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Clues to the Nicene Creed: A Brief Outline of the Faith

Clues to the Nicene Creed: A Brief Outline of the Faith

by David WillisDavid Willis


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The Nicene Creed's powerful summary of Christian faith has stood the test of time, embodying core truths and distinguishing essential Christian teachings from those of lesser importance. As respected thinker and educator David Willis explores the Nicene Creed in this new book, he provides clues for meaningfully interpreting this most ecumenical of church creeds in the twenty-first century.

Writing especially for educated laypeople, advanced students, and theological educators, Willis eloquently links the ancient creed to life today. As he points out, faith is constantly taking different shapes within broad boundaries like the creed's perennial truths, and even these truths need to be reinterpreted in each age to keep them intelligible and compelling. Willis admirably achieves this task for our day by elucidating the creed's statement of faith with analogies drawn from such diverse areas as architecture, graphic art, poetry, sculpture, and psychological theory.

Those seeking to delve into the creed or to deepen a lifelong encounter with it will be enriched by Willis's reflections.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802828682
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Publication date: 05/01/2008
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.46(d)

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A Brief Outline of the Faith
By David Willis

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2868-X

Chapter One

The Earthiness of the Creed

* * *

Graceful Mass and Momentum

In the East Wing of the National Gallery, not far from each other, are a Calder mobile and a Henry Moore pair of bronzes, menhirlike in their depth of mystery. They do not have to mean anything. Rather, they evoke so many responses, and different ones at different times of the day and at different seasons in the lives of those drawn into their power, that they defy being reduced to a narrow range of awe. These works have an almost mystical force to probe and cause to surface deep archetypal longings among people. In this respect they remind me of the glorious material of the Nicene Creed. There is a certain holy bulkiness and mobility to these sculptures which prompt the comparison.

When I refer to "the glorious material" of the creed, I hasten to disown any thought that the material of the creed is an easily controlled, malleable, acquiescent medium. The title of Fernand Pouillon's novel is translated The Stones of the Abbey, though the French means the wild stones. The flinty stone, rebellious raw material, is what the Cistercian community sticks with. Spirituality is materiality. It is working with the hard matter at the abbey's site instead of importing more amenable limestone. The stubborn material shows; it imposes limits on what the community can build and how it builds. New imagination is demanded. New disciplines are required by the material and the construction.

The material of the creed is like that, often intractable, freeing in its tenacity. In Tillich's terms, the symbols which give the community its identity have their own power and their loaded times. They grasp, take hold of, exert their power and beauty and judging precision in a quickening process. The sane believer knows the wisdom of always being exposed to this angular material. The material shapes him or her. That is because the Subject to whom the symbols point and in which they really participate is the Encountering One ultimately identified by Jesus the Christ. The glory of this material is exactly its victorious ungloriousness, its humility, its sovereign servanthood. It is, in other words, the cross of the risen Lord, Jesus the Christ. The material is scandalon: stumbling block, stone that trips us up and sends us staggering in another direction than before. We become differently inclined, tilted with different penchants than before. This matter sets us off balance and resets us toward a new equilibrium.

This is not unlike the dynamics of architecture. An obtuse malpractice has crept into some contemporary theologians who set structure or foundational over against dynamic and openness, associating the latter with organic (lively) terms and the former with static (and lifeless) terms. While I am sympathetic with their intention, they quite miss the point that a well-designed and constructed edifice is a lively, quick thing: a structural instance of what Karl Menninger called the vital balance. There is something like a vital balance in stonecrafting that uses the recalcitrant materials of life to soar to other dimensions of life, to comfort, to delight, to protect. An arch looks simple when in place and when successfully upholding other interdependent parts of the whole, but its very strength and simplicity result from painstaking shaping and placing of individual stones - often at considerable peril to the builders. Even if we did not have the apostolic switch from one analogy to another, we would know what it means to speak of "living stone."

Comparing the material of the creed to Calder's mobile is no less apt: unity of mass in motion, astral turning of new tensions, equivalence known even when countervailing parts are not seen, light shifting with earthy revolutions, energy expanding in trajectoral grace. Were the mobile units crystal, we would be caught up in shifting frequencies of the color spectrum: unseen light accommodating to become visible, hidden brilliance filtered through crystal, refraction in slow dance of luminary speed. We need receiving surfaces to see the moving frequencies. Integral to the comparison is having receptive responders, reflecting surfaces, which are light seen in the light of light.

Holy Writ and the Rule of Faith

Not every congregation has a place for the creed in its worship and church ordering. Indeed, it is argued by some that, for all practical purposes, the creed becomes a substitute for the Scriptures; and if not exactly a substitute, then at least a superfluous reduction of the biblical messages. That objection can be voiced by two otherwise contrary views of Scripture: (a) that the whole of the Bible is literally true, the revelation so completely given that subsequent elucidations are not only unnecessary but misleading; and (b) that the biblical material and the creedal summaries are early but superseded stages of religious development of which any given cultural expression is as valid as any other. There is some truth to both objections in the sense that they are reminders of twin dangers: either thinking revelation is exhausted by any single cultural expression of God's presence, or thinking that we can minimize the radical particularity of the God witnessed to in the Old and New Testaments.

Those in creedal traditions variously insist that the creed is a highly selective concentration of the main truths of the Bible, Old Testament and New. It is a definitive, not exhaustive, summary of the affirmations used at baptisms to identify the God whose love is to be trusted above all and to identify the people created by the call of that God. That call is the Word of God to a nonpeople and makes them into a people, the Word that gives an identity to those otherwise without one. The written form of the Word of God - the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments - has an authority second only to the eternal Word of God above all revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The authority of the creed is secondary to the authority of Scriptures and serves to enhance the right reading, the informed passion, which those Scriptures themselves evoke.

The Scriptures have authority not because they are some hypothetical data bank of literally true facts, say of ancient Middle East cosmology. The Scriptures have authority because of their calling power, because God uses them by speaking through them by the power of the Spirit to call people time and time again, throughout the centuries and into the future, to hear God's word and so recall their identity as God's servant people. As word of God, the Scriptures call forth that trusting knowledge that is faith, a doxological summary of which is the creed.

The creed in this sense was as squeezed out of people as was the Shema, Israel: "Hear, O Israel! ..." Confronted by a threat to the very identity and continuity of right worship of the living God, the people, in both cases, hear a call and reply with a rehearsal of God's saving nature and acts. In both cases the people bear witness to what has happened to them at the hand of this God. As new threats to the gospel truth arose, especially as the distilled baptismal vows are translated in a new context, the church found that it had to expand the creed - in order, in the face of new threats, not to say less than the truth. One of the creed's functions is to guard against reductions. The creed helps keep together those things that belong to the complementary range of biblical messages. It serves as a help in the right reading of the Scriptures and in the right proclamation - the spoken form of the Word of God - which arises out of them.

This relative but real authority of the creed is reflected in some orders of worship practiced by many congregations who take seriously their place in a creedal tradition. I mention three implications of the creed's place in these liturgies.

First, the worshiping context reinforces the praise-giving nature of the creed. Yes, we critically examine the creed and test its wording, and, yes, we identify those places where this or that confusion might arise. But that very examination is an action of doxology: we praise God no less with our minds and critical questions than with our hearts and resounding affirmations. For example, it is difficult and pointless not to sing the cadences the Nicene Creed uses to point to Christ's identity: "... God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and our salvation...." The language is at the same time precisely tough and inescapably joyful.

Second, in the liturgy the congregation stands to recite the creed after the readings of Holy Writ and after proclamation based on those texts. That means that the creed was and remains a response to the written and proclaimed forms through which God chooses to address the Word to us.

Third, in the liturgy the creed is a link between the proclamation and the prayers of intercession. Intercession brings with it a commitment to act on behalf of those being prayed for. That commitment includes serving "all sorts and conditions" of humans, not just believers, and all God's creation, not just the human part of it. The congregation that is gathered by the Word knows itself to be also those who are dispersed by the Word into every corner of life. The congregation that stands for the creed knows it stands alongside of, and often in the place of, those for whom it prays. Intercession is not worrying condescension. Intercession also includes a petition not just to help others but also to open ourselves to be helped by others whether or not they are believers, others whom we also need to respect and hear, others who address us with a prophetic word of repentance and assurance of pardon.

The Most Ecumenical Creed and Others

Out of the many versions of the earliest baptismal confessions of faith, several main forms of the creed emerged. The best-known and most widely used were the so-called Apostles' Creed and the so-called Nicene Creed (381). While both are accepted in most of the churches in the creedal tradition, the one most widely accepted in the West and the East was the creed approved by the Third Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople in 381. It reflects more of the doctrinal development of the third and fourth centuries than does the Apostles' Creed. The latter has its own beauty and concentrated punch, its own selectivity, its own pedagogical usefulness. These two ancient creeds so reinforce and amplify each other that when people recite one, the wording of the other is always coaching in the background.

I will say something later about the complementarity of different views of baptism, but here we are dealing especially with the connection between baptism and the Nicene Creed. The creed grew out of much shorter statements of commitment when people chose to be baptized - or to have their household baptized. In that act they were sticking out their necks, endangering their worldly goods and lives and those of their household, joining what we today would probably call an underground movement - a movement forced underground by the authorities who considered the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord a seditious stance.

Though we use the term "baptism" today more often than not, there was a good point to the old parlance wherein the act was called "Christening." For in baptism one takes on the name of Christ, gets named as one belonging to that ragtag, hot and cold, rich and poor, healthy and sick, cussed and blessed community to whom Christ has united himself by the power of the Holy Spirit. The church is all those people who get stuck with each other in Christ, like it or not, in season and out, through thick and through thin, past, present, and future. Read Bonhoeffer's Life Together again. He has this gloriously gritty business of community well documented, prophetically, lovingly - and he knew the community reached out to include his jailers.

The nub of the baptismal formula was simple enough: "Jesus Christ, Lord," but the consequences of the existence of the community willing to live and die by this confession were world shattering. The main struggle was over whether there were an Old and a New Testament, which meant whether there was a community of believers in Jesus who were in continuity with the people whose struggles and hopes and experiences are the material of the Hebrew Scriptures, the canonical writings sacred to Israel. New writings proved to be the most hope-sustaining in those communities that under persecution could make stick their claim to continuity with the original apostles and that used the "rule of faith" in baptisms. These eventually came to be recognized as the canonical writings of the New Testament. The succinct baptismal vows served to focus the identity of that community whose freeing loyalty was to Jesus the Jewish Messiah, the Lord of the whole universe. This Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, Anointed One, Christ. That claim is scandalous enough. Add to that, however, that he is the crucified, risen, and vindicated Lord of the whole creation, the one who will return to judge the living and the dead. The additions to the Nicene Creed over the years were made because not to say more in the face of threats to this claim would be to compromise its scandalous simplicity.

In the face of dilutions and misleading interpretations, the church had to say more in order not to say less than what is inherently implied in the simplest baptismal confessions. What was implicit becomes explicit in this doctrinal development, especially, but not exclusively, to 381. The Nicene Creed is not what Tillich would call authority imposed from the outside and over which Christians ought not to argue. The creed has authority as believers stand for it, as they stand against some other claims and practices that are contrary to the love of the Triune there confessed. Whenever the creed was used - as indeed it later came sometimes to be - to bully people into conforming to a state religion, its nature as a free covenanting act of reowning, reclaiming for oneself this form and content of the faith, its true nature, was tragically debased. I think, for example, of the use of the sword to try to quell many of the movements within what has come to be known as the Radical Reformation, though such forceful repression had been already going on for centuries. Yet the creed is part of the way the gospel gets passed on. Something occurs when I am so moved by the gospel mediated through members of the body of Christ that I decide to throw my lot in with those who identify themselves by standing up for the creed and for the One to whom it points. We believe it and rejoice in it. We critically study the creed, but what we are studying essentially belongs to the liturgy and is to be sung with the other voices around us.

One of the things we learn from the creed is the humanness of the church's faith. In a subsequent chapter I say something about the dangers of what one can call "appearance Christology." Its more formal name is Docetism, from the Greek word meaning "to appear." By whatever name, it is the view that Christ was divine but only appeared to be human. The idea is that the humanness gets in the way of the divinity. It is an attitude that shows up in many things. For example, sometimes people seem to think that the less human, say, the Scriptures are, the more divine they are and thus supposedly the more authoritative. The Christian faith, however, is a historically mediated faith. The church's humanity is one of its essential aspects. When we say that Christ came for us and for our salvation, and that the Mediator was tempted in all points as we are but did not sin, and it is a true saying worthy of all belief that Christ came into the world to save sinners, we are remembering that the living God is the one free enough, loving enough, powerful enough to become incarnate of the virgin Mary. One of the strengths, and not one of the weaknesses, of the creed is that it is the product of - so the believer confesses - a whole series of events and pressures which, while not what the creed can be reduced to, nonetheless played an indispensable part in its growth. The creed's earthiness is one of the most important truths it teaches us, we whose humanity is divinely intended.


Excerpted from CLUES TO THE NICENE CREED by David Willis Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
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