Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Confusion of the Nicene Creed

I have been thinking for some time about the Nicene Creed, which set the foundation for the beliefs of much of the Christian world. I don't know, but I think our church may be the only Christian church that believes that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct and separate beings. The belief that they are one being with shared substance is a belief that primarily came as a result of the Nicene creed.
The first time I read the Nicene creed, I pretty much just scanned it. I didn't read it carefully. My first impression was that there was a lot of good information in it. But after reading it carefully, I realized why our beliefs differ so much from the rest of the Christian world. Our belief in the nature of God is: "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." We believe they are one in purpose, and make up the "Godhead", but that they are three distinct and physically separate beings. The Father and the Son have glorified, immortal bodies. The Holy Ghost has not, as yet, received a body, but is a spirit. This enables His spirit to communicate with our spirits.
But let's look at the Nicene creed itself. Here is the creed in it's entirety:

We 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 sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

I have several problems with the creed. Here are some phrases I find troubling:
1. "begotten, not made," Yes, Jesus Christ was begotten, the only physically begotten son of the Father. But why insert the phrase "not made"? He is the literal son of God, and was born to mortality.
2. "being of one substance with the Father" If Jesus Christ is one substance with the Father, then why did Jesus Christ pray to Him in the garden of Gethsemane? And if they are one substance, then how is it possible that He, "sits on the right hand of the Father"? If they are one being, then why would Stephen feel compelled to say, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. "? Acts 7:56. Some may say this is one of the "mysteries". I don't think the nature of our God should be one of the mysteries. We need to understand about the God that we worship. In addition, we are told in the scriptures that "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:" Romans 8:16 If we are actual children of God, and were created in His image, will we grow up to be a multi-person being? A child grows to be like it's parent. Some believe that God doesn't have a physical body either, but is spirit. If that were true, then why was it so important for Jesus Christ to resurrect His body?
3. Most Christian churches believe the Nicene creed view of God, yet the creed states, "And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." Besides the fact that many non-Catholic churches hold these same beliefs, I have to wonder why an apostolic church has no modern apostles.

I think I'm a pretty simple person. I am not highly intellectual. But even I can see that there are confusing ideas in this creed. I don't say these things to criticize those who do believe them, but to start a discussion about the possibility that the Nicene creed was not inspired by God, but by the philosphers of the day. A well known LDS scholar, Hugh Nibley, had some very interesting things to say about the formation of the Nicene creed. I am including one chapter of his writings about the subject here. It is a little lengthy, but I feel it is well worth the read.

Prophets and Creeds
by Hugh Nibley

For a long time the world refused to look upon Mormons as Christians. Indeed most people still think of them as a tertium quid, unique and isolated from all other creatures. There is some justice in this viewpoint if one defines a Christian as one who subscribes to the creeds of Christendom, but the dictionary gives no such definition: for it, a Christian is simply one who believes in Christ, with nothing said about adherence to formulae describing his nature devised three hundred years after his death. The Latter-day Saints do not accept the ecumenical creeds because they were not given by the power of revelation but worked out by committees of experts. As we noted last week, the early church could not make too much of the inability of philosophers to discover the nature of God, yet the first and greatest of the councils, that of Nicaea, may be described without exaggeration as a philosopher's field day. Let us consider briefly a few steps that led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

It all began when Bishop Alexander of Alexandria "one day in a meeting of his presbyters and the rest of the clergy under him, theologized in a rather showy way (philtimoteron) on the subject of the Holy Trinity, philosophizing to the effect that in a triad was really a monad. Arius, one of the presbyters under his authority and a man not unskilled in dialectic give and take, . . . took the extreme opposite position just to show how much smarter he was (out of philoneikias) . . . and replied bitingly to the things the Bishop had said." Socrates, the historian, concludes a summary of Arius' speech on this occasion by saying, "Constructing his syllogism by this novel reasoning, he attracted everybody's attention, and with a small spark lit a mighty blaze."1 Now isn't this a perfect illustration of those very vices and follies for which the original Christians condemned philosophy? The bishop, philosophizing in a showy way, not seeking truth but just being smart, using technical terms—triad and monad—unknown to the scripture, is refuted by a clergyman carefully trained in that dialectic art which the early Fathers so abhorred; he too, animated not by love of truth but by a desire to outshine the bishop—such is the spirit in which the great investigation begins.

The "mighty blaze" mentioned by Socrates divided the Christian world into warring factions, and the Emperor Constantine wrote a strong letter to the heads of both parties. In this letter he says among other things, "These and such like technical questions . . . are simply a sort of parlor game (ereschalia) for the passing of idle time, and albeit they may be justified as providing a kind of training for the wits, they are best kept locked and confined in your own minds, and not lightly aired in public places nor foolishly permitted to reach the ears of the masses. For just how many people are there who can understand such advanced and extremely puzzling matters, or have any clear idea what they are about, or give a correct explanation of them? And even if someone should suppose that he could understand it easily, how many of the common people will he be able to persuade? Or who would be able to carry on a disputation in the subtleties of such technical questions without running an appalling risk? Therefore a great outpouring of words in such matters should be prohibited, lest the problem presently carry us beyond the depths of our own limited understanding, or we go beyond the limited training of those who listen to our teachings, who can no longer understand what is said, and out of this double defect the whole society necessarily fall into blasphemy or schism. While you wrangle with one another over minor, nay, utterly trivial matters, it is not right that God's numerous people should be led by your minds; in view of your disunity, such a thing is utterly wrong, absolutely improper."2 What a lecture to the leaders of the Church! And these were the men who were to make the creeds.

In the end, the emperor had to summon, as we all know, the great Council of Nicaea. While the gathering body of churchmen was waiting for the latecomers to arrive, some interesting preliminary discussions were held. These illustrate perfectly the spirit of the whole thing. We are told that a large number of laymen were there, experts in the art of dialectic, entering enthusiastically into the discussions on every side. "Meanwhile, not long before the general assembly was to take place, certain dialecticians were addressing the multitude and showing off in controversy. Great crowds being attracted by the pleasure of hearing them, one of the confessors, a layman with a clear head, stood up and rebuked the dialecticians and said to them that Christ and the Apostles did not give to us the dialectical art nor empty tricks, but straightforward knowledge preserved by faith and good works. When he said this, all those present were flabbergasted, and then agreed. And the dialecticians, hearing straight talk, became a good deal more sober and contained. Thus was abated the uproar which dialectic had stirred up."3 There were still clear heads in the church, but they did not belong to the men who were about to make the creed. They are represented here by an aged layman, a martyr—that is, one who had refused to deny the faith in persecution—a link with the real old church, who here appears among the squabbling doctors as a "nine-days' wonder" when he reminds them how far from the track of Christ and the Apostles they have come. They were abashed for the time, but not repentant.

Let us skip to the closing speech of the mightiest of councils. It was delivered, fittingly, by the emperor, "who was first to bear witness to the correctness of the creed," according to Eusebius in a letter to his own flock, " . . . and he urged everyone to come to the same opinion and sign the statement of dogmas and to agree with each other by signing a statement to which but a single term had been added—the word, homoousion." The emperor then proceeded to explain with much technical language that word (which had been agreed on in committee) and the final verdict that the thing was really incomprehensible. "So in such a manner," Eusebius concludes, "our most wise and most devout (eusebes, blessed) Emperor philosophized; and the Bishops by way of explaining the homoousios prepared the following statement." 4

In the statement that follows occurs an interesting admission: "We are well aware that the Bishops and writers of ancient times when discussing the theology of the Father and the Son never used the word homoousios." To allay the doubts of his flock Eusebius hastens to assure them that "the faith here promulgated . . . we all agreed upon, not without careful examination and according to opinions presented and agreed upon in carefully stated logismoi, and in the presence of the most devout Emperor." In other words, the committee had worked hard. All the trouble has been caused, according to this document "by the use of certain expressions not found in the Scripture. . . . Since the divinely inspired Scriptures never use such terms as 'out of nothing,' or 'that existed which at one time did not exist,' and such like terms; for it did not seem proper (eulogon) to say and teach such things, . . . never in times before have we thought it proper to use these terms." 5 The letter then proceeds to authorize the use of those very terms which it acknowledges to be unknown to the early Christians. Had God so changed his nature that he needed new terms to describe that nature? We left the word logismoi untranslated above, because Paul uses the very same word in 2 Corinthians 10:4—5 when he says that revealed knowledge, the Gnosis, invalidates or confounds all logismoi, that is, calculations of men. Now Eusebius takes comfort in the thought that the Nicene Creed is made up of carefully worded logismoi. You see how the foundations of doctrine had shifted from prophetic revelation to human reason. Latter-day Saints would regard such a change as fatal to the church, and in this they are in good company. For though conventional church histories pass over it in complete silence, the fact is that the early ecumenical councils of the church were viewed by the leading churchmen of the time and the general public alike as a most grave and alarming symptom. Let some of these men explain it in their own words.

Athanasius, one of the star performers at Nicaea, viewed with alarm the councils that immediately followed that one: "What is left to the Catholic church to teach of salvation if now they make investigations into the faith, and set up a present-day authority to give out official interpretations of what has already been said? . . . And why do the so-called clergy dash back and forth trying to find out how they should believe about our Lord Jesus Christ? If they had been believing all along they couldn't possibly be searching now for something they don't have!" Everyone is laughing at the Christian leaders, Athanasius says, and is saying, "These Christians don't know what to think of Christ!" which of course weakens their authority.6 "What is the use of all these synods?" he asks. "In vain do they dash hither and yon under the pretext that synods are necessary to settle important matters of doctrine, for the Holy Scriptures are sufficient for all that."7 (Note where Athanasius finds the court of last appeal—not in any episcopal see, but simply in the scripture.) "We contradict those who were before us, depart from the traditions of our fathers, and think we must hold a synod. Then we are seized by misgivings, lest if we simply come together and agree our diligence will be wasted; so we decide that the synod ought to be divided into two groups, so we can vote; . . . and so we render ineffective what was done at Nicaea under pretext of working for greater simplicity." 8 Could one ask for a better description of the strangely modern state of mind in which the early creeds of Christendom were hammered out—the zeal of the busy, self-important committeemen; the fussy, fuzzy preoccupation with procedure and busy-work; the urge to hold meetings come what may? "All these synods are unnecessary," Athanasius repeats, "and they are unnecessary because we have the Scripture; and if the Scripture is a subject of disagreement in the synods, then we have the writings of the Fathers. The men at Nicaea were not unmindful of this. . . . As for these other synods, they simply don't make sense, and they never get anywhere."9 And again: "Who can call such people Christians, or how can we speak of faith among men who have neither reason nor writings that aren't changing all the time, but to suit every circumstance are being everlastingly altered and reversed?" 10

We turn next to Athanasius' great western contemporary St. Hilary: "It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous," he writes in a famous passage, "that there are as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines as inclinations, and as many sources of blasphemy as there are faults among us; because we make creeds arbitrarily, and explain them arbitrarily. . . . The homoousion is rejected, and received, and explained away by successive synods. . . . Every year, nay every month, we make new creeds to describe invisible mysteries. We repent of what we have done, we defend those who change their minds, we anathematize those whom we defended. We condemn either the doctrine of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and, reciprocally tearing one another to pieces, we have been the cause of each other's ruin." 11 And later to the emperor: "The faith has been corrupted—is reformation possible? The faith is sought after as if it were something not in our possession. The faith has to be written down, as if it were not in our hearts. Having been reborn by faith, we are now being taught the faith just as if our rebirth had been without faith. We learn about Christ after we have been baptized, as if there could be any baptism at all without a knowledge of Christ." 12 Here the synods and creeds are depicted as a declaration of bankruptcy, a clear indication that the faith is lost, a frantic attempt to fill a vacuum. And the filling was to be done with words, the endless talk of the philosophers.

Speaking of an episode of the Council of Nicaea, the historian Sozomen wrote, "It would be hard to say which is the more miraculous, to make a stone speak or to make a philosopher stop speaking."13 But let us hear Hilary: "Since the whole argument is about words, and since the whole controversy has to do with the subject of innovation [i.e., the introduction of philosophical terms not found in the scripture], and since the occasion of the discussion is the presence of certain ambiguities, and since the dispute is about authority, and since we are quarreling about technical questions, and since our problem is to reach a consensus, and since each side is beginning to be anathema to the other, it would seem that hardly anybody belongs to Christ (or is on Christ's side) any more. We are blown about by winds of doctrine, and as we teach we only become more upset, and the more we are taught, the more we go astray." 14 What a commentary on Nicaea! "We avoid believing that of Christ which He told us to believe, so that we might establish a treacherous unity in the false name of peace, and we rebel with new definitions of God against what we falsely call innovations, and in the name of the Scriptures we deceitfully cite things that are not in the Scriptures: changeful, prodigal, impious, changing established things, abolishing accepted doctrine, presuming irreligious things."15 Here Hilary is not denouncing heretics and separatists. Like Athanasius, Eusebius, Basil, Chrysostom, Akakius, Eleusius, Phoebadius, and a host of lesser lights, he is depicting not the folly of the few, but, as he puts it, "the faith of our miserable age. . . . Last year's faith," he asks, "what is the changeful stuff that it contains? First it silenced the homoousion, then it preached it, then it excused it, then it condemned it. And where does that sort of thing lead to? To this, that neither we nor our predecessors were in a position to be sure of preserving any sacred thing intact."16 When men are left to their own resources, without the guidance of living prophets, even the great tradition will not preserve the true faith, for, as Hilary has just noted, men are not able of themselves to preserve that tradition.

We have quoted a few statements—by no means all the pertinent ones—of two of the most respected voices in Christendom, men who were present in person at the great councils of the fourth century in which the Christian creeds as we now have them received their definitive form. How these men miss the voice of the prophets! The fact that the church should hold councils to decide on basic doctrines centuries after Christ and the Apostles are supposed to have given these doctrines to the world greatly disturbs not only them but also, as they repeatedly tell us, the general membership of the church as well. The fact that those councils carry on their deliberations after the manner and in the artificial language of the schools of philosophy distresses them even more. Throughout the Middle Ages the ablest men labored mightily to comprehend and restate in intelligible terms those ever-illusive definitions of God, school succeeding school exactly as in the fourth century. The Reformation, striving to correct administrative abuses and restate moral principles, left the basic doctrines untouched, and to this day the whole Christian world, from the cool recesses of high-church Gothic to the torrid canvas of the revivalist, owes allegiance to the angry and perplexed churchmen of the fourth century. The long centuries have shown, and have shown exhaustively, that "man cannot by searching find out God." Unless dictated by God himself through revelation, any creed must necessarily be a compromise, to establish, as Hilary puts it, a treacherous unity in the false name of peace, and at the price of deliberately sacrificing truth. In the long history of the creeds, time has strikingly vindicated the prophets. If we are to have a creed, the living voice of prophecy alone can prescribe it, and in this, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands alone.


1. Socrates, Ecclesiastical History I, 5—6, in PG 67:41.

2. Ibid., I, 7, in PG 67:56—57.

3. Ibid., I, 8, in PG 67:64.

4. Ibid., also citing Eusebius' letter, in PG 67:68, 72.

5. Ibid., under heading Symbolum, in PG 67:76.

6. Athanasius, De Synodis, in PG 26:684.

7. Ibid., in PG 26:688.

8. Ibid., in PG 26:689.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., in PG 26:760. This is the summary.

11. Hilary, Epistle to Constantine II, 4—5, in PL 10:566—67.

12. Ibid., II, 6, in PL 10:567—68.

13. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History I, 18, in PG 67:917.

14. Hilary, II, 5, in PL 10:566—67.

15. Ibid., II, 6, in PL 10:568.

16. Ibid., II, 5, in PL 10:567.


Looney said...

Hugh Nibley goes in at the level of detail I like. My background being Baptist, we never spent any time with the creeds. Later I spent time in other creed oriented ones and it became clear that the word play was taking over, so I tired of it and went back to my Baptist views.

That being said, I still can't think of any group which had an anthropomorphic God the father, as the implications of this are quite drastic to Judaism and Christianity. We generally view the bodily form of Christ as something which was only taken on so that the Jesus could perform the role of "Son of Man" in addition to "Son of God" and bring about a reconciliation of God and man. The bodily form of God the father simply has too much similarity to paganism for my liking.

That being said, there are some denominations that emphasized the creeds, but then deny all the miracles in the Bible or worse.

Delirious said...

Yes, Hugh Nibley is one of my favorites. I don't quote from him often because sometimes his discussion goes to a level most readers wouldn't be able to follow doctrine-wise. (Not to mention that he was a university professor and tended to ramble sometimes. :) But he had a photographic memory, and was very well read, so gave very interesting speeches.) But he is truly one of the gems of our church scholars. If you follow the link I provided, you can read other chapters that are equally as interesting.

I think Looney that we look at this kind of opposite from an anthropomorphic view of God. It isn't so much that we view Him as taking on human traits, but that we view ourselves as gaining godly traits. We believe that God has a physical, perfect, glorified body. We believe that before we were born to this earth, we were just spirits, and as such, could not progress or become like our Father unless we also gained physical bodies. The obtaining of a physical body isn't, in our opinion, just a mortal trait, but one step to becoming more like our immortal Father in heaven. The 1/3 of the host of heaven that followed Satan, and were cast out during the war in heaven will not receive bodies. They can never progress beyond the level of a spirit. But those of us who chose to follow the Father's plan, have all come to earth and received a mortal body.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all can be resurrected, and these mortal bodies can become immortal. Without His resurrection, we would die, and regress, or in other words, become eternally disimbodied spirits again. It is only because of His sacrifice and resurrection that we too can have immortal bodies.

I understand that much of the Christian world believes that Jesus Christ and God the Father are one person. It is difficult for me to understand how Jesus could be His own father. We believe that Jesus can take on the title of both Father and Son, but in a different sense of the word from what much of Christianity believes. He is the literal, only begotten son of the Father in the flesh. When He atoned for our sins, he became a spiritual father to us, thereby taking on the role of Father. While on this earth, Jesus did not father children physically. But I love this scripture from Isaiah that explains how He is a father; "...when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed." Isaiah 53:10 When we make use of His atoning sacrifice, we become His spiritual children. In that way Jesus becomes both the Son, and the Father.