Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part II – The Nicene Creed

Continuing in this examination of the early creeds and their usefulness for apologetics, I turn now to the Nicene Creed. About this particular creedal formulae J.N.D. Kelly states:

Prior to the beginning of the fourth century all creeds and summaries of faith were local in character. It was taken for granted, of course, that they enshrined the universally accepted Catholic faith, handed down from the Apostles. But they owed their immediate authority, no less than their individual stamp, to the liturgy of the local church in which they had emerged. Moreover, while creed-like formularies were to be found in the Eucharist, in the rite of exorcism and elsewhere, those in the main line of development were confined to baptism and the catechetical preparation leading up to it. A great revolution now takes place with the introduction of synodal or conciliar creeds. The custom becomes established, beginning with the council of Nicea, for ecclesiastics meeting in solemn conclave to frame formularies giving utterance to their agreement on matters of faith.

He goes on to say:

The new creeds were intended, of course, to have a far more than local authority. Sometimes including anathemas, they were put forth not merely as epitomes of the beliefs of their promulgators, but as tests of the orthodoxy of Christians in general…It was devised [the Nicene Creed] as the touchstone by which the doctrines of Church teachers and leaders might be certified as correct. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 205.)

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, the earliest creedal formulas, formulas that point to a core deposit of Apostolic teaching about Christ, are found in the very lines of the New Testament itself (see 1 Cor 15:3-8, Phil 2:5-11). Here, Kelly points out, however, that as the Church grew in size and influence, it became necessary to take the core truths about faith in Christ that had been inscripturated by the NT writers, and consolidate them into simple formulas to ensure that local churches would be roughly on the same page in regards to what they were teaching about Jesus Christ. This included pointing out false teachings.

To use an analogy, my family owns several pizzerias in Chicago. They are all the same company though, just different locations. We want to ensure that every one of our pizza restaurants produces the same kind of pizza as all the others. We want the pizza produced to be as similar as possible regardless of which location one goes to for dinner. So, how can this continuity in texture and taste of each pizza be maintained across various local restaurants?

Well, the first thing you need is a recipe, and then you need some detailed instructions about how to put the pizza together. Then, you need to get that recipe and those instructions into the hands of the local managers, who then need to get it down to their workers, who subsequently need to know what the recipe says and practice what the instructions tell them to do.

However, no recipe for a pizza, or any food item really, needs to contain all the information about a pizza in order to make a pizza, and make it well. For example, you don’t necessarily need to know the percentage of flour to yeast in the dough, or what brand of yeast is used, or how many ounces of salt is in the pepperoni, or how much fennel is in each ounce of sausage, or what exactly the spice mix in the sauce consists of. It’s not bad to know all that detail, but to start you only need to know the rough outline or the more general characteristics of the pizza in order to actually make it. You just need to know you need a certain amount of dough, sauce, cheese, sausage, etc. and how they all fit together.

A creedal statement could act as a sort of general recipe for how to make a church an Apostolic one, and it could tell you how your Christian life should (in a minimal way) look, and what a biblically-centered church should (again minimally) believe. Obviously there is more to the restaurant than just the pizzas (there are the servers, the drinks, the salads, the cleanliness, etc.), but if you get the pizza wrong, you probably aren’t going to be a very good pizzeria. And, as I said above, there will always be more one can learn about how the pizza is made and what goes into it. Same in the church, it is more than just the core beliefs, but if you get them wrong, you aren’t going to produce very good Christians (that sounds a bit mechanistic, but you get my drift). Also, you don’t want to stop at the basic outline of the recipe, a good manager (i.e. pastor) will know the product better than the new believer. He, the manager, will know what the ratio of salt to sugar in the dough is, and why that matters.

In conclusion, the early creeds themselves, and specifically Nicaea, were essentially apologetical. They were designed to clarify truth claims, and refute false claims. They were defenses of the core truths found in the Scriptures themselves, without being exhaustive about the truth that is found in Scripture. So, to know these claims and defend them seems to be a task that still applies to us today as inheritors of an apostolic and historical Christian faith. This does not mean the creeds are equal to Scripture, but that they are like general recipes for belief that keep us all on the same page.

In the next post I will look at line 1 of the Nicene Creed and break it down into basic claims.

6 thoughts on “Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part II – The Nicene Creed”

Leave a Reply