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Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Nicene Creed - A Teaching

Earlier this week, there was a bit of a discussion on apologist John Ankerberg's Facebook page regarding the importance of the early Creeds of the Church, and their usefulness today.  That being said, it inspired me to do my own study and teaching on the Creeds, being that I am a Catholic Christian and they are an important part of our faith.

The name of the Creed, also called the Nicene-Costantinopolitan Creed, comes from a Church council that was convened in AD 325 in the burg of Nicea, a suburb across the Bosporus from the Roman capital of Constantinople.  It was convened in order to establish sound teaching on the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father, and was thus a strong affirmation of Jesus' divinity, which was being challenged at that time by heretics like Arius.  It later, along with the Apostles' and Athanasian Creeds, became one of the pivotal statements of Christian doctrine that was universally accepted by all of the Church, and being it was all Scripture-based, it is an important affirmation of fundamental Christian belief today.  Many of us in liturgical/sacramental traditions are familiar with the Nicene Creed, as it is recited at practically every liturgy.  However, it is also held in high regard as well by conservative Protestants, who accept its authority as a summary of sound Christian fundamentals.  Therefore, it is something that binds us together as the Remnant of Christ, regardless of our denominational monikers.

What I want to do here is basically go point-by-point with the Creed, giving Scriptural references, and this can be used as a catechetical tool.  Therefore, let us begin.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible..."  This first phrase of the Creed establishes that there is one God, and that all things were created by him, including us.  Scriptural reference for this is very basic - Genesis 1:1.  For those who believe in evolution, this statement will prove problematic if you claim to be a Christian, and that evolution and Christianity cannot be reconciled.  God created this world and all the universe as well, and none of us "evolved" from anything.  There are differences among us of course (I am what is called an Old-Earth Creationist, as one example) as to when the beginning of creation took place, but we all know God is the Creator.  And, despite what Stephen Hawking says, God DID create this world and everything in it, and Hawking and others are fools who will one day regret the stand they take.

"And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God."  The Old Testament Prophets attest to this truth, that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Son of God.  The Council Fathers made a strong point of mentioning this because certain among the heretics of that time were actually teaching that God had no Son (those same heretics later influenced Islam, which teaches this as well).  However, John 3:16 says otherwise.

"Begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God..."  In Revelation 1:8 and 22:3, Jesus Himself reveals to the Apostle Saint John that He is the "Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End," and in John 8:58, when Jesus was being challenged by the Jews regarding a statement that He made about Abraham anticipating His coming, He says plainly that "before Abraham was, I AM."  John 1:1 also affirms His pre-existence ("In the beginning was the Word...").  And, of course, there is Hebrews 13:8, which affirms that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, thus affirming His pre-existence. 

As far as "Light from Light" is concerned, as I write this we have just celebrated Christmas, which of course is observed on December 25th.  It is of interest to note that although December may not be the actual birthday of Jesus, as many scholars have placed his birth in September, it may actually be the time He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Theotokos.  Two things stick out in that regard.  First, Christmas is celebrated at the same time as a major Jewish festival, Channukah, and if you history buffs will recall Channukah commemorates when the Temple was reclaimed from the pagan king Antiochus Epiphanes by the Maccabees, and as a result, a miraculous light appeared in the menorah in the Holy Place of the Temple.  Our bodies, as described by Scripture, are called "temples of the Holy Spirit," and Mary the Theotokos is often compared to both the Ark of the Covenant (which was seen as an archetype of her by some students of prophecy) as well as a icon of the Temple.  Therefore, just like the Light of holiness was restored to the Temple, so was Jesus, the Light of the world, sent to us to restore us to our God.  Hence, that is important.  Secondly, if Jesus was birthed in September, as some Bible students are beginning to speculate, what that means is that Jesus would have been born during the Jewish Feast of Rosh Hashanah, and if you know something about that, it is also known as the Feast of Trumpets and signifies a new year being birthed.  With Jesus, a new chapter in humanity was birthed - through Him, we were made righteous before God, and thus He was our ultimate Atonement.  He died and was resurrected during Passover too, which means that he was the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world.  Looking at it from that perspective (Christianity and the life of Jesus center prominently around Jewish ceremonial observance, which also is interesting!) He represents the ultimate act of God's mercy toward us - God taking our form, sacrificing Himself for us to be reconciled to Him, and thus our restoration to what God called us to be; thus, Jesus is Very God of Very God, as the Creed states.

Also, in the older Western liturgies such as the Tridentine Latin Mass and the 1928 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, it is customary to bow the head in reverence at the mention of Jesus' name.  This reminds us too that this is not only the Son of God, but also God the Son.

"Begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made"  This elaborates on the last part, in that it reaffirms the divinity of Jesus.  Although Virgin-born, Jesus was begotten, and not created - Jesus is an eternal being, as God Incarnate, and therefore is not a created being but merely took on the garb of humanity in order to be a perfect sacrifice for our sins.  Again, this refuted heretics like Arius who denied the divinity of Christ, as well as Nestorius, who more or less stated (or at least certain of his followers did) that Jesus was only God after the Resurrection but was a man before.  This also affirms that Jesus has a dual nature - He is fully God and fully man at the same time, both in His life as well as His resurrection and ascension.

"Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man..."  This is John 3:16, that God so loved the world that He Himself, in the incarnation of Jesus, gave Himself for our sins.  In the liturgy, at the point where it begins "and was incarnate..." it is customary to genuflect, rising at the end of the statement.  The genuflection constitutes an act of memorial that Jesus came to save each and every one of us who desire salvation, and is a lost practice in so many "modern" liturgies.

"And He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate: He suffered and was buried..."  This is taken straight from the Gospel accounts of the Passion of our Lord, and is fundamental to our faith; Jesus died for us.  He is again here the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God who has taken our sins and has extended God's mercy, which we don't deserve yet is freely given to us.

"And on the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures..."  Again from the Gospels, this is the Resurrection, and we of course commemorate this on Easter Sunday.  The joyous Orthodox hymn of Paska,"Christ has risen from the dead, by death He trampled death, and to those in the tombs He bestoweth life!" expresses this truth well. Without the Resurrection, there is no salvation.  It is as important as the Cross, as it completes the work of redemption God intended for us.

I have used newer verbiage here, because in the older rendering it says "according to the Scriptures."  In fulfillment of the Scriptures is a stronger affirmation of our faith.

"And ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of the Father..."  The Ascension of the Lord is the next important event on the Church calendar after the Resurrection, because Christ returned to heaven to prepare a place for us.  The Ascension is accounted in Mark 16:19 and in Acts 1:9-10.

"And He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, and of His kingdom there shall be no end."  This is the Blessed Hope, the Second Coming of Christ.  It is a prophetic event yet to happen, and the New Testament devotes much space to this.

First, the truth conveyed here is that Jesus will return, and that is cardinal to our faith.  As to the specifics, Church tradition allows for a number of interpretations, and the minors do not affect the major.  I have my own convictions on this, that it is immanent, and that certain things can foretell when the time is at hand.  Therefore, it means little in the greater scheme of things if you are a dispensationalist, amillenialist, premillenialist, etc.  The important thing is that the fact Jesus is coming back is recognized and accepted, as it is a foundational doctrine of the Church.

The Liturgy is a dress rehearsal for this too, and we are reminded of that in the book of Revelation, which is a liturgical text as well as a prophetic one.  Also, two important phrases - one used in the West and one in the Eastern Church - express this hope as well and are repeated frequently in the Liturgy regarding the fact that "of His Kingdom there shall be no end."  The first, used in older Western Liturgies, is "world without end."  That phrase is used as a benediction to many liturgical prayers.  In the East, the equivalent phrase is "Unto Ages of Ages."  Both express the same thing in different words.  And, both are based on the same doctrine that is expressed in this part of the Creed too.

The final section of the Creed is divided into four parts, and they are these:

1.  The Holy Spirit
2.   The Church
3.   The Sacrament of Holy Baptism
4.   Our Eternal Reward

"And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of life:  who proceedeth from the Father.  Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets..."  This affirms a central truth of the Christian faith - God is a Trinity, the Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity, and as such the Holy Spirit is fully God.   Therefore, as God, the Holy Spirit receives the same worship as the Father and the Son.   There are some, especially among liberal professing Christians and the New Age movement, that have taught some bizarre things regarding the Holy Spirit.  Some treat Him as if He is an "it," an ethereal "force" similar to what a Jedi from Star Wars uses.  That is simply bad theology.  Other weird ideas, such as the followers of Qabala, have taught that the Holy Spirit was actually God's wife and is a woman named "Shekinah."  I am not going to be doing an in-depth study of the Holy Spirit now, as that is for later, but sufficive to say orthodox Christian belief knows and understands the Holy Spirit as a person, as God, and as real as any one of us are.  Thus, that is basic doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

A second thing about this passage of the Creed is its wording.  I use the Eastern Church version of the Creed, which does not include an addition added by the Western Church later called the ex Patre Filioque clause.  It was added to the Western version of the Creed at the Council of Toledo in 589 in order to combat an anti-Trinitarian heresy.  It was never part of the original Creed, and therefore I personally don't use it based on John 15:26.   The Latin translation of this text is "and the Son," and was inserted after the part above which says "who proceedeth from the Father."  However, if my Western brethren choose to use the ex Patre Filioque, I don't see it as something to split hairs over either; I just prefer to not include it because I want to remain true to the original Creed as it was drawn at the Council.

"And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church..."  Romans 12:4-5 says there is but one Body, and that we all have our place and function in it.  The denominational division within Christianity over the centuries is a great scandal and tragedy, and it is unfortunate that there is all the division over stupid formalities in many cases.  Personally, I count as brethren all Christians who uphold this faith, and those include Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox.  I believe, as time starts to come to a climax and the return of Christ comes near, the true Remnant of believers will constitute what this phrase in the Creed says. 

"I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins..."  The Mystery of Holy Baptism is our initiation into the Church, and it does carry with it a powerful sacramental grace that reflects in us our own death, burial, and resurrection in Christ, thus washing away our sins by His blood.  Baptism is the tie that binds the Church together, and we are marked for Christ with the seal of Baptism.

"And I expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come, Amen."  One day, by Rapture or repose, we will all meet Jesus if we die in a state of grace with Him.  The promise we receive at death is that we will be resurrected with glorified bodies one day.  In I Thessalonians, it talks about this when it describes what some conservative Protestants call the Rapture, but nonetheless is something real that will happen one day - the dead in Christ will rise first, and we that remain will be caught up with them in the clouds when Jesus returns for His Bride. 

I have also used a modern Eastern phraseology for this too, as the older text says "and I look for the resurrection of the dead."  "Looking for" is like waiting on a bus, in my opinion, and "expect" better states the sentiment we should have, as it is the "Blessed Hope" of all faithful who die in Christ.  And, expectation has a more positive, anticipatory tone to it as well - it is a joyous event, and the culmination of our Christian pilgrimage to the heavenly Zion.  Thus it is not merely an event to look for, but a blessing to expect joyfully.

That is essentially a breakdown of our Creed as we know it, and hopefully it helps you to understand our faith as Christians better, because this is a wonderful statement of that faith.  The Creed is also a prayer, a weapon against Satan, and a personal confession of our personal faith.  Therefore, even if you are not part of a liturgical/sacramental church like me, you can still benefit from this theologically rich and doctrinally sound statement of fundamental Christian doctrine.  I also want to examine soon the other two major Creeds, the Apostles' and the Athanasian, as they are integral to our faith as well.  God be with and bless each of you until next time.