The Ancient Creed for Christians today

The Ancient Creed for Christians today

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Edmond Chua is serving as a temp staff at Christian Education Dept in the Cathedral

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1 September 2016

The Ancient Creed for Christians today

With its origins dating to the early fourth century A.D., the Nicene Creed may seem to some if not many Christians to be nothing more than a cultural relic, a throwback to a classical period in church history.

Be that as it may, Christian tradition is often based on the timeless truths of Scripture. This is surely the case with the Nicene Creed.[1] As such, there is a very real sense in which tradition can never become obsolete, and Christians would do well to engage in a contemporary recovery and re-appropriation of the same, no matter how far it predates their day and age.

One of the ways in which this may be done is by considering the factors which drove and enabled the formulation of a particular tradition like the Nicene Creed.

In this vein, I would like to suggest some lessons which we as Christians today may learn from the development of that historic creed.

The Nicene Creed arose from a meeting of bishops from across the known world, as a response to a theological challenge mounted by an Egyptian presbyter by the name of Arius (c. 250-c. 336) to the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

From his letters and poems, it can be seen that Arius clearly taught, contrary to orthodox Christian dogma, that the Son was created by the Father, and that the Son was neither eternal with the Father, nor in possession of the same ‘essence’ or nature as the Father, nor of the same status.

In response, Christians at the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) made it clear that the Son is in no way inferior in being to the Father but a bearer of the same immutable and divine essence or nature. By implication, the Son is eternal just as the Father is (‘co-eternal’), and enjoys the same status as the Father, being equal in majesty. As a result of the tireless advocacy of our spiritual forebears, the divinity of Christ outlasted decades of controversy and survived mortal assaults.

Despite the chronological distance that separates us, there is much we can learn from Christians who defended the faith at Nicaea and Constantinople, to whom I will refer as ‘Nicene’ Christians.

These points can each be summarised in a word beginning with the letter ‘C’. In the spirit of contextualisation, here, then, are five ‘C’s from the commendable lives of those who formulated and affirmed the Nicene Creed.

A first lesson we can learn from the Nicene Christians is how, in being conscious of the need of the church, they have set us an example to follow.

There is little doubt that the chief secular ruler of the time, the Roman Emperor Constantine, convened the council because he saw that the church, once healed of its doctrinal divisions, could be used as a powerful tool to promote unity within the empire. Yet there is also no denying that the churchmen who gathered to deal with the serious theological dispute were sincerely concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of their flock.

It is imperative for Christians to ask what the present need of the church is. In this matter, our local church leaders have been a good role model.

Perceiving the biblical perspective of homosexuality to be in need of clearer articulation, the ministry to struggling homosexuals of deeper exploration, and the response to advocates of homosexuality of further discussion, the ETHOS Institute of Public Christianity[2] organised a seminar on July 6, which was attended by Christians of varying ages and from different walks of life.

On a more personal level, the world is always in need of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of this we can be a witness by sharing our friendship or extending practical assistance to those around us who may be in need.

The going will not be easy, and our kind actions may not be reciprocated, but the Lord who sees our hearts will honour our good intentions and the efforts that arise from them.

Likewise, let us be conscious of the needs of people around us, Christian or not, knowing that the goodness that emanates from us emanates not ultimately from us but from the Lord, the Holy Spirit, the giver of life spiritual as well as physical.

Second, church history bears testimony to how Christians of the Nicene age were courageous in standing up for the truths of Scripture.

There were certain dire consequences for their course of action. In a popular account, St. Athanasius (c. 297-373), that great defender of Nicene orthodoxy, was exiled five times by Roman emperors for his theological convictions.

Oftentimes, it takes courage to do what is right in God’s eyes. Many Christians tend to think of the defense of biblical truth almost exclusively in terms of the honing to perfection of close rational argumentation. And yet it has been repeated time and again that it is always possible to win an argument but “lose” the person whom one is attempting to reach with the Gospel of Christ.

I would like to propose that when we engage pre-believers purely on a cognitive level, more frequently than not, a person is indeed forfeited, but that is none other than we ourselves. This is because Scripture summons the follower of Christ not merely to verbally champion what is right as far as the pre-believer is concerned, but to be willing even to uphold God’s truth as it pertains to us.

We are to reflect on whether our motives and attitudes in our relations with others are indeed consistent with the biblical revelation, and if necessary to repent before the Lord, express sorrow to those affected, and seek their forgiveness.

Let us therefore be courageous enough to pursue conformity to Scripture not just for others but, more importantly, ourselves.

Third, the Nicene Christians were evidently conscientious believers in their Lord, who did not neglect their ongoing responsibility to nurture a generation and their posterity in the faith.

In the ecumenical creed, they have left to us and our spiritual forbears vital boundaries for thinking about the divinity of Jesus Christ.

The Emperor Constantine’s decision to come alongside the church as her most influential backer to date did not immediately solidify Nicene Christianity’s place in the Roman Empire.

In fact, those who espoused heretical beliefs continued to play a prominent role in the church in the years after the promulgation of the original Nicene Creed. Amid fierce controversy, it could have been difficult for Nicene Christians to hold up, much less hold out any hope of vindication. And yet, hold up they did, bearing the torch of orthodoxy through some of the church’s darkest times.

These Christians serve as an excellent inspiration and encouragement for us to regard our many obligations not simply as a daily grind, but the portion the Lord has given to us to learn and demonstrate faithfulness to Him, which will be rewarded in its own way.

Fourth, the Nicene Creed testifies to how Christians then were clear about their beliefs.

It should not be supposed that the articulation and defense of orthodoxy rest solely on the shoulders of the bishops and their clergymen. Granted that the bishop has the special responsibility of safeguarding doctrinal purity and the priest and deacon for teaching the Bible, practically speaking, the laity stand at the forefront of the advance of the Christian faith into the world.

Living in a world full of progressive sensibilities, we are in a better position to appreciate that the Christian faith is propagated not through physical, emotional or verbal aggression, but by means of a life characterised by care for the likes of widows and orphans.

Physically as well as spiritually bereft, these are in need not just of practical assistance but the comfort of knowing that they do not struggle through life alone because their Creator is present with them, and He who is their Redeemer is capable of delivering them from despair.

Such a potent message can only be mediated through humble compassion which adorns the lives of the Spirit-empowered followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet that mind-set can but truly be found among those who espouse orthodox belief.

So let us be clear and pursue greater clarity about the tenets of our faith, cognizant of the fact that the right faith produces – and should produce – the right action or behaviour.

Fifth, the background of the Nicene Creed illustrates how Christians were not merely sure of their beliefs but fully committed to pursue their ethical implications to the very last.

Here is no rationalistic system of doctrine that alters only the mind while leaving heart and conduct completely untouched. In spite of how they were for an extended period marginalised by their opponents, the Nicene Christians refused to bow to social pressure and renounce their fidelity to Christ. They basically threw in their lot with Christ, ready to suffer mockery and persecution for His sake.

Ridicule and scorn of Christian belief have surely not ended with the age of Nicaea, and yet the pressing issue in these times for Christians at least in Singapore is not so much any significant prospect of religious persecution, of which there is very little.

Rather, it is a fear of the humiliation and shame – and even personal betrayal – which may attend any disclosure of weakness or flaw. Many of our concerns are frequently valid, and Christians are not called to cast pearls before swine.

Nonetheless, there is something to be said for coming before the Lord in utter honesty, confessing our sins and acknowledging our failings, and recognising the grace of Christ in accepting us and making us acceptable to God.

In His perfect love, there is no need for fear. It is a sense of security in the love of Christ which dispels self-hatred, and enlivens the believer to trust in those in whom they should and could trust, whether they be close friends or spiritual leaders, God giving them wisdom to identify these.

Let us therefore be so committed to our Christian beliefs as to trust wholly in Christ rather than suspect or limit His love for us. He sees our faults, loves us in spite of them, and has provided a way of redemption and sanctification by which we who have been called as His holy people may live in keeping with that high calling.

These then are the five ‘C’s of the lessons modern Christians may glean from the people of faith who stand behind the Nicene Creed. May the Lord bless us as we ponder these things in His holy presence which is ever around us.

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[1] Or, more precisely, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381), which is an expansion and modification, along the same theological trajectory, of the original Nicene Creed of A.D. 325, also known as the Creed of Nicaea.

[2] A Christian think-tank formed by the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), Trinity Theological College (TTC), and the Bible Society of Singapore (BSS).