Last Night: Creeds (my notes)

Last night was the second meeting of the small group.  We discussed the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.  Some good thoughts were shared and expressed, which I hope to give you along the way this week.  But to keep things short, I’ll just start with my notes in this post and move on to the fruit of the night later.

As I worked through my notes, we discussed various questions pertaining to church history and Arianism and why Arius was a heretic — that sort of thing.  Things that came up along the way were baptism, the Donation of Constantine, the Resurrection of the Dead, Mozilla being a charity, etc.   Being here in person is clearly the preferable way to encounter this stuff.

The Nicene Creed

The origins of the Nicene Creed lie in the early fourth century.  An Alexandrian priest named Arius said, responding to his bishop Alexander who saw Jesus as having being begotten of the Father before all ages, “En pote hote ouk en.”  “There was when he was not.”  This became the slogan of his party who were termed “Arians.”  (Since he was only a priest, some of the Arian bishops didn’t like this, but when you’re a heretic, you don’t choose your label.)

Arianism is not traditional Christology, whatever certain Archbishops of Canterbury might tell you.*  In Arianism, Jesus, the Word, was considered to be other than the Father and lesser than the Father for a few reasons, including the verse in Proverbs in which Divine Wisdom says that it was created by Father first.  Many ancient theologians interpreted “Divine Wisdom” to be the same as “the Word” of John 1.  Therefore, by Arius’ reckoning, Jesus was a created being, as in Colossians he is called, “the firstborn of all creation.”  Besides this, Arianism tried to follow a certain amount of Aristotelian logic.  Jesus is called the Son or the Word, whereas the Father is called the Father or God.  A difference in name, as with apple and tree, necessitates a difference in essence or nature.  Therefore, Jesus’ essence is not the same as that of God the Father.  They do not share a “substance” but are two entirely different beings.  Jesus the Word, because he is always following the Father’s will, is allowed to be called “divine” and “God”.

One of the major problems with Arianism is the fact that every Sunday, they, along with everyone else, would worship Jesus.  If Jesus is not God, you cannot worship him.  As well, Arianism runs counter to the plain sense of John 1.  If “the Word was God,” the Word wasn’t other than God.  The Word wasn’t a lesser being.  The Word was God.  This is what it means.  Nicene orthodoxy takes that verse at its face value and uses it to interpret Proverbs, not the other way around.  The Proverbs verses aren’t necessarily about Jesus in a prophetic sense anyway.  Wisdom may simply be a type of the Word.  Typology is important to keep in mind.

To have Arius running around saying all that stuff would not do.  A council was called in Antioch which condemned him.  This wasn’t quite enough — Arius kept at it, so a general council, a council of the whole inhabited world was called.  The word for this is “ecumenical”; thus you will hear church historians and the Eastern Orthodox talking about the “ecumenical councils,” of which there were eight.  This council met in Nicaea, which is in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) near the Bosporus, opening on June 19, 325.  The Emperor Constantine convened the council, believing that it was important for the security and fabric of his newly united Empire that the Church also be united.  Bishops came from all over the East, from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Libya, Greece, Armenia, Cyprus.  From the West, Orosius of Cordoba, Spain, came as did delegates from Silvester, Bishop of Rome.

The bishops met for several days, arguing about the doctrines professed by Arius and believing that a document should be produced to which bishops would have to subscribe if they were to avoid excommunication and anathematisation.  They also discussed various other matters, from how to consecrate bishops to ordaining castrated men.  The creed to which all had to subscribe was based upon the baptismal formula of Caesaria with a few alterations and was as we have it, with the following differences.  It ends with, “And the Holy Spirit,” then launches into:

And those that say ‘There was when he was not,’ and, ‘Before he was begotten he was not,’ and that, ‘He came into being from what-is-not,’ or those that allege, that the Son of God is ‘Of another substance or essence’ or ‘created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

The specifically anti-Arian statements are bundled together:

Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father;

Since the Arians called Jesus “God” without believing him to actually be God, the most important statements are the first and last.  Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” as opposed to the Arian assertion that he was created within time.  And he is “of one substance with the Father,” as opposed to the Arian idea that Jesus is a different, lesser being than God the Father.  The Greek word is, “homoousios”, the Latin, “consubstantialis.”  (I object to the modern translation that says, “of one being with the Father,” because it obscures the theological debates of the creed’s origin and does not make it very clear in what way Jesus and the Father are one, whereas “of one substance” is a proper translation of the theological idea that Jesus and the Father share an essence; furthermore, “of one being” allows for the ancient heresy of Sabellianism.)

The bits about the Holy Spirit come from at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 to combat people who say that the Holy Spirit isn’t God but is something like an angel or who say that he isn’t his own person.  From that point forward, the creed was only ever affirmed at Church Councils and no ecumenical council has meddled with it.

At a synod in Spain, to battle a heresy which I believe was called Priscillianism, they added one little Latin word to the creed, filioque.  Thus, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Charlemagne liked the Spanish usage and sought to unify the liturgy of the whole Frankish Empire, so they used filioque although the Pope was not in favour.  He believed in dual procession of the Holy Spirit; but you don’t mess with the creed without asking.  Eventually, later popes got on board with this idea, and it is in the Nicene Creed as said in the Church of Rome to this day.

The Eastern Orthodox don’t like this (see T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 1st ed., pp. 218-223).  In part, they don’t like it because no ecumenical council agreed to it.  In part, they don’t like it because most of them don’t believe in a dual procession of the Holy Spirit.  In part, they don’t like it because it was done in the West (OK, that last one may be harsh, but I’m always amazed at the strongly eastern flavour of so-called “ecumenical” councils, esp. the last one which dealt with a specifically eastern issue, and at which no western bishops were present).

The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal formula of the Church of Rome.  The legend, however, is that the 12 Apostles were all sitting around one day and thinking, “What do we believe?  What should the new disciples agree to at baptism?”  Each of them contributed a different bit and, hey, presto! The Apostles’ Creed!  This creed is the basis for the Anglican baptismal rites; modern ones work it into a series of questions, whereas the BCP (1962)** has the parents or one to be baptised recite it in full.  You can see its basis in the baptismal rite found in the 3rd-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus as well.

When we see these two creeds side by side, we see why I prefer the Nicene.  It is fuller, more complete.  Part of this fullness comes from its origins in the Arian controversy, but not all, such as the statement that God is the creator of the visible and the invisible.

*See Robert W. Jenson, “With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity.  He doesn’t deal with Williams but he does deal with Arius.  The whole essay is available on google books.

**1662 the priest recites it and they agree to believe it.

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