As a child, I never really “got” the Nicene Creed. It was basically just the Apostles Creed, but it took a million hundred hours longer to recite on Communion Sundays. And the second article was particularly egregious. How many different times does it have to say Jesus is God before finally moving on to “born of the virgin Mary” and so forth?
Naturally, that was just the attitude of a child who took basically every blessing for granted. But as an adult, one of my favorite classes in Seminary was Church History in which I was taught the story behind this creed. Of course, on one hand you have the orthodox Christians who understood the Trinity. On the other hand, you have the Arians, who taught that the Son was a subordinate deity created by the Father. That much, at least, I learned before seminary.
But what was most interesting to me was the third party–whom my professor called the Eusebians after the Nicomedian bishop who sheltered Arius (after he was first deposed but before his heresy became a Church-wide controversy.) Eusebius knew Arius as an opponent of modalism–the previous widespread heresy–which asserted that the Son and the Father are the same Person appearing in different forms. Well, the Arian heresy that posited two wholly distinct gods was certainly opposed to modalism. It doesn’t seem that Eusebius really embraced the full Arian program, but he did judge the matter according to the last controversy instead of the current one. It was more important that Arius was boldly anti-modalist than any allegations of error that could be written off as mere poor phrasing or overzealous rhetoric.
This misjudgment was facilitated by the fact that the Arians used slippery language to avoid directly stating that the Son was a lesser creation. They worked hard to give the Church’s useful idiots plausible deniability. That’s precisely why the Nicene Creed labors the point about the deity of the Son. The Arians were willing to accept “God of God” and “very God of very God” so long as the Son remained a true god created by God the Father. They were willing to accept “begotten before all worlds” so long as that just made the Son the first of the Father’s creations. They were willing to accept “begotten not made” language so long as the Father brought the Son into existence in time.
But what they couldn’t accept was “being of one substance (homoousias) with the father.” Homoousias was a word that’s not even from the Bible but nevertheless rightly describes what the Bible says about the Father and the Son. And the faithful Christians at Nicea used it precisely because the Arians couldn’t accept it. As odd as it may seem to modern ears, the purpose of our Creeds isn’t so much to unite the Church as it is to divide false teachers from her.
And the divisive nature of Nicea made it a very controversial decision. The conflict over Arianism raged for decades afterwards, with the Eusebians being far more willing to tolerate Arius than “divisive” rabble-rousers like Athanasius, the foremost Trinitarian bishop who was exiled multiple times over his refusals to make peace with heresy. For a time, it even seemed that Arianism would actually prevail.
Interestingly, it was precisely the Arians’ success that became their undoing. Their rapid progress towards toleration emboldened them, and they soon began to discard their slippery language. Rather than simply rejecting “same substance”, they began to assert that the Father and Son were of dissimilar substances. It became clear even to the Eusebians that what Athanasius had been railing against for decades wasn’t just a matter of poor phrasing or an innocent misunderstanding. They realized that the Arians were, in fact, effectively teaching polytheism. It was the Council of Constantinople that finally settled the matter using Nicea’s language in the 2nd article.
So the Nicene Creed was a hard-fought victory for the Christian Church–one which greatly benefits us whether we realize it or not. But a battle was necessary for that victory. Prior statements of faith like the Apostle’s Creed didn’t address Arianism specifically enough for the Eusebians who either couldn’t or wouldn’t discern the errors. (Yes, the official Apostle’s Creed was a later development, but there were many prototypical versions around prior to Nicea.) The Bible itself clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is truly God, and Athanasius worked hard to catalogue and promulgate just about every way that it does so. Nevertheless, a brief summary in an official creed proved an invaluable tool because most people don’t respond to theological controversy by doing a deep dive into Scripture.
Nevertheless, the Nicene Creed didn’t answer every potential heresy any more than the Apostle’s Creed did. On Trinity Sunday, we traditionally read the Athanasian Creed, which is even longer and even more repetitive because it addresses a number of Christological and Trinitarian heresies that emerged after Arianism. The Athanasian creed aspires to be completionist regarding the two natures of Christ and the three Persons of the Godhead in order to separate those errors from the Church.
But the Athanasian Creed wasn’t the last confession either. When the controversies of the Reformation came around, they centered on ecclesial and soteriological issues which the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds had no occasion to address. Once again, Christians needed clear exposition of the Biblical teachings at issue, so the Lutherans needed to pen the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, etc. (Here, of course, my non-Lutheran readers will look to their own councils and confessions coming out of that period. The absence of truly ecumenical creeds after the Great Schism is a tragedy. That said, the Augsburg Confession should be an ecumenical creed.) And as with Nicea, those confessions were highly controversial and divisive precisely because they delineated truth from long-held errors in the medieval Church.
When observing such a pattern, it’s hard to credit the notion that the Book of Concord was finally the last confession we’ll ever need. Until Christ returns, we will always need new confessions because Satan will always be sowing new heresies among us.
The Church is now beset by a host of strange new errors that our ancestors in the faith had no real need to directly and decisively address. Instead of the nature of God or of the Church or of salvation, today’s errors assault the nature of creation. Satan has tricked us into abandoning the Christian understanding of man & woman, and so we descend into sexual and social anarchy. He has tricked us into dismissing the nature of family, and so we hate children and abandon our nations for the sake of strangers. He has tricked us into disregarding providence and creation in favor of a mythology that teaches us the universe is random and nihilistic. Our confessions may not directly address gay marriage, critical race theory, bottom surgery, or women’s ordination (though they address all of them indirectly), but that is only because the Devil is attacking different targets than he did 500 years ago.
And yet, I hear many Lutherans dismissing the current controversies that plague the Church because our Confessions don’t really address them. The Large Cataclysm was only the most recent example of this. By a combination of malice or incompetance, it contains many of these specific false teachings sown by the Spirit of the Age. Nevertheless, many Christians are unable to even discern those errors, and countless more think the entire matter is beneath their notice. When faithful Christians objected, we were opposed not only by the false teachers, but also by our new Eusebians who will happily tolerate heretics just to get along. They will fight the old and comfortable wars willingly enough, but they neglect their duties in the current one.
Christians need to dig in to fight another protracted battle for the Faith. Simply quoting those who came before us will not be sufficient for the task. Rather, we will need to truly understand & embrace the heritage of our ancestors in the Faith so that we may once again use it to creatively divide truth from falsehood. That is ultimately how we will place ourselves and our culture under the judgement of God’s clear Word rather than trying to make God’s Word adapt to our wicked culture.
In doing so, we will need to learn the lessons of the past.
First, don’t fear being divisive. If we do not divide truth from error in our theology and our institutions, we will have failed. This will cause a lot of unrest and hurt feelings. It will inevitably cause some people to leave. But you need only look at the world around you and at the fate of those who follow false teachers away from Christ to understand that there is much more at stake than unrest and hurt feelings. It is always the false teachers that are at fault over division. Separating the Arians from the Church was a victory. The same will be true for today’s false teachers.
Second, don’t be impatient in forcing good changes. During the Reformation, there were many men who, upon learning the extent of the errors with which they were faced, easily forgot the needs of the people who were still trapped in those errors. The vast majority of men and women in our own pews are likewise trapped. For example, they falsely believe that fake sins like racism and sexism are truly abominable. Their consciences have been malformed in this regard, but they remain consciences. As Luther famously noted, to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. They will need to be taught repeatedly that “sexism” is a good thing required by God before they can safely begin hindering women from teaching and having authority over men. They will need to be taught repeatedly that “racism” isn’t sinful before they can safely stop being ashamed of their heritage. Now, this doesn’t mean we attack our radicals when the boldness they possess is already in such short supply. It does mean that we direct our zealous youth to treat our congregations as true brothers and sisters in the faith that we must patiently guide in the right direction one step at a time.
Third, don’t expect it to be over in a day. When we read history, we naturally focus on the most interesting events. The side-effect is that we often overlook the time-scales involved between those events. Athanasius spent most of his life fighting against the Arians. He was a secretary in his 20’s at the first Council of Nicea where the anti-Arian language we’re used to was adopted. But the Council of Constantinople was almost 60 years later–almost a decade after Athanasius’ own death. In the meantime, he was exiled 5 times by multiple emperors (I believe over a third of his time as Bishop of Alexandria was spent in exile.) It’s easy to get caught up in the current victories and current defeats–treating each one as though it either ended the war or ended the world–but we can’t afford to be so impatient. Conflicts this large take place over a very long time. Those of us called to fight against today’s false teaching will therefore need to get used to the idea of fighting over the long haul and teaching our sons to do the same. This will be a marathon, not a sprint.
Lastly, don’t fear standing alone. God made men to be social creatures–we’re intended to influence one another. Naturally, being the one man standing up and telling the rest that they are wrong is a daunting proposition. And yet, when opposing worldly errors being imposed on the church, there’s no way out of that. When false teaching is the norm, true teaching will always stand out like a sore thumb and make everyone uncomfortable. But God has given the Church no shortage of men who did precisely that. Whether Elijah, Athanasius, Luther, or a multitude of others, we ought to know what standing against the world looks like by now. The sure and certain Word of God is a foundation that will outlast anything the false teachers are standing on. And when one does stand alone upon it, he often finds that God hasn’t left him as alone as he had assumed.
In the early 20th Century, people naively referred to World War I as “the war to end all wars.” Many actually thought mankind had finally gotten all that violence out of our system and could look forward to peace. The rest of the 20th Century brutally laid that notion to rest. It’s easy for Christians to make the same mistake and be tempted by the prospect of a final, perfect peace in this life. But we don’t get that luxury until the final trumpet sounds. Sometimes, Christians don’t even get the luxury of a temporary peace. We don’t get to choose the circumstances into which God has placed us; we only get to choose whether to take up our crosses and follow Him.
So it is today. The fact that the Book of Concord and the ecumenical creeds do not directly repudiate our current false teachers only means that we will have to take up that task ourselves, just as the authors of those confessions did before us. And we need not despair of that task just because Synod has chosen to resume its distribution of the Annotated Large Catechism without any changes. President Harrison’s one-sided condemnation of those who objected will surely embolden today’s heretics just like the Arians centuries ago. And just like the Arians, they will slowly start saying the quiet part out loud regarding their false teachings.
Lutherans need to be ready to use that–to continuously show it to our Eusebians and place it under the condemnation of Holy Scripture. And if our current set of confessions don’t speak to issues of Biblical anthropology, then perhaps the time is coming when we’ll need to change that. It’s not going to be easy or pleasant, but it’s the work we have been given. There’s nothing for it but to gird our loins and get to it.