Creeds of the Kehillah ~ Part 17

The Nicene Creed~ Part 3

In our last post, we continued to explore the Nicene Creed. In this post, we dig a little deeper into the actual articles of faith in the Nicene Creed.

We Believe in One God

The first article of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, popularly known as the Nicene Creed, is the shortest and probably also the oldest because it can be found (with only minor variations) as far back as the first baptismal confessions of the earliest Believers. In the historical development of the Creeds, brevity and antiquity usually go together, and, remarkably, this article survived the theological upheavals of the fourth century virtually unaltered.

It is not difficult to demonstrate that the doctrine that it contains was taught in the church from the very beginning. With the significant exception of the word Father, it can even be traced back to the opening pages of the Tanakh. It is the only article of the Creed to which a practicing Jew can assent without serious difficulty. However, he or she might find the combination of the words Father and Almighty somewhat unusual. In a real sense, therefore, the first article of the Creed is a confession common to both biblical Testaments, and its all-embracing nature may be one reason why it survived the ups and downs of early church doctrinal controversy substantially unchanged.

The first article of the Nicene Creed presupposes an objective body of teaching [1] that Believers are expected to confess as their faith. This idea seems normal and natural to us, but it was a novelty in the ancient world. Neither Judaism nor any pagan religion or philosophy could claim to have a closely defined set of beliefs that everyone adhering to it was expected to profess publicly and defend against all comers. Jews were generally born into their faith, and the relatively few converts were obliged to submit not to a body of doctrine as such but the prescriptions of the law. These could be very demanding, particularly when grown men were expected to undergo circumcision, and the requirement seems to have been quite a deterrent in many cases. Indeed, there was a substantial number of Gentiles, known in the Brit Hadashah as God-fearers. They adhered to Jewish synagogues but did not become full community members, presumably because the barriers were set too high for them.

Believers inherited their belief in one God from Judaism and were insistent on this throughout the patristic period. At the popular level, they had to defend their faith against the prevailing polytheism of the ancient world. Many early Messianic texts contain examples of anti-polytheistic satire, but few of them mount a sustained attack on polytheism as a belief system. The main reason for this is that Believers did not often have to fight this battle at the intellectual level since many educated pagans were equally critical of polytheism and ridiculed the ancient myths every bit as much as Believers did. They preferred to believe in a perfect being out of which existing reality had been formed. However, precisely how this had happened was a matter of furious disagreement among the different philosophical schools of ancient Greece. Believers were quick to point out the various theories’ inconsistencies to explain what we call creation.

The early Believers also insisted that God is a personal being who establishes a relationship with human beings created in His image and likeness. This relationship was initially given to the Jews, and in Yeshua, it has been extended to others. God does not reabsorb us into His being but establishes a fellowship with us that will endure for eternity. This personal character of God distinguishes Messianic belief most obviously from any philosophical equivalent, and the insistence with which it was hammered home is a good indication of how difficult it was for the average pagan to embrace this concept.

It would be wrong to suggest that the doctrine of the one God developed in any significant way during the first Messianic centuries. The teaching of Augustine and John of Damascus can be found in the second century, with very little difference. However, Messianic theologians had to explain how the one God was at the same time a Trinity of persons, a doctrine that did not contradict the monotheism of the Tanakh. Belief in a communion of three divine persons led to a growing understanding of God as love, a biblical idea that finds its most remarkable flowering in the works of Augustine. By stressing the concept of divine love, he combined the unity of the three persons in one God and our union with Him (and them) as the height of our spiritual experience and the ultimate goal of the divine plan of salvation.[2]

In my next post, we pause our series on the Creeds to celebrate Shavo’ut.

Click here for the PDF version.

[1] The canon of the Tanakh and Brit Hadashah.

[2] Bray, G. L., & Oden, T. C. (Eds.). (2009). We Believe in One God (Vol. 1, p. 34).

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