Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part 2 - The Nicene Creed


(Anthony Costello ) #1

Continuing in this examination of the early creeds and their usefulness for Apologetics, I’d like to turn 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 study, 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 into the hands of the local managers, who then need to get it down to their workers.

However, no recipe for a pizza, or any food item really, needs to contain all the information about a pizza in order to make it, 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 that you need a certain amount of dough, sauce, cheese, sausage, etc. and how they 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. 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).

In conclusion, we can see that the early creeds themselves, and specifically Nicea, 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 belief general recipes that keep us all on the same page.


in Christ,

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part 6 - Nicene Creed Line 3-8
Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part 4 - Nicene Creed Line 2
My Question: RZIM Statement of Faith
(SeanO) #2

@anthony.costello I think the creeds could play a role for those who have not had the time or opportunity to study the Scriptures deeply themselves as well as to establish cooperation among Church bodies. Not everyone is a scholar and a creed is easy to repeat and remember. It provides a quick litmus test for orthodoxy. However, it is important to ensure congregants understand the meaning of the words and are not simply repeating a formula rote.

I have always enjoyed the Anglican liturgy, which includes the Apostles’ Creed as well as multiple Scripture readings and music. I think that in my experience that is a good balance.

(Anthony Costello ) #3


You said,

However, it is important to ensure congregants understand the meaning of the words and are not simply repeating a formula rote.

Exactly! That is absolutely the hope, and part of the main thrust in this series; that we wouldn’t just memorize the lines, but that we would know what each line refers to and that we would think deeply about the intellectual commitments that it demands of us.

Also, as far as knowing or reciting the creeds, I think knowing something of the Nicene creed has become more important today due to the kinds of apologetical issues we are facing. The fact of religious pluralism, the epistemological shift in the culture away from foundationalism to post-modernism, etc. have made it more and more difficult to discern historical Christianity, or as Thomas Oden called it “Classical Christianity” from other non-historical or non-orthodox versions of Christianity.

in Christ,

(Kathleen) #4

Thanks for these thoughts, @anthony.costello! Just for my own clarity (and I realise it’s not massively pertinent to the larger discussion of creeds), I was curious if you could expand just a bit on this concept:

the epistemological shift in the culture away from foundationalism to post-modernism

I think I know what you mean, but I don’t want to assume. When you say “foundationalism” is that a worldview built on the notion of objective truth, whereas in “post-modernism”, truth is subjective?

(Anthony Costello ) #5


Kathleen, great, very good clarifying question. Thanks for this.

So, that sentence was a mouthful. Let me try and break it down.

When I talk about an “epistemological shift” I am talking about a theory of how we know things, and how the culture has shifted from thinking we know things in one way, and to now saying that we know things in a very different way. Epistemology itself just is the philosophical exploration of how we know things, especially how we know things like truth.

So, foundationalism could be seen as the “classical view” in epistemology; going all the way back to Plato. To have knowledge of something was to have a justified, true belief; beliefs that corresponded to reality as it is, and that one has evidence for holding. In more modern times, Rene Descartes began to doubt certain kinds of beliefs (especially sensory beliefs), but argued that there was a set of undeniable, or self-evident, truths that we could know just through self-reflection (e.g. “I think therefore, I exist”). These fundamental, basic beliefs, were considered foundational beliefs. They were the ground zero of all other beliefs, and you didn’t need to support them by any other belief. They were the foundations of knowledge, and therefore, indubitable.

However, these foundational beliefs were shown, to some degree, to not be so solid after all. Soon after Descarte, you had philosophers like David Hume who argued that even these seemingly most foundational beliefs could be doubted.

Then, especially after Immanuel Kant, you get into different views about whether or not truth, any truth, can really be known “as it really is in the world” in any way at all. Kant considered the mind itself as active in the process of knowing, so we can’t actually grasp things “in themselves,” because we are always sort of manipulating can categorizing the raw data of reality (even if we are doing it unintentionally).

The end result of this kind of thinking comes in the 20th century with the advent of Post-Modernism; a theory that began in literary circles (Michel Foucault, Jaques Derrida, etc.) These thinkers said that one could not even grasp the meaning of a sentence written by an author, because the reader’s mind was so active in imbuing his or her own meaning into anything she might read or hear. In other words, you cannot escape your own cultural and personal contexts to actually grasp what someone else is telling you, perhaps verbally, most certainly in written work.

So, Christians who hold to a post-modernist theory of truth, have a view that, if applied to the Bible, would make the text of the scriptures quite malleable in the hands of the reader, because the reader is literally (intentionally or not) not only unable to understand the original author’s intent (Paul for example), but is actively changing the meaning to fit his or her personal or cultural context. Contemporary evangelicals philosophers and apologists (to include Ravi and most, if not all, of the RZIM speakers) have argued against this view in one way or another. For, as you can see, if everyone’s view of the Bible is equally valid, then you literally would have as many valid interpretations of the Bible as you have people who read it, since none of us have exactly the same personal history, brain structure, psychological make-up, etc.

The resulting problem is,then, that there are many folks out there (not to cast aspersions on anyone’s character), who consider themselves “Post-modernist” Christians. Again, without attacking anyone’s character, I would just say that I think their view is not only horribly flawed (it is, for example, self-defeating), but that it also causes severe damage to the idea of an historical and apostolic proclamation of the Gospel. So yes, it takes the “objectivity” out of our Gospel message.

I hope this helps, thanks for the question.

in Christ,

(Jennifer Judson) #6

That’s a great analogy @anthony.costello . To see that analogy in the context of the very early church we might alter the starting point of the analogy. The Creedal Pizza Co., Inc. began from several different pizzarias that were unified under one umbrella pizza company. Each was known to reflect the pizza preferences of their respective founders. Before the base pizza instruction and recipe could be circulated, there was a lot of hashing out at the top level of what are the quintessential foundational truths for creating the ultimate pizza and maintaining it’s consistent and pure preparation across the company. (Fun analogy–could play around with that all day.)

A few key differences to keep in mind as we look at the creeds today and also their origins. (To me context is always important)

Connectivity and Communication:
–Today with the internet we can touch even remote corners of the world in real time
–Though many early churches originated on trade routes, travel was still largely by foot or boat, making communication slow and inefficient.

Oral vs. Written:
–Most of my Christian friends have multiple Bibles of various translations, both in print or digital form. Not to mention libraries of concordances, commentaries, etc.
–Early churches were probably lucky to have copied letters and parts of scripture that was still being codified. Significant amounts of knowledge was still passed along through the oral tradition of repeating stories over and over.

Role of Government in the Church (influence/pressure/etc.):
– At the time when the creeds were coming about the early church was shifting from an outlawed sect which suffered oppression to the primary religion of the empire when it was decriminalized and elevated by Constantine the Great.
– This new status was a mixed blessing under Constantine’s influence and patronage. The direction of church doctrine and practices was now influenced directly by the “state.” (example: This influence led Christian iconography to shift from Jesus “the Shepherd” to Jesus “the King.”)

– Today the church is subject to laws from every country, some of which hold and honor the practice of the separation of church and state–many don’t.

In addition to the spiritual and doctrinal purposes of the creeds I surmise there are also some very practical reasons they are boiled down to their very essence.
A short end product means:
– fewer items to disagree about
– easier to copy and circulate
– easier to memorize and repeat

(Anthony Costello ) #7


Great insights, Jennifer! And, yes, I like your alterations to the pizza analogy. So, if there was a community that was closer to John than Paul, and one that was closer to James than Peter, there may have been some theological distinctives, yet each had a core set of beliefs that was held in common. So you had your local flavors, but there was a base recipe that each had because it went back to the events of the Gospels and Christ’s own teachings.

With regard to the historical background data, again, very, very insightful and relevant. Obviously, in the Creeds, especially the Nicene and later, we are going to see hints of Greek thought, as the language was being developed to extract and define what was in the New Testament itself, or what was being commonly professed in the early liturgies. And yes, the short end product definitely would seem to have all of those effects: fewer items to disagree about, easier circulation, and easier memorization. Awesome stuff.

in Christ,