Orthodox Christianity, in a nutshell.
- I believe in one God, the Father, the almighty,
- maker of heaven and earth, of all things, visible and invisible.
- I believe in one Lord, Christ Jesus,
- the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.
- 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 Holy Spirit was incarnate from the virgin Mary. He 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 in accordance with the scriptures.
- He ascended into heaven. He’s seated at the right hand of the Father.
- He’ll come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
- His kingdom will have no end.
- I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
- He proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
- He, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified.
- He’s spoken through the prophets.
- I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
- I recognize one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
- I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
When Christians define
I know; loads of us are gonna claim we do not set the standard; the bible does. Which sounds impressive, but it’s tommyrot: Their interpretation of the bible sets the standard, which means it ultimately comes back to them. Still subjective.
Others are gonna point to their church’s or their denomination’s statement of faith. Slightly less subjective, ’cause most of the time they didn’t write those faith statements. (Although some of them did. That, or they have enough authority at their churches to change these faith statements when they deem it necessary, as sometimes they do.) But sometimes they bend the faith statements to suit them, same as they do bible. If your church redefines trinity to mean “one God with three personas,” like the Oneness folks do, your faith statement may contain that word, but it’s not what anyone else means by it.
The first faith statement, the one we Christians sorted out way back before we formally shattered into denominations, is the one I point to when it comes to orthodoxy. It was first hammered out in Nikaía, Asia Minor, Roman Empire (today’s Iznik, Turkey) in the year 325, and updated in 381. We call it the
Creed. (Not the band.)
The purpose of a creed is to define orthodoxy. Anyone who can say the creed—and mean it without having to fudge all the definitions to suit themselves—believes all the correct stuff; they’re orthodox. Whether they produce good works or fruit of the Spirit is a whole other deal, and I would argue (and I believe Jesus backs me up here) a more important one. But hey, at least they’re not heretic.
The Nicene Creed is considered a valid standard of Christian belief. Nearly every Christian denomination has incorporated its beliefs into their own faith statements. That, or they use the creed itself. Fruit notwithstanding, they can say it and mean it. And those who can’t are, by the rest of us, considered heretic.
Of course, plenty of Christians will still insist other things be included in the standard definition of orthodoxy. An obvious one—at least to us Evangelicals, anyway—is whether you uphold the bible. Dismissing it sure feels to me like heresy. But it’s not in the Nicene Creed, nor any of the other creeds. Feels like a giant oversight, but really it just indicates how long ago the creeds were composed: Before the church had settled on what books make up the bible, and before the average Christian leader was able to get hold of one and quote it as an authority.
And there are other things missing from the creeds. Style of baptism. Whether hell exists. How atonement works. How literally we’re to take the communion elements. Whether miracles are for the present day. You know, stuff Christians have fought over for centuries. Stuff we’d add to the creeds, and have added to our church’s faith statements. And again, these added requirements return to the fact we figure we define the standard. Not the creeds.
Me, I stick with the creeds.
Yeah, we can indulge in a bit of crazy over-analysis: Isn’t defining orthodoxy by the creed really me defining orthodoxy for myself by the creed? I would say no for three reasons:
- If it were truly left up to me, I’d have a much longer creed. I’d add more stuff. Like, as I said, the bible. But the bible ain’t in the creeds, so much as I wanna, I grudgingly can’t call it heresy when so-called Christians set the bible aside. (Still, it won’t take long before most such “Christians” commit one or many of the other heresies.)
- It’s hardly just me doing this. Nearly every church body recognizes the creed as valid. In fact some churches only find common ground with other churches over the issues sorted out by the creed. So since every Christian body recognizes this as ground-floor stuff, why not figure this, as our greatest common factor, defines orthodoxy? (And keep the decision-making out of the hands of legalists who’d define everything they don’t like as heresy.)
- Set aside, for a moment, the idea of the creed defining who’s orthodox and who’s heretic. Now, all the churches and individuals whom everybody else recognizes as heretic, based on all the other standards of orthodoxy we use? No surprise; they also reject the creed. It goes against some of the crazy things they claim about God, the trinity, the church, and the kingdom. Again, the creed is a pretty valid yardstick when it comes to determining heresy.
Granted, there are some orthodox Christians who are wary of the Nicene Creed, but that’s mostly because of their anti-Catholicism. (Yeah, the creed predates Catholicism. No, they don’t realize this. Bigots tend to be ignorant like that.) And often it’s because they don’t want their orthodoxy defined by other Christians: They wanna sort out what’s valid and what isn’t. They wanna add things to their faith statements, or drop them. Subjectivity, remember?
Where’d the Nicene Creed come from?
Blame Áreios (usually spelled Arius), a Christian elder in charge of the Baucalis district of Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 200s. We don’t know a lot about him, ’cause orthodox Christians burned his writings. What we do know is his bishop had disciplined him for being too strict. Apparently he came up with his beliefs as a backlash against ideas which he considered too pagan.
Áreios believed Jesus is God. But he didn’t believe Jesus is the same God as the Father. Instead, he believed the Father created Jesus. Not at his birth, but before creation, which is why Paul called him “firstborn of creation.”
So Áreios deduced Jesus is a lesser god than the Father. His followers taught similar ideas: The Father sits behind the scenes in high heaven, while Jesus is the creator-god we regularly interact with; or the Father appointed Jesus to run creation for him. Still, if Jesus is a secondary god, is he still almighty? Can he still save people?
Áreios’s followers, the
The Arians created a huge controversy in the church: Christians were kicking one another out of church over it, declaring one another heretics. After all, there was no official Christian doctrine. Just various local bishops–some Arian, some not, picking a side for their individual churches, driving out any dissidents.
Co-emperors Gaius Licinius and Flavius Constantinus legalized Christianity in 313. After Constantinus became the sole emperor in 324, as a Christian (not necessarily a good Christian, but certainly the most powerful one in the Roman Empire) he wanted this issue sorted out before it destabilized Christianity further. He called for a council of bishops to pick an official side, and they met in Nikaía in 325 to come to a consensus. Not vote, as some historians describe it. The bishops all figured the Holy Spirit would lead them to the same conclusion—and if he didn’t, they sure weren’t gonna make it for him.
Took the bishops very little time to reject Áreios’s teachings; all they had to do was read them aloud. They’re not at all consistent with the scriptures. There’s only one God, the L
But he is.
Though “begotten” is the word the scriptures used, and usually made, it can’t mean that. ’Cause Jesus wasn’t made: He always existed. That’s why the council put “Begotten not made” into the creed. Jesus became human,
What about the scriptures which indicate Jesus and the Father are distinct from one another? Well, obviously there’s a paradox: We don’t know precisely how the Father and Son (and don’t forget the Holy Spirit) are one God. The bible never spells it out. All we can do is guess, and probably guess wrong. But we’re not going to err on the side of polytheism. God made it crystal clear he’s One. This creed wasn’t written to define the trinity; just say what the trinity isn’t. And it isn’t three gods. Or two. Jesus is God, not a separate creation. That’s that.
It took the bishops another month to sort out the details, and here’s the creed they came up with. Translation, as usual, mine.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of everything visible and invisible.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus the Christ, the son of God, begotten by the Father, only-begotten, meaning “from the Father’s being,” truly God from God, begotten not made, the same being as the Father. By him everything was made—the things of heaven and the things of earth. For us people, and for our salvation, he came down and was in a body and became human. He suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended into the heavens, and will come from there to judge the living and the dead.
And also the Holy Spirit.
For those saying, “There was a time when he wasn’t,” and “Before he was made, he wasn’t,” and “He was made out of nothing” or “He is of another substance” or “He is called another being [or founder], turned or altered into the son of God”—these people are anathematized from the universal [and apostolic] church.
All but two signed off on it, and Constantinus exiled everyone who refused to say it. Arian works were ordered burned. Did it work? Largely. Took a few centuries, but the Arians gradually shrunk to nothing. (Although new Christian heretics have cropped up from time to time, and brought Arianism back. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, fr’instance.)
The creed was updated in 381 by the first Council of Constantinople. For this reason some folks refer to our current version of the creed as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. But I’ll stick with custom and just call it the Nicene Creed. Saves me the time of typing.
The creed’s ideas.
I believe in one God. Christians are
Arians speculated the Father’s one god, and Jesus another. Many heretics still teach the same thing. ’Cause they can’t accept the idea the trinity’s a paradox; they have to explain the mystery, and in so doing fall right back into old heresies.
The Father. Jesus identified the One God as Father, and said he’s our Father as well.
The almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things, visible and invisible. As Genesis has it.
I believe in one Lord, Christ Jesus. Paul stated there’s only one God, the Father, the creator, and only one Lord, Christ Jesus, through whom God made everything.
The only-begotten Son of God. John used monogenús/“only-begotten” to describe Jesus,
Begotten of the Father before all ages. Áreios claimed, “There was a time when [Jesus] wasn’t,” but the scriptures describe otherwise. The word existed with God in the beginning,
Of course, this is a hard idea to grasp, much less sum up and stick into a creed. So the language “begotten of the Father before all ages” will have to do.
God from God, light from light, true God from true God. All these terms—“God” and “light” and “true God”—are used in the scriptures to describe the Father as well as the Son. They’re meant to make it clear Jesus is no lesser god nor subordinate god. He’s the same God.
Begotten not made. Nor is Jesus a lesser being which became God. He was begotten as God; he’s always been God.
Of one being with the Father. Nor does Jesus consist of different stuff than the Father. He’s consubstantialis/“of the same stuff” as the Father. (Again, not made of the same stuff; neither he nor the Father were made.)
Through him all things were made. As John has it.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. Jesus described himself many times as having come down from heaven.
By the Holy Spirit was incarnate from the virgin Mary. Though Jesus always existed, he was born on earth to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. Even though Mary and Joseph hadn’t consummated their relationship when Jesus was conceived.
He was made man. He wasn’t originally human, but he became human and lived with us.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s administration gets a mention in the creed in order to ground Jesus’s death in human history. He didn’t die “long ago and far away”: He died on Friday, 3 April 33, at about 3 in the afternoon. Christianity is a historical religion, not mythology.
He suffered death and was buried. Some, like the Muslims, claim Jesus only appeared to die, but didn’t really. We teach otherwise: Jesus really died. The leaders of that day, representing humanity everywhere, killed the author of life.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures. As Paul put it.
He ascended into heaven. As witnessed by his followers.
He’s seated at the right hand of the Father. As Simon Peter said,
He’ll come again in glory. And in force. Jesus is returning to raise those who have died, and to collect those who are still here. We will invade the world with him.
To judge the living and the dead. As Paul put it.
His kingdom will have no end. As Gabriel put it.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord. The Holy Spirit is God, same as the Father and Son. This wasn’t really a controversy at the time—of course the Spirit is God, duh—but every so often you’ll find someone who thinks the Spirit is a force or spiritual instrument. Usually pagans and heretics.
The giver of life. As Paul put it.
He proceeds from the Father. As John wrote.
And the Son. This is a controversial clause, called the
The Catholics added it sometime before the 11th century. For good reason: Jesus said he’d send the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, to his followers.
But eastern Christians objected:
- Easterners. “What’s with your heretic version of the creed?”
- Westerners. “Heretic? Show us where it’s heretic.”
- Easterners. “Your ‘filioque’ addition. You can’t just add words to the creed because you feel like it. We gotta have a council agree to this first.”
- Westerners. “But it’s true. So what’s the big deal?”
- Easterners. “The big deal is we need to agree it’s true. We’re not entirely certain it is true.”
- Westerners. “Oh, go boil your heads. We have bigger things to worry about. There’s a Crusade going on.”
- Easterners. “We know there’s a crusade going on. Your lousy troops keep pestering our people. Hey! Stop sacking Constantinople!”
- Westerners. “…What? Oh, don’t worry about it. Jesus forgives everything.”
Yeah, that’s a gross oversimplification, but that’s the gist: Each culture figured they were in the right, the other in the wrong, and the end result was the Great Schism of 1054: The heads of the Roman and Constantinopolitan churches banned one another, and we stopped functioning as one church. (Arguably we stopped working together centuries before, but the Schism made it official.)
Hence separate Catholic and Orthodox denominations. Neither of whom call themselves “denominations”: They’re “the true church,” and the other guys were just heretics. And that was the official line for the next nine centuries. Now they get along (although sometimes somebody needs to remind the guys who run the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). But whether the churches’ll get back together before Jesus returns and makes ’em get together, only time will tell. It is what Jesus wants though.
Because it’s not part of the original creed, we have no business defining orthodoxy by it. Even if it’s true and we believe it. Eastern-tradition Christians, and the Orthodox Church, are orthodox.
Okay, back to the Holy Spirit.
He, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified. Since the Spirit is God, we worship and honor him same as the Father and Son.
He’s spoken through the prophets. As Paul stated,
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Okay yes, there are multiple individual churches—groups of Christians meeting to worship and follow God. But all these churches,
Some Christians (like me) believe Jesus ignores all our silly distinctions and denominational splits, and sees us all as one. Other Christians insist no, Jesus only recognizes their group as his, and everyone else is heretic. That, I don’t buy. If I’m following Jesus, and you’re following Jesus, it doesn’t matter which groups we hang out with; we each belong to him. We’re members of the same single church.
It’s holy ’cause it’s God’s; it’s apostolic ’cause it sticks to what the apostles taught. Arguably here’s where the bible comes in: The apostles wrote the New Testament, y’know.
I recognize one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Certain churches claim that when you join them, you gotta get baptized again: Whatever your previous church practiced, doesn’t count. Others claim every time you repent in a significant way—if you were seriously slacking in devotion, or if you achieve a closer level with Jesus—you get baptized again. All hogwash. The baptism which counts is the one God recognizes, not us. We only need to be baptized in Christ’s name once and for all. If you wanna go through the ritual more than once, it’s all well and good, but Jesus doesn’t require them, and neither should we.
I look forward to the resurrection of the dead. Pagans believe when we die, we stay dead. If there’s any coming back, it’s only as ghosts, or spirit-beings like angels. That’s not resurrection. Christians believe we’re getting resurrected exactly like Jesus was.
And the life of the world to come. Amen. This’d be the new heavens and new earth,
So there’s the Nicene Creed. Everything in it is consistent with the scriptures, with the teachings of other Christians throughout history, with human experience, and with reason. It’s solid theology.
If you can say it, and mean it, you’re an orthodox Christian. If you can’t… well you might be a Christian, but your orthodoxy needs work. So work on it.