Many Christians today are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. But from the perspective of the whole church, the Nicene Creed is even more significant. It originated earlier than the final version of the Apostles’ Creed; and unlike that one, the Nicene Creed is used by both western and eastern Christians. Where did the Nicene Creed come from—and what makes it so important that millions of Christians still recite it every Sunday?
To trace the history of the Nicene Creed, which centers on the relationship of Christ’s deity to God the Father’s, we must go back to the period of the ancient church. Yet in truth, that isn’t far enough back. The roots of the doctrine of the Trinity—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another, yet are one God—can be found in Israel’s understanding of how Yahweh interacts with his creation.
The Trinity in the Old Testament?
The early Israelites viewed God as enthroned in a heavenly temple. The heavens were located just above the solid blue dome called the “firmament” which we appear to see when we observe the sky. We know the Israelites understood God to be sitting in a temple resting upon the firmament because twice in Scripture, his people looked up and saw him there. In Exodus 24:9–10, we read that Moses and his assistants went up a mountain and “saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” Similarly, Ezekiel 1:26 records that “above the firmament over [the living creatures’] heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man” (i.e., Yahweh, v. 28). For the Israelites, God was up there in the sapphire-blue heaven, resting his feet on the firmament. He certainly didn’t come down like other gods to wreak havoc, impregnate women, or do any of the other nonsense that the pagans believed.
So, then, how did God interact with his world? Scripture gives us numerous words and images to describe how God’s transcendent presence becomes immanent in our world (that is, becomes experiential or even tangible for us). These mediating influences include the Messenger of the Lord, the divine hand or finger, natural or weather-based phenomena, the breath (or wind, or Spirit) of God, fire, and perhaps most important of all—his word. Among other things, God’s word (Hebrew, dabar) is creative (Ps. 33:6; Gen. 1:3), impactful (Ps. 107:20, 147:18; Is. 9:8), and revelatory (Ps. 119:105; or any of the prophets). The Old Testament reveals that God’s word makes things happen in his creation.
Before we can turn to Christian reflection about these things, we need to make a stop with the ancient Greeks between the two testaments. The Greek philosophers talked a lot about the logos, which was their word for “word.” The logos can be divided into two kinds: the “indwelling word” and the “uttered word.” Imagine a family sitting around on a Friday night at dinnertime. The dad gets an idea in his head: pizza night! He’ll order a big pepperoni pizza and the family will be delighted. But it’s only when Dad shouts the word “Pizza!” to his family that cheers go up and stomachs start growling. The indwelling word in his mind can only make an impact on the world by being uttered. This is how the ancient Greeks thought about words.
The Theology of the Word
Scholars debate whether the apostle John was thinking of the Hebrew concept of dabar or the Greek concept of the logos when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1). Maybe it was a combination of both. In any case, John said that the Word—the preincarnate Christ—was there “in the beginning with God” (v. 2). But then he went on to say something else: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Now that God’s indwelling Word has been uttered into the world, he is able to make a physical impact with his tangible, human body. And of course, the Word’s greatest impact was to submit that body to crucifixion, then attain bodily resurrection for the salvation of the cosmos.
During the centuries after the apostle John penned his gospel, the early church fathers—especially those known at the Apologists—used these ideas to explain their faith to the pagans. The Johannine concept of the Word, understood in light of Greek philosophy, came in handy to show how the Christians, on the one hand, had no pantheon of gods but were monotheists like the Jews; yet on the other hand, worshiped Jesus as Lord alongside his heavenly Father. How can God be both singular and manifold?
The early Apologists compared God’s oneness to the unity between the speaker and the spoken word—just like, in the illustration above, there is unity between the dad who cries “pizza!” and the word that inseparably belongs to him. Yet the uttered word is impactful in ways that the word within his mind is not. This makes the spoken word distinct from the speaker. Do you see how unity and distinctness are kept in balance here? The Johannine way of thinking about Jesus—known as the Logos Theology—made sense to many ancient Christians. And they even had Old Testament precedent for it in the concept of God’s dabar.
Equal or Inferior?
Over time, some ancient church theologians began to consider whether the Logos was inferior to the God who speaks. Inferior in what way? For one thing, the Logos might not be eternal, just as the word “pizza” didn’t always exist in the dad’s mind. He thought of the word, then he uttered it—but he himself preexisted it. So the dad was already there at the moment he thought of pizza. His mental word started then. Words always have a shorter life than the thinkers who bring them forth.
The Logos also might be inferior to God because he is sent out. Words are like our messengers that we dispatch to do our will. We shoot them out when we want something done. “Scalpel!” cries the surgeon, and she receives it. “Pass the salt,” we say, and the shaker comes our way. The sending mind has more authority than the words sent out to do the mind’s bidding. So maybe Jesus the Logos is inferior because he’s the sent one? Didn’t he say that he came to obey his Father and do his will? In fact, Jesus even said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
This theological subordinationism is reinforced by the fact that Jesus is God’s Son. In the ancient world, sons were dispatched by mighty men or patriarchs to bring the father’s message (as in the Parable of the Landowner, Matthew 21:33–46). So for these reasons, some ancient church theologians began to think of Jesus/the Son/the Logos as inferior to God—both in time (Jesus is not eternal) and in status (Jesus is not equal in divinity).
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine. You can read the remainder of Dr. Litfin’s article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.