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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: 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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Second Sunday of Advent – 14.12.07

St.-Ambrose (1)I have personally celebrated the seasons of the church calendar for decades. I have always been saddened by the lack of Advent-themed worship music in the contemporary Evangelical church world. But I have recently become a part of the Lutheran tradition, which has a wealth of Advent hymns! On the remaining Advent Sundays, I’ll share a few of my favorites.

Savior of the Nations, Come is a hymn text written by St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the great Doctors of the early church. It was written in the 4th century – and era when the church was crystalizing its theological understanding about the person and nature of Jesus in the incarnation (e.g., The Council of Nicaea in 325, which produced the Nicene Creed, which we read together today in church). This hymn reflects those theological themes, which Ambrose championed strongly.

Savior of the nations, come! Virgin’s son, make here Your home!

Marvel now, O heaven and earth, that the Lord chose such a birth.

 

nativity-icon-1Not by human flesh and blood, by the Spirit of our God,

was the Word of God made flesh – woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.

 

Here a maid was found with child, yet remained a virgin mild.

In her womb this truth was sown: God was there upon His throne.

 

Then stepped forth the Lord of all from His pure and kingly hall;

God of God, yet fully man, His heroic course began.

 

250px-Nicaea_iconGod the Father was His source; Back to God He ran His course.

Into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown.

 

For You are the Father’s Son Who in flesh the victory won.

By Your mighty power make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.

 

From the manger newborn light shines in glory through the night.

Darkness there no more resides; In this light faith now abides.

 

Glory to the Father sing,

Glory to the Son our king.

Glory to the Spirit be now, and through eternity.

 
 

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