Because I share so much in agreement with the essay up for conversation, I have taken as my task to paint a picture of the Council of Nicea contrary to the contemporary, skeptical, standard account. I am more concerned with contemporary Anabaptism than with historical Anabaptism's appreciation or disavowal of creedal Christianity. I am especially interested in how we understand peacemaking and the telling of history.
I believe it is a mistake to see the development of the Nicene Creed as an illegitimate statement of legislated power to be used to jockey the loyalties of everyday Christians in the direction of imperial might. In the specific case of the council of bishops that met at Nicea, it would be naive to think that the meeting did not involve interchurch politicking, as the early fourth century Christian communities sought to deal with wide ranging groups of dissent. However, the Nicene Creed was birthed not from political power-mongering, but from the worship life of the worldwide church. We are captivated too easily by our own age's ready suspicion of anything
official if we see the Creed primarily as a capitulation to empire.
The bishops who attended the council were neither politicians nor imperial insiders bent on doing the will of Constantine. They were not ivory tower academics either. Rather they were preachers and pastors responsible to their congregations for being protectors of the true faith. The creed signed after months of fierce debating had to represent the universal understanding of God held by the church-at-large, or else it would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. It was the ordinary folk back home who ultimately decided if church officials at the council had done their job in securing gospel truth.
Early on in the life of the church, remote Christian communities from across the evangelized world wrote their own statements of belief to be professed during baptisms. These baptismal creeds served as the measuring rods which each of the bishops, the representatives of these local communities, used to critically formulate the universal (ecumenical) pronouncement of true doctrine (orthodox teaching). The orthodox understanding of God was discerned first and foremost by hearing diverse statements of belief from across the evangelized world that were produced not by bishops or emperors, but by enclaves of believers seeking to articulate their faith. The resounding voice of many different confessions from widespread locales propped up one ecumenical statement that, at its heart, promoted one kingdom and one ruler—God.
That the bishops drafted an agreed upon statement at all is fantastic, and is perhaps a model of community dialogue that we should admire, not despair. We should be especially happy as Anabaptists when inappropriate statements about God are renounced because they do not jibe with regular people in the pews. Our picture of the Council of Nicea needs to account for these realities: 1) bishops must be seen as pastors first and last; and 2) council decrees had to meet the muster of ordinary Christians.
It strikes me as most uncharitable when some historians and theologians lead a campaign of suspicion against faithful Christians of ages past. Christians who accepted the pronouncements at Nicea should not be dismissed by us today because they were living in an age of empire. If we want to discredit them due to their Constantinian situation, then I hope contemporary Christians are ready to dismiss themselves just as quickly. We are likely to discover that we, in the midst of our own empire, are less autonomous from the powers-that-be than we think, whereas the Christians of long ago, living amidst an empire all their own, should be credited as more diligent critics of their culture.
We not only misread the Creed if we view the bishops as politicians more than pastors, and think their pronouncements leap-frogged the discerning hearts of everyday Christians, but also if we fail to understand the Creed as an answer to a problem posed by the scriptures themselves. The Creed was purposefully composed to encapsulate the heart of the biblical message. This led Saint Augustine to proclaim,
For whatever you hear in the Creed is contained in the inspired books of Holy Scripture. The Creed was designed to point us back to the Holy text, just as the text points us to God. However, the story of Scripture created two seemingly opposed convictions that had to be dealt with by early Christian thinkers if they wanted to continue to hear the Scripture aright.
First was the age old belief taken from the heart of Jewish understanding that God is One. This meant there is but one God and there is but One to whom the faithful owe their allegiance. Second, Jesus Christ is God. The potential problems in the story are clear: how could a man who was born, crucified, suffered, and died be God? How could the Father and the Son and (less vitally to these theologians) the Spirit be One? How do we interpret both the Old Testament and its insistence upon one God and the New Testament with its proclamation of Christ as Lord? Which side would the church take?
The Creed's answer was to insist on both the unity of God—Father, Son and Spirit are one—and the divinity of Jesus Christ, being of one substance with the Father, not made of similar stuff, as the bad-boy of the council, Arius, had promoted. By protecting the oneness of God and the divinity of Jesus the council allowed the safe-keeping of radical discipleship.
How? The Creed neither allows our reducing Jesus to a wise teacher, nor our raising up any other leader, a la Constantine, to the level of God. Rather than write off Nicea, Mennonites should be grateful for it. In the context of our own ideas about radical discipleship, Nicea would rightly insist that Anabaptist pacifism is only legitimate if our teaching (doctrine) that Jesus is the slain and yet victorious Lamb is true. If he is just a wise teacher, then all is for naught.
If we reject our need for true teaching and its confession (creeds) then our pacifism stands as little more than a foolish and inefficient social strategy for hopeless do-gooders. Our pacifism is only alternative, counter-cultural, true, and hopeful if our actions are unrelentingly bound to the teaching about God as One, made known in a crucified Jew. The Creed may not satisfy all readers today because of its refusal to reflect further on the radical life of Jesus. But as Christians, we live our radical lives out of the victory gained in Jesus' death and resurrection. Bishops at Nicea were involved in a struggle to articulate how death did not disqualify Jesus as divine, and by extension, disqualify our vocation to follow him. The questions that created the need for the Creed shaped its form, perhaps to the dissatisfaction of contemporary readers. But does that mean we should discard it because we think it incomplete? We need not run to Constantine to find out why the Creed is not to our satisfaction. It simply may not seek to answer the questions that some are currently asking. Yet it still gives us enduring guidance.
In line with Professor Ollenburger's comments, the Nicene Creed supports neither the idea of faith as assent to right belief nor faith as radical discipleship. Faith is a gift from God. Nearly every generation and tradition of the Christian church affirms faith as a gift from God for new life, just as the creation of life itself was God's first act of giving. This is exactly the point of the Nicene Creed in the first article's affirmation of God the Father, creator of heaven and earth.
Emphasis on God as Creator serves to temper any affirmation of human goodness owed to human effort or ability. It supports the idea of life as gift. Humanity can make no legitimate claim to life because it did not create it. Humanity can only receive and accept the offering of Creator God. The right human response to this bequest is humble gratitude. Therefore the Creed promotes one of the most fundamental of gospel virtues, humility, not the hubris of empire as some suggest. We owe humble allegiance and obedience to God as revealed in Jesus Christ who empowers us in the Spirit. This is the teaching of the Creed.
The skeptical account of Nicea strips it of its faith-keeping, and reads it as an imperial document. It is the ultimate irony of some Anabaptist historiography that centuries of church history, and with them the stories of countless faithful, are cast aside as illegitimate manifestations of Christianity because of their Constantinian provenance. It is more than uncharitable, perhaps even historiographically violent, to jettison the teaching of centuries of Christians in an attempt to privilege sixteenth and first century Christianity, in that order. This is not to say historical critique is off-limits, only that we need to care for present-day Christians as we rebuke the past.
The import of the Nicene Creed and Nicene Christianity cannot be set aside in a cavalier fashion. This is not the way of the peace church. To cut off conversation and dialogue by the ploy of name-calling, in some cases calling a group of believers
Constantinians, repays eye for eye the usual dismissal of Anabaptist thought as
sectarian. As if either of those labels is good reason not to understand the faith of a given people. We, most of all, should model some historiographic turning of the other cheek and try the best we can to give a benevolent reading of ancient Christianity. I do not mean that we should sugarcoat the past, only that we try to appreciate the offerings of faithful Christians.
We need to make peace with the past. We can do this by affirming the faith of believers long ago, rather than dismantling their
fallen Christianity. If we can make peace with the past, we can make peace with the help of the past by building important bridges to other Christian traditions from whom we have much to learn and much to teach. If Anabaptists can care for Christian tradition by way of appreciating and professing the historic ecumenical creeds, we can be better models of the peacemaking that has become our prophetic witness to the whole church.