creeds and redes


Interestingly, several people have asked me in the past couple of weeks whether or not I still agree with the Nicene Creed. If you’re not familiar with the history of the Nicene Creed, here’s a crash course:

In 325 AD, one of the major discussions at the Council of Nicea (council = gathering of all significant bishops) was whether or not Jesus was actually a human or if he only seemed to be human (an idea known as docetism, and a logical result of Christian gnosticism). The Nicene Creed, which is similar in substance to the Apostle’s Creed and seems to be the final articulation of the creed found in I Corinthians 15:1-11, goes a bit like this:

We believe in one God, the Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God the only begotten of the Father; that is, of the essence of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God– begotten, not made, being of one substance of the Father
By whom all things were made
Who for us, and for our salvation, came down as incarnate and was made human
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven
From thence shall he come to judge the quick and the dead
And in the Holy Ghost.

The Nicene Creed is historically important because it establishes that one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is the Incarnation. You might have heard me rave about the Incarnation before– to me, it is probably one of the most beautiful and significant doctrines of my religion. Immanuel, “God with Us,” means that God became flesh and dwelt among us, and I think that’s extraordinary. It tells me that my humanity, my physicality, my existence, my life– it matters. Considering I grew up in a world where everything about my flesh is wholly corrupt and evil and must be literally beaten into submission, the idea that God became flesh never fails to comfort me.

So, short answer: yes. I agree with the Nicene Creed. It’s considered one of the most essential definitions of Christianity, and I like that it is incredibly unifying. Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant– we all can come to the Nicene Creed and say here– here is where we are the same.

But . . . something sort of fell out of my mouth this morning while my partner and I were driving to church. Ever have those moments, where something you say seems like it’s been something germinating for a long time and all of sudden pops out as this fully-formed thought and it surprises you?

I was talking about how there are times when I desperately want to distance myself from the word Christian. I can’t get away, intellectually and emotionally, from my belief in a deity, and for a bunch of reasons I think that deity looks like Jesus. I want to follow Jesus– I believe that what he taught was beautiful and is worth trying to live out.

Sometimes, though, I look at religions like Buddhism and Wicca, and I think wow, there are some incredible ideas in these religions. For example, one of the most absolutely fundamental ideas of Wiccan practice is the Rede: An it harm none do what ye will, frequently shortened to “do no harm.” That’s the north star of Wicca, its central teaching: do no harm.

However, it seems to me that if you ask a Christian “what does it mean to be a Christian?” the answer you’re going to get is a list of varying beliefs, usually organized around something like the Nicene Creed.

Wouldn’t it be a spectacular if, instead, the answer to that question was they shall know you by how you love one another? Because, after all, what Jesus taught was love. Love each other. Love your enemy. Love your neighbor. Love the least of these.

What if the most absolute essential statement anyone could make about Christianity was that we love people? That how we loved was the only thing we really cared about or ever evaluated, and we stopped asking about how “theologically sound” someone is, or how “biblically based”? What if love were our North Star, instead of do you affirm the deity of Christ and his virgin birth?

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  • luro

    Maybe my newness to Christianity is showing here, but I always have thought of Christianity as defined by Jesus’ 2 commandments: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. So the defining thing for Christianity would be love as Jesus loved.

  • Ultimately, it was the doctrine wars that just made me too sick of Christianity to continue with it. I was exhausted with trying to hold onto my religion while everyone around me was beating a theology book over my head saying it had to be this or that way. Letting go of the word ‘Christian’ was the best thing I did. I ended up finding that I identified more with Buddhist and Pagan teachings, but I was able to hold onto some of the Jesus teachings that really meant alot to me. I like having composite, interfaith beliefs. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. Remaining in Christianity was sucking out my soul…pun intended. lol I wish Christianity could be simpler…about love. Instead, I chose to make love my religion. I found the divine there.

    • lindy

      Me, too. I could have written your comment.

  • Something like the Golden Rule, perhaps? I see the Creed as the essence of Christian belief and the Golden Rule as the essence of Christian behaviour (in theory, unfortunately less so in practice).

  • karenh1234567890

    I did not know there were two or more versions of the Nicene Creed. I learn something new every day. The Nicene creed you grew up with is much shorter than the Nicene Creed I grew up with (I’m Episcopalian). Being curious, I did some research. The version I was taught came from the First Council of Nicea in 325. The version I was taught came from the First Constantinople Council in 381. The Episcopal Church has two versions of it, since the introduction of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

    For those who want to compare the two here is the modern Episcopalian version of the Nicene Creed (Episcopal Rite 2)
    We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

    We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    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.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
    he suffered death and was buried.
    On the third day he rose again
    in accordance with the Scriptures;
    he ascended into heaven
    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
    and his kingdom will have no end.
    We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
    and the life of the world to come. Amen.

    • It is believed that the 381 creed is a modification of either the original 325 Creed of Nicea or a modification of another creed brought in line with the 325 creed. Whatever the case, the 381 creed became THE defining creed of the faith, being the only truly ecumenical creed used by every major Christian tradition.

      I didn’t know any church still used the original 325 Creed of Nicea.

      • I’m not aware of any denomination officially using the 325 version of the Creed, but the 381 version, to me, starts heading away from the most absolutely essential ideas to emphasizing historical, literal fact over Truth.

        • I had a conversation last week about “what defines a Christian”, and my choice was the 325 Nicene Creed for basically the exact same reasons that you’ve listed here. It’s a remarkably simple creed that cuts right to the heart of the matter, and I learned (as a result of that conversation) that the LDS church won’t affirm that creed, which modified my stance a bit on the rather meaningless “Are mormons Christian” question.

        • “the 381 version, to me, starts heading away from the most absolutely essential ideas to emphasizing historical, literal fact over Truth.”

          How so?

          • The only things affirmed in the 325 version are the following:

            Jesus is of “one substance” with God
            The Incarnation
            Jesus is our salvation
            The Resurrection
            eventual judgment for all souls
            Holy Spirit also exists.

            The 381 version includes these extra items:

            Virgin birth
            crucified under Pilate
            currently sits on the right hand of the father
            universal church

            For me, the creed functions as a sort of “this is the bare minimum you should believe in order to be in alignment with Christianity.” If someone, for example, doesn’t believe in the Virgin Birth, I personally don’t think that means they absolutely cannot be a Christian, which is why I prefer the earlier version.

          • Thanks for looking back over older posts.

            I think you’ve stumbled onto one of the main problems of non-denominationalism in America. Go back a hundred years, and you’d have, say, a Presbyterian friend, and a Catholic friend, and a Muslim friend. In the case of the former two, they’d each be able to say, “I’m a Presbyterian,” “I’m a Catholic,” respectively. They’d know that they have different beliefs, believe in the truth of their own confessions, and yet still be friends and perhaps say, “we’re Christians.” In the case of the Muslim, they might dig each other about how the other is a devil-worshipper or whatever, make some jokes about eating pork, and each say at the end of the day, “you’re a great gal/fellow.” This is how sane, healthy people in different religious traditions used to act.

            When we reach the non-denominational and I’m-just-a-Christian phenomenon, though, things start to change. Two tents appear, marked “real/included” and “other.” From the many different kinds that people were once able to deal and interact with, we now have only two: “Real X” and “other”. So you either have to “include” someone by calling them real, or put them in the damned/other category. One is no longer a Presbyterian, a Catholic, or a Muslim; one is now judged “real” or “not.”

            The creed was not written to enlarge or shrink one of these two tents. It was written to say a truth which the authors held dearly, which they believed was right and true and good. Those who can say amen to the creed will come to them. Those who cannot say amen to that creed will not. Throwing our hats in the ring is the human condition, and God is merciful.

            As an aside:

            “Of the Virgin Mary” probably has less to do with the virgin birth than it does with securing the doctrine of the Incarnation; in saying that Christ was born “of the Virgin Mary,” the creed is saying that Christ received his humanity from a particular human, just like us, and that he is truly one of us. Later competing doctrines had Christ possessing heavenly flesh of some sort, which set him apart from us puny humans. It’s worth noting that, of the first seven ecumenical councils, only the Council of Nicaea was called to affirm Christ’s Divinity. The rest of the councils were called, at least in part, to defend his Humanity, against those who could not suffer a God who becomes, and a God who is infinitely humble.

    • I know – I read the first one above, and I was like, “This isn’t the Nicene creed!” My Baptist parents do NOT agree with this creed, incidentally, since the current version says, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This implies that baptism saves you, and Baptists don’t believe that baptism is anything besides a symbol that you are a Christian. They don’t even believe it’s necessary to go to heaven.

      • Huh, that’s different than the type of Baptist I’m familiar with. They may say baptism isn’t necessary, but they and the Church of Christ people I knew acted as if you were not-legit or somehow ashamed of Jesus if you didn’t care to be baptized. (Fun fact: I was never baptized because I was scared of being up in front of everybody like that when I was the age expected to do it (~10 in my area), and nowadays I just don’t believe enough in the ritual to think it worth the bother.)

  • Don

    Faith is between me and the nameless eternal a.k.a. God.
    Religion is a bunch of man-made rules used to assert dominance and control others and I have no truck with any of it regardless of what name it goes by.
    A community of the faithful is often useful as a support group: so is a drum. circle.

  • I think you’re hitting upon the “best expression” idea that’s been starting to circulate–this idea that there is a “best expression” of different religions. That expression looks different from religion to religion–Wiccans might consider it living without harming anybody; Hellenic pagans might consider it “excellence in all things,” Norse pagans might consider it in their own turn as “familial/tribal strength,” Buddhists, Jews, and so on, each with their own ideas about what best expresses their religion’s concepts. I think that love and charity are probably Christianity’s best expression. When you hear outsiders talking about terrible Christians, we tend to focus on those Christians’ lack of love and charity–their bigotry, their hatred, their terror of change and of the Other, their desire for control over others’ private lives, their oppressive marginalization of those they don’t like, their propensity to spend zillions of dollars on showboat displays and grandiosity, their gullibility, their reckless disregard of objective truth and facts, their dishonesty, their willingness to use and degrade those around themselves, etc. Can’t blame you for wanting to distance yourself from that. I know the feeling very well.

    Let me say it another way: You’ll never find anybody except Christians themselves who gives a slap what creed they believe in or exactly what they think the Trinity is or what formula they think people should use to be baptized.

    Whether Christians want to be known by their love or not, that is exactly how outsiders know them and evaluate them. Whether they realize what their focus ought to be or not, those around them certainly know what it should be. So yes: I am glad that some of ’em are waking up to this truth.

    • Let me say it another way: You’ll never find anybody except Christians themselves who gives a slap what creed they believe in or exactly what they think the Trinity is or what formula they think people should use to be baptized.

      One thing about creeds that is interesting to me is how important they were to Christians at certain points in history. In fact, you could be killed by the Christian authorities for not believing in the right creed during the reign of Christiandom in Europe.

      If you didn’t believe what the church decreed about if Jesus was “fully God” or not, you were a heretic. If you didn’t believe in literal transubstantiation–if you thought communion was a symbol, and the bread and wine didn’t literally change into flesh and blood–you were a heretic. If you were baptized as an adult, or did not baptize your baby, you were a heretic. If you were a heretic, you were tortured and burned at the stake.

      I come from an Anabaptist background, so I’m very interested in creeds, and how Christians died for their faith at the hands of other Christians.

      • I’m interested in it as well. It’s not that creeds aren’t terribly important to Christians, and it’s not that they aren’t hugely divisive even today. It’s not even that Christians even today punish each other for not adhering to the correct creed (meaning: the one the punisher buys into). It’s that nobody but Christians themselves use them as a barometer of orthopraxy.

        • *don’t punish.. ugh, I need more sleep

        • I see what you mean…if only more of the mainstream, visible Christians would realize this.

          • At the moment, those mainstream, visible Christian thought-police–er, leaders–stand the most to lose if Christians as a whole start caring more about love and charity than about expressing their hatred, fear, and disapproval of whatever Others those leaders have in their sights this week. Fear, hatred, control-lust, and intolerance sell; in fact they sell amazingly well, especially to the type of terrified, enraged dominance-coveting Christians plaguing the media these days with their bigotry, racism, sexism, and classism. Love and charity? They don’t sell nearly as well. But drawing division lines everywhere, grabbing for lost privilege, and enforcing judgementalism and tribal thinking? Those sell very well indeed.

            We will not be seeing a sea change in the mainstream anytime soon. Their paychecks depend upon continuing in this vein. I reckon the best we can hope for is for the progressives and “unfundamentalist” types to rescue the religion before something really catastrophic happens. I know many good Christians who would be upset if that happened, so for their sakes alone I hope that such a rescue can happen.

  • I love this.

  • What if love were our North Star, instead of do you affirm the deity of Christ and his virgin birth?

    Then perhaps I would never have left.

    To me, when growing up, that was the core of Christianity. But then, over time, I came to understand that the churches were full of pious hypocrites.

  • I’ve been attending a Presbyterian church off and on lately, and I LOVE the Nicene Creed – although I had to explain to a friend who went with me that when they saw the “holy catholic church” int he Presbyterian faith, they don’t mean denomination, but catholic as the holy universal, the church of churches.

    “the quick and the dead” gives me goosebumps, every time.

    I like the Nicene Creed a lot, but I agree with you – if you ask em what it means to be a Christian who can’t pull myself away from Jesus, it’s that I want to follow He who told us, above all else, to love one another, and that the rest follows from there.

  • You are in good company — your idea is so good that it’s actually in the Bible. 🙂

    “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

    –Whoever wrote 1 John

  • Peter

    I’m not sure the Nicene Creed and the Wiccan Rede are really comparable. The Creed isn’t intended to have a whole lot to do with Christian practice (except for an acknowlegement of the existence of the Church and the practice of Baptism), while the Rede has nothing directly to do with what Wiccans actually believe about the nature of the world.

    • That is true–the creeds are about belief and ideas, not practice. Of course, it is intended that one who believes such things will act in certain ways, but history shows that they two don’t always go hand in hand.

    • That was sort of the point– to contrast how one of the few things anybody knows about Wicca is “do no harm,” and while something similar should be true of Christianity (“love your neighbor”)… it isn’t. What many people think when they hear “Christian” is something along the lines of “believes in xyz” or, even “hateful and bigoted.”

  • You might like this interfaith campaign: While not specifically Christian, I think it’s very much much in the spirit of what you describe here.

  • Carol

    I recently looked up the websites of some Southern Baptist churches I used to attend, and they all have prominently featured “What we Believe” sections that outline their core doctrines: the trinity, the virgin birth, etc. Mostly things I couldn’t care less about now as a nonbeliever. I couldn’t find anything about loving others or other potentially shared values that I still think are important. It did strike me as odd, giving the impression that believing the Right Things was more important than your actions or how you treat people. As far as I’m concerned, “beliefs” only really matter insomuch as they affect how you actually live your life (although they can affect that in subtle ways.)

    • Which makes me wonder if all these doctrinally-based churches really have been influenced more by gnosticism than by Christ. My understanding is that one of the key components of classical gnosticism was that believing or knowing the right things was what saved you. That certainly seems to be how most conservative Christian churches act.

      • While the Gnostic tradition all but died centuries ago, Gnostic ideas most definitely still exist in many places throughout the church. Gnosticism focused a great deal on divining “hidden” knowledge. It also had some crazy ideas, like how a lower, evil god created the material world and how the goal of life was to escape to the spiritual world.

  • I will venture a two thoughts.
    1. Love is a goal; a creed is a path.
    2. So far as I can see, the intention of the Nicene Creed was to unify Christianity; it was never intended to itself be a source of division.

  • Raven-

    I would disagree…the Nicene Creed was Christianity’s first foray into political power and State sponsored religion. The creed was used to disenfranchise church leaders who differed from the creed and bansih those bishops who did not affirm it.

    If my memory is correct, the Creed was finalized and enforced by a Roman emperor. It is only because of potilical force that any Christian unity occurred-in my opinion.

  • Steve

    I am reminded of that contemporary hymn of the 70s, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

  • For me the most fundamental statement about Christianity is that the Word became man for man to become god – II Peter (lower case intended). This was the earliest teaching of the church, and is still taught by all Eastern Orthodox churches. The Western Church (Roman and Protestant) invented so much dogma and doctrine that what is generally being considered as being saved in these traditions would be unrecognizable to the Apostles and the Apostolic Fathers and others of the first 700 years – in fact, if they had to be resurrected today they would not even want to celebrate communion with the modern western church. But I digress – back to the defining statement: man becoming god is known as theosis which is a the process of becoming, through grace, what God is by nature. ‘Becoming god’ in NO sense involves becoming part of the Trinity, which is restricted by the Absolute nature of the Trinity – neither is it to be confused with any New Age or Mormon notions of deification. In the beginning God created man in His Image – which man messed up. The the Death and Resurrection of Christ, as the Victor over death and sin allows that image to be restored in us. When others look at us as Christians – they should see Christ (LOVE!!). If they don’t, it means we are doing something wrong. Sadly that is where we find ourselves.

  • I turned a quote from your post into a meme image:

    I also have an idea for a song inspired by it. If I finish it, I will let you know!

  • And with just one simple sentence, you as a Christian blogger have made Wicca sound much more interesting to me than it ever has before.

    Imagine that. “Do no harm” as your overall, number one principal. So many people think Wicca is about doing spells or worshiping Satan, or something…but instead the number one rule is “do no harm”. I’d say that ranks right up there with the Golden Rule. People like to talk as if “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is some great breakthrough, an unmistakable proof of a deity…but I think the wiccan rule is just as good.

    But, as you say…Jesus was asked explicitly what the greatest commandment was, in the Christian Bible. He didn’t talk about virgin births or the depth of your belief or saying the right words in the right order. He said “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

  • Caitie

    The last sentence…. I’ve been reading your blog and I can sum up how I feel for you based on the feeling I received reading the last sentence here. I feel sad for you. Sad that this is your outlet. Sad that you need be so critical and skeptical and must publish it for the world to see. Mostly though… I’m so so sad that you feel that the North Star of your faith should not be the deity of Christ. Without that principle… Jesus was just a nice guy that loved. And yes love is so important, but what does a man loving others do to save souls unless that man giving his love to the world is God Himself? If I had lived a perfect life (impossible) and sacrificed it for just one person to go to heaven… It would mean nothing because I am not God. Only God has the power to redeem, to cover the sin that keeps us from him eternally. That is why Jesus MUST be God. Without it… Love is just nice, but will not save anyone.

    • This comment confused me a little, especially since I spent the majority of the post stating that I still affirm the Nicene Creed. I’m not arguing to throw out the deity of Christ– I’m arguing that we should re-evaluate what we orient our lives around in practice and in action. If we cared more about loving people like Christ did than whether or not we believe they are “theologically correct” I think we’d be a lot better off.