Saturday, July 25, 2009

Preparing for the Lord's Day: "An Anglican Layman Wonders What The Nicene Creed Actually Says"

Hudson Barton offers this challenging piece, which stimulates worthwhile reflection on the words that we offer as part of our weekly worship.

Even if you are not a "church goer," this piece raises key questions about God, the created order, Jesus, and the implications of this faith for all people.

Hudson hosts the online ministry Anglicans in the Wilderness.

An Anglican Layman Wonders What The Nicene Creed Actually Says

"Forty years of alternative texts and expansive language have produced an undisciplined people and a theological wasteland." (++ Robert Duncan... 2006 at Nashotah House )

Two Nicene Creeds. Two Understandings of The Faith.

Because we typically say aloud in prayer the content of our Prayer Book, we must pay special attention because "by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned" (Matthew 12:37). It is important to remember that our liturgy creates a mental paradigm by which the Church as a whole and her members individually read, hear and appropriate the content of Holy Scripture.

This little paper addresses just one aspect of that liturgy, the Nicene Creed. My perspective is that of a layman whose encounter with the language of Common Prayer is not extraordinary. I represent not clergy or trained theologians, but the man in the pew that simply tries his best to understand and live by the Creed he professes each Sunday. As such, I have tried to understand the natural english meaning of the Nicene Creed and to allow it to shape my understanding of the Christian Faith.

I am compelled therefore to notice that my understanding varies radically after I read and declare it according to one or the other version of the Nicene Creed with which I am familiar. I have also paid close attention to what Anglican leaders say about doctrine, and so I further believe that the observed variations in the Nicene Creed bear upon several doctrines that grew up in the Episcopal Church from the 1970's, and which still exist among many Anglicans who left The Episcopal Church (TEC) to join the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). I am speaking of course of that rendition of the Nicene Creed that I find in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the alternative rendition that I find in the 1979 BCP. The 1662 BCP is declared as the standard of faith and practice in ACNA, but in actual regular practice the churches of ACNA still use the 1979 BCP.

The purpose of this paper is not so much to defend a particular version of the Nicene Creed as it is to defend the use of the Nicene Creed (for ACNA and for the Anglican Communion) as it is represented in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer... because that version is now acknowledged and proclaimed to be the standard of Anglican doctrine. It is a rallying point for the new Anglican future. Given the importance of clear understanding, and acknowledging the broad Anglican agreement to honor the 1662 BCP, it only makes sense to assure ourselves that we know what The Nicene Creed within that Prayer Book actually says.

There are many differences between these two versions of the Nicene Creed. They promulgate completely different understandings of the Christian faith. The following is a list of the most striking differences (to my layman's ears), and what I think those differences actually mean.

1. Personal Salvation

+ In the 1979 BCP, it says: "We believe in One God, the Father, The Almighty... We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ... We believe in the Holy Spirit... We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church, We acknowledge one baptism... and We look for the resurrection of the dead"
+ In the 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979), it says "I" where you see "We" above. This is why a Creed is always called a "credo" and not a "credemus" Credo suggests that every man stands before the judgement seat alone but for Jesus, without reliance upon man or Church or human institution. It means that salvation is personal rather than collective, that God calls us to have a personal relationship with Him. Since 1979, a theology has grown up in the Episcopal Church wherein it now regards personal salvation as heresy... so says PB Schori. Indeed, what she now says about salvation has been the de-facto doctrine of many in the Episcopal Church for 30 years or more, and she is just now shedding light on it. But the true doctrine of our Christian Faith concerning the nature of salvation is precisely the opposite.

2. Revelation and Knowability of Truth

+ In the 1979 BCP it says "... maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen"
+ In the 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979), it says "... Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible." To say that things are visible or invisible is to acknowledge that no matter how much we know about our universe, there is some part of understanding which God keeps to Himself. By contrast, to say that things are either seen or unseen is to suggest that man's perspective matters, that Truth is not absolute, that we can see God if only for trying, that we are the masters of all that we survey and that God is powerless to prevent us from discovering the full extent of what can be known. Through the words "visible and invisible", God is teaching us the lesson of the Garden of Eden, that we can know the Truth only as He reveals it, and that we ought not to claim for ourselves any "fruit of the Garden" that He has reserved for Himself.

3. Relationship between Creator and Creature. The Sovereignty of God.
+ In the 1979 BCP it says "Through him all things were made"
+ In the 1662 (and every version until 1979), it says "By him all things were made." From Genesis we know that the heavens and earth were created by God. A creation "through God" means something entirely different. It suggests that God is merely the conduit of forces that are beyond himself, that He is a part of nature rather than sovereign over it. The language of the 1979 BCP waters down the plain meaning of God's sovereignty.

4. Relationship between God the Father and God the Son

+ In the 1979 BCP, Jesus Christ is said to have been "eternally begotten of the Father"
+ In the 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979), Jesus Christ is said to have been "begotten of his Father before all worlds." The 1662 language suggests that one begets and the other is begotten, that it happens before creation, and that there is a personal relationship between the members of the Godhead. Thus when we say that God is Love, we refer to the loving unity within the Trinity. By contrast, the 1979 BCP expression "eternally begotten" contains none of this understanding of relationship and love. It understands that Father and Son are co-eternal from our perspective, but it misses the fact that in God's sense of time there is a point at which at which the Son is begotten of the Father. Does it matter? The assembled bishops at Nicaea and at Constantinople surely thought it was.

5. Person and Nature of the 3rd Person of the Trinity

+ In the 1979 BCP, His name is "The Holy Spirit"
+ In the 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979), His name is "The Holy Ghost." Here I am going to refer to Peter Toon's fine essay called "The Holy Ghost and The Spirit of God." (You can read the entire essay here.) Excerpt: "An important sophistication of use by our forbears is lost by us when it is decided to adopt a Latin-based word, “spirit” (from spiritus), as the sole and only word to translate the New testament Greek word. Pnuema. With this lack of sophistication comes the danger of heresy. Where “the Holy Ghost” is truly known as a divine Person then the danger of such heresies as modalism is minimal. Modalism, which is common today, is the doctrine that there is one Person who is God and that this One Person reveals himself as Father, Son and Spirit, that is as three Modes of Being (not as Three Persons). As we seek to be relevant in today’s world, we need not try to be wiser than were our forbears. To do justice to the rich variety of meaning conveyed by the biblical use of both Ruach (Hebrew) and Pneuma (Greek) in relation to Yahweh/ the Father we need to make use of both “the Spirit of God/the Lord” and “the Holy Ghost.”

6. Reality of the Incarnation

+ In the 1979 BCP, it says of Jesus that "by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary"
+ In the 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979), Jesus "was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary". The entire salvation story is premised upon Jesus-God becoming Jesus-flesh so that He could both live and die in the flesh as a real man. It is necessary therefore to know that He came into the world in the way other men come. The original Nicene Creed states that He (The Holy Ghost) joined with Mary, making Jesus incarnate in her womb. The 1979 BCP downplays the story of His incarnation by saying that it was not the Holy Spirit (of God) that acted but rather only His power, and that Jesus just "became" (as if by magic) "from" the Virgin Mary at the time of his birth rather than at the time of his conception. The 1979 BCP therefore teaches a mystic (gnostic) union of man and god, and it also lays the groundwork for Christians believing that life does not begin at the point of conception.

7. Penalty of Sin, Purchase of Blood, and Our Calling through Baptism

+ In the 1979 BCP, it says "... We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."
+ In the 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979), it says "... I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins." The greek word here is 'aphesis'. It can be translated under appropriate circumstances as either forgive or as remit, but in this particular case it should be 'remit' . For example, when a person repents of their sins the result can be forgiveness, but when there is remission of sin, the symptoms of sin disappear and sin no longer has power over an individual because the penalty is paid, the slate wiped clean. This is the meaning in the 1662 Nicene Creed. Remission of sin is the purchase of sin by the Blood of Christ, and we must not suggest that it can be reduced to God saying "I forgive you." Moreover, by mentioning baptism in this sentence, we know that the Nicene Creed wants us to comprehend the covenant established between God the Judge and God the Redeemer on account of His purchase (remittance) of sin. Note again that this "Baptismal Covenant" is between the Son and the Father, NOT between man and God (that strange aberration mentioned in the 1979 BCP and in no other version of the Prayer Book).

8. Assurance of His Return and Life Everlasting

+ In the 1979 BCP, it says "He will come again"... and... "his kingdom will have no end"
+ In the 1662 (and every version until 1979), it says "He shall come again"... and... "his kingdom shall have no end" In english, the imperative form of the verb-to-be is "shall", not "will". We know as Christians that it is not merely a matter of our prediction that Jesus is returning. Rather, we know that He is returning because He promised to do so. He "shall" because He is the creator of time itself and by his Word he said it would happen. The failure of the 1979 BCP to show the imperative form of the verb demonstrates a tendency to see God as in time but not as the master of time. The sad oversight leaves us with a small god that might not do as he says, and it brings into doubt both the sureness of His return and everlasting life.


A proper evaluation of the Nicene Creed is of considerable importance to the Anglican Communion while it is seeking to redefine and reorganize itself. After considering the truthfulness of the above points, I believe a decision should be made within ACNA and throughout the Anglican Communion whether use of the Nicene Creed found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer should be curtailed, and replaced with that version promulgated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

This decision is an important waypoint on the road to an Anglican future. As the Anglican Church of North American (ACNA) takes another look at its Formularies, I hope that its goal will NOT be to seek for a compromise where the 1979 BCP carries weight, but rather look back to that version of the BCP which is already recognized throughout the Anglican Communion for its unique ability to bring to us (lay men and women) into a clearer and truer understanding of the Gospel of Christ.


Miss Sippi said...

That was extremely interesting. Just out of curiosity, I looked at the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, used in Orthodox Churches. The translation I have matches 1662 almost verbatim, except that it uses "Spirit" rather than "Ghost." Also, it says, "was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary."

TLF+ said...

"Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary" is a good explication of the union of Christ's divine and human natures.

Anonymous said...

An offhand reflection on the "We believe" clause.

Everything the author says is true, but I would like to attempt to expand on the thought. When we stand to recite the creed, we do affirm the aspects of individual salvation and judgment.

Moreover, when the congregation recites this prayer, it speaks in the "first person" with one voice. It is a deliberate sign of unity. This affirms our membership in the Universal Church which shall be presented to Christ as a spotless bride.

Therefore, there is an important corporate aspect to this recitation.

Please do not take this as a criticism, but merely a suggested aspect for your consideration.

The 1928 and 1662 versions are far superior for all the reasons cited by the author.

Miss Sippi said...

When I said "verbatim" of course, there's the matter of the filioque, but let's not go there. ;>)

Castanea_d said...

This jibes with the sense I have long had that the traditional liturgical language is more precise.

I wrote a similar essay a few years ago about the Post-Communion Prayer (1979 BCP p. 339 versus p. 366) for the church newsletter. The rector would not allow it to be published. I encourage those interested to compare the two versions and see for yourself.

Castanea_d said...

A followup to my comment above: nowadays, we rarely use a traditional creed at our "contemporary" service; it is usually something from the New Zealand prayerbook or "Enriching our Worship," or whatever other source has the rector's eye at the time. He disagrees with the "Constantinian" theology of the Nicene Creed and prefers not to use it. But we still use it (the "we" version) at our traditional service, at least for now.

David said...

It is important to remember that the creeds were first written in Greek, not English. So trying to understand nuances between the English words "invisible" and "unseen" (with 300+ years of English language evolution between the two) might be better served by studying the nuances of the Greek word itself.

One should also note that the creed was originally promulgated with the 1st person plural ("We believe," etc), and later was adapted to the 1st person singular ("I believe," etc.). One would then need to ask if the '79 prayer book might not be going back to the earlier/first wording of the creed?

The gentleman does ask some important questions in the essay, but in this one instance, we need to ask the historians why the Fathers changed the creed from plural to singular, and not just rush to judgment against those who produced the '79 prayer book.

The Creed is probably not the place to draw the line in the sand. I would want to draw a real theological distinction between the '79 baptismal service, and earlier versions. Here changes have been made that I don't believe have direct historical connections to the early church.

David B
Chicago area

aaytch said...

The formulation “we believe” was how the assembled bishops at Nicaea recited the Creed at that council. It was a conciliar decree. Upon returning to their districts the formulation in distribution became “I believe”. The reason obviously is while at the council they were of one mind and purpose, but it would be silly to presuppose one mind and purpose in a non-conciliar context. See Going back to "we" requires a manipulation of history.

Amusing side note: Imagine a man all alone with 1979 BCP (something "common prayer" is supposed to allow)... He prays “We believe”. God says “You and who else?” That’s why “credo”, not “credemus”

Hudson Barton

David said...

God says, “You and who else?” I say, "Myself and all others who are praying at that moment!" We believe! The reciting of the daily office, even if I am alone in my home, unites me, through the power of the Holy Spirit, with all those who are praying at that time.

I understand your point regarding the single individual inside a large building saying "We believe," and the apparent absurdity of the 1st person plural. But I believe it is a larger absurdity to think that at any given time I am the only one praying or "believing." The "communion of saints" referenced in the Apostle's Creed argues that "I" am not alone. And even if I am the only individual in the large stone building at 11 am on a Sunday, there are other believers at worship at that time in other buildings.

God is omnipresent and omniscient, among other atributes. Another way to think about our worship and prayer is that, to God, all worship and prayer from any individual or groups from any time period, is being offered in His present time.

Just some quick thoughts as to why I don't have a problem with "We believe" even if I recite the creed by myself late at night in my home.

David B
Chicago area

aaytch said...

This is your opinion, and you are entitled to it, but it is not the settled opinion of "the Church catholic" which used "I" in both Greek and Latin texts of the era, and in every English BCP until 1979. Moreover, it is just one of now 10 points rather than just 8...

I'll post the last two points in a minute.

Some people feel more strongly about one point or another, and so do I. In combination though, it seems incongruent, shall we say, for orthodox Anglicans to claim the older (1662) version of the Nicene Creed as authoritative and then to use the 1979 version which contains up to 10 points of revisionist doctrine.

Hudson Barton

aaytch said...

Point #9. God-centered Definition of life

* The 1979 BCP's version of the Nicene Creed, by saying "the living and the dead" takes a view of life that is biological.
* The 1662 BCP (and every version up until 1979) by contrast says "The quick and the dead", thereby taking the view of life that is dependent upon the quickening Spirit of God. The former is man-centered and the latter is God-centered because except for God's quickening we are dead, with separated soul and body. The reason for the change in 1979 is fairly obvious; the writers wanted to make our doctrine stand out less obtrusively from the doctrine of worldly post-Enlightenment man. Note that the latin here is "vivos et mortuos" which sure enough in modern English can be rendered "living and dead", but that's exactly the point; you need a different English word to convey the meaning intended, and that word is the old but perfectly usable English verb "to quicken"... which the English translators of 1662 apprehended correctly as something more than biology.

aaytch said...

10. The Unity Within The Trinity

* The 1979 BCP, in speaking of the 3rd Person of the Trinity, says "With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified".
* The 1662 BCP (and every version until 1979) says "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified ." The latin clearly supports the 1662's use of the word "together." More importantly, the emphasis on the Unity of Holy Ghost's person with the Father and the Son is attested to by the Athanasian Creed. The departure from this understanding by the 1979 BCP demonstrates once again a tendency toward modalism. It has surely contributed to the difficulties Episcopalians have experienced in understanding the role of the Holy Ghost in God's plan of redemption.