The Nicene Creed ~ Part 6
In our last post, we continued to explore the Nicene Creed. This post digs a little deeper into the actual articles of faith in the Nicene Creed.
OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
As we have already looked at this in the Apostle’s Creed, I will be brief. To counter pagan objections, Believers argued that the intelligent design of the universe presupposes the existence of a supremely intelligent Creator. The complexity of the created order is such that it can hardly have emerged out of chaos by itself. Apparent anomalies, like the superiority of the human race to animals that are bigger and stronger than we are, cannot be explained by chance evolution. Furthermore, Believers maintained that everything in the world was good in and of itself and became evil only through misuse. They also claimed that the creation was not eternal and generally believed that time and space had been made together at the beginning of God’s great work. This flew in the face of a commonly held pagan view that matter was eternal and, by its nature, opposed to the spiritual world from the beginning.
OF ALL THAT IS, SEEN
The human race was the supreme act of God’s creation, as is stated in the book of Genesis. This supremacy is not because human beings are the highest of the creatures (a distinction that belongs to angels) but because we combine both the spiritual and the material in one being. For that reason, have been given dominion over the creation in obedience to God. To the fathers of the kehillah, it was highly significant that although God revealed Himself to us by the agency of angels, when He wished to appear on earth Himself, it was as a man that He came. The incarnation of the Son of God validated the goodness of the material world and ensured that it would be redeemed along with the spiritual order. Once this point was established, the way was open for Believers to explore the natural world as a gift from God, and many early believing writers took great delight in its wonders, which they often described at great length. The six days of creation were a favorite theme for commentators, and virtually every prominent writer has left us at least one treatise on the subject. It would be untrue to say that the triumph of the Messianic movement in the fourth century led to a new era of scientific exploration. It would take many more centuries before the implications of the Messianic doctrine of creation began to do its work at that level. However, it can still be said that the kehillah fathers prepared a more positive approach to the natural world. When the scientific revolution finally came, their writings could be appealed to as confirmation that Believers had indeed inherited dominion over the earth.
The question of spiritual creation is not often raised nowadays, but the kehillah fathers gave it detailed and special treatment in its own right. To modern readers, this doctrine often appears quite strange, and how the Fathers dealt with it often seems to us to be less satisfactory than other aspects of their creation doctrine. Therefore, we must understand the historical context in which they were writing and the specific problems they were forced to address.
Everyone in the ancient world believed in the presence and power of spiritual forces for good and evil. The Jews thought of them either as messengers from God (the word angel means “messenger”) or as rebellious spirits who had been cast out of His presence but were still allowed to operate within certain limits on earth. Pagans knew no such distinction, and for them, particular spirits could often be either good or bad, depending on the circumstances. From the Jewish perspective, it was easy to identify the pagan Gods as evil spirits who had deceived the people. However, this opinion had to compete with the more widely held assumption that the gods were nothing but figments of the imagination.
The Tanakh is remarkably reticent on the question of spiritual forces, and in particular, it says virtually nothing about the fall of HaSatan and his angels from heaven. The kehillah fathers recognized this but felt that they had a duty to supply what was missing by speculating on the significance of specific mysterious passages like Genesis 6:1, where it says that the “sons of God married the daughters of men.” This was taken by many to be a reference to the fall of the angels, who, through their lust for human women, created a race of demons even more rebellious than they were. They also relied on Ezekiel 28:12–19, which was addressed to the king of Tyre but used such extravagant language that it is difficult to interpret it in any way other than explaining the fall of the devil from heaven.
The main concern that the kehillah fathers had was to reassure Believers that they had nothing to fear from these spiritual powers. They promoted the idea that all Believers had a guardian angel who looked after them, and they did what they could to insist that demonic forces had no power over Believers. However, this was not an easy claim to maintain since various diseases and disabilities were attributed to demonic action, and Believers were not exempt from them. At the popular level, the kehillah waged a constant and unsuccessful battle against superstition, which was much easier to dismiss intellectually than it was to eradicate at the popular level. After believing in Yeshua became the official state religion, the various oracles and soothsayers who had flourished under the pagan dispensation were forbidden. Still, their trade merely went underground to become what we now think of as the occult. It would be many centuries more before magic and astrology were finally banished from respectable society, and they are still popular though publicly unacceptable today.
On a more sophisticated theological level, the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries began to explore the structure of the spiritual world as part of their attempts to systematize Messianic teaching. They began to examine the qualities of angels, their ranking in the celestial hierarchy, and their different functions. The most significant expression of this was the Celestial Hierarchy, an anonymous treatise written by someone who claimed to be Dionysius the Areopagite, a man who had professed faith following Sha’ul’s preaching at Athens. His claim was accepted throughout the Middle Ages, which gave his writings extraordinary authority. However, they are now universally recognized to date from the early sixth century and probably came from Syria.
The Fathers paid less attention to the demonic world and said remarkably little about hell. However, what they did say was very much following the teaching of the Brit Hadashah, particularly with the hard sayings of Yeshua. However, it must be said that they found it difficult to accept the eternal nature of divine punishment and tended toward the view that in the end, God would redeem everything and turn it into good. Most of them recognized that what they were saying was largely speculative because Scripture did not give enough information for them to be sure one way or another. Modern readers, who are generally disinclined to follow their speculations, must bear this in mind when they read what the Fathers had to say. Like us, they were doing their best to make sense of something that intrigued them but lay beyond the bounds of human understanding. At their best, they were prepared to admit their limitations and to put their trust in the God whom they knew would protect them on earth and save them from destruction at the end of time. 1]
In my next post, we begin to dig into the second article of the Nicene Creed: We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ.
Click here for the PDF version.
1] Bray, G. L., & Oden, T. C. (Eds.). (2009). We Believe in One God (Vol. 1, pp. 128–129).