Two months ago, I listened to a fascinating conversation between Marianne Borg and Brandon Scott. While the conversation was wide-ranging, I want to reflect upon a particular point Scott made about Constantine’s impact on early Christianity. I’ve already written about how Constantine coopted Christianity to serve his own goals. Now, I want to reflect on how Constantine then shaped Christianity to meet his needs through the creation of what we call the Nicene Creed.
First, I invite you to ponder your relationship with creeds for a moment. The term “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which means, “I believe.” A creed is a statement of faith. If you belong to a Christian community and/or worship in a mainline Protestant or Catholic church, you likely say the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Creeds have been developed throughout Christian history to codify and reinforce a certain set of beliefs. The prevalence of creeds in churches means they have likely influenced your faith whether you realize it or not.
With that framework, let’s return to the early church. Brandon Scott (who spent much of his career studying the earliest Christian communities) sees the early followers of Christ focusing on the praxis, or practice, of the Christian faith. As I noted in my recent series on unconditional love, the earliest Christians emphasized how to live out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. They were not concerned with creedal statements of belief, such as whether Jesus was “begotten, not made” or if the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
But Scott believes Constantine had a further agenda for Christianity. He saw Christianity as a tool to unify a widespread and diverse Roman Empire. Constantine wanted people to believe in Christ rather than follow him—a distinction that Richard Rohr has also made in many of his books. For Constantine, the Nicene Creed was one way to get everyone “on the same page,” as it were (though book pages were not yet invented!).
So, what does that have to do with us today? I believe(!) it has had a huge impact. By focusing over the centuries on how we are to think, the church has given us implicit permission to ignore Jesus’ commands about how we are to live. Many reformist spiritual traditions that developed over the centuries, down to the New Monastics of today, have sought to move from credo and return to praxis. Like St. Francis, they believe it’s how we live, not what we say, that counts.
Personally, the creeds have been a stumbling block for me at various points over the years. I’ve wrestled with the masculine language, the idea that Jesus came “for our salvation,” and other elements of this very human document. I’m much more comfortable trying to live out many of Jesus’ commandments—though some of them are very difficult indeed, such as, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.”
As Eastertide continues, I invite you to read through the Nicene Creed and consider how its statements have influenced your faith. Then spend some time reading one of the Gospels and notice what Jesus thinks is important. How might you want to shift your priorities as a result of what you read?