What Does It Mean to be a “Nicene Christian”?

What Does It Mean to be a “Nicene Christian”? November 15, 2019

By Andrew Arndt, who is a teaching pastor at New Life Church and lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Mandi and four kids.

In the candlelit basement of our church plant, we huddled together each week and took the ancient confession on our lips:

We believe in one God, the Father,
the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
the only Son of God…

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the Giver of Life…

I suspect you know these words rather well – or at least are familiar with them. They are, of course, the words of the ancient Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

One of the more encouraging trends, in my opinion, in the current North American evangelical scene is the resurgence of interest in the faith and practice of the ancient church. The Creed tends to figure prominently in that resurgence, and many evangelical churches are going so far as to adopt the Creed as their statement of faith, replacing congregation-specific statements with this more encompassing and ecumenical statement of the faith.

Positive as the trend may be, it is still worth asking: “Does embracing the Creed mean that we have embraced the faith of its authors?

Lewis Ayers tackles this exact question in his magnificent book Nicaea and its Legacy (2004), and in this post, I’d like to leverage his insights to make some suggestions on what it might mean for us to truly embody the spirit of Nicaea beyond a mere surface agreement with the Creed’s dogmatic claims.

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Here’s the big idea I want to put in front of you:

IF WE WANT TO BE NICENE CHRISTIANS, WE NEED TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THE BIBLE

When most of us first learn about the formation of the Creed, we learn of a squabble between a priest (Arius) and a bishop (Alexander) that eventually metastasized into a full-blown, empire-wide theological controversy on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. The narrative is helpful as a starting point, as far as it goes, but can easily leave one with the impression that a group of church leaders with too much time (and maybe power?) on their hands decided to get together to squelch a differing perspective on a more recondite and speculative matter of theology. So much the worse for Arius and his ilk.

Lewis Ayers wants us to understand: this they did not do.

The debates that gave rise to the Creed in the 4th century were not speculative theological disputes, but rather ongoing conversations about how to rightly read the text of Scripture as a unified testimony to the saving action of God in Christ. Ayers points out:

…the constant ground of all fourth-century theologies is a conception of the reading of Scripture and the practice of theology (p. 30).

The question was always about the Bible and the God revealed (the God revealing Godself) therein! The church fathers and mothers were not just brilliant and sophisticated theologians and philosophers–although they certainly were that. They were, first and foremost, exegetes and preachers who believed that something cosmic and decisive had happened in Jesus Christ and were determined to make sense of just what that was and how it all worked by careful consideration of and appeal to the testimony of Holy Scripture.

And just how did they interact with Scripture? This is where Ayers gets really helpful. He suggests three elements of their approach to the Bible, theology, and practice that I think are desperately needed in our time (and can help us overcome what some see as a deficiency of the Creed–more on that below):

First, they paid close attention to the “plain sense” of Scripture. The fathers and mothers assumed that the starting point of all theology and preaching was a loving and careful consideration of “the plain sense of Scripture”, which Ayers defines as “the way the words run” (p. 32). They were attentive to the shape and pattern and contour of a text; not simply to what was said but how it was said. They used whatever resources and methods they had at their disposal to get a feel for what the text was doing, to discern its inner logic and coherence.

This they did because they assumed not just that God had spoken but that God was speaking in and through the text; and so they gave their full attention to Scripture, seeing it as an ongoing communication of the Living God to his people.

Second, they labored to discern the figure of Christ in the text. In keeping with Christ’s own words (John 5:39), the fathers and mothers believed that the text of Scripture in both its broad outline and in its most intricate detail bore witness to the saving action of Israel’s God in Jesus of Nazareth. As such, they were compelled to move beyond a surface reading of the plain sense to what would later be called the sensus plenior, taking “the text of Scripture as a resource enabling a consistent, unitary vision of God and the order of creation” (with Christ as the focal point) and thus leading them to “search for a canonical unity beyond that provided by any one discrete passage” (p. 36).

Being so convinced of the inner coherence of Scripture led the fathers and mothers to “figural” readings wherein various aspects of Christ’s person, presence, and mission were discerned in, with, and under the text. To be sure, some figural readings wandered off into the wildly speculative; but such instances, Ayers points out, were generally regarded as deviant, since they had departed from the plain sense, which always was the control (pp. 36-38). If it didn’t match “the way the words ran”, it wasn’t valid.

Third, they believed that the point of discerning Christ in the text was encounter with him, and that such encounter was transformative. To come face to face with the Living, Incarnate Word via the text of Scripture was to be drawn into the circle of cosmic transformation that the Word himself ongoingly effects. This conviction was a simple corollary of the understanding that since humanity is the object of the Word’s mission, humanity is always thereby implicated in the words of Scripture that bear witness to the Word.

Hans Boersma has creatively (and rightly, in my opinion) called this a “sacramental reading of Scripture” (Scripture as Real Presence, 2017), whereby Christ himself through the text encounters the reader/hearer of Scripture with his forgiving, liberating, healing presence. Scripture, for the ancients, was a resource enabling the church’s ongoing sanctification as objects of Christ’s redemptive work and members of Christ’s body. The goal was to see and hear the person of Christ transfigured textually, being transformed anew in repentance and faith.

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OKAY, SO WHAT?

Ayers’ words, frankly, hit me like a wave of great relief. Like many of us, I was taught to love the Bible from a very early age. For thirty plus years I’ve read them daily and found the Scriptures to be a consistent meeting ground with the living God – a “place” of revelation and renewal. During my nearly 15 years of vocational ministry as a preacher and teacher in the church, one of my most consistent joys has been the practice of carefully studying the text, opening it with God’s people, reading it together attentively and lovingly, and watching transformation take place in and through the encounter.

As a preacher, it does my soul good to know: this is what the ancients did. And that when you and I do this we are not out of step with their faith. Yes, there are Christians out there for whom the Trinity is “Father, Son, and Holy Bible,” but loving the Scriptures and seeking to make them central to our ministry and to the life of the church does not make us one of them. It doesn’t make us biblicists or fundamentalists. It does not not mitigate the mystical or sacramental.

Rather, such an approach to Scripture puts us squarely inside the mystical and the sacramental. It makes us Nicene Christians.

Moreover, and perhaps ironically, approaching Scripture in this way will help us overcome what some see as the most glaring deficiency of the Creed – namely, that it gives the Church nothing in the way of ethics, of conduct. It does not help us answer the question “In light of the Christ-event, how then shall we live?”

In all fairness, though, it is important to recognize that the Creed was not designed to answer those questions. It was designed to summarize the plot of the biblical story and delineate its central characters. The assumption was that those who embraced it would continue to live their lives inside of the figural world of Scripture to learn what the God revealed in Christ demanded of them.

They would continue, in other words, to read and wrestle with the God who sought out a mistreated Hagar in the wilderness, who broke the oppressive might of Pharaoh, who deposed wicked kings, who awakened shrill cries for justice on the lips of the prophets, who stood on the side of the poor and defenseless, and who in Christ Jesus fashioned for himself a new and radically inclusive humanity in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, rich nor poor, male nor female, slave nor free – and calls us to live as though that were true.

Mining Moses and the Prophets–indeed, the whole of Scripture–to discern God’s ethical will in Christ Jesus for humanity doesn’t make us moralists. It makes us Nicene Christians.

In addition, one of the things that I fell in love with as a child (and have always loved) was the way gifted preachers and teachers in my world could drop anywhere in the text of Scripture and before the sermon was over show how the text revealed Christ. Reading the Bible together was an adventure in seeing Jesus, being confronted by Jesus, falling in love with Jesus afresh. To the eyes of faith, Christ was present in the Creation narratives; he wrestled with Jacob; he spoke to Moses in the burning bush; he led his people through the wilderness; he was the Wisdom of the “wisdom books”; he was the fourth man in the fiery furnace. And so on.

They didn’t always get it right. After all, who does? But the instinct – now I see – was sound. If the Lord Jesus himself was right when he said “these are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39), then we as preachers and teachers cannot do other than seek to discern the God revealed in Christ in each and every text we preach.

This is not a matter of arbitrarily “tacking” Jesus on to a given text; rather, it is the conviction that because God has only, ever, always been (and only, ever, always will be) God the Father and Jesus Christ the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit, creating, redeeming, and bringing all things to a good end, then each text of Scripture bears witness to him. To fail to discern Christ in them is to fail is to fail utterly – just as to fail to discern Christ in the sacrament is to fail utterly. Worse – it is to eat and to drink and (may I suggest) to “read” judgment upon ourselves (1 Cor 11:29).

Seeking the face of Christ in the text doesn’t make us wild allegorists or speculative theologians. It makes us Nicene Christians.

Finally, Ayers’ words remind me as a preacher that preaching for encounter – something that my charismatic/pentecostal forebears did with great passion – is not out of step with the faith of the fathers and mothers of the Church. There is no inherent contradiction between being a good exegete, being a good theologian, and being a good old fashioned “call you to the altar” kind of preacher. Rather, those dynamics – exegesis, theology, and encounter – are part of the single, seamless garment that the preacher wears, and preaching that does not seek to lead the hearer to a sacramental and transformative encounter with the living God revealed in the Incarnate Christ is not preaching at all.

Insisting on encounter as an essential part of the preacher’s task does not make us wild pentecostals (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) or fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists. It makes us Nicene Christians.

Let me encourage you, friend, to fall in love with the Bible again; to seek the living Christ revealed and revealing himself inside every page of the sacred text; to search for him as the treasure hidden in the field of Holy Writ; to seek him transfigured in every jot and tittle of the Law and Prophets.

So seeking, you and I will become not merely Christians who do embrace the Creed – important as that may be; we will become the kinds of Christians who would embrace Creed, possessed of the spiritual disposition shared by the fathers and mothers of the church.

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