To creed or not to creed

Philippians 2

Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be seized, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 


This is the third week of our consideration of the creeds and trinity, of how they express and provide imagery for God… how we experience God in ancient, communal words of faith. Two weeks ago when we started, I said that a month of preaching the creeds could be dreadful – remember that? Today you’ll know what I meant.

We hear references to the early church – that we are on a trajectory for a return to the form of early church – which cast it in an idyllic glow. One might think it was the most pure, most unified expression of Christian belief because Jesus was still on the edge of collective memory.  In the first century after his death, the gospels were fresh, the letters of Paul were circulating, but, as those letters indicate, there was not a uniform faith.  The truth is that they didn’t know what to think about Jesus, or resurrection, or post-resurrection appearances, and so they thought and proposed lots of things.

Christianity was in its toddlerhood – an age of discovery, of questioning, false starts, kind of making things up as culture and world views changed. During the 200’s, Christians went through times of persecution by Rome. Christian faith spread rapidly because of this as people moved to new territories. Some had the writings of one gospel, or copies of a few of Paul’s letters, or other documents and letters circulating at the time that have not survived or didn’t get included in the cannon of scripture. Converts came from many backgrounds – and were attracted to Christianity for various reasons – including practical ones: a role for, and safe haven for women;  caring, serving communities that had greater survival rates during the plagues of those eras. But this rapid spread and growth meant that there was no cohesion in the stories, beliefs, and faith people took with with them from place to place. Theories about the person and divinity of Jesus were all over the map – literally. It was like the child’s game of telephone. By the time Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, declaring tolerance for Christianity throughout his Empire, there were divisions and competing theories and controversies from North Africa to Rome to Cappadocia in Asia Minor.

The three Creeds of the church – the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostle’s – exist because of this. They were the result of long, difficult discussions and compromises as church leaders gathered from these regions to work out in rational, reasonable logos, the nature and mystery of God in three persons.

Here is a sampling:

Pelagius taught that the human will, as created with its abilities by God, was sufficient to live a sinless life, although he also believed that God’s grace assisted every good work. Pelagianism has come to be identified with the view that human beings can earn salvation by their own efforts. This was deemed a heresy.

Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of God, three masks of God through which he is revealed.  Sabellius was also considered a heretic.

Modalistic Monarchianism is a variant of that thought, believing that the different “modes” or “manifestations” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwelt in their fullness in Jesus from the incarnation. The terms Father and Son are then used to describe the distinction between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. It held that the Holy Spirit is not a separate entity but rather describes the action of God. Monarchians and modalists were also decided to be heretics.

Monarchians were opposed by Logos theologians who believed Jesus to be the incarnation of a pre-existant Logos, as described in the prologue to John’s gospel, rather than the incarnation of God in his fullness as the Monarchians held. But, as you might expect, Logos theologians were divided, too.

Have you heard the phrase that “there’s not an iota of difference” between two things? My mom used to say that when I was trying to get away with something, trying it from some other angle. Now I know what it means.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. debated the terms homoousios and homoiousios. These two words differ by one ‘i’ (which in Greek is the smallest letter, iota).The word homoousios means “same substance”, whereas homoiousios means “similar substance”.  Same or similar. We would probably say, “yeah, whatever.” They did not say that. The little iota was a very big deal.

Origen, the first great theologian of the church, taught that the Son was subject to the Father, but that the relation of the Son to the Father had no beginning, and that the Son was “eternally generated”. This was kind of middle position.

Arius built on Origen’s theory, arguing that the Logos did have a beginning and that the Son, therefore, was not eternal, and that the Son is clearly subordinate to the Father in scripture. Logos is the highest of the Created Order. This idea is summarized in the statement “there was a time when the Son was not.”

This was strongly disagreed with by those in the Logos camp led by Athanasius. They believed that Christ was co-eternal and con-substantial (of the same substance – homoousios) with the Father. For about two months at the first council of Nicaea, the two sides argued and debated, with each side appealing to Scripture to justify their respective positions. Arius maintained that the Son of God was a Creature, made from nothing; and that he was God’s First Production, before all ages. And he argued that everything else was created through the Son, that only the Son was directly created and begotten of God; but, therefore, there was a time that He had no existence. The Son was capable of His own free will, said Arius, and thus “were He in the truest sense a son, He must have come after the Father, therefore the time obviously was when He was not, and hence He was a finite being.”

According to accounts, this debate became so heated that at one point Athanasius slapped Arius in the face. Eventually, a majority of bishops at the council agreed on the first form of the Nicene Creed. It included the word homoousios, meaning “consubstantial”, or “one in essence”, which was incompatible with Arius’ beliefs in a similar substance. He was excommunicated as a heretic.

I’m sorry to say these are just a few of the heresies and controversies that led to the formation of the creeds. 

Logic was the gift (and the curse) of their time. The church leaders felt obligated to work out the logically necessary connections of God to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They argued using mathematical principles – if a=b and b=c, then a=c, and so if a=b they have to be of the same substance (homoousious), but how in the world do you get Jesus to be of the same substance as God who is spirit? 

This was their driving question. And it’s why the creeds are written the way they are. There had to be a virgin birth. There had to be an ascension to God following Jesus’ death. What entered the tradition of Jesus’ stories as mythos describing the holy mysteries of God’s love for the earth and all its creatures, became a logical necessity in doctrine.

From this, it was a short step to determine that God required Jesus’ divinity in order to pardon our sin. The atonement theories were the next set of logical debates trying to explain the necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not motivated by God’s love as the gospel of John makes clear, but by logic.

I warned you that it could be dreadful. In seminary, I found it very discouraging that politics and this weird, rigid reasoning played such a big role in the way we see and hear about God, about Jesus, when in fact, no one really knows. Why was it necessary for Jesus to be divine and to die? The creeds claim that we need it – “for us and for our salvation” – the atonement theories claim that God needed it – as substitution or ransom or sacrifice necessary before God could forgive us the sin of being human. This is where the doctrine of Original Sin enters the picture. It is not in the Bible as doctrine, but as narrative, as truth we know about ourselves, as the part of us that God continued/-s to forgive.

Perhaps the question of our day is, do we still need the dogma, the doctrines? It’s pretty clear from the proliferation of denominations and splinter groups that – despite the recited creeds – we don’t have uniformity of belief (even as Lutherans!). Orthodoxy is itself a myth in the modern sense of the word – widely held but mostly untrue belief subject to being busted. We have inherited the words, but have lost the significance and urgency.

This is a question I want you to think about. Do we need the creeds, do they serve a purpose today, do they serve a purpose in this church? Do they express and support your faith, or do they cause you to stand silent – unwilling to profess belief in something you’d prefer be left as mystery? They aren’t required by the rubrics of Lutheran liturgy. They are part of the tradition. If traditions fail to do what they were intended to do, are they worth maintaining? Some would say, yes, for the sake of future generations who deserve the chance to hear and know them. 

As the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians shows, there are other formulas of faith. This is an early Christian hymn used by house churches in Paul’s day describing the relationship between God and Christ.

The gospel of John presents an alternative both to the virgin birth and to the necessity of Jesus’ death. It was part of God’s plan, part of God’s inexplicable my-ways-are-not-your ways-nor-are-my-thoughts-your-thoughts design. Christ – the savior of all creation, the lover of all people, the defender of all oppressed, the model of servant power to the entitled, the counselor, mighty God, prince of peace, the Logos of God – was from the beginning and found human form in Jesus.

John gives us a vision of God invested, engaged in this world and in our lives out of illogical, inexplicable love for the creatures of her making.

Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the 14th century. Here is her formula using a different kind of logic – one filled with the love of God. It’s a bit long for a creed, but still, it’s lovely, refreshing:

“It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His Maternity starts, ­ and with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.

And He showed me this truth in all things, but especially in those sweet words when He says: “It is I”.

As if to say,  I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfilment of all true desires. (…)

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

I then saw with complete certainty that God, before creating us, loved us, and His love never lessened and never will. In this love he accomplished all his works, and in this love he oriented all things to our good and in this love our life is eternal.”      

Thanks be to God.


 From “Revelations of Divine Love”  by Juliana of Norwich (1342-1416), (LIX, LXXXVI).