Correcting Modern Errors About the Nicene Creed

In the online article, “Do You Know Whom You Worship?”, Dr. D. H. Williams, professor of patristics and historical theology at Baylor University, puts to rest a couple of erroneous understandings about the Nicene Creed.

The first is that notion, originally put forth by Walter Bauer, then, debunked, now resurrected by Bart Ehrman and others, that the struggle for orthodoxy in the fourth century was nothing more than imperial politics.

At the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, some Protestant historians regarded the Council of Nicaea and its creed with the same suspicion as they did the church of Rome. The esteemed German scholar Eduard Schwarz, for example, depicted the conflicts between pro-Nicene and “Arian” opponents as in reality a struggle for power within the church which was disguised as a theological dispute. The council’s decisions represented a victory for those who wielded the most influence over the emperor. This meant too that the creed was an unfortunate capitulation of the church to imperial politics and an emblem of the new merger between the Roman empire and Christianity.

To this day, some churches and denominations see creeds, ancient or modern, as little more than legislated statements of power used for manipulating the faithful. Such a view is often built on the assumption that the church by the time of Nicaea had compromised its original biblical standards, replacing principles of Scripture with the authoritarianism of a new imperial and episcopal establishment.

While the council did involve interchurch politics with dissenting groups trying to obtain the emperor’s ear, the Nicene Creed had its origin in the worshipping life of the church. A mere collective of bishops could not make for sound Christian doctrine. We are mistaken to cast the early bishops into the role of power brokers and political schemers, rather than the pastors and preachers that most of them were. Interpreting and proclaiming the true faith to their congregations was a major preoccupation with nearly every one of the early church theologians.

Likewise, creedal statements had to represent the common mind of the church or else they would not have been accepted and employed by the larger body of believing Christians. The vigilance of bishops in upholding and preserving Christian truth is exemplified in the opening words of the Council of Antioch (which met in the early months of 325) when it declared that its statement of faith was “the faith that was set forth by spiritual men ? always formed and trained in the spirit by means of the holy writings of the inspired books.” At the councils at Antioch and Nicaea, both of which formulated creeds, the concern was the same: articulating a theological vision that emerged from the church’s faith. In effect, the creed was a statement ex corde ecclesiae?out of the heart of the church.

The second error Dr. Williams corrects, is that the Nicene Creed was an imposition of pagan philosophical terms on the mind of the Church.

The charge laid against Nicaea by later theologians that the creed was more the product of philosophical influence or “Hellenization” than of Scripture is misconstrued for two reasons. First, all Christian thinkers of the time?”orthodox” and “heretical”?were drawing on contemporary philosophical language in order to frame theological truths. Terms such as person, substance, essence, and many others all had a philosophical background that pre-dated Christianity but were borrowed permanently for Christian purposes. Where there was obvious conflict between the Bible and Greek philosophy, the Bible took precedent for even the most erudite Christians.

Second, one of the lessons learned during the “Arian controversy” was that in order to achieve doctrinal orthodoxy you cannot interpret the Bible from the Bible alone. The church needed a vocabulary and a conceptual framework that stemmed from the Bible but were also outside of the Bible. Sooner or later, some means of interpreting the scriptural text would be required.

Whatever else may be said of the ancient creeds, it cannot be denied that they were deliberately constructed to be the epitome of the biblical message. When instructing new converts, Augustine taught, “For whatever you hear in the Creed is contained in the inspired books of Holy Scripture” (Sermon 212. 2). It was the task of these creeds not merely to reproduce the Bible but to enable Christians to understand what the Bible, both Old and New Testament, means.

In the end, the Nicene Creed represented a large-scale attempt to answer the question, “Do you know whom you worship?” Christianity’s central convictions that God is one and Christ is God had to be put into a cohesive statement that preserved the integrity of both. This was the burden of the fourth century. The Council of Nicaea responded with a creed that was new to church history and was not immediately accepted, but, as time would tell, it was crafted according to the intention of church tradition and biblical principles. As Charles Williams once said of the Christian faith encapsulated by the Nicene Creed, “It had become a Creed, and it remained a Gospel.”

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