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Doubt Doctrine: Part One

January 12, 2010

Hey Everyone,
As you may or may not know, the Thomas Society is an actual group of people that meets at Ohio State. This quarter, we are talking through the Nicene Creed, and we call it, Doubt Doctrine. The student president of the Thomas Society, Cruz Davis is leading this discussion. Here are the notes from the first session held last Tuesday.

Doubt Doctrine: Week One
The Nicene Creed

This week was the first week of the Thomas Society’s study ‘Doubt Doctrine?’. The goal of the study is to get a brief overview of Christian orthodox theology and discuss issues surrounding each of the specific topics. We will do this by going over the Nicene Creed and breaking down the claims made in the creed into nine separate points. Each week gets a new topic from a specific claim made in the creed. I hope to put up a post here on the blog giving an overview of each discussion that we had during the meeting. I am hoping that this post could be used as a good way to provoke further discussion here on the blog about each week’s subject matter. I will post an overview of some of the main issues that were discussed about each topic and then different points that people made throughout the night’s discussion. I want to encourage any relevant discussion to each week’s topic on the blog even if it wasn’t remotely touched on in the meeting. Especially since most topics will not be covered in the one-hour we have a week on Tuesdays and it is always great to get a look at these topics from as many angles as possible.
Since this week was our first week we went over just the Nicene Creed in general and discussed some of the historical background of what led up to the making of the creed by the Nicene fathers and point out some misunderstandings about the creed.

During the early fourth century a dispute broke out in the church in Alexandria between the bishop Alexander of Alexandria and Arius who was a church deacon and presbyter (a church elder) in Alexandria. Arius believed that Christ was not God but was instead the highest created being. Being a neo-platonist he wanted to follow Plotinus in asserting total unity within God, and he found the doctrine of the trinity (and thus the incarnation) incompatible with this belief. So he taught that Christ the Son of God was the first and highest being created by God but was not of the same being as God and was not equal to God. Christ was considered to be divine but not bear any god-like status; he was not to be considered a god or demi-god but more like an archangel. Arius taught that because of this Christ was to be followed but not worshiped.
Arius had had a history of creating theological dispute between him and the previous bishops of Alexandria but always reconciled and was welcomed back into Alexandrian church. The dispute between Arius and Alexander became problematic around the time that the Roman empire was in the middle of a civil war between Constantine and Licinius. During this time Alexander called all of the African bishops to gather and have a council discussing Arius’s beliefs. At this council Arius’s beliefs were considered to be against orthodoxy and he was excommunicated with the church. But in Alexandria, Arius and his views had gained quite a bit of popular support. So the dispute continued until 325. Constantine had won the civil war against Licinius and along with restoring civil peace in the empire he also wished to restore religious peace. He sent letters to all of the bishops in the empire begging them to meet and come to a conclusion over the arian controversy. 318 bishops came from all over the empire (most of which were from Africa, Asia, and Greece) to hear Arius’s position and decide whether or not it should be considered contrary to orthodoxy. After hearing Arius’s defense of his beliefs 313 of the 318 bishops voted that his beliefs were indeed contrary to orthodoxy and declared him and his teachings to be apostate (later 3 out of the remaining 5 bishops joined the majority vote). After declaring arianism to be apostate they wrote a creed containing what they believed to be the most essential doctrines of Christianity. Those beliefs are stated in the Nicene Creed as so:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

So one common misconception about the Nicene Creed that I would like to address is that it was not made in order to shut out an equally old Gnostic version of Christianity from being considered legitimate. Gnosticism at this point of time was no longer considered an issue and a concern to orthodoxy at this time. Gnosticism had been effectively argued against and shown to not to be a legitimate strand of the Christian tradition by the church fathers in the second century and the council of Nicaea was two centuries later.
Another misconception I want to address is that the creed should not be understood as a bunch of old men coming together to just set down a set of rules that they wanted all other Christians to intellectually assent to. But instead what the Nicene fathers were trying to do is preserve the essential picture of what Christianity is about. Unlike Arius, the Nicene fathers believed that Christ was God and they wanted to preserve a picture where God is more intimate with His creation and comes rushing down to save His creation and restore it to its proper glory. Understood this way, what the Nicene fathers were doing was preserving a picture where we can directly have a personal relationship with God instead of having to go through some intermediary. Sure, intellectual assent is still involved, but it is not all that is involved in the creed.

Discussion Points:

• How should we view the relationship between creeds and religion? Are they bad for religion (or even more specifically Christianity)? Are they good but are only good, useful, or appropriate in a given cultural context?
• How much should we be expected to articulate how certain doctrinal beliefs should be cashed out (i.e. the holy trinity)? Are appeals to mystery ever ok? How should a Christian be expected to deal with doctrine when the beliefs expressed are seemingly incoherent?
• If appeals to mystery are ok, under what circumstances is it ok for one to appeal to mystery?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Johann permalink
    January 12, 2010 4:58 pm

    How should we view the relationship between creeds and religion? Are they bad for religion (or even more specifically Christianity)? Are they good but are only good, useful, or appropriate in a given cultural context?

    To me, it looks rather like the relationship between a constitution and law. It’s convenient and efficient to have a constitution, but not inherently good or bad – that comes from the specific principles espoused in it. Much like a constitution, a creed is adopted to reduce variation in the interpretations and to reinforce central principles…which is a straightforwardly good thing in law, but perhaps a more ambiguous goal where religion is concerned.

    Also, appeals to mystery are f’n boring if you actually want to get to know something (though an essential feature of beliefs that rely on unknowables and unprovables). Turn over every rock, I say. 😉

  2. erp permalink
    January 13, 2010 12:24 am

    You should point out that the bit about the Holy Spirit preceding from the father and the son did not originally include “and the son” and still does not in the Orthodox tradition. But that is probably for a later week.

    Arian Christianity also lasted for several centuries after the council (e.g., Goths and Vandals) and there may have been a certain amount of political pressure for the bishops to agree on something and stop squabbling.

    So anyone for the Athanasian Creed?

  3. Cruz permalink
    January 13, 2010 2:31 am


    Thats right about the the procession of the Holy Spirit. The filioque clause is an addition to the Nicene Creed and is not accepted in the eastern churches. A short background can be found here:

    The reason that that isn’t on my post is because I plan on discussing it later either when I discuss the Trinity in three weeks or when I talk about the Holy Spirit and His work later than that. But I am glad you pointed that out. The reasons for adding the clause are quite interesting.

    As far as the comment goes about the bishops being politically pressured to come to an agreement; this is something that I am not so sure of. As I said, Constantine didn’t demand that the bishops come together so that will reach an agreement, instead he begged that they would come and solve the issue amongst themselves. History shows that he and other Roman officials were not even involved in the discussion of the conclusions the bishops came to. Further Constantine himself was an arian, and so was the succeeding emperor. So one would most likely think that if they had forced them to come to a conclusion and people were up in the air about the issue they would have tried to force an agreement in favor of arianism. And in fact you will see that Constantine’s son did try something along these lines! He persecuted the orthodox community and exiled Athanasius, and even banished the deposed the pope at the time banishing him from Rome and putting Felix II (commonly known as the antipope) in his position.

    It is definitely true that arianism stuck around for a while. Its favor among emperors and other prominent thinkers and the persecution of the Nicene Christians is evidence of this fact. It even has popped up more recently in certain protestant sub-sects and may have influenced other anti-trinitarians like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


    Do you think any degree of mystery should be aloud in doing theology or do you think the theologian must be able to give an exhaustive and complete description of what he is trying to describe when talking about God? I am interested in what you are saying, but could you say more?

  4. Johann permalink
    January 13, 2010 6:25 pm

    Honestly? I think that theology is a fundamentally dishonest vocation, in a large part precisely because of the appeals to mystery.

    These appeals are vacuous as far as information is concerned. They’re extremely ambiguous – everyone interprets them their own way. They obscure the truth and cover up lies and ignorance – at best, they’re an authoritative-sounding way of not admitting that you don’t know something.

    Not everyone is a great communicator, and I don’t expect every biologist or physicist to be able to lay out the current state of the art in their field, but I do expect them to be honest and clear about what they know and don’t know – it’s really a rather routine expectation. Why not the theologians? Just because the focus of their study is nebulous and nonexistent? I don’t see how that gets them off the hook.

    If I made it the work of my life to study the anatomy of unicorns or the mating rituals of sugarplum fairies, I’d fully expect to be challenged on it. And off the top of my head, here are several ways to deal with such challenges:

    a) Provide support for my views – data, methods, explanations. Challenging; success depends on the quality of my work as well as my ability to explain it. Not really an option in my case given the inconvenient absence of unicorns and sugarplum fairies.
    b) Ignore them and keep doing my own thing. Can be the best way if my work speaks for itself, or if it has extensive popular support; risky otherwise.
    c) Silence or ostracize them. A historical favorite, as you point out with Arius.
    d) Exterminate them. Another historical favorite, applied on its own or in situations where (c) fails to achieve the desired effect.
    e) Move the goalposts. Let the challengers run to catch up, then move them again. Repeat until they give up and go away.

    We’ve mostly done away with (d) these days, and (c) is in decline; modern theologians generally seem to go with (e), gradually redefining their gods into a sort of unverifiable, uncontestable abstraction and then using appeals to mystery to shield this feeble construct from criticism and to disguise its inanity.

    That said, I do understand the appeal. Leaving things unsaid is a useful storytelling device, and makes it easier for everyone in your audience to fill in something they’d like. But last I checked, theologians make claims considerably stronger than just being able to tell an interesting story – and I don’t think they should be allowed to fall back on the mystery defense when called on those claims.

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