Description / Transcription
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three persons. We pray now that You would give us minds to think, hearts to feel, wills to obey, and that You might enlighten the eyes of our heart to understand more and more Your truth and who You are that we might believe and confess. In Christ we pray. Amen.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that after the Bible, the Nicene Creed may be the most important Christian text ever written. Since the 4th century, the Nicene Creed has served, certainly, as the most influential, most ecumenical, which just means widespread across the whole globe, and arguably the most widely used statement of faith in the history of the Church.
True, many of us are a little more familiar with the Apostles’ Creed and certainly we ought to use and recite the Apostles’ Creed as we do here, and that is a faithful symbol, as they’re called in the ancient world. So there’s no need here to do creed versus creed. You can make a movie called “Creed,” I think.
But the Nicene Creed, unlike the Apostles’ Creed, was officially adopted at an ecumenical council and declared to be binding on the whole Church. The Apostles’ Creed, so named because it contains the truths of the Apostle, though no one really believes that the apostles themselves penned what we know as the Apostles’ Creed, probably came together sometime in the 2nd century, the Apostles’ Creed did. The Nicene Creed is a little bit later than that and yet with the Apostles’ Creed we know where it came from, we know when it originated, and we know why it was written. The history of the Apostles’ Creed is just a little more ambiguous.
The two creeds, if you’re familiar with both of them, you’ll notice share a similar structure, utilize some of the same language, and you can find some of the same patterns, especially in the middle where you recount the life and death and resurrection of Christ. But undoubtedly, as I think you’ll see tonight and over these weeks, the Nicene Creed is more theologically precise and more doctrinally robust than the Apostles’ Creed.
The Nicene Creed is not only orthodox, that means a right rule or we use to mean right theology, it’s not only orthodox in its doctrinal commitment, but you could say it summarized and defined orthodoxy itself.
So again, without hyperbole, we can say that every church and every Christian ought to know the Nicene Creed. Sometimes you see that on the back of books or something, “must read.” Really, it’s very hard to say that it’s actually a must read after the Bible, it’s kind of like Brian Regan has that little bit about, “Would you say this is a must win game when you’ve only lost one out of a best of seven?” No, it’s not actually literally a must win game.
Well, not many things written outside the Bible are really a must read, but if anything outside the Bible would bear that commendation, it is the Nicene Creed.
We are coming, plan your festivities well in advance, to the 1700 year anniversary of the Council of Nicaea. And just a parentheses here, when you have those moments, or people you know have those moments, of doubt, and good Christians have doubt, Jude says have mercy on those who doubt, and you wonder, “What are we doing with this thing we call Christianity and these beliefs about one God and three persons and miracles and life and death and resurrection. It isn’t ultimately why we believe it, but one of the things that can help you in those moments is just to remember 1700 years.
Now 2000 years, all the way back to Christ, and much longer than that until the __, but 1700 years. What’s 1700 years from now? You can’t even contemplate that far in advance, or what the world will be like. And yet almost certainly it will be the case that if the Lord tarries that long that the Church of Jesus Christ will still be reciting and studying this thing called the Nicene Creed.
It’s dating back to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, which we’ll see in just a moment is not quite precisely where the Nicene Creed came from, but it’s where the theology of the Creed originated.
So whether you grew up reciting the Nicene Creed or you’re vaguely familiar with it or you did in fact think this was something about Rocky Balboa tonight with creed, if you’ve never heard of it yet, you’re in the right place and hope you will track with us for this week, next week, and then two weeks into January. Here’s what I hope to do in this four-week series. The outline is going to be simple. You can really think of it as eight parts over four weeks, so that’s two parts each week.
This week is going to be mostly giving some history and context and background, and then I want to look at seven particular words or phrases in the Nicene Creed.
So if you open up this copy, and if you don’t have a copy of this you can find it in the Trinity Hymnal on page 846, but you’ll open up this nice pamphlet we made, you’ll see something on the inside called “The Creed of Nicaea.” I’ll explain that in a moment. But I want you to turn to this back page, which is the Nicene Creed, which is something a little different, and it’s the longer one.
If you look here, just to note, the seven words or phrases that I want us to look at over these weeks together.
“We believe,” that’s right at the beginning in the first paragraph. Then the longest one you’ll see has to do with the Son. So you can see Father, Son, Holy Spirit, very obvious trinitarian structure. So next week we’ll look at two words which really are at the very heart of the controversy, the word “only begotten” and the word, or phrase, “one substance.”
Then going down further in that second paragraph we’ll look at the phrase “for us and for our salvation,” which will take us through the work of Christ, and then into the final paragraph we will look at the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Then the last week in January, the sixth and seventh phrases, “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” and then finally “one baptism for the remission of sins.”
By looking at those seven terms or phrases, I hope it will introduce us and help to explain the entire creed.
There’s lots of ways to go about looking at the Nicene Creed. One could be strictly history; we’re going to do that tonight. One would be devotional, to use this as a launching pad to look at various Scripture passages, and we’ll do some of that. But mostly I want this approach to be theological. That is, my hope is after these four weeks this creed which you’ve probably recited in church before, but the words go by very quickly, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re saying and what you’re confessing.
But first, some history. For over two centuries in the early Church, the Church had struggled with how exactly to define the person of Christ and how to understand the trinity. Now when I say they struggled with how to exactly define it, I say that in a certain way so you don’t think that the early Church was worshiping all sorts of gods and sometime at the Council of Nicaea they said, “All right. Let’s vote on how many persons in the trinity. Let’s vote on whether we think Jesus is God or not.” Nothing like that happened, but rather very organically as the Spirit moves and people are reading the Scriptures and different formularies and liturgies are put together, there is an instinctive sense already to worship Christ, to honor Christ, as God.
So the Church is struggling to precisely define it, to come to the right language, to safeguard these truths. They knew that the Father and the Son and the Spirit were profoundly the same, but the Church also grasped in some way they’re also distinct. How do we explain that? We’re worshiping the Son of God, that happens already in the New Testament. They bow down often and they worship Christ. Thomas says to the resurrected Christ, “My Lord and my God.” So these are not new declarations, but it took many years to come up with the right language to express these realities in a way that was biblical, theological, and philosophically sound.
So I just want you to get this. The Church did not invent the truth about Christ, but the Church needed time, careful biblical reflection to safeguard the truth and to say it in the right way.
Often when the Holy Spirit guides the Church in this way, obviously the Bible most important, and people using their heads to reflect upon the Bible, and the Holy Spirit often uses controversy. We can wish that it were not so, but that’s usually one of the means that the Spirit uses to bring God’s people to greater clarity. In fact, there’s warrant for this in 1 Corinthians 11:19. There Paul says that there must be some arguments, even some factions among you, in order that the truth might be more fully known in order that the right side and the wrong side can be delineated. So this already is happening in biblical days.
This is certainly the case with the Nicene Creed.
So here’s the controversy. It erupted in Alexandria, Egypt in A.D. 318 when a presbyter, so think of a pastor of a church, named Arius started airing his theological opinions more publicly. He had been made a presbyter in 313, now in 318 he begins to air his opinions more publicly. Arius was confident, he was impressive in speech, he was well-educated, and he took the Scriptures seriously. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if every time a heresy arose the person was just an absolute terrible man or woman and they didn’t know anything about the Bible and they didn’t care about the Bible and they had nothing to commend themselves, but that’s not usually how it works, and it didn’t with Arius.
As best as we can tell, he was sincere in his convictions, concerned that Christians follow the example of Christ in their daily lives.
The problem was Arius did not believe Christ was fully God, or I should say, he didn’t believe Christ was God in the exact same way the Father was God. If you would have asked Arius, “Is the Son God?” he would have said yes. But the issue was what sort of God in relationship to God the Father. The issue for Arius was not how could a man be God; that’s the question that people today are liable to ask, how could a man, how could a person, be God? No, in his mind the question was how could God become man? It is by definition, isn’t it, the very thing that God of the universe cannot do. So Arius wanted to protect the majesty, sovereignty of God. He wanted to protect monotheism. He wanted to protect the unity of God. So if Jesus was God like the Father, and Jesus suffered and died and endured limitations, then are we saying that God is weak? That God can suffer as God? That God can be changed?
Now that opens up a lot of other theological questions, which we don’t have time to get into, but behind this question were certain Neoplatonists. So you’ve heard of Aristotle and Plato, so this is a new iteration of platonic philosophy, Neoplatonist assumptions. What’s important to understand about it is that they held a sharp distinction between the unchangeable, uncreated, heavenly sphere and the changeable, created earthly sphere.
So it did not make sense to Arius and to some others, how could a God who by definition inhabits this uncreated, unchanging heavenly sphere come to earth as a man in this changeable, created earthly realm. In fact, it seemed blasphemous to Arius that the eternal, uncreated, ever existing God could come down to earth as a man. How could that be?
One of the other lessons for us here – heresy almost always involves denying one truth for the sake of an earnest effort to safeguard another truth. It’s not that heretics usually say, “I got a really bad idea.” No, usually it’s here’s something that’s really, really important, and Arius was right to safeguard that God is unchangeable and impassable and God as God cannot suffer or die. That is critical.
But Arius says in order to safeguard that, this other thing cannot be true. So he posits how then can the Son of God suffer, die, take a nap, eat, be hungry, sleep? Well, He must be some other kind of god than the one we know as God the Father.
Let me give you some examples. Three examples of Arius’ teaching.
The first comes from something that has been called the Arian syllogism, quoted by a 5th century Church historian. Arius’ syllogism went like this. So assuming that this later Church historian is accurate, about 100 years later, here’s what Arius said: “If the Father begat the Son, He that was begotten has a beginning of existence, hence it is clear that there was a time when the Son was not. It follows then of necessity that He had His existence from the nonexistent.”
Notice the logic. The Son was begotten of the Father. We understand that, everyone agreed to that, we sing that. Next week we’ll look at what that means and doesn’t mean. But he took that starting place. Okay, we’re with you, Arius. The Son was begotten of the Father.
But then the next premise – therefore, and Arius’ logic, if you are begotten, by definition, he thinks, you must have had a beginning.
So to say that the Son is begotten of the Father. Well, we have to say that, because to be a son by definition is to be in a relationship with a father that is one of the father begetting and the son begotten. That’s just what it means to be a son to have a father. So he’s begotten.
But Arius’ logic says that if He’s a Son who is begotten, that begetting implies a beginning.
Now we might say well, that’s how it works with children, right? Every single one of us had a beginning. There was a time when we were not. We had to be born.
Arius says there was a time when Christ, when the Son, was not. And actually he doesn’t quite say “time,” we put that in there to try to grasp it, but he would have thought we’re actually thinking of something before there was time as we know it. There was something. We’ll call it a “time,” quote/unquote, in which the Son did not exist.
So that’s the first thing, the Arian syllogism.
Here’s another example. In a letter to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia. Now in this story there are two Eusebiuses, just to get it confusing. Eusebius of Caesarea and this one, Eusebius of Nicomedia. So in a letter in 321, Arius rejected the idea that the Son coexisted with God. He said he rejected this notion God always, the Son always.
So that must have been maybe one of the slogans of the orthodox party. He says no, no, no. God always, Son always, I reject that.
Instead he told Eusebius of Nicomedia he would continue to teach, here’s Arius in this letter: “Before the Son was begotten or created or appointed or established, He did not exist for He was not unbegotten.”
Same logic we saw before: He was not unbegotten.
So if He was begotten, then Arius says He must have been created, appointed, established. He did not exist before the Father begot Him. Arius claimed that he and his followers were being persecuted “because we say that the Son has a beginning but God is without beginning.”
Same idea. The Son has a beginning. God the Father, no beginning. The Son, because He was begotten of God, must have a beginning.
Third example. This comes from a poem which is recounted to us from Athanasius, the great champion of Nicene orthodoxy. The poem is called “Thalia,” meaning abundance or banquet. In the middle of the poem, and it might have been a hymn or a chant, we find the central contention of Arius’ theology. Let me read it to you.
“The uncreated God has made the Son, a beginning of things created, and by adoption has God made the Son into an advancement of Himself, yet the Son’s substance is removed from the substance of the Father.”
Now listen. This is key.
“The Son,” this is Arius’ hymn, “is not equal to the Father nor does he share in the all wise Father, and the Son is the teacher of His mysteries, the members of the holy trinity share in unequal glories.”
Ah. That last line indicates how much is at stake with this controversy. Lest you think, “Really, how much does this matter? We’re arguing about philosophical niceties and nuances. Can’t we all just use the language of the Bible and pray to Jesus and save souls and call it good?”
No. You hear the logical conclusion of Arius’ theology, that the members of the holy trinity share in unequal glories. The Son may be God in some way, the Spirit may be God in some way, but they are not God in the same way that the Father is God. All three, Arius would say, are glorious and worthy of praise, but not equal glory, little different glory for the Father. Consequently, not equal praise.
So this is not highfalutin’ wrangling over philosophy, this is about the very heart of Christianity. And Athanasius will be the great champion of Nicene orthodoxy. One of the arguments he makes over and over again is he looks at how the Christians worship and how they pray, what they instinctively do and had been doing ever since the beginning in their churches, and he says, “Are you worshiping a creature? Are you praying to and singing hymns to someone who was made?”
Well, that’s what Arius says.
The whole Christian East was in turmoil over Arius’ teaching, bishop against bishop, province against province, church against church.
So the Council of Nicaea is called by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325. By tradition said that 318 bishops were present; there were about 1800 bishops in the empire at the time. At this time still bishop, presbyter, priest, the sort of language gets to be used very interchangeably. Bishop might have been someone who had a particularly important city in which he was pastoring, but the later hierarchical organization will come over the ensuing centuries.
So 318 bishops present. Only seven were from the West, meaning what today is France, Spain, Rome, Carthage in North Africa. All the rest are from the East.
It must have been just amazing to have an ecumenical council in the Roman Empire when it was just a decade earlier that Constantine had had his famous conversion and now they were. Some of these bishops literally would have had disfigurement, would have had the literal scars in their bodies from the persecution that they faced at the end of the Roman persecution before Constantine’s conversion.
Eusebius of Caesarea, other Eusebius, maybe the first Church historian, writes about Constantine in very glowing terms, that he glittered with rays of light, his purple robe was glowing and radiant, his clothing was adorned with the splendor of gold and silver. He was like a heavenly messenger of God and we’re apt to read that and say, “Okay, come on, Eusebius. I know, I know. Trying to be in good with the emperor. You’re laying it on a little thick.” Maybe he was, but remember, he had no doubt seen Christians killed by the Romans. He had witnessed the suffering and most of the bishops had. So you, too, would think this is a mighty act of deliverance from God, that the Roman emperor of all people has called together this council. And not only that, he paid their way. That’s always good. The PCA doesn’t even pay for the presbyters to go to the General Assembly.
After all these years of persecution and hostility, here they were. They were there to settle other matters, but of course the big debate is Arianism. There were roughly speaking three parties, three groups. There was a group that came in strongly opposed to Arius. They have some intellectual firepower; Alexander of Alexandria, another bishop from Antioch, another one from Jerusalem, a man by the name of Hosius of Cordova from Spain, who was Constantine’s theological advisor, and then Alexander’s right hand man, at this point he’s an arch deacon, a man by the name of Athanasius, who was not given a vote but he will figure prominently in the history of this controversy. So there are some that come in that are absolutely certain that Arius must be opposed.
Then there are those who were somewhat sympathetic to Arius, led by the influential Eusebius of Nicomedia. Remember I quoted that letter from Arius to this Eusebius. This Eusebius was also a close friend of the Emperor. Arius did not have a vote, but he was invited by the Emperor and was called upon to set forth his views.
So there’s an anti-Arian, there’s a sympathetic to Arius, and then as is often the case, there’s a kind of middle party, the majority. This is often how it is in theological disputes. The key is to so explain things so that those in the middle who want to do the right thing, but they need to see the right thing and have the courage to do the right thing.
Philip Schaff, maybe a little too cynically, said “Many of them had an orthodox instinct but little discernment.”
Most notable in this middle group is the other Eusebius, the historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who initially wanted to find a solution that everyone could agree on.
So this Eusebius proposed adopting an ancient formula called the Palestinian Confession, which acknowledged the divinity of Christ. The Emperor liked this. Those even sympathetic to Arius were ready to sign off on it, but those most strongly opposed to Arius were concerned. They wanted the creed to be more specific. They wanted something that no Arian could honestly subscribe to.
Constantine wants peace, as emperors do, and he sees that this initial try is not going to work so he speaks up for making something a little meatier. By some accounts, Constantine is the one who proposed the word “homoousia.” If that’s the case, it’s almost certainly that Hosius of Cordova, his advisor, was the one who proposed it to him and maybe to lend it some weight it came through the Emperor’s mouth. But Hosius comes back with a document that the bishops agreed to. The Son was declared to be of the same essence of the Father and Arianism is clearly condemned.
So I want you to take this pamphlet and I want you to open up to the middle there, The Creed of Nicaea. So this Creed of Nicaea, not exactly the Nicene Creed which we’ll come to, but this in the middle of your handout was first promulgated on June 19, 325. It provided the core theological ideas that would be further developed and solidified in what we call the Nicene Creed.
Let me read it and you follow along.
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is from the substances of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.”
Okay, so that’s clearly a swipe at Arius.
“Of one substance,” there’s the word that we’ll spend much time on next week, homoousia. Usia is a Greek word meaning being or substance or essence, homo a prefix meaning same, so one or same substance, sometimes translated, “consubstantial with the Father; through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate. Becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, will come to judge the living and the dead, and in the Holy Spirit.
This this initial creed has a paragraph denouncing the false teaching.
“But as for those who say,” and here we’re quoting the Arian idea, “there was when He was not, and before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance or is subject to alteration or change, these the catholic,” there meaning universal, there is no Roman Catholic church as such, I would argue, “yet the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes, condemns.”
So you see there in that “anathema” the critical language. Anyone who says the Son of God is of a different substance. Now look at that, this is just to make things, make sure you’re thinking clearly. You see that other word, which is just given in its Greek term instead of translated, a different hypostasis? Here’s one of the confusing things about Church history. That term at this point in the 4th century means basically the same thing as the next term substance. It means being, essence, think about the God-ness of God.
But this term hypostasis will change a bit in its philosophical meaning and come to mean something like our word “person.” So later as the doctrine develops it will be said that the trinity exists in three hypostases, or when we talk about Christ, we talk about the hypostatic union. That is, one person, the union of two natures.
But here it’s not the word thinking “person” but more “essence,” or God-ness, or substance.
So this is what the Council of Nicaea establishes in 325. It’s called the First Ecumenical Council. The first time that a creed or a statement of faith was officially adopted with the express purpose that it should be binding on every church everywhere.
So Arius is sidelined. You might think, “yes, roll the credits, end of the movie, good for Nicaea.” But the issues were far from settled. After Nicaea some were still uncomfortable with that word “homoousia.” Thinking “same essence.” So rival groups emerged. Some said yes, that’s the right term, others argued no, the Son is only like God in nature. Or maybe we can say the Son was like God in His activity but not His nature, or the Son is really unlike God in His essence.
More work was necessary to further define and establish this theology.
So two generations later, February 27, 380, Emperor Theodosius I issues an edict declaring the Creed of Nicaea represented “the faith which we believe to have been communicated by the Apostle Peter to the Romans and maintained in its traditional form to the present day.” So the Emperor Theodosius, a Christian, there is saying this doctrine which Nicaea defined, we believe this is the very faith that goes all the way back to the apostles.
A year later in 381, the bishops, this time all from the East, meet at Constantinople, and this is called the Second Ecumenical Council. The bishops wanted “the profession of faith of the holy fathers who gathered in Nicaea and Bethania is not to be abrogated but is to remain in force.”
So they have this Creed of Nicaea, as we call it, but you’ll notice they didn’t simply repeat or even just add a few phrases here or there. They developed, we don’t want to quite call it a new creed, because they didn’t see themselves as creating a new creed, they saw themselves as taking the same structure there, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the same central affirmations of homoousia, which we’ll come to next week, and making something that is very much in continuity with the theology, even if the creed itself is new.
In other words, what we call the Nicene Creed actually was approved not at the Council of Nicaea but at the Council of Constantinople in 381. So sometimes it’s called, really only by scholars and seminary students, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan something creed. It’s very hard to say. So we’re not going to call it that, but it’s just the hyphened the Nicene and the Constantinople creed, we’re going to call it what it has come to be known as the Nicene Creed, established in 381.
The Apostles’ Creed was divided into 12 articles for the 12 apostles, and likewise the Nicene Creed can be divided into 12 articles. We won’t take the time to recite it this week, but we will in subsequent weeks.
What I want to do with our time remaining, and I said the history would take up most of the time, is just to focus on the first of these seven words or phrases that I want to highlight.
So look at the back, the Nicene Creed. The first word is “pisteoman.” That’s the Greek word. It’s translated “we believe.” One word in Greek, two words in English. In Latin, the first word is “credomus.” The verb “credo,” “I believe,” is where we get the English word “creed.” In short, a creed is something that the Church is called upon to believe.
Creeds and confessions are a response to the New Testament command not to teach any different doctrine, 1 Timothy 1:3, to follow good doctrine, 1 Timothy 4:6, to keep a close watch on the teaching, 1 Timothy 4:16, to teach the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, 1 Timothy 6:3, to follow the pattern of sound words, 2 Timothy 1:13, to guard the good deposit, to hold firm to the trustworthy Word as taught, to refute those who contradict it.
Think of how important it is in the New Testament that God’s people believe the right things. Jesus Himself, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s not as if the, you know, liberal theologians conduct themselves as if the apostles should have said, “Why does it matter? We love you and we follow your teachings.” But of course, everything hinged upon the answer to that question, “Who am I?”
Acts 2:42. The primitive Church there, the very first thing that describes the churches, they are devoted to the apostles’ teaching. Now we’re so used to that it doesn’t even strike us, but it doesn’t say the very first thing, well, they’re devoted to good works, or they’re devoted to charity, or they’re devoted to acts of justice in their community, but they were defined by being committed to the apostles’ teaching.
Romans 10:9 and 10 tell us that the Gospel is something both to be believed and then to confess. That’s why we have creeds. That we believe this truth and therefore confess.
1 Corinthians 8. Paul uses the language of the famous Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” And in 1 Corinthians 8 he puts Jesus Christ right in the middle of the Shema, right in that ultimate statement of Old Testament monotheism. Paul says we worship one God and you know who God is? He’s the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15 gives another definition of the Gospel. Paul says he passed on of first importance. We have that hymn-like statement in Philippians 2 about the person of Christ. Other statements. 1 Timothy 2:5, there is one God, one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3:16, which we already read, great is the mystery of godliness.
The essence of the earliest Christian confession is simply that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Timothy was told repeatedly guard the good deposit, pass it on to others, keep a close watch on your teaching. You must be able to teach, correct your opponents with gentleness. In short, he must be able to give instruction and sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it. We could go on and on.
Clearly, in the New Testament, there is a core of apostolic teaching that must be embraced by the Christian, a deposit of truth without which our Gospel message is no longer the Gospel. Paul says again and again, if you depart from these core truths, you have departed from the faith.
It is amazing when you think about that doctrine should be this important. This is not the way that religion worked in the ancient Roman world. Christians believed certain things were true and essential to being a Christian was affirming specific facts of history and particular interpretations of those facts.
If you’ve been a Christian a long time, that just seems intuitive, but it was not at all intuitive in the Roman world. Religion in the Roman world was expressed in different ways.
Let me suggest a few. One, Roman religion was usually cultic ritual. I don’t mean cult like a scary compound, I mean worship, services, rites, liturgies, a cultic ritual. That is, religion in the Roman world involved sacrifices, priests, priestesses, and temples. That’s what you did if you were a religious person. You went and you had these services performed.
Second. Religion in Rome was filled with ecstatic experiences. So a heightened sensory experience. There may be smells, or lights, or sounds, or touch, or movement, or certain food or drink. You were to have a heightened kind of sensory experience.
Three. There were in the Greco-Roman world many mystery religions. That is, these religions that had certain rites of initiation. You had a special meal, you wore certain clothing, you received certain oracles or prophecies. You were invited into this special secret society.
Then fourth, of course, religion in the Roman world was for civic virtue, to honor the Emperor, to worship the Emperor, to spread throughout the land a certain kind of obeisance to the Emperor and a certain kind of virtue that led to a republican citizenry.
Cultic ritual, ecstatic experience, mystery religion, civic virtue. Those are not mutually exclusive categories, they often overlapped. What’s missing there is that you had a certain doctrinal creed.
Now it’s not that the Romans didn’t believe things, but it just wasn’t terribly important whether you believed something different or not. In fact, today many religions around the world are not all that concerned about what you believe. It’s a matter of saying the right prayers, doing the right rituals, living the right way. It’s even true, we can find this in some “Christian” communities.
I was pleased to seen in World magazine that Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen won Book of the Year. It’s only taken 100 years, but we’ll take it. Christianity and Liberalism, and there it’s not referring to political liberalism but theological liberalism, and the most important word in the title of Machen’s favorite book is the “and,” Christianity and Liberalism, that this doctrine that developed that was anti-doctrine, anti-supernatural, Machen rightly said was something different than Christianity.
It’s true, and yet we see this even sometimes in so-called evangelical churches. Have you heard the slogans? Deeds, not creeds. Doctrine divides, mission unites. Spiritual, not religious.
And even if we reject those slogans, too often Christians settle for vague generalities, devotional platitudes, instead of the sort of doctrinal precision that we find in the Nicene Creed. It’s not how Christians viewed their faith in the early Church.
Already in the 2nd century Church father Irenaeus was referring to something called “The Rule of Faith.” Think of Irenaeus. You may not have heard of him before, but just to get connected, John the apostle, Jesus’ disciple, John there on the Mount of Transfiguration, there at the empty tomb, there in the upper room, there receiving Revelation, this John taught Polycarp, the famous Bishop of Smyrna and martyr, who in turn taught Irenaeus. So we are not very far removed from the apostles themselves. This Irenaeus in combatting the gnostic heresy often referred to this Rule of Faith that is already, in the earliest days of the Church, there was a sense that there’s this deposit of apostolic doctrine and we test our teachings against it.
The Apostles’ Creed probably dates in its earliest form to the middle of the 2nd century, sometimes called the symbol of the faith, and it’s likely it grew out of liturgical formulas.
Three questions were put to adults coming for baptism, adult convert to baptism. This is recounted by Hippolytus of Rome, who died in the early part of the 3rd century, so this is very early. See if this sounds familiar. These were the questions, if you’re an adult coming to make profession of faith, three questions: Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? The person says I do.
Second question: Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was dead and buried and rose again the third day, alive from the dead and ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead? The person says I do.
Third: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy Church and in the resurrection of the body?
That baptismal formula is already there in the 2nd century and probably was there from the very beginning of the Christian Church, converts being baptized were required to make a confession of faith and it involved a confessional formula very much like that one if not that precise one, that trinitarian structure. You can hear in that baptismal formula the language of the Apostles’ Creed. You can hear in that so much of the language of the Nicene Creed.
All of which is to say from the very beginning the Christian Church understood itself to be a community of people bound together yes by a heartfelt religion and experience, yes by a way of living and obedience and a hope and an expectation, but bound by a certain rule of faith, a certain set of doctrinal commitments.
The famous historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed it is one of the most persistent features of all Christian creeds and confessions. He says a feature so obvious it is easy to overlook: “The utter seriousness with which they treat the issues of Christian doctrine as quite literally a matter of life and death, both here in time and hereafter in eternity.”
So I’ve chosen this first word, that simple phrase “we believe,” because it orients us to why the creeds and confessions and catechisms are so important. It is not enough to simply exhort people to live like Jesus. It is not enough that we might have vague, generally spiritual experiences. Yes, the apostolic message tells people to live godly lives, but it is in conjunction with the robust message about sin, salvation, the incarnation, the resurrection, the atonement, reconciliation, and eternal life. Any gospel which denies these essentials or ignores them or skips over them or leads people to doubt them or does not deal straightforwardly with them, is in effect a different gospel and there is nothing more important in this Gospel declaration than understanding the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and why He is worthy of worship and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together we worship as they share in equal glories.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, thank You for this faith, once for all delivered to the saints. Help us to think clearly together with this ancient creed to guide us, testing all things against Your Word but that we might understand more and more who You are, what we believe, and why it matters. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.