Yesterday, news began to trickle out that Petition 60980-FO-104-G, a petition to add the Nicene Creed to our doctrinal standards, had been voted down in the GA subcommittee (It is still up for consideration by Faith and Order). As someone who had helped to pen an open letter in support of the petition, this was naturally a frustrating turn of events. In the course of discussing this petition, many of the same objections have been raised. I would like to take time this blog post to address some of these objections. It is my belief that, ironically enough, many of the common objections to the Nicene Creed are actually reasons in favor of including it among our doctrinal standards.First, there is the objection that Methodists have historically stayed away from creeds, that we are not a creedal church. Why, one might ask, did John Wesley not include the Nicene Creed in our standards from the beginning? Well, the answer is complicated. The Apostles’ Creed has always been part of Methodism. Protestants like the Wesleys preferred the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicene creed because it was believed at the time to be simpler and more primitive. From the vantage of modern scholarship this is harder to maintain. The earliest citation of the Apostles Creed comes from the late 4th century, about the same time as the version of the Nicene Creed which is in our hymnal. We know for sure, however, that earlier versions of the Nicene Creed go back to the third century (Eusebius states that the creed adopted by the Council of Nicaea was based on the creed of his church in Caesarea, Palestine, which had been around at least since he had been baptized in the later third century). If the early Methodists had been working from the findings of more recent scholarship, they might have preferred to use the Nicene Creed from the beginning!
Second, many object that the Nicene Creed is tainted because of its connection with imperial projects from Constantine through the middle ages to the present. For many, the very existence of a Creed evokes the kind of Christianity that excludes dissenters by force and uses violent anathemas to police the boundaries of the Church. Certainly, this history cannot be denied (just as it cannot be denied with the Articles of Religion, which are in our current standards). It is important to note, however, that the actual Creed, as used in our hymnals and by many Christian bodies throughout the world, does not contain any anathemas. When the Church took up the Creed, it took up something that was universal and spoke to the heart of our beliefs about God and salvation–and it set aside the more particular anathemas which had been approved alongside it at the actual councils that composed it. The Creed, as a creed, is a positive statement about who God is and what God has done, not an instrument of exclusion.
Third, some believe that approving the Nicene Creed would limit the range of theology within the United Methodist Church. They feel it would compromise our treasured ‘catholic spirit,’ which practices unity in essentials and in all things charity. The Nicene Creed, however, is not as precise and sectarian as our existing doctrinal standards, which are all specifically Methodist. The Nicene Creed is adhered to by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Christians of all sorts of persuasions. The Nicene Creed was composed by Christian bishops from all over the world and has presided over all the theological diversity of the last seventeen centuries of Christianity; our current doctrinal standards were composed by men from England and North America in the last few hundred years.
Finally, some object that approving the Nicene Creed as one of our doctrinal standards could seem to relativize the authority of Scripture by subordinating it to a Creed. This was something the first framers of the Creed were themselves very concerned about. At the Council of Nicaea the most controversial word in the whole thing was homoousios, “consubstantial” (the Son being “consubstantial with the Father). This word was controversial because it was basically the only word in the creed that didn’t come straight from Scripture. The Nicene Creed is soaked in the Scriptures: its basic structure comes from 1 Corinthians 8:6, and, outside of homoousios, nearly the whole thing is made of up quotations from Scripture. In this it is different from later creedal statements like the Chalcedonian Definition. Perhaps more importantly, this also makes it different from our current standards, such as the Articles of Religion, which use technical theological terminology (such as “three persons, one substance” in Article 1) instead of plain Biblical language. In terms of showing the ultimate deference of our doctrinal standards to the authority of Scripture, the addition of the Nicene Creed would be an improvement.
In short, many of the reasons which have been given for opposing the inclusion of the Nicene Creed among our doctrinal standards are actually reasons to favor it. It fits more neatly with the Wesleyan desire to imitate the earliest practices of the Church. It is a document which acknowledges the entanglement of Christianity with worldly power and strives to transcend it. It is an ecumenical document, which has proven capable of uniting Christian of the most divergent viewpoints imaginable. Finally, it is a document which reaffirms and illustrates the supreme authority of Scripture for our faith and practice.
This post was written by Austin Rivera, a provisional elder in the Great Plains Conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.