Continuing in this examination of the early Christian creeds, specifically the Nicene Creed, I open this post with a few comments by J.N.D. Kelly. Then, I will reproduce the first line of the Nicene Creed, and examine it with regard to how to think about its claims from the stance of Christian apologetics.
First Kelly on the Nicene Creed:
Creeds, it would appear, even creeds properly designed for use at baptism, were coming to be employed in detachment from the baptismal services as a means of demonstrating that the man who professed them was above reproach theologically…In the new type of creed the motive of testing orthodoxy was primary: the creeds were deliberately framed with this object in view. The common opinion is that at all events this new and drastic step was first taken at the council of Nicaea. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 207 [emphasis added].)
Moreover, speaking to Nicaea’s universality Kelly adds:
The creed of Nicaea was the first formula to be published by an ecumenical synod: consequently it was the first which could claim universal authority in a legal sense. (Kelly, 207 [emphasis added]).
But, this formula, put together by 318 bishops from around the Roman Empire, to include far-off enclaves like Britain, was not novel in its origin:
It was long ago observed that N [the Nicaea formula] bore a striking resemblance at certain points to creeds of the Syro-Palestinian type. H. Lietzmann followed up this hint, and argued [on Kelly’s view successfully] that the creed underlying N…must have been one belonging to the Jerusalem family. The creeds to which its kinship is most marked are the first of the two quoted by St. Epiphanius, and the one used by St. Cyril of Jerusalem [313-386 AD]. (Kelly, 227 [emphasis added]).
In sum, the basis for the AD 325 Nicene creed is likely very ancient; itself going back to the city of Jerusalem, the epicenter of the original, apostolic proclamation about Jesus. This provides strong evidence that this Creed stood very much in line conceptually and factually with what the Apostles themselves had preached and what was textualized in the pages of Scripture.
That said, let’s look at the first line of this creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
What truth claims can we identify in this line that would need to be defended? I will put them in propositional form (i.e. We believe that “x”)
- We believe that one God exists
- We believe that God has revealed Himself as Father
- We believe that God is all-powerful
- We believe that God made all things that would be considered “heavenly” or “earthly”
- We believe that God made all things that are visible, physical, or empirically measurable, and all things that are not visible, non-physical, or not empirically measurable (i.e. God created the universe and everything in it, or any other thing that may have existed prior to the space-time continuum in which we now exist).
So, what are some arguments that we would need in order to defend each of these claims?
2. Here we need to defend how the Bible actually speak about God. We can make distinctions that while God is spirit, and in that sense genderless, God nevertheless has chosen to be revealed as Father. A more fine-grained analysis may have to argue that the term “Father” is more than a mere metaphor, rather an analogy that holds deep theological significance.
Moreover, even if “Father” is a metaphor, and therefore culturally constructed to some extent, one still has to answer the question of why God choses to be revealed as such in that time and that culture. Even if God is not literally gendered, and taking for granted God could have revealed God’s nature in a 21st century Scandinavian context as opposed to a 1st century Greco-Jewish one, we should then consider seriously God’s choice of the latter over the former.
3. Here we need to clarify what we mean by “power.” Can “power” do “all things” or are there limits, logical ones especially, on what we mean when we talk of God’s power? Of course the main contention surrounding God’s power will arise when we tackle the problem of suffering (natural evil). The question of whether God is able to stop natural evil is one horn of perhaps the most difficult dilemma for Christian theism.
4 & 5. Here we would probably want to defend the idea that God is the only uncreated being; God is a se, while all other things are created. Another way of putting this is that God is necessary, while all other things are contingent or derivative. There are in-house debates about this, however, and they can get pretty technical.
All this considered, what non-Christian or non-orthodox views do these claims necessarily preclude:
- Atheism, polytheism, atheistic religions (Buddhism), pantheism, possibly panentheism
- Christianities that refer to God as “Mother” or use some gendered or familial term other than “Father,” when that term is specifically in view (obviously there is nothing wrong with referring to God as the “fount of all Being” or “the Rock of Ages” if appropriate to the context). The attempt to change the particular reference of God as Father, however, is not only anachronistic, but refuses to take the doctrines of Revelation & Inspiration as serious metaphysical doctrines.
- God can do anything that power can do. To claim that God cannot do something that power could do, would be false. This is often an important claim to defend when the Problem of Evil and Suffering is brought up. In the 1950’s and 1960’s there was a movement called Process Theology which discarded the idea that God is actually all-powerful. It is more detailed than that, but on that low view of God’s causal efficacy alone we would argue against Process Theology.4-5. God is not created like other things, so again Naturalism and Pantheism are incompatible with this claim, because God is neither part of nature, nor was God created by something else, otherwise what we are referencing would not be God.
Finally, what sources might we need to draw from to defend these claims;
- Philosophy of Religion, with regards to defending God’s existence
- Biblical Studies (NT & OT studies), with regards to understanding God as “Father”
- Metaphysics, with regard to the question about the kinds of created things that do exist, and how we should think about causality and causal “power.”
So, these are just a few reflections on this first line of the Nicene Creed. I look forward to engendering some healthy discussion in this approach to defending a historical mere Christianity.