The Nicene Creed

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We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty...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.

5 thoughts on “The Nicene Creed

  1. I’m sorry. This is one a definitely wished had passed and there’s no reason it shouldn’t have.

    One thing I would have added to your second point is that a lot of these objections to the manner in which the Nicene Creed was historically adopted, come with an unspoken presupposition that a church where the Nicene followers lost out would have become more rich, more open, more tolerant, etc., when in fact the opposite would likely have been true. The principle opponents to the creed and its doctrines, the Arians, did not want a more tolerant or diverse church. They wanted a church were their own doctrines were the official doctrines and everything else was heresy. If we paint them as the victims, we’re missing key components of the actual history. In fact, there was a brief period after Constantine in which the Arians came to power under his son Constantius and proceeded to enact the same kind of purging of the church as before, removing key Nicenes like Athanasius, Hosius, and Eusthathius, some of whom were never restored. Athanasius himself was exiled no less than seven times and nearly murdered at least once. The Arians even proceeded to attack some of the more moderate church leaders who had fully subscribed to the decisions at Nicaea (which ended up helping the creed’s proponents win them over). In ancient church history while the heretics are always the losers, they’re not always victims. More to the point an attack on the creed from the basis that it excluded certain sects or beliefs, fails to consider the larger questions of salvation and the God-human relationship at stake in these ancient disputes.

  2. A word about process—just because this petition was not agreed to by the sub-committee of Faith and Order doesn’t mean the petition is dead. It will be voted on by the entire Faith and Order Committee sometime this week. Hopefully some committee members will read this post, and present your reasoning to the group before the vote. The committee may vote to take the petition to the plenary session for a vote. Even if the Faith and Order Committee decides NOT to recommend this petition, it MAY be presented to the plenary session through another means. Someone needs to go to the Faith and Order Committee chairperson (or maybe the secretary), and ask for a petition that may be signed by delegates (not reserve delegates) to take this to the plenary floor. I forget precisely how many delegate signatures are necessary, but they need to be collected QUICKLY in order to meet a deadline. It helps to have several people (who do not necessarily need to be delegates) collecting delegate signatures. ANY full delegate may sign such a petition–he or she does not need to be on the Faith and Order Committee.

    If this cannot be done for some reason, the petition may be presented again in 4 years. In preparation for that, I would recommend that the petitioners find out who the members of the Faith and Order Committee will be. They should contact several of the members (at least), and try to recruit a committee member or two to serve as an advocate for the petition when it comes up for discussion. It might be helpful for the committee member to have a blogpost like this to read in the committee.

    Good luck.

  3. If people understood Methodist history better they would realize that John Wesley excepted and used the Apostles and Nicene creeds. They both are in our hymnals and are used in our rituals. However he did look at the creeds as secondary to the authority of the Bible. In describing what a Christian looks like he basically used the Nicene Creed as his outline. So if he believed the Nicene creed projected what a true Christian would look like why would we not want to adopt it as an official creed for the United Methodist Church?

  4. I agree that the Nicene Creed is a stronger statement about the basics of Christian faith than others, including the Apostles’ Creed. I certainly hope that General Conference will adopt it as part of our doctrinal standards.

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