Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Council of Nicaea: Toady to Constantine, or something more subtle?

For Progressive Christians, Constantine is a favorite target, someone to blame for leading Christianity astray and shifting it from a radically egalitarian religious insurgency to an arm of the empire against which it initially represented a soft rebellion. Those of us who find the Nicene Creed too constricting or simply not credible,* notwithstanding our own Christian belief (however defined), also can blame him for that.

In Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker recount the story behind the Council of Nicaea at which the creed was composed. At first, it looks like we're going to get a simple confirmation of the anti-Nicene position, as they point out that it was written by a small minority of Christian bishops then practicing:

"Although [Constantine] invited fifteen hundred bishops to his summer palace in Nicaea, Anatolia, in 325, all expenses paid, only about 300 attended..." (page 107).

(Constantine, they note, was a convert to Christianity but had not actually been baptized, and would not be until near the end of his life.)

Yet are things ever as simple as they seem? Brock and Parker observe that even if the Council represented a rump group of bishops, the creed they wrote made a subversive assertion. In claiming that Christ was of the same substance as God, rather than subordinate, they were expressly denying that the emperor -- who like his predecessors was referred to as the "son of God" -- was on a par with Christ. (For more on how calling Jesus the Son of God was a direct challenge to imperial claims, see God and Empire by John Dominic Crossan.)
"In affirming that Christ had this highest possible status [ie: 'being of one substance with the Father'], they gave themselves and every baptized Christian who shared in Christ's divinity greater spiritual power than the unbaptized emperor Constantine."
So does that mean that those who disagreed with that wording were the Constantine toadies? Not necessarily. Arius, who was on the losing side of the substance/subordinate quarrel,
"regarded Jesus as divine, but saw him as a 'creature' descended from God, not as a creator alongside God. He held to a strong monotheism...For the Arians, the equality of Jesus with God would have capitulated to Roman polytheistic values and compromised the one supreme God" (page 109).

* Another time I'll explain the role that both the Nicene and its simplified version, the Apostle's Creed, had in leading me away from the Episcopal Church in which I was baptized and later confirmed. But for now I'll share the way a pastor at DairyStateMom's church, quoting another, reconciles the words of the creed with the rationalist, skeptical worldview of 21st century prospective members: "Think of it as poetry, not geometry."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post, which reminds me that I've had Brock and Parker on my reading list for some time now. I need to squeeze out some time for it. (I did read Borg & Crossan's The First Paul recently, which I see on your list as finished. That was a wonderful surprise of a book.)

    Anyway, re creeds, I appreciate your wife's pastor's distinction between poetry and geometry. My difficulty with that approach, though, is the fact that, through the centuries, creeds were held as tests. Challenging a line of poetry is what any good sermon will do in on way or another, but challenge a single word of a creed and the world can split in two. It happened.

    So in a sense, the consequences could be even more dire than if the creeds were taken as geometry. But being raised fundamentalist/ literalist as I was, it is always a challenge to sort out between the various modes of reading that have coexisted, however uncomfortably, through time.

    Again, thanks!


Comments on this blog are moderated retroactively. Comments will be published immediately, but spam, slander, abuse personally directed at other commenters or at third parties, or comments that hijack the thread will be removed without further discussion, explanation or apology. Comments that I am unable to read (for whatever reason) will be deleted.

Comments that challenge the viewpoints expressed here within the bounds of civility and good manners are welcome. Blogger limits comments to 4,096 characters.