A day after the horrific bombings in Alexandria on Palm Sunday that killed and injured dozens of people, Coptic Christians responded by gathering together outside of one of the damaged churches and chanting together the Nicene Creed. This was a poignant moment, in particular because of the text they chose. The scene of our persecuted brothers and sisters singing together this statement of faith should cause us to reflect on our own relationship to the Creed.
The sad fact is that, though the Nicene Creed is a part of every Sunday Mass, most of us mumble and stumble through it with little thought or reflection on its significance. It seems a strange interruption, a metaphysical jumble sandwiched between our Gospel recollections of Jesus and the sacred mysteries of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. What is its purpose? If we do not remember the answer to this question, we risk becoming like the Yang tribe in the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” who solemnly intone their “sacred words” that sound like gibberish but turn out to be the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: they know the words are important, but they don’t know why. Why is the Creed so important to us? So important that Egyptian Christians would risk their lives to gather and recite it?
The Nicene Creed is the fundamental expression of the most central mysteries of our faith: the life of the Holy Trinity, and the saving action of Jesus Christ. Such statements were formed by Christians from the beginning. The letters of St. Paul are peppered with short summaries of faith. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the essential content of the faith he brought to them:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.
In a different mode, St. Paul includes in his letter to the Philippians a hymn of the Incarnation:
[Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Such summaries were useful tools for the early Christians to express the basics of their beliefs. As time went on and various interpretations of Scripture developed among different groups, Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons would appeal to such statements as “the rule of faith,” the guideline by which any interpretation or formulation was to be judged. These expressions preserved the faith from attempts to alter, dilute, or radically re-interpret it beyond recognition.
Though heresies had plagued the Church from the beginning, none had the impact that the teachings of Arius did. A priest in Alexandria in the early fourth century, Arias taught that the Second Person of the Trinity was the greatest of all creatures, but was not himself God—that “there was a time when the Son was not.” In short, Arius denied the divinity of Christ. This novel idea split the newly Christian Roman Empire into warring factions. Mobs rioted in cities. Bishops were exiled from their diocese. The unity of the Church had never been more in danger.
To resolve this issue, in 325 AD the Emperor Constantine called the first worldwide (ecumenical) council, inviting bishops from across the empire to meet in the city of Nicaea and settle the matter. Over 300 bishops attended. The council condemned Arius’s teaching, and formulated a statement of belief. This creed (credo, “I believe”) proclaimed that the Father and the Son were both indeed God, that they were not of a similar substance (homoiousios), but of the same substance (homoousios)—the orthodox belief turning on a single iota. The controversy would not die there, but would be resolved in 381 AD at the Council of Constantinople, guided by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, where additional material clarifying the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son was appended to the Creed. (Thus the creed’s proper name is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed—a bit of a tongue-twister.)
Though we wouldn’t condone their extreme actions, we can admire the passion and conviction of the early Christians who felt so strongly about the expression of the faith that they were willing to fight for it. Can you imagine yourself getting into a fistfight with someone over the Creed? It does not move us in the same way. In our age we seem much more fixated on moral questions—when we speak about “debate in the Church,” we automatically assume this is the topic. This may well be a symptom of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism so many seem to have fallen into, in which God simply wants us to feel good and be good (with the former usually determining the latter) but isn’t particularly concerned with having a relationship with us. If God is only a distant clockmaker, there’s no impulse or incentive to think much about him or strive to know anything about him. Who cares about the inner life of the Trinity when God is so far away? Let’s quickly mutter our way through the Creed and get back to planning our sock drive.
Perhaps it is comfort that allows us to neglect the fundamentals. We in the West can coast along on the fumes of Christendom in relative safety and security. The Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and other persecuted places have no such luxury, and as such they cling to what is most dear, to the faith which sustains them through their trials. Thus the Copts of Alexandria heed the words of St. Paul to “hold fast to the traditions that you were taught” (2 Thess. 2:15), knowing that the triune God whom they profess and praise in their song is with them in their sorrows. We would do well to follow their example.