At the Sunday Forum, there was a discussion about the creed--what it is, why we say it, is it important? Robert Heylmun was inspired to reflect further.
At first it wasn’t at all troublesome, and I wondered why my fundamentalist church had always been so dead set against it. “No creed but the Bible” was their chant, and so it wasn’t until I became an Episcopalian that I got better acquainted with the ancient document that bishops of the 4th century church cobbled together to proclaim what all Christians believe, or ought to believe. It seemed harmless enough as a general statement of the Faith, but I have come to see its politics, its hidden agenda, and its dogmatic features.
The politics surrounding the Nicene Creed arose to eliminate perceived heresies, and to establish Jesus of Nazareth as the undisputed Son of God, begotten not made, and existent from the beginning with God. That was that. Period. The primacy of the God the Father was now shared by God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
The hidden agenda arose from what was to become an age-old dispute (and subsequent schism) over the ‘filioque’ clause. The Holy Spirit originally proceeded only from the Father; the Western Church added “and the son’ later, and that infuriated the Eastern Church, which picked up its thuribles and vestments and went home, slamming the door on what became the Roman Catholic Church. Members of the Roman church had always wanted the controversial clause added, and now they got their way, along with a giant split in church polity, not to mention bloody conflicts resulting from religious differences in the centuries to come.
But the dogmatic features of the Nicene Creed became especially problematic, and anyone not bowing to the ‘truths’ within its clauses was automatically a heretic. Thus the Creed, whose purpose was to unify the faith, often had the opposite effects with its attendant set of unanticipated consequences. Rampant anti-Semitism locked Jews into ghettos, allowed frequent and brutal pogroms, and denied them every kind of equal citizenship within the countries where they precariously settled.
Then came the dissenters in the 16th century whose temerity in challenging the tenets of the Nicene Creed found them chained to stakes and burning to death for their beliefs. Any deviation from the traditions established by the Creed brought horrible reprisals, including translations of the Bible into local languages. (There is nothing forbidding such translations in the Creed, but any tampering with the Latin or Greek scriptures was seen as a violation to the Church’s notion of order.)
Thus the Nicene Creed comes to us in the 21st century covered in the blood of martyrs, and still we say it and revere it and adore it Sunday after Sunday. Nothing about following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth found voice inside the Creed. Nothing about forgiveness, forbearance, kindness, or love is mentioned within its hallowed sentences.
It is time to reform it, put it on the shelf with the antiques like the Articles of the Faith (read those recently?) as we move the Church into being a band of followers of Jesus, doers of good, lovers of God and each other, and not a people defined by an outmoded and unserviceable document that never well served the followers of Jesus in the first place.