This morning I chose to remain silent during portions of the Nicene Creed at the Thanksgiving Eucharist. This was an experiment in response to a long posting by my fellow blogger Pontificator, who was replying in turn to this earlier post of my own, concerning whether a skeptic can say the Nicene Creed in good conscience.
In his own post, Pontificator argues:
When you join in the corporate confession of the “We believe,” you are publicly identifying yourself with the beliefs of the Church. You are making them your own, implicitly praying to God that he will overcome all your disbelief and doubt. You are promising you will die with your brothers and sisters in Christ should they ever come under persecution for their beliefs. To say the Creed is to assent to the Creed. Nor can you hide in the first-person plural formulation, as if “we” did not include “I.”
He concludes with the question:
Dear brother, I applaud your honesty. But would it not be more honest to remain silent when the Church professes the creedal faith of the saints and marty[r]s? [Emphasis added.]
So this morning I decided to remain silent during those portions of the Nicene Creed which I could not personally profess in good conscience.
A Shortened Creed
In the text of the Nicene Creed reproduced below, the bold-faced type indicates what I found myself able to say this morning. I've appended some notes with additional commentary.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
[Omitted: eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:]
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate
[Omitted: from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.]
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
[Omitted: in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.]
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
[Omitted: who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.]
He has spoken through the Prophets.
[Omitted: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.]
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
We believe in ....
If you say you "believe in" X, that doesn't necessarily mean you're 100% persuaded intellectually that X is true. It does mean, however, that you're sufficiently persuaded that X is true to put your trust in it, to conduct yourself as though it were true.
One God ... maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen
The physical evidence seems pretty compelling (i) that the universe had an origin, and (ii) that its physical laws are amazingly fine-tuned. That certainly suggests that a God exists. See How Do We Know There's a God? for a more extended discussion.
Clearly, during the past 13.7 billion years, overall the universe, or at least our corner of it, has been getting more orderly, more conducive to life as we know it (albeit not without detours and setbacks, to say nothing of periodic local catastrophes).
In a word, the universe is continually getting "better." This at least hints that God might be roughly analogous to a loving father.
Moreover, information and insights are revealed to humanity gradually, over long periods of time. That's consistent with the model of a parent teaching his or her children gradually, as they become more capable of handling more and more knowledge. See Revelation: A Gradual Process for a more extended discussion.
One Lord, Jesus Christ
The existence of Jesus of Nazareth as an historical figure is reasonably well-attested. What we know of his teachings is enough to persuade me that he rates the title "Lord," i.e., master, commander.
Incidentally, the term "Christ" is a title, not a surname, meaning "anointed one," someone designated by God for a special task -- see Are You a Christ? Quite Possibly for additional discussion.
The only Son of God
The Greek term monogenes, translated here as only, is said by some to more closely mean something like "one of a kind" or "one-off." Of course, this interpretation might simply be result-oriented, revisionist linguisitics. I can't make an independent judgment, inasmuch as I know very, very little of the Greek language as used in patristic times.
Son of God
In the Bible, the term "son of" is regularly used as a descriptor, something like an adjectival phrase. Whatever else Jesus might have been, he can fairly be described as a son of God in the same sense that, according to the New Testament:
- James and John were "sons of thunder";
- Joseph the Levite was called Barnabas, which means "son of encouragement";
- those who love their enemies are "sons of your Father in heaven";
- those who put their trust in the light are "sons of the light";
- the good seed in the parable of the sower is a symbol of "sons of the kingdom" while the weeds symbolize "sons of the evil one";
- certain other Jews in the Gospels are referred to as "son of Abraham" or "son of Israel";
- Jesus himself is sometimes called "son of David" or "son of man"; and
- like Jesus, peacemakers are also called "sons of God."
But was Jesus actually God? I'm not persuaded. Neither, apparently, were the disciples who actually knew Jesus in life. They didn't seem to think he was God incarnate. Peter's speeches in Acts suggest that Jesus' original disciples regarded him as something like a (war)lord who had been designated by God to restore Israel to its rightful place and usher in God's imperial rule. See also If Jesus Wasn't God for a more extended discussion.
Eternally begotten of the Father
It's entirely possible that Jesus's life, work, death, and its aftermath, were all part of God's plan for the universe from the very beginning. (The overall increase in the universe's "goodness" during the its existence, see above, suggests that God indeed may well have a plan.)
But, I don't think traditionalists view this particular credal statement in that way. Personally I can't go along with their view.
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God
I could affirm these things if they meant simply that Jesus of Nazareth was a product of God's plan, and therefore was himself "God" in some sense.
(In the movie Patton, a syncophantic aide reassures Patton that he had defeated Rommel even though the German general was not present at the battlefield: "General, you defeated Rommel's plan. If you defeat his plan, you defeat him.")
But that's not what the language means -- clearly it's intended to mean that Jesus was God himself. That's not something I can affirm.
Through him all things were made
This language comes straight from the prologue of the Fourth Gospel, attributed to John: "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1:3) (NIV).
This has always beeng a stumbling block in my own faith journey. I've never been able to get past a threshold question: Just what gave John the idea that this was true, and why should we accept his say-so about it?
By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate
I'm able to say this because I suspect that all people become incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit. But I confess this is probably a cop-out.
The Virgin Mary
This is something I can say, but only as a figure of speech. I can accept the term "virgin" (Greek: parthenos) as a likely mistranslation of the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14. Some scholars believe almah means simply "young woman," whereas the Hebrew bethulah means "virgin."
For some additional background information on this subject, see this Wikipedia article (scroll down to the discussion of Isaiah 7:14).
For our sake he was crucified
I have no trouble accepting the Gospel accounts that Jesus went to his death out of a sense of duty to God and to his fellow man.
He suffered death and was buried
I think it's not impossible that Jesus tried to stage-manage his own crucifixion so that would falsely appear that he died. (Cf. Hugh Schonfield's much-scorned The Passover Plot.) But the most plausible account seems to be that Jesus did in fact die on the cross.
On the third day he rose again
It's indisputable that somehow the early church became highly motivated to carry on Jesus' mission after his death. It's entirely plausible that Peter, and perhaps some other disciples, believed they saw Jesus after his death -- and then the stories likely mutated as they were retold over the decades and around the Mediterranean region.
Post-mortem appearances are not unknown even today. For example:
- A recent best-seller recounts that, during World War II, a downed U.S. Navy flyer was executed by the Japanese. Shortly afterwards, his mother saw him flying overhead waving an American flag, saying "Good bye, Mom." At that point, she knew only that he was missing in action. (James Bradley, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, Little, Brown & Co. 2003, p. 191).
- Both my mother and my grandmother (separately) encountered deceased relatives while wide awake. In my grandmother's case, one of my cousins, recently killed in an automobile accident, appeared to her and said, "don't worry, Grandma, everything's going to be OK."
We currently know very little about post-mortem appearances. Conceivably they could be the result of neurological hiccups in particular people. Or, they could be genuine communications from dead people. Maybe someday we'll know more.
The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
See above concerning the existence of God, which I believe to be true. I'm agnostic about whether God is in fact a Trinity. The conjectures of the church fathers are just that. I don't think we'll ever know, at least not in this life.
But Trinitarians identify the Holy Spirit as God, and God seems indeed to be the Lord, the giver of life, so I see no harm in affirming this part of the creed.
He has spoken through the Prophets
Here, the term "Prophets" refers to the authors of particular books of the Hebrew Scriptures. But the English word "prophet" means more than that.
The broad dictionary meaning of prophet refers to "[a] person who speaks by divine inspiration or as the interpreter through whom the will of a god is expressed." It seems to me we can fairly count as prophets such folks as Newton, Einstein, Pasteur, Salk, Lincoln, and Mandela, to name but a few. It's perfectly plausible that God speaks through such people, at least as much as through the Prophets of old.
On that understanding, I can easily affirm that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets.
One holy catholic and apostolic Church
I have a hard time saying this one. I used to think unity was the way to go for the church. I'm less sure of that now.
Progress in this universe -- including progress in the search for truth -- seems to come through diversity. When we have a variety of beliefs, over time people are able to learn from each other's successes and failures. "Successful" beliefs tend to survive and spread, displacing less-successful beliefs.
In contrast, unity combined with catholicity -- the adherence to a set of beliefs mainly because a lot of other people have done so -- seems like a good way to retard the search for truth, not to advance it.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come
This one I say largely on faith. Accounts of post-mortem experiences (see above) suggest that there may well be a life beyond the grave. And Jesus' comment in Matthew 22:32, that God "is not the God of the dead but of the living," seems intuitively plausible.
What Portions of the Nicene Creed
Would Cause You to Stay Silent?
It'd be interesting to ask congregations to stay silent during those portions of the Nicene Creed of which they're not personally persuaded. I suspect a fair number of people might drop out during some of the same portions that I did this morning.