This is the first of a series on the Nicene Creed. The first section is a prayer based on the phrase ‘we believe’; the second is a quick summary of the long section that follows – if you’re not interested in the history, skip to the bottom of the page for ‘why it matters’. Comments welcome!
Praying our belief
a man once said to you,
‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.’
Not blindly. Not always steadily. But honestly.
Help me to live as one who believes
in your love, your power, your forgiveness,
your call to be me for you.
Help my unbelief.
Give me courage to live by what I know and hope.
Meet me where I am and bring me closer to you.
Many have gone before me.
Many were wiser than me.
Help me to learn from their insights,
and inspire me by the mysteries
they wrestled to put into words.
When my belief falls short,
when my understanding is clouded,
grant that the ancient wisdom of the church
may help me to be led by your Spirit.
Now and always.
In 200 words or less
What we believe matters.
Christian faith is not just about believing the right things, but being clear about what we believe (and don’t) helps us to put together the pieces of God’s story and ours, to check our ideas and to know God better. The earliest creeds are as much about ‘trusting’ God as about ‘believing’ – but being human we need a bit more detail on what it is that believing means. Then trust is more possible.
In worship we use the creeds, ancient statements of the church’s belief, to remind ourselves of the framework of our beliefs. They’re far from the full picture, but they work as a kind of scaffolding for the rest of our understanding; or perhaps as a set of glasses through which to see God, the world and ourselves more clearly. Even when we don’t understand (or even agree with) every detail, the creeds place us in a bigger tradition of belief and thought which we recognise as being ‘ours’.
It all starts with ‘Jesus is Lord.’
Why did this matter then?
Why do we have creeds in the first place? After all, Jesus didn’t dictate one to his disciples, and the first Christians managed for a long time without any kind of a sentence-by-sentence set of definitions.
The first Christian statement of faith is pretty straightforward – ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Of course, behind that was a depth of meaning. Calling Jesus ‘Lord’ tied in to language used about God, and also made a definite commitment to a costly way of life – as Tom Wright and others have pointed out over recent years, to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ brought Christians into direct conflict with Rome, as dutiful citizens and subjects were required to declare ‘Caesar is Lord.’ In other words, the first Christian statement of faith was stark – ‘Jesus is Lord (and Caesar isn’t). That could be a costly statement to make, as many early martyrs discovered to their cost and glory.
It didn’t take long before things got a little more defined – by the end of the Second Century, people coming for baptism were asked the questions we still use at baptism; ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father… in God the Son… in God the Holy Spirit…?’ There was a lot of teaching offered on what that meant, but the central questions were, and are, simple; and they’re about trust as well as belief, about relationship as well as concepts.
Creeds – setting out truth for a growing church
Quickly, though, Christians began to think through the core of what they believed. It wasn’t always straightforward. The first Christians were all Jewish, and so they started with a lot of shared understanding about God, the world and what it meant to live faithfully. Those beliefs and assumptions were often radically challenged by what Jesus had said and done, but there was at least a shared foundation. As the church spread across the Roman Empire and beyond, things weren’t so straightforward. It wasn’t possible to take for granted that people meant the same sort of thing by the word ‘God’ as you did, let alone that their understanding of how that God related to the world and to their lives. We get some idea of the gap between a Jewish/Christian idea of God and the ideas of the pagan empire from the fact that when Christians were attacked for their faith they were described as ‘atheists’ for not believing in the gods – their understanding of the one, invisible, almighty God was so distant from the stories of the pagan gods that most people didn’t recognise their God as any kind of god at all. The assumptions were just too different.
On top of that, the gospel was now being preached to people who had been educated in the classical disciplines of rhetoric, logic and so on – people who were used to analysing and defining abstract ideas in ways that had never been such a big part of Jewish culture. At the risk of oversimplifying, Jewish thinking has valued debate, story and relationship more highly than classical western thought, which prioritises order, clarity and consistency. So the creeds are about taking the truth given to us through the Bible in a narrative, relational and sometimes ambiguous way of thinking, and translating that as best we can into the language of classical thought which is still the foundation of a lot of our thinking today.
There’s another side to the need for creeds. The Bible isn’t a theology textbook, carefully written and easy to turn into a list of bullet-points. So as Christians thought about God, life and the world, they quickly found that they agreed on some things but differed on others. Some of those disagreements were manageable , but some went too deep to be left unresolved. The creeds we have today were written and agreed by the wider church to be the official statements of Christian belief about things that really matter – but which we can’t prove or work out for ourselves. That means that they were written to answer questions that were being asked at the time, and it also explains why they say more about some things than others. That’s why statements about Jesus take up so much of the creeds – not just because his life, death and rising again are so important, but because defining what it means for him to be God and human proved tricky!
There are three ‘Catholic’ creeds which are recognised by the worldwide church as setting out the core of Christian belief. In these articles I’m going to work through what we call the ‘Nicene Creed’, as it’s the one most-often used in most Church of England churches.
The Apostles’ Creed
Despite a very early tradition that each of the twelve apostles wrote one phrase of this, it doesn’t go quite that far back. In the version used in our service-books it goes back to at least the early eighth century, though it’s mentioned by name as early as 390AD. It certainly goes back to an older text called the ‘Old Roman Creed’, which spelled out in more detail the meaning of the three questions from baptism, and so had the three sections we’re used to, centred around the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Unlike the longer creeds we’re about to mention, the Apostles’ Creed didn’t come from an international gathering of bishops and theologians, but out of the teaching and worship of local churches; perhaps the legend about going back to the apostles grew up because it had never really been ‘written’ as such, it just came to be what the churches agreed about.
In recent years, this creed has been the one most used in discussions between different churches seeking a shared understanding – perhaps because it’s the shortest and leaves least room for argument! Until quite recently it was also part of the Church of England’s daily prayer, and is often used as the statement of what people are required to believe as individuals in order to be baptised. Perhaps for that reason it’s usually said beginning ‘I believe’ – it’s always personal.
The Nicene Creed
The original Nicene Creed was agreed at Nicaea (in modern Turkey) in 325 by a council of Bishops and theologians gathered from all over the church. They’d been ordered by the Emperor Constantine to agree what Christians should believe, as he wanted to make sure that now Christianity was the main religion of the empire, it was a force for unity. At the time, the biggest issue for Christian belief was over whether or not Jesus was fully God – a teacher and hymnwriter called Arius taught that he wasn’t, but we’ll come back to Arius when we get to that bit of the creed. The church decided to reject Arius’ belief, and produced most of the Nicene Creed we now use – stopping at ‘and in the Holy Spirit’, but then adding statements denouncing Arius’ beliefs. They seem to have started with the Apostles’ Creed, as there’s a lot of obvious overlap.
These last ‘anathemas’ (condemnations of wrong belief) were taken out of the version we now use, and the last phrases of our version were added, in a later meeting at Constantinople in 381. So to scholars, the version we use is the ‘Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed’ – but from now on I’ll stick with the title we’re used to! With one small exception (in the bit on the Holy Spirit) this Creed is accepted by the whole church (catholic, protestant and orthodox) as the central statement of what a Christian church believes, and it has traditionally been used at the creed at the Eucharist, with the local church gathering as the body of Christ. Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene begins ‘we believe’ – not everyone reciting it will understand all of it, some may not believe all of it, but we recognise that this is what the church as a whole believes – and we place ourselves within that framework of belief.
The Athanasian Creed
Most modern Christians have never said the Athanasian Creed – it’s there in the Book of Common Prayer, and we do use a short part of it at St Thomas’ in the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, but the whole thing is very long and repetitive. It also insists that any other form of belief would condemn us to damnation, which seems to many to be overstepping the mark a bit. It’s not certain exactly when it was written, or to which heretical ideas it was giving answers, but it focuses on the two most difficult-to-pin-down areas of theology – how God can be three and one, and how Jesus can be completely human and completely God.
By all means have a read through!
Why does this matter now?
Why does this matter? Why, every Sunday, do we recite some quite abstract words about what we believe? After all, Christianity is about our life lived trusting in Jesus and serving the Father in the power of the Spirit – surely that’s more important than definitions of what we believe about God!
What we believe shapes the way that we live. It gives the foundation to how we understand not just God but our world, ourselves and one another. We all have beliefs which shape our lives, whether we recite them out loud or not. And the beliefs which can cause the most harm are often those we have without realising it. When these beliefs are about people, we often talk about prejudice; what about when they’re about God?
The language of belief is interesting. It applies to things we can’t prove by logic or absolute, compelling evidence. It’s about the way that we look behind the obvious and the provable to make sense of how things fit together. It’s always a choice.
I grew up as an atheist until I was eighteen. I believed that Christianity (I knew even less about other faiths) was irrational, about blind faith and imagining a god who meant you didn’t have to think about things too much, just follow the rules. At university, I came to realise that my atheism was a belief just as much as the belief of any of my Christian fellow-students. I didn’t believe then, and I don’t believe now, that it’s possible to prove the reality of God. I could build up a coherent picture of reality either with or without God at the foundation of it. But I have to choose where I start – and it’s an illusion to think that a picture of reality built on the nonexistence of God is somehow the more logical or reasonable. It’s just as much an ‘I believe’ position as any of the creeds.
Or rather, for most of us it’s a ‘we believe’. I mentioned in passing that whereas the Apostles’ Creed begins ‘I believe’ and is used as a statement of personal faith, the Nicene Creed begins ‘We believe’ and is the statement of what the Christian Church as a body believes. In saying ‘we believe’ I’m identifying myself with that big picture of belief as a framework in which to make sense of my own life and experience of God. It goes with being part of a community that shares that framework, and looks at the world through roughly the same lenses.
Most people don’t really have an ‘I believe’ creed – if people aren’t consciously part of a faith community then they generally work on the basis of the rather fuzzy and inconsistent ‘we believe’ of wider society. If we’re honest, most of us who are part of church also have at least as many beliefs shaped by our wider culture as we have shaped by the creeds. Perhaps by looking together at what we say ‘we believe’ we might (to pick up the image from the last paragraph) see God, the world and ourselves a little more clearly – by cleaning the lenses even if we don’t find that we need a new prescription from the optician for our ‘creed glasses.’