming to our world that you aren’t supposed to be like God, but that we and God want to be just like them … we fail to tell unbelievers that what they need most is a repentant heart, not the instructions of a life coach.

I’m so thankful for those who have recently nurtured me in classical understandings of the gospel. I wish I had known these things earlier. I am genuinely sad for the lives I’ve stressed out over the years of overemphasizing “practical application” (the “so what” and “now what”). Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayer of repentance, and continue to lead me to an authentically redemptive proclamation of the gospel.

– EO

 

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Cultural Disconnect?

Wow.

“One of the major reasons why the church has fallen prey to a cultural accommodation is that it has become disconnected from its roots in Scripture, in the ancient church and in its heritage through the centuries. . . . If it is true that the road to the future lies in the past, it is also true that when the past has been lost or neglected there is no certain future. . . . When the past is lost, as it now is in our Western world, there is nothing left to focus on except the self.” – Dr. Robert E. Webber, 2008

Church history matters.

– EO

 

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