Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part 3 - Nicene Creed Line 1


(Anthony Costello ) #1

Continuing in our exploration of the early Christian creeds; specifically the Nicene Creed, let me open this session with a few comments by J.N.D. Kelly about the Nicene Creed. Then, I will reproduce the first line of the Nicene Creed, and then we can examine it with regard to how we can 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.

  • Early Christian Creeds, 207.

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].

Early Creeds, 227.

In sum, the basis for the 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 with what the Apostles themselves had preached and what was entailed 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”)__

  1. We believe that one God exists
  2. We believe that God has revealed Himself as Father
  3. We believe that God is all-powerful
  4. We believe that God made all things that would be considered “heavenly” or “earthly”
  5. 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?

  1. Here we need arguments for God’s existence: the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuning argument, etc.

  2. Here we need to defend how the Bible actually speak about God. We can make distinctions here that while God is spirit, and in that sense genderless, He nevertheless has chosen to reveal Himself as Father.

  3. Here we need to clarify what we mean by “power.” Can “power” do “all things” or are there limits on what we mean when we talk of God’s power?

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 debates about this, however, which we can discuss; although they can get pretty technical.

What non-orthodox views do these claims preclude:

  1. Atheism, polytheism, atheistic religions (Buddhism), pantheism, possibly panentheism

  2. We should not refer to God as “Mother” or some other gendered expression (let’s discuss this one maybe; it is an important issue today, I think).

  3. 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 alone we would argue against Process Theology. We can discuss this as well.

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 of my reflections. I look forward to engendering some healthy discussion on this first line of the creed.

in Christ,



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

Thanks for this, @anthony.costello! Very interesting stuff. Especially appreciated the brief history at the beginning. Another objection that we often face when speaking of the creeds (esp. Nicea) comes from history. That is, many (on the heels of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code) would frame the narrative as one of a power struggle. The implication being that the creed as we know it is simply the work of the most powerful bishops who wanted to control the definition of orthodoxy and heresy. I’m curious to know what is one of the more interesting facts that stands out to you in the whole story?

(Anthony Costello ) #3


In reading the JND Kelly book; which is the epitome of scholarship on this particular topic, it becomes fairly obvious, fairly quickly that the biggest problem with The Davinci Code, is that it is simply egregiously false. There just is no way to reconcile the actual historical evidence with Dan Brown’s imagination.

Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological, responding to The DaVinci Code when it first came out. He wrote this book in about two weeks, or so I’ve been told by some very good friends of his.

That said, while there might be more sophisticated arguments for the principle you mention here, namely, that is was simply political power that determined what was in the Creed, unfortunately, the historical evidence doesn’t support this either. At least not when it comes to the 4th century disputes, which are the “subject” of Brown’s novels.

For example, the biggest defender of the formulation of beliefs found in the Nicene Creed, St. Athanasius, was exiled numerous times for his defense of these formulations. Hence, the famous saying “Athanasius contra mundum” or “Athanasius against the world!” The world didn’t want the orthodoxy that Athanasius was defending!

Moreover, AFTER the Nicene creed was formalized, the Arians actually became the more powerful political and theological community; to the point that emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) who was an Arian, exiled most of the bishops who had fought for the Nicene creedal formula from the Roman empire. So, again, were there power struggles, sure; but as the church fought for certain beliefs, they often were on the other side of the power struggle. That is especially obvious in the first generation of martyrs; the one’s who refused to worship or make offering to Caesar.

So, I think when it comes to historical revisionism the ilk of Dan Brown, the biggest take away is that people like fiction more than fact in many cases; especially when the fiction supports some underlying desires or wishes (e.g. like Christianity not being true), or creates a certain “conspiracy” theory for us to fantasize about; but that takes us away from dealing with reality.

One last point that is crucial to make out. The early controversy over Jesus was never about his divinity; it was about how he could be both divine and human. Some of the very earliest heresies (e.g. Docetism), denied that Jesus was really human; not that he was divine. From the beginning everyone, literally everyone, thought that Jesus was in some way more than a mere human being.
That is not even controversial in the earliest history of the church.

The Arians, for example, were not arguing that Jesus was only human, they were only arguing that He was not of the same substance as the Father. According to Arius, the “Logos” who incarnates in Jesus of Nazareth, is the first-born amongst all creation (i.e. created before all other things) and therefore immortal, divine in almost every aspect, etc. He just isn’t the same “thing” as the Father. That was what the whole Nicene council was about.

Thus, it is not until the late Renaissance and Enlightenment (let’s say after the 1600’s) do you start to see so-called “searches for the Jesus of History” and this likely due to the shift in worldview based on the advances in the empirical sciences and philosophy. Once naturalism becomes the predominant worldview in the Western academy (circa 1800), that is when you see all of the conjecture about Jesus being only human. The early church knew no such controversies.

in Christ,