Historical creeds and confessions are like letters from Christians who have come before us, warning us against dangerous theological mistakes that have threatened the church in the past. Today, Barry Cooper considers one of the most important Christian creeds ever written.
Mistakes have a way of repeating themselves. Based on my research, it turns out I’m not the first teenager to have ruined a car by pouring water in the hole where the oil is supposed to go. Or maybe it was oil where the water was supposed to go, I’m not sure. Either way, the car did not appreciate it, and neither did my parents.
Nor am I the first person to forget to back up my wedding photos, accidentally set fire to my hair due to an excess of hair product, or mispronounce the word “alibi” as “aleebee”.
Mistakes can happen easily in the theological realm too, and chances are, they’re mistakes that have already been made well before we ever think of making them. Wouldn’t it be good if our ancestors could forewarn us about these theological pitfalls and wrong turns? This is one of the reasons why creeds and confessions are so valuable.
The historical Christian creeds and confessions were usually written to address the theological mistakes of their time - mistakes that we could very easily slip into today. Like my unhappy interaction with the engine of a Volkswagen, many of these mistakes don’t even seem like mistakes when we make them. It’s only when we’re a little way down the road that we start to see the damaging consequences. So creeds and confessions can protect us in ways we may not even realize we need protecting.
I’d like to focus on one creed in particular: the Nicene Creed. It was formulated in the year 325 in the Greek city of Nicaea, which was situated in the modern Turkish city of İznik.
A controversy had arisen about the nature of Christ. In the red corner, there was Arius. Understanding, quite rightly, that there is only one God, he reasoned, quite wrongly, that God the Father alone is eternal and uncreated. Everything other than the Father is created, including - said Arius - the Son, whom God made before anything else. Arius was keen to affirm that Christ was a perfect creature, but nevertheless he must be a creature - even though he was the creature through whom the Father created everything else.
Arius grew quite the following, because from a certain point of view, you can see the appeal. If Christ and the Father are both eternal and uncreated, then how can you say there’s only one God? Arius’ answer? “There was a time when [Christ] was not.”
However, in the blue corner was Athanasius, who saw that Arius was teaching something unscriptural which if left unchecked would have profoundly damaging consequences for people. For example, if Christ is not eternally God then how could it be right to worship Him? And how can his death and resurrection save us if He is not, in fact, the eternal Son?
So representatives of the early church met in Nicaea to wrestle with the issue, and reaffirm the teaching of Scripture. The result was the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which contains these important lines:
[We believe…] in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages, [begotten here means “of the same essence as”]
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Later, in 381, the Council of Constantinople added a statement on the deity of the Holy Spirit, and that’s what has become our modern Nicene Creed. But at this point, in 325, the focus was on the deity of Christ.
They were writing in Greek, and the key word they used was “homoousios” meaning “same substance” or “essence”: the Son of God, they affirmed, is of the same eternal substance as the Father. The Son, like the Father, has no beginning in time. He always was. So, in the face of Arius’ mistaken attempt at making sense of Jesus, who is God the Son incarnate, the Nicene creed underlines Scripture’s teaching on the matter.
Which might pose the question, well, why not just rely on Scripture rather than creeds? Well, the writers of the Nicene Creed themselves certainly did. For them, Scripture was the ultimate authority, and if something was contrary to Scripture, then it could not stand. But what the best creeds and confessions do is give you the headlines; a concise and pointed summary of the essentials of biblical teaching. Sort of an “at-a-glance guide” to avoiding dangerous theological mistakes.
One of the best tips I received as a younger Christian was from an older pastor who said that if while reading your Bible you come up with a way of understanding a particular doctrine that you think has never before been articulated, or which flies in the face of two thousand years of Christian orthodoxy, tread carefully. Check your understanding against Scripture, of course, but also against the best creeds and confessions - such as the Nicene Creed. It’s possible that you really are a genius, more clear-sighted than all who’ve gone before. But very unlikely.
And given that I confused the water hole with the oil hole, that seemed like sound advice.