October 19, 2007

Creedal Post-Mortem, Part One

"We Believe..." These are the first words of (arguably) the most important and universally acknowledged creedal statement in christianity - the Nicene Creed. They are also possibly the most dangerous and destructive words ever professed.

In AD 312, Constantine won control of the Roman Empire at the battle of Milvian Bridge. He attributed his victory to the intervention of Jesus Christ (a shrewd political move) and elevated christianity to favored status in the empire. His motto became "one God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor."

The new emperor soon discovered, however, that "one faith, one church" thing wasn't representative of the state of christianity in the empire. Believers in the new religion were already fractured by theological disputes, especially over the understanding of the nature of Christ. Arius, a leader of the church in Alexandria, asserted that Christ was created by God before the beginning of time - divine, yes, but also created. Therefore, the divinity of Christ was similar to the divinity of God, but not of the same essence, because it was of the created order. Arius was opposed by another leader, Alexander, together with Athanasius, who argued that the divinity of Christ, as the Son of God, was of the same essence as the divinity of God, the Father. To believe otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final or ultimate knowledge of God. To counter this widening rift in the church, Constantine convened a council in Nicaea in AD 325. A creed reflecting the position of Alexander and Athanasius was written and signed by a majority of christian leaders (and politicians). Arius was declared a heretic and his teachings heretical. Nevertheless, the two parties continued to battle each other, so in AD 382, a second council met in Constantinople. It adopted a revised expanded form of the creed, now known as the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed became the foundational creed of christianity, and today is the only creed acknowledged by protestant/reformed, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions. (thanks to creeds.net for the above summarized information).

This little history lesson is given to demonstrate a couple of crucial points. Every Sunday morning, literally millions of christians around the world - regardless of theological or denominational stripe - utter these words. However, how many of them know their origin or their meaning, and what they were attempting to create? As a former pastor (who served thousands in a quarter-century of service, I would say less than 10%). A second point is that - even its earliest days - christianity was not a unified or coherent theological system and did not understand its own god. A council of leaders was necessary (which actually was called to address a political purpose) was needed to develop an authoritative position that could be enforced within the faith community and from beyond (in this case, the empire and the sword). Someone needed to tell the poor christian lambs both what they believed, and what they were not to believe. The creed was formed as much to identify the heretics like Arius as it was to promote the doctrine of Christ as God.

The development of the creed is important to understand because it establishes the true source of belief and doctrine of christianity. Evangelical christians profess that Scripture is the only "infallible" source of faith and doctrine, but the canon of scripture was not even agreed upon at the time of creedal formation. Athanasius (yeh, the same guy who was involved in the controversy with Arius) developed a list of accepted scripture in 367; however, it was not consistent with what was finally agreed upon decades later (and ultimately contended for another thousand years). Creed came first, and creed ultimately created canon!

So, christians, do you know the creed? Do you believe it? Do you understand it?

It is ironic and amusing that the creed, which created canon and is the foundation of christian belief and doctrine, is also in contradiction to much of biblical literature. Nevertheless, christians continue to make the creedal profession and assert that the bible is the "infallible" foundation of faith and doctrine - an internal contradiction at the very foundation of the religion.

The words "We believe", stated at the beginning of the creed, represent the core problem of christian religion, and perhaps any religion. Those words establish, at the outset, that christian religion is not based on reason, logical argument, or scientific evidence, but on subjective experience or opinion that is formed by a number of different sources...not just one authoritative source (like scripture). If christians ascribe to the creed, then they willingly subjugate reason to subjective experience.

Belief is highly personal. It involves a willingness to suspend reason or rational review. Belief is formed in a number of ways, and we all practice it. I am not saying belief is "bad" - however, it must always be tested (eventually). In the test of belief, christianity has largely failed. The creed states "we believe", not "we conclude". There is not a conclusion drawn on the basis of offered evidence.

Belief, in the case of religion, is a weakness and possibly a terminal illness. It has led to atrocities in the name of its god or doctrine. It leads individuals towards delusional thought patterns and behavior. It both incites emotion and denounces it. Who, or what, can challenge a personal, subjective profession? The only real authority in christian religion is the "authority of the believer" (the protestant battle cry!). The authority of one's experience and opinion is ultimate - even the bible says so - "what we have seen, and heard, we declare to you." (1 John 1"3). How can it be tested? Christian religion spurns the test, calling it a challenge to faith, even calling it the activity of the devil.

Because belief is the heart of christian religion, the religion both flourishes and presents its greatest vulnerability. A continuous, pressing challenge on christians about their beliefs - beginning with the Nicene Creed - will eventually lead to collapse.


  1. Brothercrow your argumentation never ceases to amaze me. You seem to try to make 10 arguments in one line of thought all at once, leaving one to wonder at the end what exactly your point is. Frankly belief is the foundation of all forms of knowledge, including science and history. I cannot prove to you with 100% accuracy that human beings evolved from earlier hominids. I cannot prove to you that the battle of Hastings occured on the date of 1066. However, I can reasonably infer from the available public data that such events most likely did occur. This is the exact same position the rational theist takes in believing in God the creator, Christ's life and ressurection etc etc. If you live your life only on the basis of what you can prove with 100% certainty than im sure you would be driven mad by a 15 minute chat with Bishop Berkeley if he was alive today.

  2. gordonblood, glad you are still speaking to me. I think at some point in my post I mention "rational review" and "reasonable conclusion". There is a huge difference between belief and what you can "reasonably infer." Can you reasonably infer the existence of Jesus as a man (regardless of faith professions about him)? There would be many many scholars - even of the religious stripe - who would contend that it cannot be done. There is sufficient corraborating evidence for the existence of Napolean. I never met Napolean, and I guess I could say "I believe" the shcolars and historians who say he existed and did this and that.

    If reasonable review or rational inquiry led to the formation of the creed...then why is it not affirmed as "a reasonable inference."? It's not, because it is not.

    You mention that I make 10 arguments in one line of thought...leaving one to wonder at the end what exactly your point is.

    I think you get my point, you just don't like it.

    The only 'side thought" I introduced is the opinion I hold (based on reasonable inference from the research of reputable scholars of history) that Constantine's embrace of and promotion of christianity, including the formation of the Council of Nicaea, was done for reasons of political control, and had really nothing to do with theological debate or resolution (other than to identify a common enemy - heresy - called Arianism).

  3. Crow,

    The words "we believe" are said numerous times in the NT prior to the writing of the creed: John 4:42, 6:69, 16:30, Act 15:11, Romans 4:24, 6:8, 1 Th 4:14 Most of the usages are faith-based ("we believe Christ rose from the dead", etc.), and since faith is a fundamental requirement to be a believer, I don't see what's inherently wrong with uttering these two words.

  4. Hey Jason, exactly. They are faith based...not based on reason or logical review. I am not contending that belief in itself is bad, just if it remains unchallenged. I used this example with someone else...in Indonesia, certain tribes had a religion based on the US air men who served there in WW2. They had a system of worship, doctrine, and belief about the Plane Flyers who came from heaven, brought prosperity and protection from the ravages of war. The belief was eventually challenged and collapsed because evidence obtained through rational research and disclosure led to the belief being invalidated.

    Yes, believers believe. They have faith. But in what? And how did that belief as a positive thing, a doctrine with value, come to be? My contention is that the christian came to be as a political activity, based on an arbitrary set of assumptions, none of which had "evidentiary" power behind them.

    "Believe" is used in the bible...I have used it..."if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ...you shall be saved."

    The question is: why should I? And does not unthinking, unreasoned belief lead to a dangerous set of assumptions and possibly delusion (think 9/11, or christian support of racial segregation)?

  5. Brothercrow, the idea that one can be reasonable in not believing in the life and general ministry of Jesus Christ is absurd. All serious secular and religious scholars admit that for the movement to get going there had to be a figure named Jesus. So to be straight to the point, your contention that "there would be many scholars-even of the religious stripe-who would content that cannot be done" is unacademic from start to finish. Unless you count persons like Robert Price (who clearly is extremely bias and has a gigantic axe to grind) and Earl Doherty as reliable scholars then you might not want to make such claims. Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman, Ed Sanders, the Jesus Seminar in general and pretty much any other secular scholar who has looked unbiasedly at the evidence would consider the existence and radical life of Jesus a truism. Im not even going to give the actual reasons for this, because frankly its a waste of my time to type out what is general accepted as obvious. Nor am I going to argue on this blog why I think its reasonable to accept that God has presented himself uniquely in Christ's figure, but I think it most certainly can be done. That Constantine attended the Nicene council and allowed Christianity to be practiced is a truism, however there is no historical reason to believe he had anything to do with the formation of the creed itself. He was a political pluralist, pure and simple. Interesting the church has always been at its greatest in terms of following Christs example when it was the most afflicted and challenged, something that we are seeing happening again, greatly due to the fact that many Christians have done such a poor job following Christs example.

  6. GordonBlood, mmm...possibly like yourself, who insults others as often as his accused agnostic counterparts. Your assertion that scholarship is settled about the historicity of Jesus is balderdash. There are virtually no extra-biblical sources for his existence...much less his teaching, his miracles,etc. "All serious secular and religious scholars admit that for the movement to get going there had to be a figure named Jesus." Talk about generalizing, and absurdly unacademic! The mythologies of several primitive cultures had impact as great as christianity, and lasted longer than christianity's current record. Given that precedent, your "serious secular and religious scholars" would admit to the existence of Zeus, Appollo, Isis, Osiris, Anapurna, Maya and Ram (to name a few of several thousand). And I reference scholars such as Jurgen Moltman, Leander Keck, and...even Albert Schweitzer. Joseph Campbell perhaps?

    Constantine's involvement in the council is not a truism, it is true historically. Perhaps his motives are more complex than I have posited...but if one is aware of other actions taken by Constantine to influence the shape of christianity, then I think not.

    And GB, I am so tired of hearing about the same old song and dance..."the church has always been at its greatest in terms of following Christs example when it was the most afflicted and challenged, something that we are seeing happening again, greatly due to the fact that many Christians have done such a poor job following Christs example."
    Amazing...you manage to praise the greatness of the church and disparage other christians who must not have as much courage and faith as you in one sentence. Your statement above has no scholarly merit, either...except perhaps for the folks who publish The Book of Martyrs. The church's behavior has rarely (and only as far as individual churches or groups) been anything but abhorrent, offensive, judgemental, manipulative, and violently power hungry. The fleeing of people from the church in mass numbers as nationalism is increasingly divorced from christianity is testimony to its abusive history. It truly stands in the legacy of its true founder, Constantine. If Jesus had been a real person, and had truly founded the church, it would look "a hell of a lot" (wink wink) different than it does now.

  7. Crow,

    Faith has always been a fundamental part of Christianity. For example, Christians have faith in salvation. There's nothing evil about this. Christians, when prodded, will use prophecy and creation to prove God. There's nothing evil about this either.

  8. Jason, no doubt. I would not say faith is evil, just inadequate, possibly delusional, and potentially evil if unchallenged and abused. To get at the issue of faith (or belief): why should I believe in Jesus Christ? Give me reasons. I would prefer that they not be subjective reasons, but reasons based on ... reason. Objective criteria.

  9. If you already believe that faith is inadequate and possibly delusional, there is no answer to your question :)

  10. I don't believe faith is inadequate or delusional. I have concluded that, based on evidence collected over three decades, research, review and testing. It appears to me that you don't really have or trust faith either, because you are admitting that you have no answer to my question...which seems in contradiction to the claims of your god. Just my observation. I do understand that you are playing games - dat's OK.

  11. Crow,

    I'm not playing games and I strongly object to the accusation. You just finished saying faith is "inadequate and possibly delusional" two comments ago and now you're saying the opposite. It would help if you got your own beliefs straight first before asking these kinds of questions.

  12. Jason, sorry for the offense. You seem to me to be the one who is avoiding questions, that is why I said what I said. Maybe this can help you think rationally...I did not say I "believe" faith is inadequate or delusional. I never said that. I don't. I have concluded faith is inadequate and possibly delusional. There is a huge difference. I hope you can see that. Faith that is unchallenged, unreviewed, is dangerous, and can be inadequate or delusional.

    I asked you, twice, "why should I believe in Jesus Christ." You have avoided the question both times.

    Why should I believe (note the word...believe) in Jesus Christ? Give me reasons. Here is a chance for you to do something other than argue with an agnostic.

  13. Crow,

    You "should" believe in Christ because Scripture and God's plan for humanity revolves around His son. If you're not interested in salvation/eternal life, then obviously there's no need for you to believe anything,

    Hebrews 11:1,6 "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But without faith it is impossible to please him...for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

  14. brother crow:

    You make an excellent point about how creed determines cannon! We know for certain that creed determnines theology and doctrine, not necessarily scripture.

    A traditional response to your insights might be that there are no cooincidences about how things worked out. You've heard this before, the principle of divine soveriegnty. The basic idea behind the explanation is that conclusions as to which books would be included in the cannon, which theological ideas (especially of Trinity and Christology) were claified as the church was guided by the holy spirit and scripture.

    All of this presupposes the primacy of biblical faith and theological coherence before either were established.

    I'm very open to skepticism regarding the formation of Christian creeds, doctrine and cannonization.

    There's room for lots of deconstruction here and we need to keep examining the story of how historical theology moves through history.

    I'm not convinced that political structures are the complete criteria for explaining the outcome of creed and confessions, but I do appreciate the sort of double standard you are discussing in terms of the question of authority, antinomianism and the prieshood of all believers.

    We probably end up with an equivocation as to how you explain the outcomes on how the creeds, confessions and cannons came to be (i.e. divinely guided or politically motivated). Usually believers must bear the burden of proof, but since were are only talking about confessions and creeds, by their very nature ipso facto, the creeds and confessions do no presume to be apologetic statments (in the way that Anselm's apologetic might be).

    Therefore, in this case we must settle on the equivocation because a case could be made either way (a)God exists and guided the creedal, confessional adoption by the Church vs. (b) the arguement that creeds and confessions are mere human constructions based on prudential decisions, motivated by political means, not by divine intervention.

  15. It may or may not be relevant to the discussion but it's worthwhile noting that the Nicene Creed didn't actually create any new doctrine that wasn't already in Scripture. Granted it set in motion the development of the Trinity but outside of that, it's really just a repeat of many fundamental teachings in Scripture:

    • There is one God who created the heavens and earth
    • There is one Jesus, the Son of God, in whom we have our salavtion
    • His mother was Mary
    • He was crucified

    Etc., etc., etc.

  16. Therefore, in this case we must settle on the equivocation because a case could be made either way (a)God exists and guided the creedal, confessional adoption by the Church

    If this is the case, then YHWH remains a tribal god, he just changed his tribe. If God gave an extra-scriptural revelation as to the correct creed, then He failed to spread that revelation to the extent required to prevent honest but misguided apostasy.

  17. Right, Shygetz. I would direct karl betts to Jospeh's post on this site, "The Problem of Communication." To claim that God guided the creedal formation in the church violates one key internal principle of christianity: only scripture recognized as canon can be called "divinely inspired" or directed. If God directed the creed, which is an arbitrary claim, then it would follow that God directed some other things...such as the Crusades, and child molestation by priests (which is a significant event in the history of the church) or a number of other atrocities. Who gets to decide which actions by the church are God-inspired and which are not? Sorry, karl, your argument does not hold together. I guess that leaves (b).


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