Nicea for real

Nicea for real June 6, 2013

Thomas Buchan gave a superb response paper at the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference at Trinity School of Ministry. Buchan’s paper was dynamite under every idealization of Nicea and its effect on the church.

For starters, he pointed out that the Nicene Creed was not the only creed in circulation. There were many pre-Nicene baptismal creeds, and the effect of Nicea was not to eliminate but to regulate these. The Nicene Creed, further, was not originally intended as a confession for the whole people – not a liturgical creed – but instead a creed for bishops. It was first used as a liturgical creed by the Miaphysites as a protest against Chalcedon; pro-Chalcedon churches began using the creed liturgically as a reaction to the Miaphysite use. It wasn’t until near the end of the sixth century that the Nicene Creed was used liturgically in the West, first in Spain.

Buchan added that, contrary to popular accounts, the term homoousios didn’t immediately win the field, even among pro-Nicene theologians.

In fact, virtually no one particularly liked the term homoousios . During the 330s and 40s, Athanasius devoted his energy to exegetical refutations of the Arians, and rarely used homoousios . It comes to the fore in Athanasius’ work only in the 350s, against the virulent neo-Arianism of Asterius.

Buchan ended his excellent presentation with a discussion of the relation of creed and Scripture in the early church. For Augustine, he said, the rule of faith is an aid to novices who haven’t been able to master the whole of Scripture; but he didn’t want readers to stay novices. Creeds were boundaries and guardrails, serving Scripture rather than being served by it. In contrast to some contemporary defenses of the rule of faith, the fathers didn’t think of it as a solution to the complexity and difficulty of the Bible. (I wonder if current uses of the rule of faith still assume the conclusions of critical scholarship concerning the diversity of the Bible.) For the fathers, the creed was not a tool for taming Scripture. The fathers assumed the unity of Scripture, and found that unity confirmed as they read. Recognition of the unity of Scripture made the creed possible; the creed did not impose a unity on a fractured Bible.

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