FRANCISO-fact: Back to the Nicene Creed, what’s in it that makes it so important and why should I come to the classes?
The Nicene Creed, as contained in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (BCP) and recited each week at the Eucharist, is important because it is likely that the various expressions of the Church which composed the creed will never again be able to convene anything resembling the universal brain and spiritual power that gathered in Nicaea in 325 CE and Constantinople in 381 CE to address real and complicated understandings of God. It is also true that the intellectual and spiritual exploration in Christianity continue to beg responses to questions, and rehashings of these theologies. All of us, the Rector included, will do well to look at this foundational document to understand both universal truths and contemporary issues.
The following paragraphs are a quick summary of some of the important issues surrounding the creed and its writing.
Almost immediately after the resurrection, the encounters with the risen Jesus took different forms depending on the various and sundry cultural contexts of the Roman Empire and Judaism in which they occurred. Those Jews amenable to recognizing Jesus as the Messiah came from both Judea and the diaspora, as well as their close religious’ cousins, the Samaritans, who also likely supplied early believers. And once released into the area outside of Palestine, concepts and ideas from philosophies and religions from all over the Empire effected the understanding that people wanted to apply to who he was and what he meant.
During the second century the main philosophies and religious contexts applied to the Christian experience as the Great Church tradition knows him, are Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism. Gnosticism was not only a Christian phenomenon. Widely speaking, Gnosticism develops from philosophies which considered creation antithetical to the spiritual realm. Gnostics were looking for ways to shed the physical and enter a totally spiritual realm. To them, Jesus was the exemplar of this. Marcion was an adherent of a very narrow range of Christian literature, ten letters of Paul and portions of the Gospel of Luke, which he believed showed a God of love as opposed to the Old Testament God of judgement and creation. Thus, this strain of Christianity was discontinuous with Jesus’ heritage, Paul’s heritage, and the faith from which Christianity came—Judaism. Finally, Montanus thought of himself as the new mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit and he proclaimed an eschatological message of apocalypticism. Each of these messages certainly challenge what becomes the Great Church traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and its western descendants and the Eastern Orthodox traditions of the Chalcedonian, Miaphosite, and Diaphosite varieties.
The differences, additions, and creative applications of theology to Christianity did not end there or then. More came latter and will be reviewed in our class time.
Once the Empire became Christian, squabbles between the various groups spurred Constantine I to seek comity. He called for a council of Bishops at Ephesus prior to 325 which ended with no effective conclusion. Then he called for another council at Nicaea, a seaside resort of the Emperor’s, where he encouraged work by remaining close by. This council produced the original version of the Creed, which was certainly Trinitarian but lacked some features of the creed we say on Sunday. The declaration of the Nicene Creed did not stop the squabbling, infighting, and persecution among the bishops from the various sides, primarily divided among Arians, Semi-Arians, and Nicene’s. The Nicene’s were in the minority and out of favor with Constantine’s successors, even though they had apparently been in the majority at Nicaea.
This council was followed in 381 by an edict of Theodosius I, a successor to Constantine, which called for the bishops to gather again to resolve their differences in the capital city of Constantinople. This time the outcome was more certain and many of the Nicene Bishops who faced persecution in the previous fifty years were returned to their sees and to positions of honor. Current scholarship distinguishes the creed completed in 381 from the creed completed in 325 as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and it is the creed we say on Sundays.
The above is only a summary of the history and contents of what the explication of the creed will cover beginning Sunday, September 11, as we go line-by-line and word-by-word in hashing out the character of the creed begun in Nicaea.