The Revolutionary Nicene Creed
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
The Nicene Creed as revolutionary? A creed that got its start because of one imperial order, and was later adopted because of another one? A Creed that seems full of technical language few purport to understand these days?
These things are true about the Nicene Creed. But it is no less revolutionary!
When we take a closer looks at this creed, it reveals a revolution alive and well-- regardless of whether Constantine or others knew it or wanted it to be so.
One God, Father Almighty, maker of all things seen and unseen... This precludes the notion of any power higher than God, including Caesar, or any identification of the state with God.
One Lord, Jesus Christ... eternally begotten of the Father, begotten not made-- This encodes incarnation even before we get to the article that makes it explicit -- that Jesus Christ is true God with us, and we as Christ's body, the one holy catholic and apostolic church-- have a continuing call, empowerment and responsibility to incarnate him and his ministry in the world. This is no passive retreat from the world, but marching orders into it. The Father begat and enfleshed Self in the Son. That's what we are to continue to be and do in the world. Jesus Christ alone is the coming judge-- no earthly ruler has the final say. He alone sits at the Father's right hand-- he's calling the shots right now in ways no earthly ruler can or does.
One of the more common critiques raised against all the major creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian) is that they do not take the earthly ministry of Jesus seriously. If one is depending on the creeds alone, or this creed in particular, to carry all the weight of all the doctrine of the church, its actual teaching ministry, that is, that's not an unreasonable criticism.
But what we know about the teaching ministry of the church in these early centuries is that it intensely focused on the life and ministry of Jesus and the implications and expectations for Christians as a result. Christians were not proclaiming his incarnation, death, resurrection, and coming again as disembodied beliefs about him. Not even at Nicea!
Indeed, the Council of Nicaea strongly reaffirmed a three year catechumenate as the norm for Christian formation and actually strengthened that practice in a number of ways. And what we know of the catechumenate is that it was deeply focused on the way people embodied Christ's ministry and calling. Indeed, during the three years, very little doctrine was taught. That would come later, after baptism. But for starters, what mattered was learning to live as Jesus taught-- to love neighbors and enemies, to serve the poor and the frail, to make peace with all.
So why isn't this in the Nicene Creed? Because none of this was controversial! The reason Constantine and later Theodosius called bishops into Council was in part to create a document that could settle what was controversial. When it came to life and ministry of Jesus and its importance for the lives of Christians-- everyone already agreed on that, and practiced that. There was nothing more that needed to be said!
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life... who has spoken through the prophets.... That statement alone signals its time for the establishment to start looking for cover! What did the prophets speak? End all idolatries and make society just-- interpersonally, in families, in economics, in politics. When we read the prophets, identify God's voice, and follow through on what we hear, the revolution cannot but be rekindled. This may be one of the most explicitly kingdom of God oriented and establishment-denying affirmations in the entire creed.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins... It is in baptism that forgiveness of sins is established-- not in any pardons from the state for acts done on behalf of the state. With forgiveness grounded in baptism, which by this time was often near the beginning of physical life (usually within 8 days of birth), and which functioned as initiation into the church regardless of when one entered it-- forgiveness becomes a defining standard of the life of the whole Christian community. Mercy and forgiveness were central in the "way of life" questions in the early catechumenate. The primary qualification to become a bishop in late 4th century Syria was that the candidate be merciful, always ready to forgive sins and restore the community. Forgiveness embodied in Christians can leaven the world as long as we in the Christian community continue to live this way.
I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come... Resurrection and the life of the world to come is no form of escapism. Rather it was empowerment for bold action in Christ's name in this life with no fear of death. This is about fearless love and bold mercy. The martyrs of the church prior to Nicaea as well those who had gone through great suffering and were present at that council were clear about this. No escapism, just fearless love of God, service to Jesus Christ, and mercy toward every neighbor in the power of the Holy Spirit even if it meant we may die.
Sounds like a revolution to me...