Today we start the first of a series of sermons, one a month, which will be covering that difficult issue, the Nicene Creed. The Creed is difficult for us for a number of reasons; it was written at a specific time and place to solve specific problems, and although it remains the one creed that is accepted by the Orthodox, Catholic and most Protestant churches, it turns many of us off. I have had people tell me they don’t come to church because they don’t believe some part of it, which is why, here at St Ben’s, we use alternative forms many Sundays. However, it remains the central statement of Christian faith which connects us not only to our spiritual ancestors but also to other Christians worshiping across the planet. So it is helpful I think, to attempt to interpret it and understand it rather than treat it as something that has no relevance for us.
Once a month between now and Advent, usually on the 3rd Sunday of the month, we’ll be exploring the concepts of the Nicene Creed in a sermon with two voices – one will be more theological, one more personal and then there will be a discussion after the service for those who want to explore some of the ideas more deeply. Today Donna+ will be the second voice you’ll hear, and the after-service discussion will begin about 10 minutes after the service ends in the small meeting room, and will be led by Joe Morris and Fr. Barry.
I want to start off by talking about the history of the creed because theology is always closely linked to time and place. God is not tied to time and place but we live in a space/time continuum and as we try to talk about the things of God, we necessarily use language and concepts which make sense to us. The language of the Nicene Creed comes from the 4th century when things were very different that they are today, so it’s helpful to have the context which gave birth to it.
By the 4th Century, Christians were regularly persecuted. During the so-called Great Persecution (303–311), the emperor ordered Christian buildings and the homes of Christians torn down and their sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured in horrible ways and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators. The Great Persecution ended in April 311, with an edict which granted Christians the right to practice their religion. Additional edicts in the next few years returned their property and made Christianity the favored religion. Why the change?
According to Eusebius, a contemporary historian, in 312, before the battle of Milvian Bridge over the river Tiber which is in modern-day Italy, Constantine had a vision in which he saw a cross and was told he would conquer in this sign. He commanded all his troops to put a Christian sign on their shields and indeed he won the battle, which was decisive in making him the undisputed Roman Emperor.
Consequently he elevated Christianity to be a favored religion. Emperors considered themselves responsible to the gods for the spiritual health of their subjects, and so Constantine believed he had a duty to help the Church define orthodoxy and maintain orthodoxy. However, he soon discovered that there were a number of different Christian groups with some very different teachings. Rather than being the force that would unify his empire, the new emperor soon discovered that Christianity was fractured, even then, by theological disputes, especially by conflicting understandings of the nature of Christ.
Arius, a priest of the church in Alexandria, asserted that the divine Christ, the Word through whom all things have their existence, was created by God before the beginning of time. Therefore, the divinity of Christ was similar to the divinity of God, but not of the same essence. Arius was opposed by the bishop, Alexander, together with his associate and successor, Athanasius. They affirmed that the divinity of Christ, the Son, is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.
To counter a widening rift within the church, Constantine convened a council in Nicaea in 325. Over 300 Bishops showed up and they were each allowed an entourage of 2 priests and three deacons so there may have been as many as 1800 people there. Most of them were from the eastern part of the church – Rome itself only sent two priests.
It took them an entire month to agree a creed reflecting the position of Alexander and Athanasius. It was signed by a majority of the bishops – the two bishops who did not agree were excommunicated and exiled.
This was the first time the church had agreed a doctrinal statement. But it didn’t completely solve the problem: the two parties continued to battle each other so 56 years later, in 381, a second council met in Constantinople. It adopted a revised and expanded form of the creed of 325, now known as the Nicene Creed.
It was another 200 years before the Creed was added to the regular mass to prevent heresy, but in Rome they didn’t start using it regularly until the 12th century because they said, Rome had never erred in matters of faith!
Of course, because the Creed was written to solve a specific theological controversy it is focused on that. If you take a look at it – it’s on page 358 in the red or black prayer book – if you look at it you’ll see that the first section about God the Father is very brief while the second section on Jesus goes on for a couple of paragraphs. That’s because the hot issue was whether Jesus the Christ was co-eternal with God the Father or was created by God the Father.
This morning I’m just going to talk about the first section:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
So the first thing we say is that we believe in one God. Unlike most of the religions of Jesus’ time, we believe that there is only one God. Which means that we have to explain how Jesus could be God but at the same time talking to God. Jesus talked about God as his Abba, his Dad or his Father so that is how the problem is solved – there are not two Gods but just one yet that God has two, or as we shall see later, three persons.
Some people take the Father thing very seriously. They say that if that’s what Jesus said, that’s what Jesus meant and to call God the Father something else is like knowing that my name is Caro and constantly calling me Mildred. I disagree. It seems to me and to many other people that the language we use to describe God is just that – language. It is not a precise definition of God. God is beyond words but in order to communicate we need to use words.
We sometimes talk about God the Creator as a way to avoid using Father. Father has three problems – firstly it is exclusively male whereas God is neither male nor female; it reinforces the notion that God is external to us and to Creation; and finally, not all of us had good experiences with our human fathers so Father can be an unpleasant rather than an intimate term. God the Creator has some pitfalls too; we have a tendency to think of an external God who created the world and then let it go. That is of course reinforced by the ancient stories of how God created the world bit by bit and saw that each part was good.
But today we understand God more as the connective tissue and the evolutionary power of the cosmos; the force that drives life. God is within us but God is much more than us, so we can still pray to God but she’s not a white guy with a big beard sitting on a cloud checking off a list to see whether we are naughty or nice. I wonder whether God the Source might be a better term – recognizing that all things seen and unseen come from the same Source.
And it is in this sense that God is Almighty. I have to admit I struggle with this term. Of course God the Source is almighty, but if she/he is also personal and friendly then why doesn’t she use her almighty power to prevent needless suffering? We pray and sometimes things obviously get better and sometimes they don’t. Many of you will remember Brian McHugh who used to substitute All-Compassionate in any prayer that said Almighty. Sometimes I do that too. But it doesn’t seem quite right.
Some would say that God is almighty but is limited by the options we humans create by our free will. God has given us free will but within that free will there are usually a limited number of options and making one choice closes off other options. Might it not be the same for God operating within this creation?
I don’t know.
But that is the way of God with humans. We can’t tie him up in a neat package with a bow. Whenever we think we’ve got one idea settled another comes unravelled. Which is why the Nicene Creed didn’t really settle the argument and also why we continue to use it today – as a starting off point, not a definitive statement.
And now I’m going to invite Donna+ to add her thoughts to this conversation…