By Molly Jane Layton
“Do you believe everything that’s in the Nicene Creed?” my friend asked me out of the blue one Sunday. My answer was automatic: “Yeah. Do you?” Shyly, she admitted that while saying it each week, she omitted certain parts that she was not sure she agreed with. I had never thought about what a church-going skeptic did while reciting it, but her solution seemed reasonable. What struck me more was realizing that I had never seriously considered disagreeing with its tenets. It was not that I had never struggled with doubt; I have experienced plenty of ups and downs on my spiritual journey. It was more that I had always considered the creed the bare minimum: if I was going to call myself a Christian, I would be on board with it.Fast forward to the first semester of seminary, a time which is at once exciting, inspiring, and infamous for breaking down the idealistic notions of aspiring clergy. My Church history class made me realize how little consideration I had given to the creed’s history and what the complexity of that history means for the Church’s beliefs. I knew it was at the Council of Nicaea that the church established that Jesus was fully divine, equal to God the Father, and eternally begotten, producing the first draft of what we now know as the Nicene Creed. But it did not even come close to ending there. It simply set off another round of debates about what it means for Jesus to be both fully God and fully human. When the Council of Chalcedon attempted to settle that debate in 451 AD, certain branches of the Church remained dissatisfied with the council’s conclusions and simply refused to agree with them.
Then, roughly 600 years later, the church in the East and the church in the West would split over the filioque clause, which the West added to the creed and which the East believed effectively made the Holy Spirit no longer equal to the Father and the Son. This creed, which was supposed to unify the church, failed in significant ways.
One could be discouraged by this: apparently the unity of the Christian church was ephemeral from the beginning, if it ever existed at all. But I would like to propose that, while the history of the creed is complicated, it does have something to teach us about what binds us together today, even as the church is arguably more fractured than it has ever been before. As I consider the creed, I see meaning both in what it does not say and in what it does say.
First, the creed is a theological statement, not a behavioral guide. Perhaps this is self-evident, since the word creed comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe.” Of course there are plenty of passages of Scripture that give guidance on behavior, and early Christians did indeed hold to certain behavioral and moral standards. While the canons of the early Church councils dealt with such issues, they are not considered binding in the same manner as the creed. Today we worship in a church fractured over questions both of behavior and of ideology that impacts behavior. Do we need to decide on these questions for everyone? Or can the church find its unity in the faith of Nicaea?
Second, while the creed explains the overarching path of salvation (Jesus died and rose again so we can have forgiveness of sins and be raised from the dead), it leaves ample room for theological speculation. Exactly how is that forgiveness accomplished? Who is it offered to and how does one accept the offer? What does this redemption mean for life before death? Again, maybe there is a reason that the church did not try to answer these questions, once and for all, for everyone. Maybe we were supposed to receive a creed that a liberation theologian fighting for the rights of the poor in South America could say just as boldly as a Calvinist defending the doctrine of penal substitution.
So what is it about the creed that does continue to pull us together? In it we find a story, a story that is so compelling that Christians have been repeating it for 2,000 years. Its main actor is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Together the three persons of the Trinity create the world and give us life. Then one of them, fully equal with the other two, bothers to come down from heaven and live on earth incarnate, die on a cross, rise from the dead, and ascend back to heaven, where he waits to return to us. And through the actions of this triune God, we get to live out our life in the Church and receive forgiveness for our sins, all the while hoping that death will not be the end for us, that we will live again in a new world that we cannot quite imagine because it is not here yet. The creed tells us that the God of the universe created us and then reached down into creation to pull each one of us into his story of salvation and redemption.
The key to our recitation of the creed is that God does not come down into our story. Instead, God draws us into his story, where unconditional love, immense suffering, and grace freely given are woven together in a beautiful tapestry. Had we written the story, it would not have unfolded like this, for it is more dreadful and wonderful than our finite human minds can comprehend. God took compassion on our weakness, and instead of condemning us for our inability to love each other, sent Jesus down to accomplish the redeeming work that makes love and unity possible.
While in one sense our differences do matter, they pale in comparison to the mighty work that Jesus Christ did for us all on the cross, and each and every one of us needs the saving grace he offers. Here, in this story, we become unified as forgiven sinners, awaiting the return of our savior and the redemption of the world. And one day, in that world to come, we will experience the perfect unity in Christ for which we were created.
Molly Jane Layton is a postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of New York and a first year M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary.