A Friendly Introduction to the Nicene Creed, Part I

Note: This is the manuscript from a Sunday School class at Providence Church (CREC).

In this short lesson I want to offer a friendly introduction to the Nicene Creed. I say friendly to mean I am not going to deal with the textual issues, the filioque[1] clause or some of the historical debates over the Nicene Creed.

Let me begin by saying that Providence Church is a creedal Church and we make no apologies for it. We believe that the Church did not begin in the late 19th century, but that it actually has a long history. And if it has a long history it has a lot of stories to share. Let me also add that as a Reformed people we acknowledge that the Church did not begin in the 16th century. The Church has always existed, even when it was most unfaithful. Sometimes it takes bold men to challenge the status quo and tell the Church it has to stop acting like babies and grow up. This is what Luther did in the 16th century. Unlike our Roman Catholic friends, I think it was a good thing.

The Church founded on the blood of the martyrs and especially on the blood of Christ was called to be a light to the world. But if you are going to be a light into the world you need a mission statement. The Church worked very hard to form this mission statement. The first official mission statement of the Church was the Nicene Creed. It was an ecumenical Creed, meaning that it encompassed every dimension of Christendom. This Creed has protected and shaped the life of the Church for centuries.[2] But what is the role of the Creed in our own day? D.H. Williams writes: “Too many in Church leadership today seem to have forgotten that the building of a foundational Christian identity is based upon that which the church has received, preserved, and carefully transmitted to each generation of believers.”[3] This is the role of the Creed: to pass the faith to each generation of believers.

I am sure that you have heard someone say the following: “I don’t like all these divisive doctrinal questions, my confession is: No Creed, but Christ.”  There is something true about this statement, and that is that doctrine does divide; but if you were to ask the question: “Would avoiding creeds and confessions really liberate us from our problems and clear up all the confusion?”  The irony of this whole situation is that if someone were to ask a “No Creed, but Christ” individual what does He believe about Jesus, what do you think he would say? The answer is that no matter what he says about Christ he is already articulating a creed of his own. If a Mormon comes to your doorstep and asks you if Jesus was truly God, however you answer that question you are articulating an orthodox or unorthodox creed. In other words, creeds are inescapable. The Creeds are quite offensive to the modern evangelical because it means they have to trust in others and not themselves. You have to trust in the faithfulness of your forefathers.  You have to trust in the faithfulness of those who spent centuries thinking through these issues and refining them against heresies that arose in the early church. The Creeds call us to connect ourselves with our past; to root ourselves in our family history.

The question the Creeds, and in particular, the Nicene Creed seeks to answer is: what do you believe about Jesus? When it comes to the Creeds you are always one iota away from heresy. This is why it is so important to think carefully about a Creed. Who are you going to trust; the brilliance of a recent Ph.D grad or the consideration and study of the Councils?[4] Councils do err; they are not perfect, but one quick survey through the Nicene Creed will reveal rather quickly that every phrase of the Creed is an implicit or explicit biblical truth.

What is the purpose of a Creed? The Creed protects us from error and guides us in truth.  The Creed is not an invention of man. The Jews had a creed. The first official creed of the Hebrew Scriptures is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” They are declarations of what a people have believed concerning the Scriptures. A Creed tells us what we should be willing to die for and what we should not be willing to die for. Will I die for the sake of the divinity of the Son? Yes. Creeds help us differentiate whether things are of primary importance—issues where no compromise is acceptable—or if they are secondary issues—issues where legitimate debate can occur. But don’t the creeds lead to controversy and division? “Ironically, they are not the cause of doctrinal controversy; they are the answer to it.”[5] In fact, the ancient creeds have liberated us from the frustrations of doctrinal controversy. The Ancient Creeds teach us that we do not have to re-invent the wheel, but we can actually move on and think through other issues that have not been discussed as much in Church History. In summary, we can say that the Creed settles primary questions, while different traditions have the task of settling secondary questions. This is why we have catechisms and confessions like the Westminster and the Belgic Confessions and the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms to give us some guidance on things that are not of primary importance in the Church.

What does this not mean?

This does not mean that secondary issues are unimportant. They are very important. Providence takes some very strong positions on Christian education, eschatology, worship, sacraments, etc. But what the Creeds make very clear is that our differences with other bodies over these secondary issues are not issues where we should divide.  This is actually an important lesson for us. The Creeds help us to keep things that are central, central, and it helps us to be open to discuss and interact with other bodies that differ with us over secondary issues.

What does this mean?

This means that we become dogmatic about the Christian faith to the point of death. This means that the Creeds should shape our catholicity. It should shape the way our children think about the world. They should not grow up with an isolationist mindset, but rather a fairly broad view of the Christian world. Practically, I have often encouraged people to visit different types of Protestant churches when they are on vacation, whether it be a conservative Anglican or Lutheran Church or something of that nature to expand their horizons. One caution: some who are new to the faith need to mature into a particular theological tradition first. Pastorally, if someone is new to the Reformed Faith I am not going to give him Karl Barth and Jamie Smith’s books. I will give him foundational books in the Reformed faith. Something like R.C. Sproul or Douglas Wilson are very good foundational books to read. One thing we do not want to become is a schizophrenic Christian. As a pastor, I don’t want my parishioners to be Reformed, but one step from becoming an Anglican, rather I want you to be deeply committed to our Reformational tradition, but at the same time to become conversant with different theological traditions. Maturity means knowing where you are, but also knowing where you came from and who is out there. This is precisely why the Creeds are so important, because they give you boundaries. They tell you precisely where the dividing line is.

[1] The word is an attempt to explain the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the other two persons of the Trinity. Does the HS proceed from the Father, the Son or both? John 15:26-27. The word filioque means “and the son.”

[2] L. Charles Jackson, Faith of Our Fathers: A Study of the Nicene Creed. This lesson is largely based on L. Charles Jackson’s work. References and quotes will come mainly from his book.

[3] Quoted in Jackson’s Faith of Our Fathers.

[4] Of course, I stress that councils do err.

[5] Charles Jackson, pg. 4.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Creeds and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s