In Scot McKnight book The King Jesus Gospel, which I reviewed a little while ago, Scot issued an interesting challenge: “I have always encountered people who boldly announce to me that they are ‘noncredal’ and even say ‘I don’t believe in the creeds’ because of their next words: ‘I believe in the Bible.’ I respond with one question, and I think I ask this question because I too was at one time one of their number: ‘What line or lines in the Nicene Creed do you not believe?’” He states later in the same paragraph that “there’s nothing there not to believe.”
With the deepest respect to Scot, this post is my response to his question. In point of fact, I have what I think are several reasonable objections to the Nicene Creed, which I’m going to lay out below. First of all, here’s the text I’m using. There are several variants, and I had to pick one, so I went with the version I found at www.reformed.org/documents/nicene.html:
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
I’m not going to do a complete line-by-line commentary of the Nicene Creed because it’d get real boring real fast. I will stipulate, in answer to the objections that I’m sure some will raise, that there is a historical context in which the various clauses of the Nicene Creed (and others) may be more fully understood. But part of the error in insisting upon the creeds, in my view, is precisely that the creeds are taught in most churches as a thing to be believed and assented to, entirely devoid of their historical context. In fact, if we looked more frequently at the controversies that were being considered, which influenced various clauses in the creed, I rather suspect more of us might come to the conclusion I have, that some of those old arguments don’t compel us as they compelled the Fathers who fought over them in the third, fourth and fifth centuries.
At any rate, the following paragraphs address my major thoughts or objections.
I believe …
Strange as it may seem, my first objection comes with the very first two words, “I believe.” I’ve mentioned before that I see the Shema of the Old Testament, quoted by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31 among other places, as one of the best examples of a creed actually in the Bible. The Shema starts off with a simple declarative statement “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The focus is not the fact that we believe something, it is the reality that there is a God and He is one. God is God, and God is there, and God is one, regardless of what you, I, or anybody else thinks or believes. The shift from “there is a God” to “I believe in a God” may seem subtle to some, but to me it implies that the individual’s assent is the important thing.
Furthermore, the Shema goes from declaring that there is one God, to commanding that this God is to be loved as Lord. The creeds, on the other hand, focus merely on “right thoughts,” that is, giving intellectual assent to the existence and character of God. This is part of the shift from discipleship to religion against which I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog.
… the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds… (referring to Jesus)
This is not a section I actually take issue with, though I do take issue with the proposition that it matters. What I mean by this is that this clause, along with the “begotten, not made” clause later, address the issue of Jesus’ pre-creation existence. While I do see texts in scripture that suggest Jesus did in fact pre-exist creation (not least the first chapter of John, and John 8:58), I don’t know that a dogma of Jesus’ origin, and the timetable of his existence, is something we actually need to care about. Sure, the biblical evidence suggests these clauses are true (I think). But I fail to see what difference it makes. I certainly don’t countenance the Constantinople Council’s anathematization of anyone who disagreed.
… God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God … (referring to Jesus)
I rather suspect that only a tiny fraction of everyone who recites this phrase has any clue what it even means. I’m not sure I do. I presume it’s referring in some way to Jesus’ divinity, and the commentaries on it that I find through a quick Google suggest the same, though interestingly I find an alternative translation “God from God, Light from Light” etc., which may even be compatible with the divine-yet-subordinate position that I have previously suggested is a more accurate characterization of what Jesus said about himself–that is, that he comes from, and is therefore distinct from, the Father. So my objection to this phrase depends on how the speaker interprets it: if as a classic Trinitarian construction that places Jesus as fully divine and equal to the Father, I object to the content; if rather it’s just something the speaker doesn’t comprehend, I then object to reciting as credal, words that have no meaning to the speaker.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life …
It’s in Pneumatology that I really start to take serious issue with the Nicene Creed. This is one place where this creed goes far beyond its antecedent Apostles’ Creed, which merely stated “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” full-stop, with no qualification or theorizing. Whatever the Holy Spirit is or is not (and on this I have previously written), I can think of no place in the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit is referred to as Lord, and “Giver of Life” is mis-attributed altogether. The two texts to which I would point for this latter would be Genesis 2:7 and its beautiful New Testament mirror in John 20:22. In Genesis it is God the Father who breathes the breath of life into man (“breath” and “spirit” are synonyms in Greek and, I’m told, in Hebrew too), and in John it is Jesus who breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, initiating or symbolizing their new life in the new Kingdom. The Spirit is, if anything, the life that is given, not its giver.
… who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified … (referring to the Holy Spirit)
I can find no place in the Scripture that admonishes or commands anyone to worship the Holy Spirit, nor states that the Spirit is glorified. Nor can I think of any reference to people doing so. The Breath of God is, as I wrote before, the tangible and very active presence of God working and speaking in the world, but it is never an object of worship.
There is more, I am sure, to be said, and this post is more of an opening for dialog than anything definitive. Nevertheless each of the above objections is, I believe, a reasonable point to challenge the Nicea crowd for going beyond what is written in some rather substantial ways.
There remain areas where, while I say it differently, I do believe things that are substantially similar to the statements of the great creeds. I illustrated as much in my post What IS a Christian, Anyway? I’m not saying the creeds are all wrong, but I do hold that emphasizing them is most assuredly wrong. As Tom Wright stated in a recent lecture at Calvin College, “It is possible to check the credal boxes, and miss the larger reality to which they are the signposts.” More than that, I would say without reservation that the Nicene Creed includes several boxes that ought not to be checked at all.