I believe in one God.
I believe in you, God.
My thoughts cannot grasp you, but my soul can glimpse you.
My words cannot describe you, but my prayers can reach out to you.
My love cannot climb to you, but your love flows out to me where I am.
I love to think of you, knowing always that you are beyond my intellect.
I love to speak of you, aware always that you are beyond my vocabulary.
I love… I long… to love you, sure always that I am not beyond your love.
You are ‘I am who I am’,
ground of being,
eternal and necessary one,
You are my Father,
Spirit of Life,
God of my ancestors,
You are one.
Help me to love you;
help me, for your sake, to love those who search for you
whether we share the path as we seek you together
or our paths cross as we seek you by different ways.
Lead us into your love and truth.
Through Jesus, by whom I know you.
‘…in One God’ in 200 words or less
The starting point for the Creed is that there’s one God, and while we might disagree on details, we agree that we’re worshipping and serving that God.
We have to say more about that God, and most of the rest of the Creed expands on this one phrase to say what Christians have come to know about that one God. We know we will never be able to describe or explain God properly, but this is our best, honest attempt to try.
To speak of God, we balance two ‘strands’
God as God – God told Moses that his name was ‘I am who I am’. That is less a name, more an absolute statement about reality. God is. Everything else comes later, including us.
God for us – God also told Moses that he was the God of Moses’ ancestors; Israel came to know him as the God who rescued them from Egypt. Christians believe that we know God above all through what he has done in and through Jesus; Jesus is the lens through which we understand God.
So then, how about ‘God for you?’ How do you see the one God we seek together?
Why did this matter then?
Alister McGrath puts it well as usual –
The starting point for any sensible thinking about God is to realise that the human mind just isn’t big enough to cope with such a concept. It’s like trying to pack the Alps into a suitcase or the Niagara Falls into a coffee mug. How can the little word ‘God’ do justice to the magnificent reality to which it points? We can no more reduce God to words than we can take hold of the smoke of a candle that’s just been blown out, or capture sunbeams in a glass jar.
That’s an important reminder before we start looking at what the Creed says about the God in whom we believe. Even our best and deepest theology will always fall far short of who God is. In the ancient world in which the Bible and the Creed were written, saying ‘I believe in God’ wouldn’t say much in itself. Almost everyone believed in a god or gods, and the next question would probably have been along the lines of ‘which one?’ After all, there were so many to choose from… So then, as now, saying ‘I believe in God’ needed a bit more explanation.
God in the Old Testament
Jewish people, certainly by well before the time of Jesus, were clear and determined in their belief that there is only one God. There’s debate among Old Testament scholars about whether that had been Israel’s belief from the beginning, or whether they’d started out by seeing God as one among many, perhaps the greatest of gods. Either way, things became clear in the darkest of Israel’s times – during the Exile in Babylon (586-538 BC). Jewish thinkers had to come to terms with two things. First, they had to find ways to worship God in a foreign land, away from their Temple and surrounded by statues and temples of the ‘local’ gods. Second, they had to work out how to think of God when their captors kept telling them that the many Babylonian gods were obviously stronger than their one god. Guided by God, they came to see that he was the only god. God was not limited to a single place and had plans and care that took in all the nations, not just his chosen people Israel. In many ways they laid the foundations there for the understanding of the word ‘God’ that we take for granted.
The two strands of the Jewish naming and description of God are clear in the story of Moses meeting God in the desert. I’ve highlighted two key phrases in bold text.
Exodus 3:1–15 (NRSV)
1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
God for us
The first strand is that we understand God by our history with him. It begins here as God identifies himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors, remembering the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the family with whom God had made a covenant through most of the book of Genesis – the key ancestors of Israel. As time went on, the Israelites would know God as the one who brought them out of slavery, and who was with them through all the ups and downs of their history. This is God who is involved with his world and his people, and his history with us is part of our knowing who he is and what he is like.
God as God
The second strand is that God names himself ‘I am who I am’. It’s printed in capitals because it’s so important and as a hint of something I’ll mention in a moment. The key thing is that it’s not really a name, so much as a statement of absolute self-existence. God doesn’t need a name to distinguish himself from all the other ‘gods’ like Osiris, Marduk, Jupiter, Ba’al or Odin. God just is, and that reality the foundation of the universe.
LORD/Jehovah/YHWH – a sidenote
I mentioned that putting ‘I am who I am’ in capitals hinted at something else. Stick with me to follow this…
In Hebrew, the whole phrase is one word of four letters (all consonants – that’s how Biblical Hebrew was originally written), YHWH. It’s usually pronounced (and occasionally written) Yahweh, though traditionally (and due to a misunderstanding, but that’s another story) as Jehovah.
Because the name of God is so important to Jewish people, and to avoid breaking the third commandment (You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, Exodus 20:7), when the Bible is read aloud in synagogues, every time YHWH is written, the reader traditionally says instead Adonai, which means ‘The Lord’. Out of respect for the same tradition, most English Bibles print ‘the LORD’ instead of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Have a quick look through, and see how often it comes up! (For another thought about this, see my note below.)
God in the New Testament and the Creed
In the New Testament, the picture of ‘God as God’ develops as we begin to see more about the inner nature of God, but it’s in the thinking that led to the Creeds that this really gets filled out as the church came to understand God as Trinity.
‘God for us’, though, takes a big step. Abraham and Israel are still very much in the picture, but now the key way to understand ‘God for us’ is through what he has done in and through Jesus, reaching out in love and bringing salvation to the whole world. In Jesus we see God with a human face, and all of our attempts to understand him now go through what we see in Jesus.The whole idea of ‘God for us’ is so rich that we even begin to know him as ‘Father,’ which in turn draws us into the whole mystery of the Trinity and so back into ‘God as God.’
Working out what all this means will take up most of the rest of the Creed, so I won’t say much more here…
One God for everyone
Remember, one reason we have the Nicene Creed is that the Emperor Constantine wanted unity in the Church as a help to unity in his empire. That doesn’t take anything away from the Creed’s importance or truth, but it must have given added importance to this opening phrase – ‘We believe in one God.’ In a world even more multicultural than our own, with many people even in the Empire still devoted to or fearful of many ‘gods’, to proclaim the unity and uniqueness of God was not a bland statement. It was a rousing declaration of faith.
It also set at the beginning of the Creed the reminder of the Church’s true unity – before we get into the details, we remind ourselves that with all our differences of culture, language, priority and in some cases theology, we believe in, worship and serve the same God.
That still needs to be said.
Why does this matter now?
One God, many points of view
That reminder, that all who declare the faith expressed in the Creed are talking about and worshipping the same God, is just as important now as it was in the fourth century.
We’ll come back to thinking about the Church (as it should be) at the end of the Creed, but we know and see constantly that the church is divided, between and within denominations. That was true when the Creed was written, and it’s always been true, even in the times when the Church authorities were powerful enough to silence most who disagreed on anything important. But God is beyond our disagreements. Before going any further in daring to write about God, I want to say clearly that I know I’m wrong in some of what I believe – I just don’t know exactly which bits of what I believe are wrong, and I’m trying to work it out as I go. I start from the assumption that someone with whom I disagree about any point of theology is probably seeking the truth as honestly as I am – and may have seen something I haven’t, or on the other hand they may have missed something that’s helped me to see the truth. We’re both seeking and serving the same God, because he’s the only God there is.
One God, many faiths?
Talking of there being one God must affect how we see other faiths and those who seek God, truth, enlightment, wholeness or whatever they recognise as reality by other paths. Again, my starting point is to assume that my Sikh friends in Wednesfield, for example, are seeking the one God as honestly and earnestly as anyone who worships at St Thomas’ Church. Again, I know there may be things that some of them may have seen of God that I have so far missed!
That doesn’t mean that all faiths are equal as paths to God, or that none of them go seriously astray. That’s where we come back to the two strands of describing God – God as God and God for us. Most of the rest of the Creed will set out things that are particular to the Christian understanding of God we have come to know through Jesus. It is Jesus, more than anything else, that I believe sets Christianity apart from any other path by which people seek God; for in Jesus we start from the reality that before we reach out to seek God, God reaches out to come to us.
Footnote – ‘Yahweh’ and ‘LORD’ – language matters
I mentioned above that out of respect for ancient Jewish tradition most English Bibles print ‘the LORD’ everywhere the original Hebrew uses ‘YHWH’ (’I am who I am’), God’s name for himself. I’ve always felt that this is a useful reminder of Christianity’s Jewish roots, which have been forgotten too often with terrible results.
At a lecture in 2019, I heard Bishop Pete Wilcox speak on the first two chapters of Genesis. There were many things to think about in the lectures, but the one thing that hit me most powerfully was that by this tradition we’ve changed the balance of the language we use about God, and perhaps changed the emphasis of how the Old Testament talks about him.
The ‘name’ YHWH is, as I said above, about ‘God as God’, an absolute statement of God’s ultimate reality and self-sufficient being. It’s also neither masculine nor feminine, it’s far beyond that.
‘The LORD’, on the other hand, is about God in relation to us, and emphasises God’s authority over us. It also carries masculine and patriarchal echoes. Now this is not ‘wrong’, of course – when we see in our Old Testament ‘the Lord’ (without the extra capitals) it’s usually translating the word Adonai, which does simply mean ‘the Lord’. But (according to a quick search in my Bible software) adonai is used less than 900 times in the Old Testament; YHWH is used more than 6500 times. In other words, 7/8 of the time that we read the word ‘Lord/LORD’ the original text didn’t use the word ‘Lord’ at all!
So we’re at risk of changing the balance within the truth the Bible speaks about God, losing something important and profound along the way.
The language we use about God matters!