Scripture Reading – Colossians 1:15-20 (NRSV)
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions, powers or rulers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Last week we talked about the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of the faith created to help converts to Christianity express their belief in God as they approached the font for Baptism. The roots of this ancient creed stretch back into Scripture and the witness of the first followers of Jesus, and as such they represent a link to the earliest days of the church (even if the final wording of the creed wasn’t established until almost 700 years after Jesus’ death).
Tonight we shift our focus to the Nicene Creed, a longer and more robust statement of the faith whose origins are quite different than the Apostles’ Creed. As generations passed, Christians continued to reflect on their experience of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they searched Scripture and philosophy and reason to find the answers to questions about the nature of God. Who was Jesus? What kind of being was he: divine or human or some combination? What is the relationship between the Father and the Son?
Lest you think these questions were only debated by theologians, remaining largely irrelevant to the vast majority of Christians, writings from the time reveal that lay people and bishops alike were consumed with these theological questions and debates. Writing in the fourth century, Greek theologian Gregory of Nyssa complained about how pervasive the arguments over God’s nature had become:
Every place in the city is full of them: the alleys, the crossroads, the forums, the squares. Garment sellers, money changers, food venders, they are all at it. If you ask for change, they philosophize for you about generate and ingenerate natures. If you inquire about the price of bread, the answer is that the Father is greater and the Son inferior. If you speak about whether the bath is ready, they express the opinion that the Son was made out of nothing.
What was the big deal? Some of the questions struck at the very core of the church’s confession concerning Jesus. If Jesus was merely human, as some argued, people wondered about whether he would have been able to achieve our salvation. If Jesus was only divine and didn’t truly share our humanity, then could humanity be saved in all its fullness? Was Jesus truly God, or was he created or adopted after the creation of the world, contradicting Scriptural affirmations about him? In the end, the details didn’t matter in themselves as much as how those details strengthened or undermined the church’s trust in their Savior and Lord.
In response to these questions, bishops were called from all over the Christian world to appear at the first “ecumenical” council, which was held at Nicaea (in present day Turkey) in the year 325. Those gathered were involved in a month-long conversation about Jesus and his relationship to God (among some other matters of dispute). The participants were not of one mind about these topics, and the debate was often contentious, but in the end all but two of the bishops present at the council adopted the following statement of faith:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only-begotten, that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Spirit. But those who say, “There was a time when he was not;” and “He was not before he was made;” and “He was made out of nothing” or “He is of another substance” or “essence” or “The Son of God is created” or “changeable” or “alterable”—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Despite the overwhelming support of this creed by those present at Nicaea, the questions and debates persisted (and, in fact, expanded to include questions about the Holy Spirit). Not surprisingly, the condemnations at the end did little to dissuade those who believed any of the statements contained there. Eventually, another council was called to clarify the creed and address some of the open questions that had arisen since Nicaea. So it was that in 381 a group of bishops gathered at Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) and wrote a revised statement of faith that was formally adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The text of this statement largely matches the “Nicene” Creed of today, and includes expanded sections about the birth, death, and ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church.
Following the Council at Chalcedon, the Church in the East very quickly adopted this “Nicene” Creed as its primary confession of faith, and in both East and West it became known as “the Symbol of the Faith”. In this case, the word symbol doesn’t refer to one object that serves as a sign for something else (as it does today). It referred to one half of a broken object that was used as a way of verifying someone’s identity; if a person could produce the other half of that object, they would prove to be who they said they were. The creed, then, served to identify those who shared the faith of the church (as distinguished from those whose teaching was said to undermine that faith).
Today, the Nicene Creed stands as a testament to those fierce theological debates of the third and fourth centuries, a period of time in which the Church was wrestling with deep questions about the nature of God, the Trinity, and the work of Jesus in saving us and the whole creation. Unfortunately, it also stands as a witness to the deepest division in the church – the division between the Eastern and Western churches. In 589, a bishop in Toledo (modern-day Spain) thought that the creed was still deficient in its treatment of the Holy Spirit, and he added one Latin word to correct this deficiency – filioque, meaning “and the Son”. This addition was never discussed with the Eastern churches, but it slowly made its way across Europe until it became part of the text of the creed in Rome around the year 1000. In response to this addition (and a long-standing debate about the authority of the bishop of Rome), the Orthodox and Catholic churches published mutual condemnations and were divided from one another in what came to be called the Great Schism of 1054. No division in the church has been as painful or long-lasting as the separation between the East and the West, and that division persists because those issues – including the addition of one little Latin word – have never been resolved.
So what are we to do with the Nicene Creed today? For many years it was associated with Holy Communion, and served as the affirmation of faith on those rare occasions that the Sacrament was received. Now we recite the creed during special seasons or on festival Sundays – it is the Creed designated for Advent, Christmas, and Easter, as well as occasions like the Epiphany, Baptism, and Transfiguration of Our Lord, Reformation Sunday, All Saints Sunday, and Christ the King Sunday. Like the Apostles’ Creed, it is not a necessary part of the service, but it has been a long-standing and much-loved practice of the church for at least the last 1000 years in the West (and for over 1500 years in the East). Within and beyond worship, reflection on this Creed can help us to ponder the same important questions that faced the early church:
Who is Jesus?
What has Jesus done for us?
How does the Holy Spirit move in our lives?
What is the nature of the church?
What is our hope, and in whom do we place that hope?
This week, brothers and sisters, I invite you once again to reflect on the faith of the church as it is expressed in the Nicene Creed. What questions does that expression create for you? How might you (or the church) express faith in Christ differently today? May you be blessed in pondering these ancient words. Amen.