Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part V – The Structure of the Nicene Creed

In this series of posts, we have been looking at the Nicene Creed in particular. This, for the sake of getting clarity on the core, early historical beliefs of classical, apostolic Christianity.

Here, I want to share two more quotes from J.N.D. Kelly’s seminal work on the subject, and then examine one useful way we can approach the Nicene Creed to see how it can help guide our apologetics.

First Kelly on why concrete expressions of core beliefs were needed in the early church

“Baptism, worship, preaching, catechetical instruction, anti-heretical and anti-pagan polemics, exorcisms- all these provided occasions for giving concrete expression, along lines determined by the needs of the moment, to cardinal articles of Christian belief.” (Early Christian Creeds, 30).

It was the practice of the early church, to include practices that were fundamentally apologetic in nature, i.e. “anti-heretical and anti-pagan polemics” that necessitated the need for such creedal formulas. Thus, these formulas can still be quite useful for us today, in a culture that is now global, and a religious environment that is permeated with pluralism.

Moreover, we can see that creeds and creedal formulas are essentially truth claims- propositional claims of true belief:

In their present form creeds are declaratory, that is to say, they are short statements, couched in the first person, asserting belief in a select group of facts and doctrines regarded as vitally important. (Early Christian Creeds, 31 [emphasis added]).

So, while the Bible mainly tells us stories to show us truth, there are truths from Scripture that can be readily translated into propositional form and shown as claims that carry either a true or false evaluation. The knowing, and defending, of these truth claims was what distinguished apostolic Christians from other kinds of religious believers, or even those who claimed to follow Jesus of Nazareth in some way not consistent with apostolic preaching. These claims became integral, therefore, to the sacramental rite of Baptism:

Whatever other uses they may have been put to in the course of history, the true and original use of creeds, their raison d’etre, was to serve as solemn affirmations of faith in the context of baptismal initiation. (Early Christian Creeds, 31).

“Solemn affirmations of faith:” affirmations that today still demarcate apostolic Christianity from all other belief systems, even ones that appear as Christian. Many questions these days on social media ask about how we can know what is a true expression of Christian faith, versus some false, or deficient, or even heretical version of faith. Without conflating the question of a true Christian belief, with that of a true Christian believer, we can firmly say that true Christian belief must, minimally, stand in a logically coherent relationship to what is laid out in these early creeds; especially the first four ecumenical ones (of which the Nicene is the third in a series).

True Christian belief is going to be intimately related to what the Apostles’ preached prior to the textualization of Scripture, formally related to what the canonical Scriptures impressed upon the early church as necessary, and, therefore related in kind to what the early church, through careful reflection (and heated debate), captured in these creeds.

One way we can look at the structure of the Nicene Creed is to see it in categories of theological doctrine. What does each section of the Creed tell us about 1) who God is, and 2) What God has done.

Again here is the whole Creed, but put into specific sections that make specific claims:

Section I: Theology Proper & Doctrine of Creation- Answers “What is God, and What has He Made?”

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

Section II: Christology – Answers “Who is Christ and What has He Done?

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.

Section III: Soteriology & Eschatology – Answers “What has God done to save us, and what will come at the end of days?”

   For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end

Section IV: Pneumatology, Trinitarianism, Bibliology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology – Answers questions like “Who is the Holy Spirit, What is God (i.e. Three Divine Persons), What was spoken about God (the words of the prophets, the written Bible), what is the Church, and, again, what will happen in the last days?”

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.

Again, the creeds can only be seen as the core of the Scriptures, and the simplicity of the statements lend to a deeper analysis of each. Hence, while there is a center target here, that center target is unfilled, like an outline that our own engagement with the words of Scripture must ultimately fill in, engagement that will demand philosophical categories, historical investigation, linguistic skills, and spiritual formation. But, this is a good place to start when getting clarity on what we need to defend as Apologists.

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