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New Words for Old Words


Dear friends,


Among the liturgical changes we have made this summer, you have probably noticed different language in the Nicene Creed. Changes to sacred language can be jarring, especially when it is cherished words imprinted on our souls. However, language is not static; it is a dynamic, living entity, continually in flux. Perhaps you remember the first time you read Shakespeare in school. Our language has evolved so much over the past centuries that plowing through Romeo and Juliet can be quite the daunting task for a young student. Or, just speak with a teenager today and you will hear phrases and words that have taken on new meanings and uses. Our language is always becoming something new and I would argue that the advent of the internet has quickened these changes.


The translation of the Nicene Creed we are using this summer comes from Enriching our Worship 1 which are supplemental liturgies prepared by the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church in 1997. There are three major changes in this translation: language around the incarnation, the filioque clause, and the removal of a gendered Holy Spirit.


The first major difference arrives in the second section of this translation concerning God the Son. In the Book of Common Prayer (1979) translation, we read:


For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man.


In the translation we are using, we read:


For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.


The difference here is the Son being “made man” or “becoming fully human.” The original Greek contains the word ánthrōpos from which we also derive the word anthropology. This word in its singular form is translated as “man,” but in the most common usage of its plural form means people of all genders. The Greek word anḗr means biologically male in both its singular and plural forms. If it was essential that Jesus was incarnated biologically male, the word anḗr would have been used instead of ánthrōpos. Of course, we can use “man” in the English language similarly to ánthrōpos in the Greek but practice has changed. In academic circles and even in common language, we more frequently go to “humanity” or “humankind” to describe the collectivity of people.


In translating this Greek idea into English as “became truly human,” we are emphasizing that the importance of the incarnation is the Son becoming human–one of us. Some Christians believe that the Son being biologically male in the person of Jesus is significant and use that as the basis for excluding those who are not biologically male from the priesthood. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus, an early pivotal thinker of Christianity and one of the authors of the creed we use, suggests that to ascribe human relationships and our understanding of gender to any of the persons of the Godhead is like a perverse joke.1 This passage appears to suggest that the best way forward is emphasizing the Son becoming human in the person of Jesus rather than biologically male.


The second major difference is the removal of the filioque clause. In the Book of Common Prayer (1979) translation, we say:


We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.


In the Enriching our Worship translation, we say:


We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father.


The filioque clause is the “and the Son” which suggests that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the two other persons of the trinity not just one. This clause is not original to the creed and was only officially added in the western churches during the eleventh century as part of the East-West Schism when the church broke in two. In 1976, Anglican and Orthodox theologians issued the “Moscow Agreed Statement” in which Anglicans agreed with Orthodox Christians that the filioque clause should not be included in the Nicene Creed. In 1994, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church resolved that any new liturgies from that point on would not include the filioque clause. The removal of the words “and the Son” corresponds to the original Greek text and aligns us with current Anglican liturgical practice.


The third major change in this translation of the Nicene Creed is the removal of gender from the Holy Spirit. In the 1979 translation the pronoun “he” is used for the Spirit and in the 1997 translation “who” is used. It has become common practice in some Episcopal churches to replace the 1979’s “he” with “she” when reciting the creed, but this gets us into another sticky situation: one in which we ascribe masculine aspects to parts of the Godhead and feminine aspects to others. This could suggest a play between gendered forces within the nature of God and goes against Gregory of Naziansus warning that we should not ascribe human concepts of gender in our theological expressions even though we are given the language of Father and Son. The Greek word for spirit, pneûma, is neuter and so the authors of Enriching our Worship chose to render the Holy Spirit without gender. This is not a perfect solution, but no words we choose can fully encapsulate God.


I am not sure if you will find this interesting, but it is essential to know why we say what we say, especially when we are employing sacred language. If we do not understand the words we use or the changes we make, we run the risk of emptying our language of meaning. In our worship of God–in our communal language–our words should be overflowing with meaning as God is the source of all meaning, continually directing our gaze towards God and in praise of God. My hope is that this explanation of why we chose a different translation of the Nicene Creed does not bog you down in what may seem pointless arguments, but pulls us deeper into our God who became one of us for our salvation.


In Christ,

Christopher


  1. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002), 122.


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