Dear friends in Christ,
In every community I have served, I have had the same conversation over and over again about the Nicene Creed. It normally begins when someone timidly approaches me and confesses that they have problems with the Nicene Creed. This statement is sometimes accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame, sometimes with bewildered confusion, and sometimes with a streak of rebellious flair. The consequences of these disagreements with the creed are wide ranging: some believe that the ethical action is to not participate in communion, some decide that our tradition is not for them, and others hold the tension in a state of unease.
Here at Trinity, several of you have approached me with concerns about the Nicene Creed and what it means for your participation in the body of Christ. I am sure that there are others who wrestle with this, but do not speak up. I am always delighted to have a conversation around liturgy and theology, but I thought I would share some of my thoughts here.
The first thing we must acknowledge about the Nicene Creed is its historical location. This creed was a product of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and was primarily a tool to define and codify correct belief. Prior to the fourth century, Christianity was illegal. It was diffuse, a ground
roots movement with multiple expressions of belief. When Constantine I legalized Christianity, he called together an Ecumenical Council to determine matters of faith in order to create uniformity in thought and so that they could know who was right and who was wrong. This standardization of thought mirrors the goals and trajectories of empire as one cannot control something that does not have definite boundaries.
I am not saying that we should simply dismiss the Nicene Creed as a tool created by empire to control Christianity and through it the population, but we must understand that this is part of its historical roots. Through this creed, early Christian thinkers were genuinely attempting to grasp matters of faith that are not explicitly stated in the scriptures. They were authentically trying to understand Christian belief and translate that into as pithy a statement as possible. However, this was done at the behest of the Emperor and served to define who was a correct Christian and who was not.
The second thing I believe important in this conversation is that the Nicene Creed was not created as a liturgical text. It is more of a definition than poetic praise, more of a catechistic exercise than an inspiring hymn. Yet, somehow we transformed it into a required part of our Sunday eucharistic worship. Because of the complicated nature of the Nicene Creed, some Anglican liturgies are replacing the creed with other Statements of Faith, primarily drawn scriptures. If you have attended one of our 5 p.m. services, you will have experienced one of these Statements of Faith. The Church of England has a collection of beautiful texts for use in worship.
So if you find the Nicene Creed problematic, what do you do with it? I do not really have a concrete answer, but for me, the Nicene Creed serves more as an anchor than a doctrinal statement one must blindly agree with to be a member of the body of Christ. Because I have such an anchor to keep me grounded or a homebase to return to, I can exercise my creativity and fully engage my imagination in thinking and talking about God. We can inhabit the lofty “what if” spaces and fully explore the dim places of unknowing because the creed tethers us to our tradition. Instead of constriction, perhaps we can find freedom through this understanding of the Nicene Creed. Any creed or statement of faith created by human beings is always secondary to the relationship with our unfathomable, mysterious, and loving God.